BERKELEY -- California sophomore third baseman Chris Paul grew up a UCLA fan, so it should come as no surprise that three of his five career home runs have come against the Bruins’ arch rivals, USC. Two of those longballs -- including a grand slam -- came on Saturday, as the Golden Bears avoided a sweep at the hands of the Trojans with a 15-5 getaway-day win after falling behind 4-0.
“I just got pitches to hit, and took advantage of it today,” said Paul, who came into the game on a 1-for-16 slide over the past five games. “Any time you can do that, especially end a weekend that way, it’s good, and it hopefully gives me momentum for the next game ... It was good to just come out here and whoop some USC butt.”
Paul -- who’s second career grand slam capped off an eight-run seventh -- went 2-for-5 with a career-high seven RBI, while sluggers Devon Rodriguez and Andrew Knapp added back-to-back blasts in the sixth as part of a 16-hit attack.
“We needed it,” said head coach David Esquer. “Our team showed a toughness – whether it was natural or intentional, it was unusual. You go down 4-0 on a [Saturday] after losing two games, it’s just not your weekend. You curl up into a ball and you take your whipping, and our guys didn’t do that off of a very good pitcher. That kid [Kyle Twomey] out there is going to be a stud.”
The win salvaged the series for Cal (16-12, 5-4 in the Pac-12), which began with two straight losses in the first two night games in the history of the program on Thursday and Friday, helping the Bears regain a bit of confidence going into a Monday match-up with rival Stanford at Sunken Diamond.
“Be careful what you wish for,” laughed Esquer, referring to the long-awaited lights at the 80-year old Evans Diamond. “It’s a save. It’s a weekend save, and you’ve got to have those. The name of the game in our conference is ‘Sweep someone and don’t get swept.’ If you can do that, you’ll put yourself in a good spot all the time ... A couple playoff teams that I’ve had that have been playoff teams have saved themselves on a Sunday and salvaged a weekend, and it ends up being big in the end. It was huge. It was huge.”
After a gutty 4.0-inning start by sophomore righty Keaton Siomkin, Cal (turned to sophomore righty Dylan Nelson after a no-out, two-run homer by freshman shortstop Blake Lacey in the top of the fifth, and the JuCo transfer out of the College of San Mateo sparkled, scattering three hits and one walk over four shutout innings, striking out four to earn his first win of the season.
“They were kind of manhandling a lot of our other guys, and they didn’t manhandle him,” Esquer said. “That’ll tell you how good he was throwing.”
Blow by Blow
Siomkin got into early trouble, loading the bases on two hits and a walk with no outs in the top of the first before Esquer went out for a brief conversation with his starter.
After that confab, Siomkin allowed a sacrifice fly before retiring the next two hitters.
“I’ve seen it twice now, where he’s really amped up to pitch against those LA schools, and I basically said, ‘You need to stop trying to prove to them that they made a mistake not to recruit you,’” Esquer said. “He did that at UCLA. He was just too amped up, he was up in the zone and was not good enough.”
Every Bears starter recorded at least one base hit, with five players tallying two or more. USC (11-16, 4-5) starter Kyle Twomey struck out six and allowed just one hit through his first four, facing the minimum. In the fifth, though, things began to unravel for Twomey.
After being staked to a four-run lead, the freshman lefty issued a full-count walk to Knapp and hit right fielder Jacob Wark -- who went 3-for-3 with a stolen base, an RBI and a walk and two runs, reaching base all five times he stepped to the plate -- to lead off the fifth.
Paul then took a 2-1 fastball off the wall of the RSF in left center field to cut the lead to one.
With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Rodriguez -- who was 1-for-11 in the series with three strikeouts -- took an 0-1 fastball from Twomey deep over the right center field wall and off the façade of Edwards Track Stadium, just to the right of the George Wolfman scoreboard, to tie things up.
“I think I was just in my own head, trying to do a little too much,” Rodriguez said of his recent struggles. “I was over-thinking the game, doing what I haven’t been doing, and then, after my first two at-bats today, I was pretty rattled, but it really got my juices going. I had to get back to what I do best. I knew a fastball was coming, because they’d been challenging me all weekend. I’d been missing my pitches, and I knew it was coming, so I threw in a little anger and aggression. It wasn’t hit lightly.”
Knapp then answered with a bomb of his own on another 1-0 pitch from Twomey off of the Safeway ad on the wall of the RSF in right center to give Cal a 5-4 lead.
“We’re roomates on the road, and we always talk about that; we’ll leave the room and be like, ‘Alright, we’re getting back-to-back today’,” Rodriguez said. “He says, ‘Alright, you’ve got to do it first.’ I didn’t even tell him anything. He told me, ‘I don’t know why, but I just knew I was going to hit a home run, Something told me I was going to hit a home run.’ I was more pumped for his home run than I was for mine.”
The circuit shots were the fourth four-baggers for the Cal sluggers, tying them for fourth in the league.
“My right-handed swing has been feeling really good lately,” said the switch-hitting Knapp, who went 2-for-4 with three RBI. “That guy was around the zone, so I knew if I got something to hit, I had a chance to do something. I was smiling coming around third. I couldn’t keep it in.”
With no outs and one on in the bottom of the seventh, redshirt freshman Brian Celsi -- who missed an early opportunity to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth by getting out on his front foot and popping out weakly to second on the first pitch he saw with Brenden Farney standing on third -- stepped to the plate.
“I really don’t like to show emotion a lot, and that [pop out] really bit me, because I was sitting on it and I was too anxious for it,” Celsi said. “I was totally kicking myself, because it was a huge spot and a huge run and that’s a simple thing to do and I couldn’t do it, so I was pretty mad.”
With the count 2-0, and another opportunity to execute, though, Celsi laid down a bunt just in front of home plate.
Catcher Garrett Stubbs scampered out and fired to second to try and erase Grant Diede -- aboard with a leadoff single to center -- but his throw tailed to the right of second base, too late to erase the freshman designated hitter.
“I was like, ‘OK, I got it down,’ because it was a low pitch, but [home plate umpire Patrick Riley] was calling them, so I had to get it, and I was like, ‘God, that’s catcher’s ball, right there,’” Celsi said. “Then, I hear everyone start cheering, I peek to second and they call safe, and I was like, ‘Whew, alright. I got my job done. It wasn’t pretty, but I got it done.’”
Cue: The run carrousel.
A single by freshman Devin Pearson spelled the end for Twomey, who was pulled in favor of freshman lefty Marc Huberman, and loaded the bases for shortstop Mike Reuvekamp.
Reuvekamp spun a 1-0 pitch off the end of his bat to the right side, where a diving A.J. Ramirez was able to get the tip of his glove on the ball, but not much else, for an RBI infield single, stretching the Bears’ lead to 6-4.
With the infield drawn in, Rodriguez reached out and rolled an outside breaking ball up the middle to plate two, and after a line-drive single to left by Knapp, Wark came up with a chopper through the left side of the still-drawn-in infield to plate Reuvekamp.
“For the not-great players, a slump will last a week or two,” Esquer said of Rodriguez’s recent struggles. “The other ones make a two-game adjustment and get it back.”
Still with no outs, Trojans head coach and former Cal pitching coach Dan Hubbs yanked Huberman in favor of senior righty Matt Munson to face Paul. The sophomore out of Laguna Beach (Calif.) fell behind 0-2 before a fastball away and two sliders just off the plate to run the count full, before drilling a hanging slider to left for a grand slam.
“He started me off with a slider, I swung through it, just trying to be aggressive and get something to hit,” Paul said. “I took a couple close pitches, was seeing it well and just saw a slider and put a good swing on it.”
Cal added two more runs in the bottom of the eighth on a sacrifice fly by Knapp and an RBI groundball single up the middle by Wark to make it 15-4. Freshman reliever Jake Schulz struggled in the top of the ninth, allowing a run on a walk and three singles, but finally got late-inning defensive replacement Conner Sullivan to ground out to second to sew up the win.
The Bears go on the road for a midweek tilt against the Cardinal at 7 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks – their second straight televised game. With junior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos on the shelf with a broken hand suffered while diving back to first against Utah, Esquer will turn to soft-tossing sophomore lefty Chris Muse-Fisher, who threw two perfect innings of relief on Wednesday against San Francisco, striking out five of the six hitters he faced.
Theofanopoulos will spend the next two weeks in a cast before he can begin coming back into the fold.