SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Midway through what was supposed to be its final season, the Cal baseball team’s bats fell flat and its arms looked drained. A program with no future, its present started flickering away as well.
“We’re going to rebound like no Cal team has before,” starting pitcher Justin Jones said then.
The prescient Jones stood in the middle of Schott Stadium Saturday evening, his left arm whipping away smoothly until — true to his words — the Bears found themselves one game away from the College World Series. A squad that scrapped to its first-ever Super Regional was suddenly doing everything perfectly, with Dallas Baptist on the wrong side of the 7-0 win.
“The key to our team is staying loose and playing loose in the moment,” coach David Esquer said. “We don’t play any better when we try harder.”
With Jones working a gem, Cal (36-21) found some rare power at the plate, cushioning their sophomore ace with two home runs. Team home run leader Chad Bunting parked his seventh roundtripper of the year for three runs in the fourth, and shortstop Marcus Semien matched him with another three-run shot in the eighth.
In the other dugout, the Patriots looked helpless against Jones. After giving up a two-out single in the first inning, he retired 15 consecutive batters. Jones had all his pitches firing, and the few times he left the ball up, Dallas Baptist couldn’t capitalize.
“My fastball, I felt like it had life, some extra movement,” Jones said. “Kept them off balance with my cutter and my change-up. Two strikes, I just buried them with my curveball.”
The sophomore had thrown 50 strikes on 75 pitches when he felt his bicep tighten up as he warmed up for the seventh, cutting short a brilliant one-hitter that required only three strikeouts. His exit didn’t matter much. Sophomore Logan Scott entered in relief, giving up two hits in three innings for his first collegiate save.
Dallas Baptist (42-19) entered the game with an astounding 60 home runs, more than double Cal’s total on the season. The scouting report didn’t translate, as the Bears outhit the Patriots, 11-3. So what if Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda was relegated to designated hitter with a strained quad? Freshman Derek Campbell filled in fine, turning a double play in the bottom of the eighth.
After fight elimination four straight times last weekend — climbing out of a 7-1 deficit to win the Houston Regional — Saturday was a welcome chance to stop and breathe. For a team accustomed to dramatic, late-game surges, the contest was about as heart-pounding as a C-SPAN feed.
“I think that was the first thing my wife told me, ‘It’s nice to have a lead for once,” so she didn’t have to get too nervous,” Esquer said. “I said, ‘You? It was nice for me too.'”
The Bears return to Santa Clara on Sunday at 7 p.m. to the type of sell-out crowd they rarely see at Evans Diamond, the season now fixing along a Hollywood storyline. On the cusp of college baseball’s biggest stage, the team doesn’t dare look too far ahead — even if the word “Omaha” inches in and out of their collective subconscious.
“We got a tough opponent down on the other side that’s gonna play for their lives,” Esquer said. “We know what that’s like.”
Jack Wang covers baseball.