The deciding game of a tied baseball series is a big deal, and winning the rubber match is huge for the emotions of a team. The long baseball season is measured in series, and any chance to seize one is massive, and doubly so for the season’s first series. Accordingly, Cal baseball came into Sunday’s rubber match with a lot on the line early in the season and emerged victorious on a rainy day, crushing Cal Poly 8-1.
Rain forced what was supposed to be Friday’s season opener into a Saturday doubleheader. Sophomore Tanner Dodson got the starting nod for game one, and being hit pretty hard, exited after 3.1 innings and five earned runs. The game ended 6-4 in the Mustangs’ favor, but Cal battled back in game two of the day, winning 4-3 after scoring the tiebreaking run in the sixth.
“You don’t know how our guys are going to react, being tied 1-1,” said Cal head coach David Esquer. “Last year, with (now-graduated pitcher) Daulton Jefferies on Fridays, you were 1-0 pretty often. It was big to see us come back and win the series after losing game one with our ace.”
Junior Matt Ladrech took the mound for the Bears in game three of the series, seeking to do what Cal’s previous two starters could not: last far into the game. Some rough fielding in the first two innings led to a Cal Poly run in the second, and Ladrech’s pitch-to-contact style looked to be yielding poor results early on. But the fielding started to come around in the fourth inning, in which third baseman Denis Karas made a strong play, diving to stop a hard-hit grounder and making a tough throw to first. Ladrech added a highlight defensive play of his own in the fifth, catching a screaming line drive hit to his right side and falling to the ground while throwing the ball back to first base, nearly tagging up a runner.
It was mostly smooth sailing for Ladrech from there, and the offense came through for him early on. In the bottom of the third, with freshmen Anthony Walters on second and Korey Lee on first, Jeffrey Mitchell Jr. hit a grounder just in between the first and second basemen. Walters scored easily, but Lee had a huge collision with the catcher at home plate in which the ball popped out. With college baseball’s rule that a runner must slide before making contact with a catcher blocking the plate, Cal Poly’s manager asked for a review. While the shaken-up Mustang catcher caught his breath, the umpires ruled that the collision was legal, giving Cal a 2-1 lead.
Cal Poly never managed to take back the lead. Ladrech allowed eight hits in total, but only one walk, cruising until a double with one out in the eighth inning led Esquer to put in junior Zayne Patino from the bullpen. By then, Mitchell had added a two-run homer to right, and two more runs by Mustang defensive miscues in the bottom of the sixth meant a 7-1 lead. Patino struck out two to get out of the jam and finished the game flawlessly.
“It feels great (to take the series), especially with a group of young guys,” Ladrech said. “That’s a great team, that’s no secret there. For us to compete, let alone take two games, I couldn’t be any more proud of us. You feel a lot better coming out the weekend 2-1 instead of 1-2, especially against a great team.”
Walters has done an outstanding job early in the season. He is on a campaign of terror at the plate, currently five for nine in the season and good for three RBI. Add in three walks and you’re looking at a series MVP. If he can continue his strong play, he can lead this young and inexperienced squad to success.