Some ancient philosopher, probably misattributed and misquoted through the centuries, once said that the rough road leads to the height of greatness.
Maybe this isn’t the height; maybe there are greater things left to achieve for a team that, not long ago, had no future.
But this must be close.
Centuries ago, it seems, the Cal baseball team lost its first game of the Houston Regional. Pinned firmly against the wall, the Bears turned around and beat Alcorn State, then 1-seed Rice, then Baylor. Then, with everything on the line on Monday night at Reckling Park, they collapsed.
Playing for a spot in the Super Regionals, Baylor battered the Bears for six runs in the fourth inning — followed by a run apiece in the sixth and ninth innings for insurance. Cal protested meekly a few times. The Bears strung together a few singles to score twice in the sixth, and first baseman Devon Rodriguez blasted a two-run shot to right in the eighth but, down 8-5 going into the bottom of the ninth, it looked like the Bears would still make the red eye out of Texas that night.
The inning began with a murmur: a single by right fielder Chad Bunting. That elicited some movement in the Baylor bullpen, but with Logan Verrett on the mound, coach Steve Smith was willing to let his ace pitch. Verrett was calm as center fielder Darrel Matthews stepped to the plate. Matthews bounced a slow grounder to Steve DalPorto at second base — a sure-fire double play ball. DalPorto watched it roll through his legs.
Runners at the corners, no outs.
“We have come back from the dead so often this year,” Cal coach David Esquer said. “We’ve never died, we’ve never stopped playing.”
The next batter, freshman pinch hitter Michael Theofanopoulos, hit the ball sharply to short, where Matthews was forced out. Suddenly, everyone noticed Bunting breaking from third.
“That’s not a planned play,” Esquer said.
Bunting was in a rundown. Green Baylor jerseys charged him from every angle. There was a flurry at third. Bunting saw daylight. No one was covering home. He slid head first.
“That’s not in our playbook,” Esquer said.
Bunting was safe. It was 8-6.
Maybe Verrett was a bit shaken. He hit the next batter, left fielder Austin Booker, bringing Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda up to bat. The second baseman, as scrappy and methodical as ever, drove a single to right to score another run. 8-7.
“It was one of those moments where you watch the energy of the moment take on a life of its own,” Esquer said.
Catcher Chadd Krist took four straight balls from Verrett to load the bases. There was still only one out, and shortstop Marcus Semien, who was 4-for-4 on the night, was at the plate. He fouled off the first offering, face tense but body loose. Verrett worked the count to 2-2. The two players stared at each other across the void, the only two people left on Earth.
Semien swung at a pitch sinking deep into the dirt. Strikeout. As he walked back to the dugout, he turned to the next batter, Devon Rodriguez.
“I told Devon, ‘Pick me up,’” Semien said.
Rodriguez came out swinging. He fouled off two pitches before taking a ball. The Bears were down to their final strike, the pro-Baylor crowd on its feet, clapping and howling for Verrett to finish Rodriguez off.
Rodriguez leaned back in his stance, waiting, praying for a changeup.
He got one.
As his bat arched across the deep night sky, everyone held their breath. By the time the ball landed softly in the right field grass, Booker and Renda were already being swarmed by their teammates in gold. They were the eighth and ninth runs.
The tying and the winning runs.
“I don’t have the words to describe it,” Rodriguez said.
Six months ago, the Cal baseball team was preparing for the worst. Cut from the athletic department due to a deepening financial crisis, the players and coaches knew that this could be the last season of baseball played in Berkeley. With nothing to lose, they played for each other.
Halfway through the year, the Bears learned that they would, in fact, be reinstated. Still, they felt they had a story to finish. Many times in the last four days, the word “end” was almost written on the page. With Monday’s 9-8 win over Baylor, the Bears delay that moment another day.
They give themselves a new beginning.
Katie Dowd covers baseball.