Cal baseball 1 step closer to next round after Mitchell Kranson walk-off

Patrick Chong/File

Related Posts

They call him El Gaucho. That is Cal junior baseball player Mitchell Kranson. Maybe it’s his signature mustache. Maybe it’s the steak called El Gaucho that Kranson ate before hitting four for four in a game earlier in this year.

Whatever it is, the whole baseball world knows his name now after the catcher hit a skying walk-off home run against Texas A&M in the regional semifinal in the NCAA tournament. The Bears celebrated at home plate, as the man with the ’stache circled the bases in the dead quiet Blue Bell Park in College Station, Texas.

In the most dramatic game of the NCAA tournament thus far, Cal (36-19, 18-12 in Pac-12) pulled out a 2-1 thriller, sending the squad into the regional championship game and one victory away from the final 16 teams in the super regional. Now they await the winner of A&M and Coastal Carolina’s elimination game.

The Aggies (46-12, 18-10 in SEC) scored first, jumping out to an early 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning. Left fielder Logan Taylor dribbled a grounder to the left side of the diamond that went just off the glove of diving third baseman Lucas Erceg and into the outfield. One run scored, but that was the extent of the damage.

In what has become a trend for Cal starter Ryan Mason this year, the junior got into trouble early but settled into his dominant form. Mason would last eight innings, scattering six hits and yielding only the one earned run.

Meanwhile, the Bears’ offense desperately tried to crack Aggies starter Grayson Long. Every time Cal threatened to score, Long found a way to get out of the jam.

As the game transitioned into the latter innings, the Bears were beginning to the feel the pressure. But then, Long broke.

In the bottom of the seventh inning, Bears’ right fielder Devin Pearson began a two-out rally. After Erceg advanced Pearson to third with a single of his own, senior Chris Paul laced a line-drive RBI to right center field. It was 1-1 and was suddenly a whole new game.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Bears were looking to steal the game in front of the A&M faithful. With two outs and a seemingly dead inning, the Bears began another two-out rally. Three batters later, the bases were jacked for Pearson, who was three for four up to that point and the sole run scorer. On the 2-2 pitch, one could hear a pin drop.

But then the junior struck out and the whole stadium released one big sigh of relief.

The Aggies then came out with a powerful counter-punch in the top of the ninth. A&M got into a first and third situation with only one out. In the most drama-packed moment of the game up to that point, Cal closer Dylan Nelson came through. The senior collected a grounder right back to the mound, turned in one motion and fired it to second, where shortstop Preston Grand Pre was able to turn two over to first.

The Bears escaped by the hair of their chin. The building pressure was not lost on Cal coach Dave Esquer, who endlessly paced the dugout.

In the back-and-forth battle, Cal came within feet of winning in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the ninth. The Bears reversed the tables on the Aggies, also threatening with first and third and one out. But left fielder Brian Celsi popped out, and Grand Pre tried and failed at a push bunt for a hit.

Two innings later, in the top of the 11th, Celsi made the play of the game. Banks hit what looked to be a two-run homer toward the left-field fence. Celsi slowly approached the wall, timing his jump and robbing Banks blind, who pulled up mid-trot in complete shock.

Neither team could find the winning run. Nelson, normally pitching one to two innings in relief, powered through four innings.

When the fans thought the drama could not be ramped up any further, Cal’s Erik Martinez found himself in a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 13th. With the go-ahead run 90 feet from home and one out, Martinez delivered a payout pitch on a 3-2 count and struck out right fielder Nick Banks.

Martinez induced a ground out to second base to keep the game from slipping away.

Austin Crochetiere covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].