Ace Daulton Jefferies stopped in his tracks. It was the bottom of the sixth inning, and Cal baseball led Coastal Carolina, 4-1, in the Bears’ first game of the College Station Regional at the NCAA Baseball National Championship in Texas.
The sophomore had seemingly just struck out the third Chanticleer of the inning, cleanup hitter G.K. Young. A nasty breaking ball froze the CCU batter. It dropped right through the middle of the strike zone, and both Jefferies and catcher Mitchell Kranson were convinced the umpire would ring up the strikeout.
Both Cal players took their first steps toward the dugout, Kranson flipping the ball toward the mound. But the umpire surprised everybody, standing up to signal a ball. The players’ first step had been premature.
Then, two pitchers later, Jefferies punched out the batter. Although it took a little extra time, the starter was able to return to the dugout. The Bears mirrored this as a team, as it took a little extra from the Bears to take that first step toward the College World Series.
At the end of the day, the team survived and advanced, winning, 9-3, and sent the Chanticleers (38-20, 17-7 in Big South) into the elimination game against No. 4 seed Texas Southern. Meanwhile, the Bears, the No. 3 seed, will play top-seed Texas A&M on Saturday.
Cal (35-19, 18-12 in Pac-12) got the first run on the board in the top of the second inning when first baseman Chris Paul tripled to right center field. Kranson would later single home the senior. But after the Bears took the lead, CCU’s Tyler Chadwick responded with a home run to tie things up in the bottom half of the same frame.
The Bears again pulled in front, 3-1, in the top of the fifth inning after shortstop Preston Grand Pre singled, and center fielder Aaron Knapp and right fielder Devin Pearson scorched back-to-back doubles. The inning was looking promising for Cal, but the Chanticleers’ defense came through with two stunning defensive plays.
Junior Brian Celsi, who made his return to the lineup after being out since the USC series May 18, registered an RBI in the top of the sixth to push the Cal lead to 4-1.
While the bats found success at the plate, Jefferies was busy baffling the CCU offense. The sophomore, no stranger to the big stage after starting many games this season across from the opponent’s ace, lasted seven innings and allowed only the one run. He even seemed to get stronger as the game went longer, as was apparent from the three-strikeout sixth inning.
With the Bears pulling away, the squad was looking for the dagger. It came on an ugly play in the top of the eighth, when Kranson laid down a sacrifice bunt that turned into a two-run throwing error. The junior had a stellar day, going three for four with two RBIs. It was suddenly 6-1, and Cal was in cruise control.
The final score would read, 9-3, in favor of Cal, the team flexing its muscles for the rest of the regional to see. Now Cal turns to junior Ryan Mason to face off against the top-seeded Aggies in the Bears’ second game of the regional.
Jefferies and Kranson helped the Bears take their first step. But it is only the first of many they’ll need to take.
Austin Crochetiere covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].