A 6-0 deficit in the third inning for a young ball team should mean a painful, slow death over the remaining six innings. And until the moment Jeffery Mitchell Jr. hit home base to tie things up in the bottom of the 9th, it felt like Cal was just delaying the inevitable. As junior Erik Martinez loaded the bases in the 10th and 11th, losing again felt destined. But strikeouts got the Bears out of both of those jams as well. And in the bottom of the 13th, after having pitched the top of the inning, Andrew Vaughn singled up the middle and a Dennis Karas shot brought him around for the game winning run. 8-7 Bears, inevitable evaded.
The jump from high school ball to college is no easy task, and Cal baseball’s freshman starting pitcher Jared Horn looked to be learning exactly why that was Saturday against Gonzaga. When you’re a college-level player still playing against high schoolers, an 0-2 count means batters are quaking in their shoes and an easy strikeout is on the horizon. Against a team like the Zags, however, throwing fastballs on 0-2 means singles up the middle and runs scored. In high school, fastballs down the middle reach the catcher’s glove before the batter can even start his swing. Against the Zags it meant home runs to dead center before Horn could fully turn his head.
The Zags scored three runs in the top of the second thanks to the aforementioned home run to center and one more RBI single. Things only got worse in the top of the third, as Horn was knocked out of the game after only getting through one out, and giving up another 3 runs, none of those earned, however, because of an error by freshman shortstop Cameron Eden that should have ended the inning on a double play. Junior Akaash Agarwal did a nice job in relief, but the damage was already done, the 6-0 lead looking like too much for the Bears to overcome.
Gonzaga sent freshman Mac Lardner onto the mound to start, and Cal’s only path to victory was rattling another young pitcher. Lardner, a lefty, had a looping curve that could be picked up from a mile away, so righties had a good chance for success against him. Sophomore DH Tanner Dodson smacked a double into the outfield in the first inning on one of those curves, and it looked like Cal might be able to take advantage, but three runners left on through the first three innings let Lardner build up momentum, and he never looked back, going 5.1 innings strong.
Cal made its big push in the bottom of the 6th inning after Lardner came out of the game. With the bases loaded and two outs, sophomore Jonah Davis got one through the shortstop’s glove to score two and a Dodson rip up the middle made it a one-run game, 7-6 in the Zag’s favor. Vaughn almost punched through a single that would have tied the game, but Gonzaga made a nice play at second to end the inning.
Dodson was making solid contact throughout the game, including his first home run of the season, which came on a shot the center left in the 5th inning. Junior Zayne Patino did a mostly excellent job in relief, working out of a bases loaded jam in the top of the 8th that threatened to put Cal right back out of the game, and getting out of the top of the 9th with no damage after putting a runner on second. He’s been Cal’s most consistent arm, bullpen or otherwise.
Down 7-6 in the bottom of the 9th with runners on first and second, and with two outs, freshman Anthony Walters stepped up to the plate. He was hitless on the day, so although he was in position to be the hero, things looked dire. But reaching deep, he put the ball right in between the first and second baseman and although Gonzaga’s second baseman got to the ball it was too late, and he was too far from home to make a play. Tie game.
Martinez took the mound in the 10th, and both innings he pitched were absolute roller coasters. There were bases loaded in both frames but he somehow managed to get strikeouts both times to escape without allowing any runs. After a flawless 12th, he gave the ball over to Vaughn, who propelled the Bears to victory from there.
It’s hard to know what to think of this young Bears team, whether to learn more from their gutsy wins or their ugly losses to No. 10 Texas Tech. But it’s not hard to know what to think about this game. Cal fought off death, and that’s impressive regardless of what happens the rest of this series, or the season.