One pitch. One swing. One resounding impact.
Just like that, a three-hour contest was decided in a single instant. The Bears swarmed out of the dugout and onto the field; they embodied a sea of blue and gold rejoicing, filling the void left by the empty seats at Evans Diamond. For the few reporters and scouts that had the pleasure of being in the stands, this was baseball at its finest — and though no one in the stands could cheer, the players took care of that themselves.
Catcher Cole Elvis was the recipient of the entourage at home plate, as his walk-off shot decided Cal’s 4-3 win over USF on Friday evening. With the Bears up 3-1 heading into the final frame, redshirt freshman Aaron Roberts got the call out of the bullpen. The No. 1 prospect in Nevada’s 2019 graduating class missed all of last season due to injury but got two quick outs and hit 98 mph with his fastball.
But soon, things began to unravel. A perfectly-placed grounder to second baseman Darren Baker was scored as an infield hit, but a fielding error at third one batter later put the winning run at the plate for the Dons. USF third baseman Ryan Davis sent a ball deep into the left-center field gap that a diving Dylan Beavers got within inches of, clearing the bases and knotting the score at three apiece, with Cal set to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Cue Elvis, who promptly sent a fastball over the left-field wall. His home run was the only extra-base hit out of a whopping 12 Bears’ hits, a far cry from the ice-cold offensive showing the day before – Cal mustered just three hits Thursday, including a Beavers round-tripper. But the blue and gold’s pitching staff delivered in the clutch and made those hits count. Six Cal pitchers combined to hold USF to batting 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position, and Elvis erased two would-be base-stealers en route to a 4-2 victory in the series opener.
“Going into the season, we definitely felt like (our pitching) was going to be a big strength for our team,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “With a couple of our guys like Grant Holman and Joseph King out, it opens the door for some other guys to step up, and those guys have really done it. They’ve done a good job giving us a chance to win pretty much every game we’ve had this year.”
Saturday’s 10-6 away loss was an uncharacteristic one for this season’s Bears – miscues on the mound in the seventh and eighth innings turned a 4-1 blue and gold lead into a 10-4 margin in favor of the Dons. Though Cal scored two in the ninth and put up its highest run total of the series, it was too little too late.
“We felt like we were in a really good position to win the game and it obviously got a little sideways on us in the seventh and eighth,” Neu said. “Our guys responded really well to a tough loss.”
Less than 24 hours later, the Bears’ stingy pitchers had returned to their usual selves. Freshman Paulshawn Pasqualotto stymied the USF offense, tossing six innings of one-run ball while striking out five Dons. Josh White entered out of the bullpen in the seventh inning and put the game to bed with three hitless innings. On offense, Beavers added to his early-season resume with his second homer of the series. Sunday’s 5-1 win moved Cal to 4-4 on the year, and as nonconference play progresses, Neu can sense his players beginning to settle in.
“We didn’t have a fall (to prepare),” Neu said. “As we play more and as we get more comfortable in some of these spots, we’ll just keep getting better.”
Cal begins a four-game set with St. Mary’s on March 4, with two 5 p.m. home stints at Evans Diamond on Thursday and Friday followed by Saturday and Sunday afternoon games in Moraga, California. The Gaels sit at 5-3 after splitting a series with Utah Valley and taking three out of four from California Baptist. With only three series remaining before Pac-12 play begins, the Bears will want to utilize their remaining early-season matchups to shake off any remaining rust. And as the games roll on, Cal will seek to bottle up the energy it captured Friday night and take it with its team for the rest of the way.
“First four, going 1-3, and then having the opportunity to take three out of four, that just shows that we’re climbing that ladder a little bit and doing the things that we need to do to win games,” Neu said. “That’s what we want to continue to do next weekend.”