BERKELEY -- Nearly two years ago to the day, a freshman catcher delivered the capper to a four-run ninth inning, sending Utah home with a 6-5 defeat in the back end of an Opening Day doubleheader. On Friday, that same catcher – first-team preseason All-American Andrew Knapp – provided yet another walk-off knock on the first day of the season, rattling a bases-loaded 2-0 spinning slider from Michigan reliever Jay Perry back up the middle for the winning margin, as the Bears came out with a 5-4 victory.
“I don’t know, I just get up in those situations and I wasn’t trying to do too much,” Knapp said. “Eskie [head coach David Esquer] was just telling me to make sure I didn’t muscle it, because in some situations, you want to make it happen so badly that you get out of your approach a little bit, so I was just looking for something to hit. It’s hard to fail with bases loaded and nobody out.”
While Knapp -- with his 3-for-5 day and a crucial walk to set the stage for Devon Rodriguez’s game-tying single in the bottom of the ninth – was certainly the toast of the team in the postgame mass of celebration, his heroics would not have been, were it not for 1.2 crucial innings of relief pitching on the part of true freshman Ryan Mason.
The 6-foot-7 righty out of Auburn (Calif.) Placer struck out four of the six batters he faced, allowing just one walk.
“Getting into extra innings, your first game, a lot of fans, packed house, I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life -- there’s no doubt about it,” Mason said.
Mason came on in relief of senior Logan Scott with one out and the bases loaded in the top of the 10th, and showed a grand sense of occasion by striking out the next two hitters on six swings in his first collegiate outing. He showed not one ounce of fear.
“There’s not going to be any,” Mason said. “I think they knew that they didn’t have a chance. Fastball was running a lot today, Knapp was just throwing the sign down, and the defense did the rest. I knew if I threw the right pitch, they weren’t going to hit it.”
The Bears (1-0) rattled off 15 hits on the day, with multi-hit days coming from Knapp, leadoff man Derek Campbell, Rodriguez, true freshman Max Dutto, junior right fielder Jacob Wark and redshirt freshman left fielder Brian Celsi.
Wark went 2-for-4 with a run in his first start in right, and the 6-foot-4 tight end had several of his football teammates in the stands, as well as head football coach Sonny Dykes, running backs coach Pierre Ingram, wide receivers coach Rob Likens and defensive line coach Garret Chachere looking on.
Blow by Blow
Lefty starter Justin Jones lasted just 3.1 innings, with his fastball hovering between 82 and 86, with not much command. After a seven-pitch first inning, Jones labored through the second and the third, walking in a run in the second and allowing a second in the third on a double, a bunt single and an run-scoring double play from designated hitter Kevin White, before Cal came storming back in the bottom of the frame.
The slap-hitting Celsi started things off with a bounding bunt single over the head of starting pitcher Ben Ballatine. He was followed by Campbell, who squared to bunt Ballatine’s first offering, leaning back as the pitch tailed up and in. Campbell still managed to get barrel on the ball, sending it rolling up the third base line. By the time charging third baseman Travis Maezes was able to barehand and fire the ball, Campbell was safe at first, and the Bears had two on and no outs.
“Celsi bunted on his own,” Esquer said. “That’s a big part of his game, and we just wanted to make sure we kept putting some pressure on them, even if it was to score one to put us down by one. Then Campbell put his down and he got lucky, because the guy dove and couldn’t get the ball. The short game, we knew, starting up the season, just with the offense, how it is, it’s going to be a big part of our game.”
Rodriguez then came up with one of his patented groundball singles through the right side – mirroring his famous hit in Houston two seasons ago – plating Celsi to cut the lead to one. Sophomore shortstop Chris Paul then sent a bounding single through the right side to bring Campbell home to tie things up.
Jones allowed two straight singles to start the fourth, then an RBI groundout by Jack Sexton, which spelled the end for the senior lefty.
Sophomore JuCo transfer Dylan Nelson then came on and, after getting one out, surrendered an RBI double to center by Wolverines leadoff man Patrick Biondi, before picking Michael O’Neill at second to escape the frame.
Cal got one run back in the bottom of the fourth on the back of big Wark, who led off the inning with a line-drive single to left and scored on a two-out cue shot up the middle off the bat of Campbell, who was thrown out at second trying to stretch it into a double.
Had Campbell not been a bit over-aggressive, that would have brought Knapp, Rodriguez and Paul to the dish after, a potentially lethal trio. That wasn’t the only miscue on the Bears’ part, though, as with Wark on first with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Celsi missed a 1-1 hit-and-run signal, leaving the breaking tight end dead-to-rights at second.
Nelson went on to throw three more scoreless innings with three strikeouts, bridging the gap to late-inning change up artist Logan Scott, who needed just nine pitches to get through the top of the eighth and six pitches to get Michigan in order in the top of the ninth.
Celsi led off the bottom of the ninth by smoking the fifth pitch he saw back up the middle for a single. After Campbell popped out to shallow left, Knapp stepped to the dish with the Michigan outfield playing no-doubles defense, with their heels nearly touching the makeshift fence, 10 feet closer to the plate than the original Evans Diamond fence, which is being dismantled as lights and a new scoreboard are constructed.
Knapp took the first three pitches and with the count 2-1, nearly bit on the fourth, but held his swing up enough for it to be called a ball. The fifth pitch sailed high, putting Knapp at first with a walk.
Rodriguez promptly ripped the first pitch he saw through the right side -- again, evoking his famous base knock from 2011.
Celsi got a late jump, and was dead to rights at the plate, but a high throw allowed him to slide under the leaping catcher, tying the game up.
“He threw me a good pitch, I put a good swing on it,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone’s saying it was just like Houston, but I was just trying to hit the ball hard and get that run in, because we were working hard all game, and we made that clutch hit at the end.
“I actually told Knapp, ‘Thanks for taking that walk and trusting me behind you.’ He could have tried to do it himself. It was huge. He swung the bat great today, he was patient and that just shows what kind of team we are. We’re very unselfish, and we’ve been preaching a team-first attitude, and that showed, 100-percent, today.”
In the bottom of the 11th, junior Mike Reuvekamp led off with a pop up to shallow right, but the ball was dropped by second baseman Jacob Cronenworth. With Reuvekamp at second, Celsi then laid down a bunt up the third base line, intending to sacrifice Reuvekamp to second, but wound up safe at first with a bunt single. The Wolverines then curiously elected to intentionally walk Campbell to get to the switch-hitting Knapp, who came up with the game-winner.
“I wasn’t going to try to make anything special happen,” Knapp said. “If I didn’t get it done, Devon would have gotten it done.”
Faces in the Crowd
Former Bears Matt Flemer, Joey Donofrio, Chadd Krist and Mitch Delfino were in attendance, as was 2013 signees Aaron Knapp and Robbie Tenerowicz, as well as Tenerowicz's Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo teammates and fellow future Cal players Denis Karas and Matt Ladrech.
Defensive lineman Austin Clark and linebackers Lucas King and Dan Camporeale were on hand to cheer on teammate Wark.
The Bears go for Round Two against Michigan on Saturday at 1 p.m. with junior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos taking the hill at Evans Diamond.