OMAHA -- Never has a strained quadriceps muscle been so important. Were it not for the inability of Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda to play defense with that gimpy left leg, true freshman Derek Campbell and his bleached Mohawk wouldn't have had the chance to provide the California baseball team with just enough magic to stay alive in Omaha.
Campbell delivered two clutch hits as he and fellow freshman Kyle Porter lifted the Bears to a 7-3 win over Texas A&M in Game Seven of the College World Series, and -- surprise, surprise -- they did it while coming from behind.
"That is a quality win in the World Series, and I'm happy that our guys grinded it out, because that's kind of how we do it. We don't do it easy," said Cal head coach David Esquer. "We had to kind of catch ourselves in the middle of the ballgame. I thought we were a little too excited trying to make something happen that really wasn't there, and we didn't let the game come to us."
Had Renda been healthy enough to play the field, Campbell would likely have sat in favor of a left-handed bat.
"Sometimes, your best moves, you stumble into 'em," Esquer said. "We felt it best that Tony spend one more day DH'ing, and to his credit, I asked him quite honestly if he could give us what we needed for nine innings at second base, and he felt like he could, but I just, consulting with the trainers, he felt like, hey, let's give him a little bit more time rather than risk having to pull him sometime during the game. We're completely comfortable with Derek at second base and the defense he can play and he's just going to help our offense. We just felt like, let's go with that lineup, and let's make it work."
And work it did. Campbell went 2-for-4 with a run and two RBI, adding on a stolen base, for good measure.
"I have a lot of confidence in Derek," said Renda, who went 2-for-3 with a run, an RBI and a walk. "He's a good ballplayer, and, for a freshman, he handles himself very well. This is a huge stage here, and he's handling it very well. I'm very happy for him, and I'm going to try to get back out there. Every day it feels better. I'll just take it day-by-day and see how it goes."
Campbell's classmate Porter baffled the Aggies for three scoreless innings, but then served up a solo homer to Texas A&M third baseman Adam Smith with two outs in the bottom of the fourth.
"We just play better when we're relaxed," said the unflappable Porter. "We always say that we want to have more fun than the other team, and I think we do that. We always just play better loose, relaxed, instead of pressing. Late in the season we started pressing a little bit, and we got in trouble. As soon as the playoffs roll around, we were relaxed and loose, and it's gotten us here."
Porter stuck his nose right back into the fray, bearing down and getting catcher Kevin Gonzalez to pop up on the infield. With some communication snafu's threatening to let the ball drop, Campbell charged in and made the play.
"It didn't affect me at all," Porter said of Smith's blast. "I had a pitch and the guy put a good swing on it and hammered the ball out of the park. But, I know that, with the offense that we have behind me, one run wasn't going to win the game."
Whether it was the good-luck-gold tops or the stylish stirrups, that old comeback mojo began to get working again, kicked off by a pep talk from Esquer, the newly-christened National Coach of the Year.
"It was both," Esquer said, as to whether he was ticked off or simply trying to inspire his troupe. "I was a little angry, because I though we were just trying too hard. Too many guys weren't staying with the plan of what got us here, and again, I thought, with two strikes, we were a little reckless with two strikes and I told them that I'll take bad contact to the middle of the diamond rather than you trying to make something good happen up against the fence. Let's act like we belong here against this guy, and the way we're going to be able to do it is to chip away at him and keep the line moving. I don't need a home run."
After vaunted elimination game ace Michael Wacha -- who came in with a 0.89 postseason ERA -- cruised through the first four innings, striking out four, walking two and allowing just one hit, the Bears turned TD Ameritrade Park into Evans Diamond, as "Go Bears!" chants began to roll through the grandstand.
Cal (38-22) scored six runs in the next two innings on six hits and two crucial Aggies errors to take a 6-1 lead, and never looked back, banging out a total of nine hits against Wacha, scoring the second-most runs the sophomore righty has allowed all season.
"We beat one heck of a team today, and one heck of a pitcher," said a smiling Esquer, who, like the rest of his team, decided to go socks-up to showcase blue and gold stirrups, which now carry a 5-2 record. "If that guy isn't going to be at the top of every draft list next year, then I'm missing something. He's a heck of a pitcher, and so that is a heck of a win for us."
After Campbell made several key stops up the middle with the leather, he came up with a two-run single in the top of the fifth to spark what would wind up being the game-changing rally that spurred the Bears to its first win in the College World Series since 1980.
Junior right fielder Chad Bunting led things off in the fifth with a hard grounder up the third base line. Smith knocked the ball down, double clutched and fired over the head of first baseman Jacob House all the way to the Cal dugout. Bunting glanced back, saw the loose ball and broke for second, sliding headfirst nearly passing the bag before his right toe caught the back edge. Safe. One on, no outs.
Sophomore center fielder Darrel Matthews stepped to the dish against Wacha, and on an 0-2 offering from the stud sophomore, lined a single into shallow center field. First and second, no outs. Enter: Campbell.
The true freshman out of Irvine (Calif.) Mater Dei, starting just his 11th game of the season took a 93-mph Wacha fastball at the knees for a called strike. The next pitch drifted back out over the plate, and Campbell rapped a fading liner into right center. Center fielder Krey Bratsen gloved it on a bounce, but once again bobbled the transfer, allowing both Bunting and Matthews to come around to score. Two hits, two errors and all of the sudden, the Bears were up 2-1, and rolling.
"I don't like to think too much," Campbell smiled. "If I think too much, it doesn't work well with me. I just keep it simple, letting the game come to me, having each pitch come to me. I'm not going to do more than I'm capable of, but in that process, success comes."
Senior Austin Booker -- who's father Rod Booker was on the last Cal team to win a CWS game 31 years ago -- bunted the first pitch he saw up the third base line, moving Campbell to third with the sacrifice.
Whereas the Bears couldn't come up with the big knock just two days prior against No. 1-overall seed Virginia in a 4-1 loss, Tuesday was a different matter, as the "Go Bears!" chants, which had fallen on deaf ears in Sunday's defeat, finally took hold.
"Eventually, we moved the runners along and came up with that big hit that we've been looking for over the last couple days," Esquer said. "It came from a lot of different places, but Derek Campbell came up with some big hits for us and Darrel Matthews, just over and over, we just pieced it together. That kind of falls in line with how we have to do it as a team. It's not one guy with a three-run homer and leading the charge. It's piece by piece, with every player playing a role."
With the noise in TD Ameritrade Park swelling, "Fight For Big C" began to play over the sound system, and the abracadabra began to crackle.
"We've been down all year," Renda said. "We've had to fight back, getting our program back, our alumni fought for us and we fought on the field every single game. We got off to a great start, won a lot of ballgames and we were down, as a program. We were down in this tournament, as well. We lose our first game and we've got to come back and we've got to win ballgames against very good teams, or else we're going home. We know the task. We know what we need to do, and we know it's going to be difficult, but we're going to take it day-by-day, throw our best guys out there and keep turning over the lineup, trying to get some wins and get to that championship series."
Renda was up next after Campbell, and with a sign on the big screen saying, "Thank You Donors," the plucky sophomore popped the first pitch he saw into shallow right field for the cannon-armed Big 12 Player of the Year Tyler Naquin, owner of seven outfield assists on the season.
"Tony comes up and hits the ball not too deep, so I'm tagging up, looking, and [the second baseman] was kind of blocking me, so I'm thinking, 'Am I going to go?'" Campbell said. "I get Tony Arnerich, our third base coach, going, 'You're going. You're going.' In the back of my head, I'll be honest, I remember in pregame, hearing that this guy's got a gun. I'm just running as fast as I can and I didn't really think twice. I just trusted my coaches."
Renda, frustrated that he didn't get a deeper drive, saw Campbell -- he of "thinking doesn't work too well for me" -- start to churn towards the plate.
"I hit it, and I popped it up, and I was praying that it was deep enough," Renda said. "I saw him take three hard steps, and when I saw him keep going, I got excited."
Naquin's throw was well up the third base line and high, and as soon as Campbell crossed home, Renda breathed a big sigh of relief. During the postgame presser, Renda looked over at Campbell after a question on the play and said, under his breath, "Thanks for that."
"I was praying that he [got the green light]," Renda said. "I thought he was going to take three steps and stop, and I was going to fail at my job. Our coaches tell us that, bottom line, you've just got to get the job done. Thank God he got the job done."
Texas A&M's hallmark this season has been the ability to run a pressure-based offense, forcing the defense to make mistakes. On Tuesday, though, it was the athletic Campbell who forced the mistake.
"We knew that we were going to have to take the game to them a little bit, that we weren't passive and if we were going to beat a good team like Texas A&M, we were going to have to take some chances, put some guys in motion and then get a big hit when necessary," Esquer said. "I think Tony [Arnerich] sensed the moment, and I trust him. I don't second-guess him."
After all, it was Arnerich who called for the game-winning squeeze bunt from Campbell to end a 15-inning marathon against Rice on March 12. The man has some credibility when it comes to taking risks.
"When he sent him, he just felt like this was a moment that we could try to put some pressure on them and make them make a play, even though that's probably their best arm in the outfield," Esquer said.
The sacrifice fly put Cal up by two, and after Porter set the Aggies down in order in the bottom of the fifth, the Bears unloaded again in the very next frame, plating three more runs to ding Wacha-- who came in with a 0.89 playoff ERA -- for the second-most runs he had given up all season behind a nine-run debacle back in April against Missouri.
Another Cal legacy -- junior shortstop Marcus Semien, son of former Bears wide receiver Damien Semien -- led off the top of the sixth by lacing a single down the left field line.
The hero of the 9-8 comeback win against Baylor -- sophomore first baseman Devon Rodriguez -- came up empty, slicing a sinking liner to left that was gloved by left fielder Brandon Wood, holding Semien at first.
Sophomore third baseman Mitch Delfino -- who has come alive over the past two games in Omaha - came up with a liner into right center at the edge of the warning track. Naquin couldn't come up with the drive cleanly, allowing Semien to score and Delfino to chug into second with a double. Bunting followed with an 0-1 flare single over short for yet another big base hit, putting the Bears up 5-1.
Throughout the park, the chorus began again: Roll on you Bears.
With Bunting running on a 1-1 pitch to Matthews, the speedy outfielder bounced a grounder to deep second, moving Bunting to second on a productive groundout. Up came Campbell yet again, and he delivered. With yet another "Go Bears!" chant pounding in his ears, the 6-foot-, 172-pound infielder cracked a line drive single up the middle, and the fight song blared. 6-1, Cal.
"I just stuck with the approach my next at-bat [after the first big hit] as well, just take it up the middle," Campbell said. "That's what we preach in practice: stay hard up the middle, low and hard."
While Campbell went 2-for-4 from the nine hole with a run, a stolen base and two RBI, Freshman All-American Porter was simply scintillating, throwing 6.0 strong innings, allowing three runs on seven hits and one walk, striking out four on 80 pitches, throwing 54 for strikes and baffling Texas A&M hitters with a low-90s fastball, a filthy slider and a fall-off-the-table change that was 16 mph slower than his heater.
"The storyline of the game was handing him the ball and letting him run with it," Esquer said. "We had tremendous confidence in Kyle. Every time we've used him the whole year is when the game's mattered most, whether it was out of the pen or starting games. We got in a position to use him against Baylor in an elimination ballgame for us, and we just have great confidence for him. That was the key for us, was him coming out here and giving us six innings of good baseball."
The only trouble Porter faced was in the bottom of the seventh, when he allowed an infield single to Bratsen and a walk to third-place hitter Matt Juengel. With junior closer Matt Flemer warming in the pen, Porter began to lose his feel of the strike zone, throwing six of his next 12 pitches out of the strike zone and surrendering two RBI singles to bring the Aggies to within three before striking out Kenny Jackson on three pitches to end the threat.
"He probably could have gotten out of that one inning unscathed, but to his credit, he got us out of that inning and set the table for Matt to come in and pitch those final innings," Esquer said. "Just an outstanding performance, and it's in a big spot and many people may be surprised that he came through that way, but I don't think anyone on the coaching staff was surprised that he was capable of doing that."
In the midst of that run, junior catcher Chadd Krist called time and scuttled out to talk to his young charge.
"Chadd told me not to get behind in the count, and just pound the zone early," Porter said. "Early in the game, I was getting ahead of the batters quickly, and in that inning, I was 1-0, 2-0 on a lot of the guys, which forced me to throw the ball in the zone and they hit it. Chadd just told me to pound the zone early, throw strikes, let the D work and we'd get out of it."
After that 25-pitch inning, the Bears picked their freshman southpaw right back up. Renda led off with a first-pitch line-drive single into left, and was sacrificed to second by All-Pac-10 catcher Krist. Semien stepped to the plate with the rain coming down and thunder booming in the distance, and lined one back up the middle and past Wacha's glove. Second baseman Andrew Collazo picked it up and fired to first to erase the sixth-round pick of the Chicago White Sox, moving Renda to third.
"We love rain," smiled Renda, recalling the lengthy lightning delay in Houston and the several rain-outs that Cal has had this season. "It rains so much in Berkeley. I think we've gotten one game rained out every series this year. We had rain in Tuscon, we had rain in Houston, we've been facing rain all year long. Delays, they don't hurt us at all. The rain delay in Houston probably helped us. We're right at home."
Up stepped Rodriguez, with yet another "Go Bears" reaching a crescendo behind Cal's first-base dugout. On a 1-2 offering from Wacha, Rodriguez lined a single up the middle for an RBI single, spelling the end for Wacha, who had already come up big earlier in the postseason with two elimination game wins. 7-3, Bears.
"I think that was the key to the whole game," Porter said. "I was a little disappointed giving up the home run, and being down, and for our offense to come in there and put up a three-spot right after, that gave me a second life out there, and a boost to keep going. Then, to put another three-spot up the next inning was the cherry on top, and I knew, at that point, that we were in control of the game."
With Porter already having turned in a Herculean effort on the hill in just his fourth collegiate start, Esquer turned to the fiery, bearded closer Matt Flemer in the seventh for the second straight game.
"Coach said that they'd go to me first out of the pen, so in the bottom of the fifth, they sent me down to the bullpen, and I was prepared," Flemer said. "Especially in elimination games, where you can't really leave anything, you've got to leave it all out there, so I went in there with the mindset of, 'Hey, I'm going to pace myself, but at the same time, I'm going to attack and get ahead early with fastballs,' which I don't think I threw that many first-pitch strikes. I just had to really pound the zone and let the defense work for me."
Flemer entered with his trademark ferocity, high-fiving his infielders as he took the mound against Collazo. After falling behind 3-1, Flemer got a fastball over for a called strike, and saw his next pitch fouled off to the right. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Flemer buried a pitch inside, which was foul-tipped into Krist's mitt for a strikeout.
Flemer got Naquin to ground out to second, and then allowed a second-pitch, two-out single to Bratsen before getting two quick strikes on designated hitter Matt Juengel. Juengel took issue with the second called strike by home plate umpire Jim Schaly. After a quizzical glance backwards, Schaly shot back, "Are you going to talk to me like that?"
The game of baseball's unwritten code made its first showing, as Juengel knew that, no matter where the next pitch went, it would be a called strike. He chased Flemer's high cheese away, striking out and stranding Bratsen at first.
After a 1-2-3 inning from Aggies reliever Kyle Martin in the top of the eighth, Flemer came back out in the bottom of the frame, winning an eight-pitch battle against House by inducing a groundout to short.
Smith struck out swinging, and Gonzale then delivered a hard groundball single back up the middle. Flemer dug deep against Wood -- who came into the game batting .257 -- and got the speedy outfielder to fly out to Bunting in right, who snared a drive on the dead run to put Texas A&M three outs away from elimination.
"Coach Esquer kept asking me if I needed Logan [Scott] to go down and start warming up, and I always try to get Coach to smile, because he never smiles," smirks the junior ringleader/troublemaker. "I just told him, 'Coach, I have this. I got the rest of the game. If I give up four, then we're in trouble, big-time, for the rest of the series.' I just told him I had it."
Another 1-2-3 inning by Cal hitters brought Flemer back out for the bottom of the ninth, and the 19th-round selection of the Kansas City Royals promptly got Jackson to foul out to Krist. Pinch hitter Gregg Alcazar went down swinging on three straight pitches, before Flemer surrendered another two-out single, this time to Naquin, who sent a sharp shot up the middle kicking off Semien's mitt and into center.
Voices in the grandstand returned to their old refrain: "Go Bears!"
"We love it," Renda said of the team's newfound bandwagon fans. "Hop on. Come along for the ride. It sounds great for us. The reception we've gotten here in Omaha so far has been great. We've had a lot of people behind us all year from our alumni, people who donated their own money and had no affiliation with Cal, they've been behind us all year long. They had our backs. To have some more people come behind us, we'll take it, and we'll ride it. We're excited. It's awesome. I heard some football chants, too, that I don't think any of our parents know, a couple you don't hear at ballgames at Cal. We heard them up there in the stands, which was awesome. We loved it."
Bratsen came up with the Aggies' hopes resting on his shoulders. Flemer's first pitch missed outside. On his 51st pitch of the afternoon, Flemer caught the outside corner for a called strike. His next 88-mph heater missed off the plate away, before the Petaluma, Calif., native came back with another called strike on the outside corner.
With the crowd on its feet, Mr. Playoff Beard himself hummed up and fired. Bratsen tied himself in knots, trying it seemed to hit a five-run homer, but came up empty. Flemer fist pump. Game over. Just another California comeback.
"I remember in the Regional, I told our guys that some teams look for one hero to take them the distance, and we don't need that," Esquer said. "We need 27 heroes. We need guys on the bench. We need guys on the field. We need everybody playing their role and piecing it together, because that's who we are."
-- Cal's 38 wins are the most by a Bears squad since the 1988 College World Series team won 40 games with future Hall-of-Famer Jeff Kent on the roster.
-- The victory marked the fifth elimination-game win for Cal this season.
"It's that nothing-to-lose mentality that makes us work," Renda said. "Our goal all year long was to get to Omaha, and now that we've gotten to Omaha, it's to win. It's just like every team here: we want to win the tournament. We're not here just to show up. We stay loose because when we're tight, when we're pressing, we're not good. We feel like we were tight and pressing against [Virginia's] Danny Hultzen, and it showed. Our bats weren't quite there, pitching wasn't quite there and we just stayed loose today, and it showed."
Renda, a 2010 Freshman All-American, gave credit to the newest member of that fraternity in Porter for the poise shown by the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) native.
"Porter went out and gave us a great start, and we knew that he wasn't going to give up that many runs, just with the stuff that he had," Renda said. "He was keeping their hitters off-balance. They were hitting a lot of pop-ups and weak ground balls, and we knew he just had his stuff today. That's huge for us. To get that kind of a start out of a freshman is big, and we've got to stay loose. Yeah, you're facing elimination, but we've been facing elimination all year in bigger things than just a ballgame: the elimination of our program. We've faced it, we fought back, we've been doing it all year and when we got down one run, we weren't going to panic."
-- All but two of Cal's starting hitters got at least one base knock in the Bears sixth straight win against a team from the Lone Star State.
"You can't be a good coach without good players," Esquer said. "If our players didn't come out here and perform like they did today under elimination circumstances, thankfully for us, one of our rallying cries is to be as loose as possible, and that serves us well in big moments. It's been a really, really gratifying, humbling day to have both [the Coach of the Year award and the win] in one day."
-- Campbell and Renda led the charge, with each getting two hits. Renda -- after going 0-for-4 on Sunday -- went 2-for-3 with a run, an RBI and a walk.
-- Flemer -- who has now thrown four World Series innings with no earned runs -- went with the high-cuffed pants and stirrups for the first time this season, and couldn't decide whether it was the good-luck-gold jerseys, the leg-wear or the scruffy shag on his mug that powered the Bears' fourth come-from-behind win of the postseason.
"I don't know," Flemer smiled. "All three. I've never worn my socks high with stirrups, so this is something new. I think we just wanted to try something different. I don't think we were pleased with the way we played the other day. The hitters did a great job, Porter was a horse, and, like Coach said, Derek and Darrel got some big hits for us. We just wanted to do something new, and get rolling."
Flemer wasn't the least bit concerned with his innings or pitch count, as he spent the early part of his college career and last summer for the LaCrosse Loggers of the Northwoods League as a starter.
"I felt good," he said. "I started all last summer in the summer league, so it wasn't too bad."
-- Porter -- who later said he would be ready to go if needed on Friday after throwing just 80 pitches against the Aggies -- is now 2-0 in his only two postseason starts, both in elimination games.
"My mentality coming in was that I just wanted to go out there and give the team the best chance to win," said the ever-laconic Porter. "I just wanted to throw strikes, limit the damage and hopefully, the offense would put up enough runs to get it done. As far as the elimination games, I don't treat it any differently than any other game. I want to go out there and win, just like everyone else does, and I try to not, I guess, be caught up in the moment. I try to just not think out there, go out there and throw and it usually doesn't hit me until after."
Porter, too, was digging the stirrups.
"They'll be worn again," he smiled. "I think we're a contender, for sure. We got more games to win, and we're going to take it one step at a time, but I think we are, for sure."
-- Omaha is, of course, the home of the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, who drafted Flemer several weeks ago. This win, and the fact that his parents played such a large part in saving the program, just added another reason for him to stay and complete his degree.
"It's going to be pretty hard," Flemer said of his decision after recording his sixth save of the year. "I definitely didn't want this season to end today. I think it's great, too, that I think Dixon [Anderson] is going to get a chance to start and throw in this, because he turned down a lot of money last year to get to be in this environment and throw in a game like this. I had that in the back of my mind, throwing out there, and it's going to be fun to see."
The big, 6-foot-6 Anderson came back to Cal after being drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Orioles in 2010. This year, he was picked up in the ninth round by the Washington Nationals.
-- Renda wore high socks on Monday during practice, a precursor to the lower-leg stylings Cal sported on Tuesday.
"We love the yellow jerseys, love the yellows, and adding the stirrups, when you look that good, it's tough to lose," he laughed. "We're 5-2 in them, and I'm surprised we've lost two."
Cal will have a day off on Wednesday and will practice off site, possibly back at Boys Town, where they spent Monday morning. The Bears will then face the top-seeded Cavaliers once again on Thursday at 6 PM Central Time at TD Ameritrade Park.
Virginia used six pitchers in its 7-1 loss to South Carolina on Tuesday night -- Will Roberts (who had the shortest outing of his career, giving up six runs -- three earned -- on eight hits, one walk and two strikeouts), Cody Winiarski, Kyle Crockett, Justin Thompson, Scott Silverstein and Whit Mayberry -- and will likely throw Hultzen again on Thursday. The Cavaliers' pitchers threw 99 strikes in 152 total pitches.
Of the remaining teams in the College World Series field, Cal has taken home the title the most times, winning the inaugural event in Kalamazoo, Mich., against George H.W. Bush's Yale team and taking the 1957 championship against Penn State.