OMAHA, Neb. -- California's amazing surprise tour at the College World Series will continue at least for a couple of more days.
When Texas A&M dropped its CWS opener to South Carolina in heartbreaking fashion, the Aggies didn't head home for the night feeling bad about their situation. After all, they had hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha waiting in the wings to start against Cal.
What they didn't know was a feisty Golden Bears offense and an emerging starting pitcher in Kyle Porter were waiting in the wings for them, too.
Wacha's start against the Golden Bears began as everyone expected. He cruised through the first three innings using a barrage of devastating pitches, including a nasty changeup and a fastball sitting 92-94 mph.
The Golden Bears got greedy offensively and attempted to be aggressive against Wacha. That ploy almost never works against great pitchers, and it wasn't working against Wacha early in the game.
Cal, though, adjusted its philosophy, took a step back and became more patient at the plate. That change in philosophy proved to be the difference as the Golden Bears scored three runs in the fifth and sixth innings to take a commanding 6-1 lead over the Aggies.
Furthermore, Wacha was lifted from the game after allowing seven runs on nine hits in 6 2/3 innings. To put that into perspective, Wacha had allowed just seven or more runs one other time this season, an April bout against Missouri, where he allowed nine runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings.
The fact the Golden Bears touched up one of the top prospects for the 2012 MLB draft on college baseball's grandest stage was more impressive, especially considering how well Wacha threw last weekend against a powerful Florida State lineup.
"We were trying way too hard before the Adam Smith home run [in the fourth inning]," California coach Dave Esquer said. "With two strikes and what not, we were a little reckless out there. We needed to act like we belonged here and quit trying to hit a home run."
California's offense was opportunistic the rest of the way.
"Cal's hitters really did an amazing job in advantageous counts. 0-1, 1-2, they did great jobs. Cal didn't miss many pitches and they really grinded out some at bats," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. "They got some real big hits and we just weren't able to have another big inning."
While Wacha failed to get in a groove on the mound, the opposite was true for California freshman starting pitcher Kyle Porter, making just his fourth start of the season.
The last time Porter started was against Baylor in the Houston Regional, where he struck out nine batters and allowed just three hits in 6 2/3 innings.
He was almost that good against the Aggies if not for a couple of hiccups, striking out four and allowing just three runs on seven hits in six innings to earn his sixth win of the season.
"The story line of the game was us handing the ball to Porter and letting him run with it," Esquer said. "We had tremendous confidence with the call and that was key for us because him giving us six strong innings of baseball allowed us to set the table for Matt to enter the game."
The Golden Bears now will face Virginia in an elimination game, their second meeting against the Cavaliers in this CWS.
And once again, doubting the Bears might be a risky proposition.
They're not ready for this ride to end.
"We've been down all year and have had to fight back, whether it was for our program or to stay alive in the postseason," California designated hitter Tony Renda said. "We have had to play well against some very good teams and we know the task at hand and what we need to do. We just need to take things day by day."
Game in a nutshell
Player of the game: California LHP Kyle Porter – With their season on the line, the Golden Bears once again looked to the freshman pitcher for guidance. And as he did against Baylor in the Houston Regional a couple of weeks ago, he did just that. Porter was fantastic against the Aggies despite giving up a few runs. He struck out four and allowed just three runs on seven hits in six innings. Porter improved to a perfect 6-0 on the season.
Turning point: Texas A&M grabbed a 1-0 lead over California on an Adam Smith solo home run in the fourth inning, putting the Golden Bears on the defensive. Well, they responded in impressive fashion. The Golden Bears scored three runs in the top of the fifth inning and extended their lead to 6-1 in the sixth with a three-run frame that included RBI singles from Chad Bunting and Derek Campbell and an RBI double from Mitch Delfino. The six-run fifth and sixth innings took the wind out of the Aggies’ sails for good.
Where both teams stand: California is living the high life for a bit after beating the Aggies in an elimination game. But it’ll have little time to celebrate this victory with South Carolina or Virginia looming in the distance. The Golden Bears hope to get a solid start from veteran right-handed pitcher Dixon Anderson, who has a 3.90 ERA in 67 innings. Anderson last started against Rice, where he allowed three runs on two hits in 4 2/3 innings … While Cal lives on to see at least a couple of more days in Omaha, the Aggies are headed home with a 47-22 overall record. A&M likely will return both starting pitchers in Ross Stripling and Michael Wacha and will be favored to get back to the College World Series next season.
Q & A with California coach Dave Esquer
How was starting pitcher Kyle Porter able to keep the Aggies off balance?
Esquer: The thing that gives him a chance, he can neutralize right and left-handed hitters. The change is effective against right-handed hitters and the slider also can neutralize righties. He’s never naked out there, he always has some attack to him. His fastball has the ability to move to both sides of the plate and really keeps hitters honest. He has the ability to get pitches on the front and back of a swing. You don’t get many chances to square him up.
It hasn’t been talked about much, but what about the job reliever Matt Flemer did against the Aggies?
Esquer: The key on Flemer is we have a lead and we’re able to use him that early. He’s the type of guy that throws strikes and doesn’t walk anyone. He limits the number of ways a team can create a big inning. We knew with Flemer out there, they’d have to earn everything they got. He’s not going to hit anyone or anything like that. We have a good chance with him out there, as he makes it tough for teams to hit their way back in the game.
What type of adjustments were you able to make against Michael Wacha that made the team successful as the game progressed?
Esquer: I think early in the game he was just incredibly sharp, his fastball was especially sharp. He was riding high with that and his off speed changeup working pretty well. He really kept us on our heels until we started to back down and not try so hard at the plate. We were trying to match his greatness with greatness and that typically doesn't work against a pitcher like that. So we became more patient.
You talk about your team being loose at the College World Series. How tough of a chore is that?
Esquer: It's most certainly a tough chore. But I've said it before, one thing to our credit, we work pretty hard to stay loose and that has been a trait of this team the entire season. We try to stay loose both externally and internally, and we've done it for a while. It's not fake or a show we're putting on at all. It's just who this team is.
What's the latest with left-handed pitcher Justin Jones?
Esquer: We're not expecting him to pitch in the tournament. He gets better each day [from the bicep strain], but he's very much a long shot to pitch in the College World Series. But other teams are going through similar situations, just look at Texas A&M with losing John Stilson for the rest of the season. We just have to deal with it the rest of the time in Omaha.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org