Auburn's Ryan Mason off to a good start with California Golden Bears baseball

Pitcher is 3-0 and leads team in strikeouts as a true freshman
By: Matthew Kimel, Journal sports editor
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Ryan Mason is staring down some of the best hitters college baseball has to offer.

He’s punching them out, too.

The 2012 Placer High School alumnus has found success as a true freshman rather quickly pitching on the mound for the California Golden Bears.

Friday night in Salt Lake City, the 6-foot-7 righty will get the starting call for Cal (10-7) in the Pac-12 opener against the Utah Utes (8-6).

Though Mason (3-0) is the youngest ballplayer on the Bears’ staff, he’s leading the team in strikeouts and is tied for most wins.

Mason, who is seemingly playing beyond his years in his 10 innings pitched this season, thinks age is something that should not be accounted for in the Division I ranks.

“You’ve got to play above your age in college,” said Mason, whose 1.80 ERA is the second lowest on his team among pitchers that have tossed more than one inning. “So far I’ve done a good job of maintaining my own with the older guys and playing with the older guys. My team’s been helping me out. The guys behind me are solid. We’re like a family.

“We’re one of the more vocal teams in the Pac-12 by far. You have support from coaches and the team and it helps you play above your years.”

A trademark for the 2013 Bears seems to be their knack for rallying to victories.

 “We’re very scrappy,” he said. “We don’t really give up, we fight back in games. We’ve had six come-from-behind and five walks-off wins — kind of like (last year’s) Oakland A’s. We fight back and close it out in the end.

“I think it’s going to be our signature throughout the year. We’re not going to be out of too many games. Our staff is solid and hitters are clutch.”

Cal and Mason got their first win on opening day in the same fashion he described.

Mason, coming out of the bullpen in a tied game, pitched 1 2/3 innings, struck out four batters and escaped a bases-loaded jam by getting two of his strikeouts in the top of the 10th against Michigan. In the 11th, batterymate Andrew Knapp (Granite Bay High) drove in the game-winning run in a 5-4 walk-off in the Bay Area.

The Bears went on to sweep the Wolverines, walking off with victories in all three games.

While Knapp grew up just down the road from Mason, the two never knew each other until they started playing catch at Evans Diamond.

“I quickly got to know him with him being the starting catcher,” Mason said. “We work together daily. He’s a preseason All-America; one of the best in the nation. I got to know him quickly, became good friends with him. Knowing we are 15 minutes away is cool if I ever need to throw bullpen in the off-season.”

The Bears also have another local area guy in Brian Celsi (Jesuit High), a redshirt sophomore. The geographical proximity of the three players’ hometowns is something they have pride in.

“They know the area we all grew up in and we like to rep our Sacramento area very proudly,” Mason said. “We don’t have a lot of Sac players. We have a lot of SoCal players. It’s nice to have a core group of players that you’re friends with and represent the area well.”

Mason earned his second win in relief against UC Irvine.

Last Saturday he was tabbed for his first collegiate start. In five innings of work he gave up three hits, one unearned run and one walk, while fanning seven batters on a day the Auburn native will likely always remember.

“I had a pitch count. It was my first start, coming off a sickness the week before,” he said. “Coaches wanted me to throw strikes and it worked out to my advantage. I had some good stuff that day. Getting my first win in a starting position is probably something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

Against the Bulldogs, Mason got a big confidence boost by twice striking out Aaron Judge, a Baseball America Preseason All-America first team selection and top prospect.

“You’re taken back that some of these kids will be taken in the (MLB) draft,” Mason said. “Striking them out and being able to compete with them is something I’ve been waiting for my whole life. But now during the game that’s just an afterthought.”

Mason himself hopes to one day be in the bigs.

“Playing in the majors, it’s been a goal of mine since I was a little kid watching the (San Francisco) Giants play,” he said. “I’ve watched every game on TV since I was 5, except when I was at the park.”

That Mason is succeeding in college ball is not a surprise to his former Placer High coach John Hilton. But that he’s having success right off the bat?

“It does surprise me what a quick impact he’s made already,” said Hilton, who worked with the pitcher for two years, including his senior year when he went 9-0 with a 1.36 ERA and 99 strikeouts to help lead Placer to the 2012 Pioneer Valley League title. “I knew he’d be successful but to say he was going to go in and pitch nine months after working with him, it’s surprising at the next level. At the same time, it doesn’t surprise me because he’s a hard-nosed guy. I think it’s really exciting what he’s doing at Cal.”

Hilton thought he was fortunate to have the privilege of having a talent like Mason at Placer.

“Ryan’s one of those kids that’s extremely eager to please,” Hilton said. “He shows up to a practice or game and does whatever you tell him even if he’s never done it. He loves the game of baseball and he’s extremely gifted. He’s a hard competitor. When he pitches out there on the mound he’s kind of in his own world. He’s your classic pitcher — he stares down batters.”

At Cal, Mason has been sticking to the same approach he had while on the hill at James Field.

“I try not to make too many differences,” he said when asked to compare high school ballgames to the ones he’s competing in now. “I try not to get intimated by the hitters because they’re four years older than me. I want to keep things simple. I have just been throwing the ball the way I want to and it’s worked out so far.”

At times, Mason’s been thinking about home.

“I miss Auburn,” he said. “I miss Placer High, miss playing for coach Hilton. I miss the boys on the team but this is the new spot I’m in.”

And Mason’s been enjoying his first year at the university.

“I love Berkeley,” he said. “I love the whole city — everything about it and the baseball team. It’s going pretty well.”

Perhaps it’s going even better than imagined.

“A dream of mine is kind of becoming a reality,” he said. “That’s kind of surreal for me.”

Reach Matthew Kimel at Follow him on Twitter@matthewkimel