Only a handful of San Francisco prep baseball players are currently at the Division I level of college competition and two of them sit about a foot away from each other in the Cal locker room.
Freshman Collin Monsour and redshirt sophomore Dylan Nelson, both in their first season at Cal, sit at adjoining lockers on the Berkeley campus and have become friends largely due to their common bonds.
They aren’t similar in stature — Monsour is taller and skinny (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), while Nelson is shorter and more built (5-10, 193) — but they essentially have the same stuff in pitches and mentality, and they’re both born-and-bred San Franciscans.
“It’s nice having another city kid on the team and we definitely have that bond, coming from the same place, and in a way, we’re both on the same journey,” Nelson said. “There’s not many kids coming out of San Francisco and we both realize that, and we’re doing the best we can to represent. Public school, private school — it doesn’t matter.”
Despite their inexperience, both have become valuable assets on the Cal pitching staff and are currently two of the Bears’ most reliable starters in the still-early season.
When Cal’s original rotation faltered early in the year, Nelson and Monsour were thrust into starting roles. Now they have the team’s two best earned-run averages for any pitcher with two or more starts (Nelson at 1.76 and Monsour at 3.00).
Monsour’s first start came against host Houston in the Houston College Classic on March 3 and he went 5 1/3 innings, allowed only one earned run and struck out five to pick up his first college win. A day later, Nelson took the mound against Rice, ranked No. 19 in the nation at the time, and threw six scoreless innings in a 1-0 Cal loss.
“Maybe it’s the fact of their upbringing or where they come from to just recognize, that hey, this is just baseball,” Cal coach David Esquer said. “They’ve been able to play the game and not assess the environment — should I be nervous here? They have a poise about them that’s not natural.”
Their journeys may be conjoined at this point, but their respective treks were vastly different before they made their way to Cal.
Monsour, a standout pitcher just last season at St. Ignatius, had a transcendent senior year in arguably the best league in Northern California.
He had a 9-2 record, 1.01 earned-run average, 68 strikeouts in 70 innings and led the Wildcats to their first Central Coast Section championship in school history. Those overall accomplishments were good enough, but it was his performance in the loaded West Catholic Athletic League that put him in a different stratosphere.
In 35 innings in the WCAL, Monsour went 4-0, allowed just two earned runs (0.40 ERA) and struck out 38. His best outing was a complete-game shutout of St. Francis, which was ranked ninth in the nation at that point, where he allowed just five hits and struck out six.
Monsour committed to Cal well before he was named Co-Pitcher of the Year in the WCAL, but he was still somewhat unheralded as a college prospect.
Nelson, however, wasn’t even on the radar when he led Galileo to an Academic Athletic Association championship in 2010, giving the Lions their first league title since 1978. Against significantly weaker competition compared to Monsour, his pitching numbers weren’t as impressive either (he had a 2.42 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 52 innings pitched), but his exploits are just short of mythical in AAA circles.
Along with pitching, he played catcher, shortstop and first base for the Lions in his senior season, hit .581 and drove in 26 runs. His overall numbers, however, paled in comparison to what he did in the final two games of his AAA career.
In the league semifinals against Balboa, Nelson threw six strong innings and was shifted to first base in the seventh with Galileo holding a comfortable 10-2 lead. After the Lions’ bullpen allowed the first five Balboa batters in the seventh inning to reach base, Galileo coach Don Papa put Nelson back on the mound to close the game out.
He came on in relief in a game he had started.
Nelson allowed two inherited runners to score and one of his own, but with the tying run on second base, he sealed the game with a strikeout.
“I didn’t even know that was a rule,” Nelson said of Papa’s decision to send him back to the mound. “He put me back in the game, and I was like, ‘Is this legal?’ I really like that story. That’s one I’ll tell my kids.”
Seven days later, Nelson struck out 11 in a complete-game upset win over Washington in the AAA championship game at AT&T Park. He allowed two earned runs, threw 130 pitches and went 3-for-4 at the plate with a double and a triple.
In the game against Rice, which was played at Minute Maid Park in Houston, the Bears had Nelson on a strict pitch count and he couldn’t help but find humor in the situation.
“I don’t think [Esquer] knows about that I used to throw that many pitches in high school,” Nelson said. “They pulled me at 75 pitches and I was like, ‘I’m just getting warmed up, coach.’”
As the only San Francisco public-school baseball player currently playing at the Division I level, Nelson still feels as if he is dreaming.
“I actually remember I came out to a catching camp during my junior year at Galileo. I came more as a fan than as a player,” Nelson said. “I still wake up and think, ‘Holy s---, I’m at Berkeley.’ It’s really surreal.”
Their recent success and stature on the team has surprised both, even more because their inclusion on the team was born somewhat out of desperation.
Pitching coach and recruiter Mike Neu joined the program just a year after the university cancelled then reinstated the baseball program within a span of five months, creating a recruiting disaster.
“I came into this situation last year, when the program had been cut two years ago, and we had no pitchers in that class committed,” Neu said. “Coach Esquer said we needed to find some pitchers, and to be honest, the way recruiting is now, guys commit so early, so I was definitely going for a certain profile. The main thing I was going for was guys who are going to be tough, be able to deal with adversity and come in a pitch right away.”
That same profile also fit Neu once upon a time.
The 35-year-old was a 5-foot-10 standout at Vintage High School in Napa, before moving on to Sacramento City College and the University of Miami, where he won a College World Series championship in 1999. He was drafted in the 29th round by the Cincinnati Reds that same year and made 33 appearances in the majors with the A’s and Marlins in 2003-2004 before moving on to coach.
“That’s the kind of guy I was,” Neu said. “I was a short, right-handed pitcher and I had a chance to pitch in the big leagues, and won a national championship at Miami, so maybe that’s something I personally look for a little bit more than most coaches do.”
Like Neu, Monsour and Nelson have far from rocket arms (each have fastballs that average around 87-90 miles per hour), but pound the strike zone and tempt opposing hitters to put the ball in play. Monsour’s fastball moves a bit more, while Nelson has the superior breaking pitch and walks practically no one (he has just two walks in 15 1/3 innings this season).
“Being around the zone, you can rely on guys like that,” said Cal starting catcher Andrew Knapp. “They can go five, six, seven innings and they’re not walking people. They both have done an awesome job stepping into that role.”
Their styles may be similar, but Nelson had to go an extra step to prove himself worthy of a Pac-12 opportunity.
His college career started with a redshirt season at College of San Mateo, then in 2012, he made 19 appearances (two starts) for the Bulldogs and had a 3.50 ERA.
Fourteen of those appearances were scoreless outings, but one awful performance — a nine-run barrage in 1 2/3 innings against De Anza — skewed his numbers.
“There’s definitely that chip on your shoulder, playing in a league like the AAA, without a bunch of Division I talent, that you kinda have to prove yourself twice,” Nelson said. “It is what it is. I had a really good experience at San Mateo. I don’t really have any complaints.”
Nelson was almost entirely brought in to be a reliever at Cal, but both started the season in the bullpen and had mixed results. Nelson was lights-out from the start, allowing just one earned run through his first four appearances (seven innings against Michigan and UC Irvine), while Monsour struggled in his first college outing, allowing two earned runs in 1 2/3 innings against rival Stanford.
“I didn’t feel too nervous, but I probably was,” Monsour said “I was just trying to overthrow and blow it by them when I really didn’t need to.”
Since then, Monsour threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief against UC Irvine, then had his quality start against Houston and allowed two runs in 4 2/3 innings in a start against Fresno State on Saturday. Nelson had his roughest outing a day later, allowing two runs in just two innings against Fresno State in his second collegiate start.
Their sustained success may wane as the 54-game regular season plods along, but for now, the newcomers from across the Bay are riding high and trying to represent The City the best they can.
“We say it after every outing, that we’re holding it down for The City,” Monsour said. “We’re proud of it.”