After dropping two of three in the Houston College Classic this weekend, the California baseball team set to work on Monday trying to get a bad taste out of its mouth against old foe Rice, but despite the emergence of sophomore JuCo transfer Dylan Nelson as a legitimate option on the hill, the Bears dropped a 1-0 decision to the No. 19 Owls on a walk-off RBI single by sophomore Ford Stainback with one out in the bottom of the ninth at Reckling Park.
Nelson -- who had few options after a strong freshman season at the College of San Mateo -- was a late pick-up for Cal (5-7) after the summer wood bat league season, and after posting a 1.23 ERA in 7.1 innings of relief work in four appearances, took the mound as a starter for the first time on Monday, tossing 6.0 innings of shutout ball, allowing six hits and one walk while striking out two.
Nelson wriggled off the hook in the bottom of the second, escaping a two-on, one-out jam with a tailor-made double play grounder off the bat of freshman center fielder Leon Byrd. Nelson then retired the next seven batters he faced before surrendering a single to senior catcher Geoff Perott in the bottom of the fifth. Nelson then got the next two hitters out on fly balls, and through five complete, Cal and Rice were still scoreless.
Nelson walked junior Keenan Cook to lead off the bottom of the sixth, and then surrendered a bunt single to senior second baseman Christian Stringer. Both runners advanced on a sacrifice bunt up the first base line by freshman third baseman Connor Teykl, but Nelson then clutched up and got junior designated hitter Michael Aquino to pop out to short, and induced a weak groundout to first by sophomore Skyler Ewing.
The Bears threatened in the top of the seventh, when second baseman Mike Reuvekamp reached on an error by Teykl and was bunted over to second on a sacrifice by designated hitter Devon Rodriguez. Catcher Andrew Knapp -- who socked his second home run of the season on Sunday in a 13-2 win over Houston – grounded out to second, moving Reuvekamp over to third for right fielder Jacob Wark. After starting the season on a seven-game hitting streak, during which he hit 9-for-25 (.360), Wark had gone just 4-for-15 (.267) over the last four games and was 0-for-2 as he stepped to the plate with a man on third and two outs against starter Chase McDowell.
Wark anticlimactically struck out against the junior righty, giving Rice new life. In the bottom of the seventh, junior side-armer Trevor Hildenberger fanned leadoff man Michael Ratteree, then surrendered a Perrott single up the middle before sitting Byrd down on strikes. Stainback then worked a walk to spell the end for Hildenberger, bringing on struggling lefty Kyle Porter.
After starting the season as the Bears’ No. 2 weekend arm, Porter has gone just 5.1 innings in two starts, with a 10.12 ERA, and did not start in Houston during the tournament at the Astros’ Minute Maid Park.
Nevertheless, head coach David Esquer called upon the lefty junkballer to end the Rice threat in the seventh against the left-handed swinging Cook, and Porter answered the bell, retiring the junior left fielder on strikes.
Cal once again had a chance to break through in the top of the eighth, after shortstop Chris Paul led off with a single through the left side. Second baseman Brenden Farney -- who went 4-for-5 on Sunday against the Cougars – sacrificed Paul over to second, but true freshman first baseman Mitchell Kranson -- who endured a 2-for-12 weekend against UC Irvine – flied out to left, and fellow 2012 signee Brian Celsi -- who started the season on a 6-for-13 tear, but came into Monday on a 3-for-17 slide -- grounded out to second.
After a leadoff single in the top of the ninth by true freshman center fielder Devin Pearson -- who took over in the seventh on Sunday when starter Derek Campbell exited with a leg injury – Reuvekamp sacrificed him to second for the heart of the order, but Rodriguez and Knapp both grounded out, stranding the speedy outfielder at third.
Senior right-handed reliever Ryan Wertenberger started off the bottom of the ninth well, getting Ratteree to fly out to center, but then allowed back-to-back singles by Perrott and Byrd. With sophomore John Williamson on to run for Perrott, Wertenberger allowed a single through the right side by Stainback, knocking in the game’s decisive -- and only -- run.
After going 2-8 on its season-long 10-game road trip, featuring seven games against four ranked teams, Cal now returns home for a four-game set against Fresno State (3-7), which is coming off a 14-3 win over USC to take their weekend series in the Valley. The Bulldogs are 0-4 on the road thus far this season, while the Bears are 3-0, with all three wins coming in the first weekend of the season on a sweep of visiting Michigan.
First pitch for Cal’s four-game set against Fresno State is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday at Evans Diamond.
Odds are strong that the Bears’ weekend rotation will be overhauled, with just five games left before Cal starts conference play. Justin Jones, Porter and Michael Theofanopoulos have gone 5.0 innings or more in exactly one start this season, and only twice this season have Bears starters gone into the sixth inning -- once on Sunday (freshman Collin Monsour) and once on Monday.
Monsour, Nelson and 6-foot-7 sinker specialist Ryan Mason could be on track to get the starting nods this weekend, in addition to Jones, who has gone 4.0 innings in each of his last two starts.