BERKELEY -- For nearly 40 minutes after California’s 9-5 loss to USC on Friday night, Bears head coach David Esquer took his three veteran hurlers – starter Justin Jones and relievers Logan Scott and Kyle Porter -- to task in shallow right field. The trio gave up eight earned runs on 13 hits and two walks in 7.1 innings of work on Friday, as the Trojans (11-15, 4-4 in the Pac-12) clinched a series win in the second-ever night game at Evans Diamond.
“Those guys have been with us at the height of our program, and that’s basically who SC beat tonight,” Esquer said. “I was just reminding them of where they’ve been and what they mean to our program. We have high expectations for how they perform.”
The 4.1-inning start from Jones was particularly vexing for Esquer, who saw his senior lefty sail through the first three innings before the Trojans lined up four straight two out hits in the top of the fourth to tie the game up, after Cal (15-12, 4-4) sprinted out to an early 3-0 lead thanks to a first-inning two-run homer by catcher Andrew Knapp and a passed ball in the bottom of the second to bring home Brenden Farney.
“They’ve done a good job of not giving in, and they’re not just going to let us win,” Esquer said. “The thing that’s rattling our team a little bit – which is unusual, because we’ve played good people – I get the sense that they just wish they’d go away, and I know Dan [Hubbs, USC head coach], and shoot, we’ve coached together for years, and they ain’t going away. That’s unnerved us a little bit, which is unusual. Our league is tough, and everybody is capable of beating everybody. We just have to counteract that.”
After re-taking the lead in the bottom of the fourth on a two-out RBI single to right off the bat of freshman Devin Pearson, USC put up another three-spot in the top of the fifth, thanks to back-to-back one-out singles from Greg Zebrack and Adam Landecker followed by a perfectly-executed hit-and-run play with shortstop Blake Lacey, who laced an RBI single to right field to knot things back up at 4-4.
Scott then came on and allowed a sacrifice fly off the bat of third baseman James Roberts, a second-pitch soft single to A.J. Ramirez down the right field line on yet another hit-and-run and a botched exchange by Knapp as he tried to throw out Ramirez at second which allowed a run to score -- the second of four errors on the game for the Bears.
“It sounds cliché, but it’s lucky baseball,” Knapp said of the relentless hit-and-run attack. “If one of those pitches in the dirt, or one of those pitches is a ball and they don’t make contact, we’re throwing guys out. Not really much you can do about it. It’s just good job by them to put the ball in play. I think what we’ve got to work on, defensively, is just not making so many errors and giving them extra opportunities. We have them five, six outs in an inning, and there’s no doubt that they’re going to score runs.”
Over the first three innings, Cal scored three runs on three hits, while holding USC scoreless with one hit and two strikeouts. Over the final six innings, the Bears managed just one run on four hits, while the Trojans piled up nine runs on 11 hits.
“We’ve got such a young group, and I think, at times, the constancy of the game -- and one of my fears was that they would fatigue as far as how much concentration it takes to play at a high level, and we’ve played at a high level, maybe beyond our means -- but I think the constancy of that level, I’ve always feared that they would fatigue and just want it to be easy, and it’s never going to be easy,” Esquer said. “It’s never going to be easy for us, not yet.”
As pitching and defense floundered, Cal’s offense went silent against starter Wyatt Strahan.
“He was just doing a good job throwing all of his pitches for strikes,” Knapp said. “We’ve been hitting the ball hard lately, just right at people.”
After allowing three runs, one hit batsman, three hits and one walk over his first two innings of work, Strahan settled down to allow just one more run and one more hit over the next four innings, as Cal stranded four runners on base.
“They wanted to take him out, but we never gave them a reason to take him out,” said Esquer. “Their guy was warming up for two innings, and it was, ‘If you’re just going to keep getting them out, go out for another one.’”
When Strahan did exit, things didn’t get any better for the Bears, as reliever Brent Wheatley -- younger brother of Thursday’s starter Bob Wheatley -- allowed just one run on one hit and one walk over the next three innings, striking out two.
Cal mounted a rally in the bottom of the ninth, with a leadoff walk by Brian Celsi, an 0-2 fastball that hit Pearson in the bill of his helmet (no lingering effects) and an infield single by Mike Reuvekamp loading the bases for slugger Devon Rodriguez.
Coming into the series, Rodriguez was hitting .500 against the Trojans in his career (6-for-12) with one home run, five RBI and three runs scored. After a 1-for-4 day on Thursday night, Rodriguez was wearing the 0-for-4 collar coming into his ninth-inning appearance against the younger Wheatley. After getting behind 0-2, Rodriguez threw the bat head out to catch an outside off-speed pitch, but grounded into a 6-4 force, reaching first as a run scored to make it 9-5.
Rodriguez is now 1-for-9 over the past two games, with one run and one driven in.
“We had chances for the dagger and it was in the hands of our most important player,” Esquer said. “Devon didn’t come through. I’m looking at, hey, they got all those two-out hits, and they had to face Devon with the bases loaded and two outs. We had those same opportunities. We’re just not cashing them in.”
Freshman Mitchell Kranson -- after taking over for Knapp behind the plate in the eighth – then stepped to the plate and flied out weakly to shallow left center, not deep enough to score Pearson, and right fielder Jacob Wark put an end to the proceedings with a two-hopper to Landecker for the 4-3 put-out.
Cal and USC hook up again on Saturday at noon on the Pac-12 Networks, with the Bears trying to avoid their first sweep at the hands of a conference foe since May 11-13 of last season, when they fell in three straight to Arizona.
“We held back [Keaton] Siomkin and [Dylan] Nelson a little bit, and we’re going to need them both,” Esquer said of Saturday’s potential starting pitcher. “Neither one of them is necessarily equipped to go six or seven. We’ll have [Chris] Muse-Fisher available. We’ve got to piece it together.”
Whoever takes the bump will square off with freshman lefty Kyle Twomey (2-2, 3.86 ERA), who has six starts in seven appearances, with 24 strikeouts in 35.0 innings of work this season.