BERKELEY -- The California baseball team came within one run of No. 9 Oregon on Friday night at Evans Diamond, but instead of an impressive comeback victory over one of the top teams in the Pac-12, the Bears fell, 3-2, to the Ducks.
“We’ve just got to keep finding comfort and relaxation when the level of the game gets to the highest level,” said head coach David Esquer, who’s team has now lost seven of its last eight. “This is the highest-level game we’re going to play, and I think our guys are learning how to be comfortable in that moment, but our comfort level is getting us close; it’s not getting us the win. We want to get to the point where that comfort gets us the win.”
Freshman starter Ryan Mason slogged his way through five innings of work, allowing three runs – all earned – on eight hits, with one walk and just two strikeouts, but the real star of the night was junior side-armer Trevor Hildenberger, who singlehandedly kept Cal (16-17, 5-8 in the Pac-12) in the fight with four perfect innings of work, striking out five of the 12 hitters he faced.
“We just started throwing his change up more, and it’s been really good,” pitching coach Mike Neu said of Hildenberger. “He actually changed a few of the grips on a few of his pitches. We were watching some film on Sergio Romo, because he kind of throws from that same arm slot, and trying to see if we could emulate his stuff a little bit, and he did a really good job and made some nice adjustments tonight. He gave us a chance to win the game.”
Once again, though, it was a disappearing act by the best hitters in the Bears lineup that kept them from an upset win, as Devon Rodriguez and Andrew Knapp combined to go 1-for-8 on the night against a trio of Oregon hurlers.
“They may be trying too hard, knowing the weight of the game may be on their shoulders,” Esquer said. “We can’t make that different. The key for our guys is that this team and our program continues to feel that this is the level that we need complete comfort in -- the highest level of the Pac-12 against the very best people -- and we’ve got to make up that difference. Close is not going to be good enough. We need to close that margin so that we can win those games.”
Rodriguez -- who started at designated hitter instead of first base, due to a sore shoulder -- continued his tailspin, going 0-for-4, and now has just four hits in his last 35 at-bats, while Knapp has just two hits in his last 12 at-bats.
After being staked to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first on a two-out RBI single to right by Mitchell Tolman, Ducks starter Tommy Thorpe -- pitching on a Friday night for the first time this season -- allowed a bunt single to the right side of the mound in the bottom of the first to leadoff hitter Devin Pearson, who advanced to third on an errant pickoff throw by Thorpe and then came around to score on a ground out to second by Rodriguez.
Following the leadoff knock by Pearson – which was perfectly placed midway between the mound and first, hallway up the first base line – Thorpe did not allow a hit until a leadoff double by shortstop Mike Reuvekamp in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Before that, though, the Ducks broke through in the top of the fifth against Mason -- who won his first four decisions before dropping the opener of last weekend’s series against Arizona.
With the game tied 1-1, Mason got ahead 0-2 on catcher Josh Graham, but then surrendered a 2-2 hooking line drive down the right field line for a leadoff double. The next hitter – center fielder Connor Hoffman -- then looped the first pitch he saw from Mason into left center field. Speedy freshman Pearson, though, was on his horse, and laid out parallel to the ground to make the diving snag. Pearson then alertly popped up and fired to third to try and cut down Graham, who had tagged up with designs on advancing. The throw was just a hair too late, though, putting the tie-breaking run 90 feet away.
Shortstop J.J. Altobelli took a fastball for a called strike, and then watched as a slider missed low and away. Mason then fired his patented sinking fastball, but with the infield drawn in, the grounder he wanted to get was just too quick for second baseman Brenden Farney to handle, as it skipped under the sophomore infielder’s mitt and into right for an RBI single to make it 2-1, Oregon.
“Not great stuff,” Esquer said of Mason’s outing., in which his power sinker lacked its normal bite as he showed a decided lack of fastball command. “I’ve not been happy with his stuff. It doesn’t give him much margin for error. He’s got to be right on and he’s got to trick the bat a little bit, and nowadays, the game on a Friday night, you usually beat the bat up, not trick the bat. He’s been relying on tricking the bat a little bit, and that’s obviously not indicative of where you want to be on a Friday night.”
Following a double by veteran Brett Thomas to put men at second and third, second baseman Aaron Payne looped a fly ball to shallow left, where true freshman Grant Diede got a running start in order to make the grab and throw Altobelli out at the dish. Diede made the catch, sure enough, but his throw – which looked to be well on line to the plate -- was cut off by a leaping Chris Paul, allowing what proved to be the winning run to score as Paul tried to throw Thomas out at third, unsuccessfully.
In the top of the sixth, on came side-arming Hildenberger, who used his newly-added change up to great effect. After striking out third baseman Mitchell Tolman on a called strike three over the outside corner, right fielder Scott Heinemann ran into his own bunted ball as he broke out of the box for the second out, and Hildenberger used a fastball-slider mix to sit down designated hitter Tyler Baumgartner on five pitches.
“I think it is the X-factor for him,” Neu said of Hildenberger’s change. “It gives him a third pitch. It makes him viable against left-handed hitters, and he’s actually been throwing it right-on-right, so I think it gives him that other pitch that he can really use in any situation.”
Reuvekamp led off the bottom of the sixth with a double and was then sacrificed over to third by Pearson for the heart of the order. With the count 1-1, Thorpe’s third pitch -- a slider -- dove down and in, kicking off of Graham’s cleat and to the right. For a moment, Graham and Reuvekamp both froze, but as the junior shortstop realized that Graham had no idea where the ball was, he sprinted home to cut the lead to 3-2. After that, though, Farney was rung up on a called fastball at the knees that ran back over the inside corner, and Rodriguez flew out weakly to center on a breaking ball.
Hildenberger continued to deal, fanning Graham and Hoffman on a breaker and a change, respectively, before inducing a groundout to second from Altobelli.
“He looked good,” Esquer said. “We may have to extend him out. He may be an option for us for a little bit longer, as we look for starting pitching. He looked very good, and we needed that. He held us right there. We had runners touching second base a couple times, and we couldn’t score them. That’s the difference.”
Again with a leadoff man on in the bottom of the seventh and no outs in the person of Knapp, Cal failed to execute. After pinch hitter Brian Celsi laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Knapp to second, both Diede and Paul struck out swinging on high fastballs for the fifth and sixth K’s of the night for Thorpe, who earned his fifth win thanks to 7.1 innings of three-hit ball, allowing two runs -- one earned --with three walks and seven strikeouts.
Hildenberger faced a bit of a scary moment in the top of the ninth with one out, when Heinemann lined the junior righty’s 2-1 offering right back through the box and off of Hildenberger’s lower right back. Luckily for the Bears, though, Paul was alertly breaking in and was able to glove the ricochet on a bounce and fire to first for the second out. Hildenberger then retired Baumgartner on three pitches with a groundout to first.
Hildenberger needed just 48 pitches to get through his five perfect frames.
For all Hildenberger’s efforts, though, the Cal offense could never find a toe-hold, as the Bears struck out nine times and worked just three walks.
Oregon closer Jimmie Sherfy came on in the bottom of the ninth for a perfect inning of work, striking out Rodriguez on three pitches while earning his 10th save of the season.
Cal next takes the field on Saturday at 6 p.m., still seeking its first home win under the newly-installed lights. With senior lefty Justin Jones sitting out his turn in the rotation after four poor outings in a row -- in which he’s allowed a total of 11 earned runs on 25 hits in just 14.2 innings of work – Esquer said that the Bears will go with a right-hander on Saturday, although it is yet to be determined who will go. A likely candidate is sophomore Keaton Siomkin or sophomore JuCo transfer Dylan Nelson.
After being blasted 70-31 in their first 11 games against ranked teams, the Bears have played reigning national champion Arizona and now Oregon close over the past three games, falling by an average of just 1.33 runs per game.
“As a program, we need to make sure that, with our young kids and as much inexperience as we have, I want our guys to not feel like their best game is a close game,” Esquer said. “I want them to keep growing. This is the level where they need to be comfortable at, that they could play this way consistently. It’s not a big reach to be close. If you’re reaching and you’re close and you’re losing, that’s not good enough. I want guys to walk away from these games maybe taking some lumps, but growing, so that next time, we’re more comfortable playing the Arizonas and the Oregons, and that they continue to understand that this is the level of comfort that has to be ordinary for them:
After a 7-0 start at home, including four straight walk-offs to start the home schedule, the Bears have now fallen in three of their last four in Berkeley.
“The competition is better,” Esquer said. “I don’t think they’re necessarily judging the uniform, but the level of game picks up. The margin for error is smaller. You’ve got to be comfortable playing games where the margin for error is small. You can’t play scared. You’ve got to be comfortable and relaxed instead of trying harder not to make the mistake. For our inexperience, this is a push for us. It’s places you can’t give it to them. They’ve got to go through it. The cream will rise. Those who are able to do that will emerge with that comfort level.
“There’s some encouraging signs, but you want to make sure that if you can only get up to that level, you’ve got to break through the barrier. I’m encouraged by how we’re playing, but we’ve got to break through the barrier.”