BERKELEY -- For five innings on Sunday, the California baseball team was locked in a tense pitchers duel between senior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos and Texas righty Nathan Thornhill, but then, in a matter of three hitters, that all changed, as the No. 18 Longhorns sent seven men to the plate in the top of the sixth, scoring three runs en route to a 5-0 win.
“When I released it, I kind of knew that I made a bad pitch,” said Theofanopoulos, who left a fastball up for freshman Zane Gurwitz, who promptly crushed it off the mural of Jon Zuber beyond the left field wall. “It just ran right into his bat, can’t really do anything about it. I wish I would have come out a little stronger after that, but it is what it is.”
Gurwitz’s shot – his first collegiate hit after going 0-for-7 previously in the series – shook Theofanopoulos enough to allow a seven-pitch walk to Brooks Marlow.
“The kid has some power, has some life in his bat. We were beating up his bat a little bit away, but I think the ball leaked out over the middle, middle-in part of the plate and pitched right into his strength,” said head coach David Esquer. “We’d been pitching him pretty tough, getting him behind in his swing, but you could tell that even on his outs, there was a little life in that bat. You had to be careful. He’s in there for a reason.”
Theofanopoulos was then lifted for right-hander Keaton Siomkin in order to face hot-hitting Mark Payton.
Payton – a 5-foot-8, 190-pound senior – came into the at-bat hitting 7-for-14 on the series, and he promptly slugged Siomkin’s 1-1 offering into the right center field gap for an RBI triple – a marked departure from Longhorns coach Auggie Garrido’s bunt-centric philosophy.
“(Theofanopoulos) was doing fine, but after a home run and a walk, obviously they did a good job -- in a situation we thought they would bunt, they tripled,” said head coach David Esquer. “They got two for one there. We thought they were going to play for one there, and they got two, and that’s a big part of the game. Payton had a hell of a weekend. I think he had nine or 10 hits, and he’s their guy.”
Esquer was not tempted to leave Theofanopoulos in – though the redshirt junior had only thrown 65 pitches and wanted to finish the game, if he could – because of the wealth of bullpen options the Bears had available.
“Solid for five, five solid, but again, on a Sunday, your Sunday starter doesn’t have as long a leash as all the other guys, because you know what you have left in the pen,” Esquer said. “If we were void of any arms in the pen, we’d have let him go longer because of necessity, but (Trevor) Hildenberger hadn’t pitched, and we thought Keaton would come back stronger after maybe only seven or eight pitches (on Friday), and we still had Erceg, so we had a bit of a shorter leash, and after the home run and the walk, we felt like, ‘Hey, they’ve got some right-handers coming up, and they probably will bunt him over to get another guy in scoring position. Unfortunately, they outsmarted us and tripled instead and got two runs out of it.”
But, Cal’s troubles didn’t end with that triple. A sacrifice fly by C.J. Hinojosa finished off the three-run inning, as Hildenberger came on to fan Andy McGuire and get a one-pitch soft grounder to second by Jeremy Montalbano to end the inning.
Texas would add another two runs in the top of the seventh against Hildenberger, when Gurwitz sent a grounder passed third and into left for a single, and then back-to-back lefties Marlow and Payton each came up with singles of their own to score the final two tallies.
The worst part for Cal? The Bears had a chance to break the game wide open in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs, Cal sandwiched two walks around a single by Brenden Farney to load the bases for redshirt freshman Jesse Kay. Kay – starting his third game behind the dish, with a 1-for-8 mark at the plate – quickly got down 0-2, and on the fifth offering from Thornhill, sent an easy bouncer to the right side of the infield for the 1-3 put-out.
Esquer could have subbed Kay out for the stronger bat of Mitchell Kranson, but since the curveball is such a big part of Theofanopoulos’ game, he elected to keep the better blocker in, rather than sacrifice defense for a bit of punch.
“You know, possibly, but at that point, it’s such a close game, with Theo still behind there, who has a tendency to throw the ball in the dirt, I didn’t want to, maybe, if we weren’t going to get a hit, give up the game defensively somehow,” Esquer said. “Right now, his blocking is better, and Theo throws the ball in the dirt a lot.”
But, as Theofanopoulos said, the Longhorns weren’t biting on that curve in the dirt.
It didn’t help much that Devin Pearson and Devon Rodriguez led off the inning with two quick outs, and went a combined 0-for-7 on the day, as Cal eked out just four hits – two of them from senior Vince Bruno. Bruno finished the series 5-for-9.
While Payton solidified his reputation as the guy for the Longhorns, the middle of the Cal order was rather guy-bereft, with sluggers Rodriguez and Nick Halamandaris going a collective 5-for-30 (.167) in the four-game series. Leadoff man Derek Campbell, on the other hand, has been on fire, going 5-for-16 with three doubles and three runs scored.
Esquer said it was a possibility that he could move Campbell down in the order to bolster the middle of the lineup, but there are other concerns.
“Possibly, but to be honest, we don’t have anybody who is a Pac-12 No. 3 hitter on our roster,” Esquer said. “I don’t know who that is. We’re literally just going to give them at-bats and if somebody emerges, where they can be a No. 3 Pac-12 hitter, we hope that happens. You let Devin do that, and hopefully he’s just an offensive player that can push, drag and get some base hits. Derek Campbell hasn’t even had an offensive year, yet. He’s certainly capable. He is capable of being a No. 3 guy, but he’s got to do it. He’s got to do it. We’re just trying to get some guys at-bats and see if they fall into a role.”
Over the next week, that’s what will occupy the Bears staff, as Cal prepares to embark on a seven-game road trip stretching until March 3, split between the Tiger Classic in Auburn, Ala., and the University of San Diego Tournament down in Southern California. The Bears will next be back at home on Tues., March 4, hosting Stanford – which dropped two of three to No. 15 Rice this weekend – before the revived Cal Baseball Classic – last held in 2011 – commences on March 7.
Freshman Lucas Erceg tossed the final two innings on Sunday – his first two innings pitched of his college career. He allowed just one walk and didn’t allow a single hit or a run.
“He’s not scared. The one thing that’s really evident in his body language on the field is he’s not timid and he’s not scared. He acts like he belongs, and he’s going to do something for us. I’m not going to let him sit on the rail for three games and just watch. He’s either going to pitch or he’s going to find a way onto the field.”