Sun Devils Out-Slug Bears

After coming back from a six-run deficit to take a 9-6 lead, California falls late to slugging Arizona State in a heartbreaker at Evans Diamond.

BERKELEY -- After allowing six runs on six hits, three errors, a walk, a stolen base and a wild pitch over the first two and a half innings, the California baseball team came in following the top of the third to a tongue lashing, courtesy of head coach David Esquer.

"He told us it was the worst we'd played all season," said third baseman Mitchell Kranson. "Somehow, that motivated us. We started off with a good pitch by Devin Pearson, and it was hit-hit-hit after that."

The Bears were down, 6-0, against No. 13 Arizona State, and, to say the least, things looked bleak. Then, Cal exploded for six runs on six hits and one Sun Devils error -- the Bears' second-biggest inning of the season -- in the bottom of the frame, and shot ahead with a three-run fourth, fighting back against one of the best teams in the land, before eventually falling, 10-9, thanks to two late-inning homers by Kasey Coffman and James McDonald.

"We grew up a little bit tonight, as we did yesterday," Esquer said. "It's a painful lesson, because you want to put that game away. They had nothing going, and obviously not enough firepower at the end of our bullpen to get it done."

Cal (22-27, 10-16) throttled 10-0 Arizona State freshman lefty Ryan Kellog for seven hits and six runs in 2.2 innings, and torched reliever Alex Blackford for three runs on two hits and a walk.

After a gutty 6.0 innings of work from junior righty Trevor Hildenberger (6 runs, 2 earned, on 8 hits and one walk with six strikeouts), though, right-handed reliever Keaton Siomkin surrendered a two-out, three-run blast to Coffman in the top of the eighth, and fifth-year senior Logan Scott served up an 0-1 solo shot to McDonald over the Edwards Track Stadium grandstand to lead off the top of the ninth for the winning margin.

"We did him no favors early in the game," Esquer said of Hildenberger, who has spent much of the year as a reliever, before being pressed into duty as a Saturday starter over the past several weeks. "We just couldn't make a play behind him. He did a nice job of settling down and gave us three more innings. I thought he did a nice job. We got the lead back for him and he held the line a little bit. Had he been able to go longer, I think he could have held them, but he just kind of ran out of steam."

All but one Bears starter tallied at least one hit, with freshman center fielder Pearson going 3-for-4 and reaching base four of his five times at the dish. Junior first baseman Devon Rodriguez -- who had been on a precipitous slide for much of the year due to a lingering shoulder injury -- went 2-for-5 with two runs and one RBI, and has now hit safely in four of his last five games, going 8-for-21 (.381) with six RBI and one home run during the stretch.

"I'm just trying to focus and take it one at-bat at a time, and honestly, just do whatever I can to give us the best chance to win," said Rodriguez.

Blow by Blow

Rodriguez was a big part of the six-run third, sending a 1-0 line-drive single to right to drive in junior catcher Andrew Knapp -- aboard with an RBI double. Kranson -- who went 2-for-3 on the night with a run and an RBI -- then went down 0-2 against left-handed Canadian freshman Kellogg before working the count full and banging a hanging curve into right center to cut the lead to 6-3.

"I swear, I've been down 0-2 every at-bat the last few weeks," Kranson said. "But, I'm seeing the ball. I'm not chasing, which is good. I'm feeling comfortable. I'm feeling very good."

Kranson has now gone 11-for-29 with four runs, five RBIs and four doubles over his last eight games, helping to erase his 4-for-29 (.138) start to the season.

"I definitely feel like me, right now, hitting," Kranson said. "The beginning of the season was awful. It was bad."

After a sacrifice bunt by shortstop Chris Paul -- who committed two of the Bears' three errors -- moved Kranson and Rodriguez to second and third, freshman first baseman Nick Halamandaris lined the first pitch he saw into shallow right to a sliding Trever Allen. Rodriguez used the uncertainty as to whether Allen got leather underneath the ball to tag up and score, as Allen's off-line throw to the plate allowed Kranson to take third. After a walk to freshman left fielder Max Dutto, redshirt freshman Brian Celsi sent an inside-out liner into left to bring Cal within one, down 6-5.

Kellogg was then lifted for reliever Eric Melbostad, who promptly served up a line-drive single to right by Pearson -- who led off the inning by taking a pitch in the left arm -- to score Dutto and tie the game.

"[Kellogg] started to leave some pitches up, and I think collectively, we were frustrated with how we were playing," Rodriguez said. "It was kind of embarrassing, to say the least, the first three innings. Eskie pulled us over and told us, ‘Either show up or just go home,' because it was embarrassing. I think we responded well. I liked how we responded. He told us it was embarrassing, and let's see how you respond."

Hildenberger -- sitting on 63 pitches -- then needed just 10 tosses to get the Sun Devils in order in the top of the fourth, keeping momentum firmly in the home dugout.

Knapp led off the bottom of the fourth with a walk, and was singled to third by Rodriguez. With a 1-1 count, Kranson then laid down a bunt up the first base line. First baseman Dalton DiNatale charged, gloved the roller, wheeled and fired low to first. Second baseman McDonald covered the bag, but took the short hop into his chest, and was unable to maintain possession, allowing Kranson to reach and loading the bases for Paul.

"I kind of deeked out the pitcher, because I first tried to bunt it down the first base line, then the third base line and I got it down to first," Kranson said. "As I was touching the bag, I saw the ball bounce and it looked like it hit the guy in the stomach. I knew I was safe, because it didn't look like it was in his glove. Ruben [Noriega, first base coach] thought it was in his jersey, but there was no way that umpire saw it. I saw the home plate umpire run out and it looked like he wanted to make a call, and I knew he was going to call something good for us."

Blackford's first pitch to the Bears shortstop was a slider low and away, kicking off the foot of catcher Max Rossiter and bouncing all the way to the Arizona State on-deck circle, bringing Knapp home to score and putting Cal in front by one. Five pitches later, Paul reached out and yanked a slider away back up the middle for a run-scoring single to put the Bears up by two.

6-foot-9 reliever Adam McCreery then came on and struck out Halamandaris, but not before uncorking a wild pitch, allowing Paul to move to second. Dutto – the only Bears starter to not record a hit – grounded a 2-1 curve to the right side, but DiNatale alertly threw home to catch the slow-running Kranson in a pickle. Kranson was tagged out, but hung up long enough for Paul to move to third. McCreery's first pitch to Celsi squirted through Rossiter, allowing Paul to come around to score, putting Cal up by three.

Hildenberger sailed through the next two innings, thanks in large part to some big defensive plays. In the top of the sixth, with one on and one out, left fielder Jake Peevyhouse sent a chopper up the first base line and into right, but Celsi was able to cut the ball off before it reached the corner to hold Drew Stankiewicz at third. Hildenberger then got a routine groundout from Michael Benjamin to escape the jam on his 93rd pitch of the night.

In the top of the seventh, it was Dutto's turn to contribute with the leather, as he laid out to make an awkward, rolling, shoe-top grab on a soft liner to left off the bat of McDonald. Siomkin then fanned Rossiter and got pinch hitter Nathaniel Causey to ground out to first.

The Bears got two singles in the bottom of the seventh from Celsi and Pearson, but Celsi was picked off after going on McCreery's first motion and Pearson was erased trying to steal, 1-3-6.

With Scott warming in the pen, Siomkin surrendered a groundball single through the left side to Allen to lead off the eighth, and after striking out pinch hitter Rouric Bridgewater on a slider down and in, allowed a line-drive single to right by Stankiewicz. Peevyhouse flied out to right on the first pitch he saw, and Siomkin got ahead of Coffman 2-2, but the sophomore righty then left a fastball up, and Coffman – who came into the game hitting .316 with five homers – sent a soaring drive to right, over the grandstand for a three-run job.

"Coach [Mike] Neu liked the match-up better, because he thought [Siomkin] had more pitches to get Coffman out," Esquer said. "He was going in, and he didn't get there."

Cal got two men on with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, but Paul struck out swinging to end the threat.

McDonald's second-pitch solo shot off of Scott in the top of the ninth on a firm change up put the Sun Devils ahead for good, and cost the senior his third loss of the year, just over 24 hours after he secured his fourth win of the season on Friday night.

"We came out and played poorly in a number of ways," Esquer. "Nick didn't catch a throw on a ball that Chris threw on a line. That was unfortunate to play that badly, but again, to turn it around and be able to play better after that was a sign of some growth."

"It showed a lot about our team," Kranson said. "Next year, if we can have that energy to come back, down six against a top-15 team, we should be alright."

Notes

Rodriguez confirmed after the game that he will return next season for his fifth year in Berkeley, and despite the pain in his right shoulder, has shown heart in struggling through what has been a tough year at the plate.

"It's safe to say that, odds are, I'll be back," Rodriguez said. "It hasn't gone the way I like, but it's baseball. My teammates have been there for me. Coach has been there for me, and honestly, I'm just doing whatever I can to help us win.

"I went through that whole pretty bad spell in the middle of the season, and for me, I have pride. Hurt or not, I don't want to play that bad, and if I'm going to be in the lineup, I want to do something to help the team win. I'd say I'm trying to go out on a good note, at least, and take the momentum into next year."

Rodriguez has been helped by Pearson hitting behind him in the five-hole, but on Saturday, Esquer moved the speedy Pearson back up to the top of the lineup and batted Kranson fifth.

"Initially I did it only because we were facing a left-hander, and I didn't really match-up like that, but Kranson is holding his own a little bit more now, so he's someone who can hit behind Devon and lets me keep Pearson at the top," Esquer said.

On Deck

Cal and Arizona State square off in the rubber match of the three-game series on Sunday at noon, and Esquer said that, much like the Sun Devils, the Bears will air out the rest of the staff with no set Sunday starter.

"I was thinking [Dylan] Nelson, but we've got him hot two days in a row, and I think he's kind of fading a little bit," Esquer said. "I think his arm's dropping and he's a little flat, so I don't think he's got a whole lot left in him."

Sophomore lefty Chris Muse-Fisher is not on the roster for the weekend, and is not eligible to pitch after struggling through a trying season, going 1-2 with an 8.84 ERA in 18.1 innings over 15 appearances with two starts.

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