BERKELEY – For the second day in a row, a ninth-inning home run proved to be the difference between California and No. 13 Arizona State, as the Sun Devils beat back comeback after comeback by the Bears to escape Berkeley with a 10-7 victory and a series win, after a three-game set that saw two squads separated by seven losses in the Pac-12 standings wind up separated by a total of just two runs on the field.
"We're definitely playing much better baseball now; We're hitting the ball, we haven't avoided the big inning, pitching, but a team like that, 13th in the nation, we hung in there and really should have won all three games. That says a lot about where we're going. It shows the heart of this team, because we could easily give up at this point, and we're not. We're fighting to the end," said junior lefty Kyle Porter, who took the loss after walking Dalton DiNatale to lead off the top of the ninth with the game tied 6-6.
Porter was lifted with a 1-1 count on Kasey Coffman for sophomore Eric Walbridge, who then surrendered a single to Michael Benjamin, got the dangerous James McDonald to pop out and then allowed an infield single to deep short by catcher Max Rossiter before serving up a first-pitch grand slam to designated hitter Nathaniel Causey for the decisive blow.
"I think, overall, to come out on a Sunday and punch back after allowing four in the first, we just couldn't get over the hump," said head coach David Esquer. "It's kind of a microcosm of the whole season. That hump was there for us to get over. Second and third with one out, bases loaded, that hump was there, but we haven't done it. We haven't pushed to the other side yet. It's indicative of the battle we're fighting as a group, but we're getting better."
Cal (22-28, 10-17 in the Pac-12) saw four players notch multi-hit days, including a 3-for-5 day from catcher Andrew Knapp, a 3-for-4 day from second baseman Brenden Farney, a 2-for-4 day from freshman Mitchell Kranson and a 2-for-4 day from freshman center fielder Devin Pearson, with all but one starter registering at least one base hit as the Bears out-hit their guests, 13-9.
The Berkeley Nine got behind the eight ball early, though when senior righty Ryan Wertenberger -- getting the first start of his career -- recorded just one out in a four-run first, walking three, uncorking a wild pitch and allowing two groundball singles to Arizona State (32-15-1, 14-10).
The Bears came back with one run in the bottom of the second on a leadoff single by Kranson -- who went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI to lift his average to .276 after a 4-for-10 weekend -- a sacrifice bunt by Chris Paul and a hard grounder through the legs of first baseman Rouric Bridgewater off the bat of freshman Max Dutto.
Cal crept closer in the bottom of the third thanks to a two-run homer off the bat of designated hitter Devon Rodriguez (his seventh of the year), but the 2-1 shot to right center could have tied the game up, were it not for Farney -- on board with a no-out, one-on single -- getting thrown out trying to go from first to third on a single through the right side by Knapp.
"Obviously, you want to play aggressively," Esquer said. "You want to go for it. You don't want to just try to limp on in. It's tough. They throw very well from the outfield, obviously. They threw us out a couple of times. In retrospect, with that home run, it was a big play."
Righty reliever Dylan Nelson -- who got the final out in Friday's 3-1 win -- allowed a run with one out in the top of the fourth, giving up a triple to center to Drew Stankiewicz after a nine-pitch at-bat and then an RBI groundout to short by left fielder Jake Peevyhouse, putting the Sun Devils up, 5-3.
"They're a good team," said Nelson, who allowed two runs on four hits with three strikeouts. "If you make your pitches, you can get them out, but they do take advantage of mistakes. It's just about limiting those.
"We're getting down to the end of the season. There's nothing to save anything for, so I'd pitch every day if I could. There's no problems there."
The Bears struck back in the bottom of the frame, though, as Paul ripped a 2-1 fastball off the top of the RSF in left for his team-leading eighth home run of the season to once again bring Cal within a run. Freshman first baseman Nick Halamandaris then sent a line drive to left center for a single, and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Dutto, prompting Arizona State head coach Tim Esmay to pull starter Zak Miller in favor of reliever Darin Gillies.
Gillies's third pitch to freshman right fielder Brian Celsi was ripped up the line to first, but Bridgewarter could not keep the low liner in his mitt, allowing Halamandaris to advance to third as he stepped on the bag to retire the speedy slap hitter.
With the count 0-1 to Pearson, Gillies fired a slider low and away for a wild pitch, allowing Halamandaris to trot home to tie the game.
Arizona State added a run in the top of the fifth, as Benjamin crushed his seventh home of the season on a first-pitch hanging breaker from Nelson.
"I felt like I made two mistakes, and they hurt me," Nelson said. "We could have had a lead in the seventh inning, and it might have been a different feel to the game."
In the bottom of the frame, Farney took a pitch in the right shoulder, Knapp sent a hard grounder off the first base bag and into right, putting runners at the corners for Rodriguez, who was 1-for-2 on the day and 4-for-11 on the series. Rodriguez, though, swung at the first pitch and flied out to short left.
"Devon is playing on one arm, and when the guy's rushing it up there at 95, his decision point is way out. He has to decide so early to try to generate it and get it going," Esquer said. "Maybe with a mid-level pitcher at 87-88 he can kind of be the same guy. Probably at 94 is really going to magnify his injury."
Kranson picked up the slack, sending a sacrifice fly out to short left center to tie the game at 6-6. Cal continued to press after Paul took a dose and Halamandaris worked a four-pitch walk, but Dutto was caught looking at strike three on the outside corner, hanging his head as home plate umpire Anthony Norris rang him up.
Cal threatened in the bottom of the sixth after a quick, 11-pitch inning from Nelson, putting runners at the corners after a four-pitch walk to Pearson and an 0-2 single to left center by Farney, but Knapp jumped at the first pitch and sent a liner to left, where Peevyhouse made the easy grab and fired home to erase Pearson for the final out of the inning.
"In some of those situations, I expected a little bit more mature at-bats for as old and as good as [Knapp and Rodriguez] are," Esquer said of his two sluggers.
Porter walked Rossiter on six pitches to start the eighth, and then hit Causey in the right shoulder to put two on for Allen, but clutched up and got the .325-hitting right fielder to swing and miss at a curve down for the strikeout. Porter then got Stankiewicz to pop out on three pitches and then induced a fly out to right center by Peevyhouse on a 3-1 count.
"We created jams," Esquer said. "Truth be known, you can't pitch like that at the end of the game and expect to win. The problem is that we needed to get the lead. They're a little more talented at the end of the game, obviously, with [Ryan] Burr. They're just more talented than we are, so we had to find a way to pitch smart and pitch effectively. We weren't going to out-talent them at the end of the game, and we walked far too many guys at the end. We didn't make a defensive play in the hole. It comes down to pitching and defense. Our defense wasn't very good the whole weekend. Yesterday, they scored five runs without hitting the ball out of the infield, and today, three of their four runs were scored without hitting the ball out of the infield."
The Bears went down in order in the bottom of the eighth against reliever Brett Lilek, with Halamandaris scorching a comebacker to the mound to lead off the frame, only to see the freshman lefty barehand the drive and fire to first, before striking out Grant Diede and Celsi.
After the grand slam in the top of the ninth, Pearson led off the bottom of the final frame by roping a curve back up the middle for a single against hard-throwing closer Ryan Burr. Farney then delivered his third hit of the day back up the middle, only to see Knapp bounce the third pitch he saw to first for a groundout. Rodriguez then bounced a first-pitch grounder to second to drive Pearson in, but Kranson grounded out to short on the second pitch he saw to end the game and the series.
-- Senior lefty Justin Jones is done for the season after falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a nasty concussion during the week, finishing his final season with a 1-5 record and 5.00 ERA. After going 19-12 with a 3.51 ERA in his first two campaigns, the former Freshman All-American has gone 5-14 with a 4.73 ERA over the last two years.
"He'll be away from school for a while, too," Esquer said. "He's going to miss finals. It's a serious deal. It's a big fall in a lot of ways. My heart breaks for him. 20-game winner in two years to out of the rotation and not pitching on a weekend to out for the year. It just breaks my heart. You don't want to see that happen in your program."
Happy Mothers Day
Before the game, Vail Dutto (mother of Max), Joanne Farney (mother of Brenden), Ksenjia Halamanderis (mother of Nick), Julie Knapp (mother of Andrew), Laura Kranson (mother of Mitchell), Mele Lao-Smith (mother of Dylan Nelson), Kristen Peters (mother of Sean), Chris Porter (mother of Kyle), Mylene Reuvekamp (mother of Mike), Natalie Rodriguez (mother of Devon), Debbie Sandler (mother of Ryan), Kim Campbell (mother of Derek), Julie Diede (mother of Grant) and Kim Drinker-Pearson (mother of Devin) threw out first pitches to their sons, dressed in their boys' gold jerseys.
Cal finishes the season with a three-game conference series against Stanford (26-20, 11-13) next weekend, followed by a Monday game against likely NCAA Regional selection Gonzaga (32-15-1). The Cardinal have lost five games in a row and have won just three of their last 11, with a midweek tilt against Santa Clara on Tuesday standing between them and the 7 p.m. Friday opener against the Bears.
Sun Devils Strike Again in Ninth
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