BERKELEY -- Three pitches. California's 1-0 loss to local rival San Francisco came down to three solitary pitches.
The first: With two men in scoring position and two outs in the bottom of the second, Dons starter Christian Cecilio drilled a fastball in on the hands of Bears catcher Mitchell Kranson to induce a foul pop out to end the inning.
After Cecilio retired the next 11 straight Cal hitters, freshman Bears starter Alex Martinez left a 1-0 pitch up to San Francisco's top hitter Bradley Zimmer, who promptly deposited it in Edwards Track Stadium for a solo home run to lead off the top of the sixth.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Bears (8-4) finally got to Cecilio, loading the bases with one out for senior designated hitter Devon Rodriguez, only for the fifth-year slugger to try and pull an outside pitch from left-handed reliever Ben Graff and send it bounding up the middle, where Graff fielded the ball and started a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play.
"We had some opportunities, and their guy won," said head coach David Esquer. "Their guy won the spot. It's unfortunate that Martinez had to go down on one pitch, but the reality is, we had our opportunity. It has nothing to do with what league we play in, or that he's a first-rounder and our guy's a freshman; he won the baseball spot. That's what it's going to come down to, continually, in our season."
Cal got 5.1 innings on 78 pitches from Martinez, who was initially going to go only about 65 pitches.
"He seemed like he was getting better as the game went on," said pitching coach Mike Neu. "His last two innings before we took him out were his two best innings. We had Trevor [Hildenberger] down there waiting in case he got in trouble, but we definitely weren't expecting a leadoff home run. We thought we'd have the chance to get him out, but it's unfortunate that that's what beat us. At that time, when Trevor comes in and we get out and it's 1-0, we still feel like we're going to win that game. He gives us one run through five and a third, and we're feeling pretty good about that. It's tough to lose 1-0."
Martinez allowed six hits and one run on the home run from Zimmer with two walks and three strikeouts, getting his first loss of the season to drop to 0-1.
"I thought he made a lot of good pitches," Neu said. "He got behind a little bit early, but he made a lot of big pitches and made just one mistake to their guy. Other than that, I thought he did a good job, made big pitches when he needed to, had some quick innings. He gave us a chance to win the game, and that's all we can ask out of him in his first start."
Cecilio turned in the best – and longest – outing of his career, going 7.1 innings and scattering six hits while striking out seven.
Cecilio started the game pitching backwards, leading with soft stuff away before busting hitters in with his tailing fastball, and then late in his second time through the order, using his fastball more and catching Cal hitters diving at off speed pitches away or looking at curveballs inside, as Derek Campbell did twice.
"A lot of guys were non-existent," Esquer said. "Like I said, he wasn't throwing a velocity we haven't seen before, he didn't have spin we haven't seen before; he was just able to win, over and over again, and with whatever reputations our guys have versus what their guys have, it doesn't matter. He had a [4.86] ERA coming in. That didn't matter. Riverside and Fullerton put it to him pretty good; that didn't matter, either. It really comes down to, on a specific night, can you play better than they did? USF's done a good job."
The Bears got some solid relief work from veteran righties Trevor Hildenberger and Keaton Siomkin, who combined to go hitless 3.2 innings with three strikeouts and no walks.
"We couldn't ask any more from them," Esquer said. "We kept on asking them to hold them at one and give us a chance, and we had that chance. We knew that coming in. That was going to be the hallmark of the season. It had nothing to do with ability, and, to be quite honest, they did a great job of pitching and pitch planning, but the executed and they won. We've just got to do a better job."
Hildenberger escaped a jam in the top of the sixth after Martinez was lifted, getting a groundout on three pitches by Bob Cruikshank and a first-pitch groundout from Brendan Hendricks with a man on second.
Martinez got himself out of several jams without having his best stuff in his first collegiate start, and stranded five San Francisco runners.
"He did battle," Esquer said. "I thought he got behind and worked behind a little bit more than I was comfortable with in such a close game. He bent a little bit, but he didn't break, and he got beat by a good swing by their best player."
Both teams rapped out six hits, with Cal junior third baseman Chris Paul going 2-for-4 as one of just two players on either team – the other being Zimmer – to register multiple hits. Paul sent an 0-2 pitch from closer Houston Hibbard slicing into shallow right center field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, only to see it snagged in a sliding grab by Derek Atkinson to end the game, played in a brisk 2:13.
Cal next sees action in a doubleheader against No. 24 Arkansas, which fell 2-1 to San Francisco on Friday before downing Tulane 4-0 in the early game on Saturday.
"They're good," said Neu, who spent the early afternoon watching the Razorbacks and the Green Wave. "They're athletic. I thought they swung the bat really well – probably as well as anybody that we've seen this year, even though they haven't really produced a ton of runs in the first two games. They've got some guys that are offensive guys that are confident. They're going to be tough. That's a tough opponent. You definitely don't want to go into that two games 0-2 on the weekend, having to beat maybe the most talented team in the tournament, so it's going to be tough. We're going to have to play well. We're going to have to play relatively mistake-free and play hard. We're going to have to win some big spots, and if we do, we're going to be alright."
The Bears will send senior lefty Kyle Porter (1-0, 1.35 ERA) to the hill in the 1 p.m. game against the Razorbacks. In his last outing, Porter went 5.1 innings with six hits, one run, one walk and three strikeouts. Neu said that pitching backwards – as Cecilio did – will be the same strategy Cal uses with Porter.
"He's going to have to use that off speed to keep them off balance and be able to sneak in the fastballs," Neu said. "Porter threw his best game of the year at San Diego, and he pitched backwards with his breaking ball, snuck his fastball in and used his change up well, so we're going to have to do that"
Hildenberger will be available in the second game of Sunday's doubleheader, and Cal still has talented righty Ryan Mason and much of the rest of the bullpen ready to go.
"Obviously, you'd like to have a win using those guys, and feeling like it was a close game in that situation, we needed to use Trevor early, we needed to use Keaton right there just to keep it at 1-0, but definitely, Trevor will be available, and Keaton probably would be available in the second game if we needed him; I'm sure he'd be fine," Neu said. "We do have a fresh ‘pen for the most part, but it's tough losing two."
Redshirt junior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos (1-1, 3.27) will go in the Cal Baseball Classic finale against Arkansas, scheduled tentatively for 4 p.m., or half an hour after the conclusion of the first game. Theofanopoulos couldn't build on his 6.0-inning, nine-strikeout performance against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Feb. 23 last time out, when he was rocked for six runs – three earned – on four hits and two walks in 2.1 innings of work against Stanford on Tuesday.
"We have our ‘pen available, so I think we'd love for those guys to give us good outings, but also, if we get in trouble and have to go to the ‘pen early, that's the strength of our team," Neu said. "Theo, he needs to bounce back. It'll be a good game for him to bounce back, and we hope he can give us a good outing. His worst start came last week, so we need him to be sharp, and if he is, I think he'll have a great outing. We need those guys to both give us a chance to win before they come out of the game. We've got to be in a position to win when they come out."
Bears Drop Second Straight on Zimmer Homer
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