Jefferies and Kranson crossed signals in the top of the fifth, with one passed ball and a blockable wild pitch setting the stage for visiting Duke’s second two-run inning of the night, putting the Blue Devils well on their way to a 7-1 win on Opening Day of the college baseball season.
“That’s on Mitch. That’s not in the dirt. We’ve got to keep that in front,” said pitching coach Mike Neu.
“The combination of not pitching as well as we’d like, as well as the pitching and catching, we’re not going to win any of those games against a good team, especially on Friday against a guy who may be a first-rounder,” Neu said, referring to Duke starter Mike Matuella.
The Bears’ battery struggles weren’t just limited to Kranson and Jefferies. In all, four Cal pitchers uncorked eight wild pitches and dealt out seven walks and two hit batsmen, and freshman shortstop Preston GrandPre -- despite getting his first collegiate hit and RBI on a run-scoring groundout in the ninth – committed a key error on a botched double play that led to a two-run inning.
Cal could ill afford defensive issues handing the Blue Devils more outs, especially when facing the potential top pick in June’s MLB Draft in Matuella.
The 6-foot-6 righty went 6.0 shutout innings, throwing 84 pitches (he was on a pitch count of 80-90) and giving u four hits and two walks, striking out eight. He was particularly impressive in the first inning, lighting up the radar guns of the assembled scouts with readings of 95 on his fastball, while also taking some off and hitting the low zone with a two-seamer and mixing in the occasional 82 mph curve, earning his first win of the season.
Matuella struck out the first three hitters he faced on just 11 pitches.
“I was just trying to go out there, throw strikes and pound the zone and have an efficient inning to get us back in the dugout so we could hit,” Matuella said.
Jefferies threw around 100 pitches in just 4.2 innings of work, but couldn’t get out of his own way, at times, creating his own jams in the top of the second and top of the fifth, and giving up a two-run home run in the top of the fourth to Justin Bellinger.
Jefferies nearly got out of the two-on, no-out jam in the fifth, taking a shot back to the box for a 1-3 groundout off the bat of Cris Perez, and then striking out right fielder Jalen Phillips. Jefferies got ahead of Bellinger -- who socked the two-run job in the fourth over the right center field wall -- 1-2, but after missing high and outside, and getting laced for a hard foul down the right field line, he spotted a fastball right at Bellinger’s knees, but Kranson didn’t quite hold the frame long enough, and it was called a ball. With the count full, Jefferies delivered a curve in the dirt to a swing and miss from Bellinger, but Kranson could not control the block, and saw the ball kick left, allowing a run to score.
“We’ve got to catch that ball on the change up,” Neu said. “We had a good chance to make that a 2-0 game if we catch that ball. We have a good chance for us to get out of there 2-0, after five.
“Kranny’s got to do a better job of keeping the ball right there, and the pitches have got to be better, too. We’ve got to get those strikes, and we can’t let the ball go through. I thought it was a combination of our pitching, our defense and our catching. Five of those runs could have been prevented. It wasn’t Daulton’s best game, but I thought his stuff was more than good enough to keep us right there, and it was. We get that ball go by us, then a base hit, and zero runs turns into two, like that.”
The next batter -- Mike Rosenfeld -- singled to left to drive in a run, chasing Jefferies, who finished with six hits, four runs – all earned – and four walks with eight strikeouts.
“I thought his stuff was good,” said Neu. “I think it was the first game, a pretty big stage, trying to make a lot of perfect pitches, and never got into that rhythm.”
Jefferies struggled in the first inning, giving up a walk and a single and throwing 20 pitches, and again in the second, giving up a leadoff walk and a double before getting a groundout and striking out the final two batters of the inning, using his fastball, change and curve on both sides of the plate. He did, however, found a real beat in the third, needing just nine pitches to retire the Blue Devils in order, with two strikeouts – one on the curve, looking, and another on the change, swinging.
“I thought he got into a great rhythm in that third inning, and we could build off that,” Neu said. “I’d just like to see him get into a little bit more confident rhythm. I think he was trying to make every pitch and just go through his routine and process, and do all the things he’s really good at. When he’s going good, he should look like he can throw 14 innings, and he was battling every hitter. He made some key pitches in key situations, but the pitch count got too high early, and it was too much a battle for how good his stuff was.”
GrandPre committed his first fielding faux pas in the top of the seventh, when he botched a potential double play flip from second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz with no outs and the bases loaded thanks to two leadoff walks from sophomore converted catcher Jesse Kay. Duke would score three runs that inning, without tallying a single hit.
“We gave Jesse Kay an opportunity down four, and if we’re down two, we maybe go to somebody else that we feel a little more confident with, and if we can keep it at two, we had them on the ropes,” Neu said. “We had their guy a little bit on the ropes, but the game got away from us because we weren’t able to make a few plays. Jesse put us in a little tight spot, and we couldn’t make a play on defense.”
That inning put things out of reach for the Bears, who at times had Matuella on the ropes. In the bottom of the second, first baseman Chris Paul -- who, along with third baseman Lucas Erceg, was one of only two Cal players to tally two hits, each going 2-for-4 – laced a one-out single under the glove of shortstop Kenny Koplove. With two outs, Tenerowicz worked a five-pitch walk to put two men on for GrandPre, who took a fastball on the outside corner for a called strike three.
In the bottom of the third, Aaron Knapp reached with one out on a slow roller to short, but was picked off at first just before freshman designated hitter Brett Cumberland made the scouts sit up and take notice with a full-count fading double to left field. Erceg then popped out to shallow center field to end the threat. Matuella then retired the next seven hitters in a row.
“He was going two-seam to the bottom of the zone, and he was getting some pitches down there,” said Cal hitting coach Brad Sanfilipo. “He’d run four-seam up a little bit, and you really have to do a good job of being short to him, because his ball gets on you. It’s not even really the velocity. He’s just so long and the ball kind of jumps on you pretty quickly. You’ve really got to force yourself to stay on top, and we just had too many ball in the air tonight. The field’s playing pretty fast; you’ve got to get the ball on the ground, and we didn’t do that tonight. I don’t know if it was opening night, trying to do too much. They hit a home run, and now, we’re trying to answer with something big.”
Matuella dealt a four-pitch walk to Cumberland in the bottom of the sixth, and then an infield single to Erceg.
Right fielder Devin Pearson swung and miss at a curveball, and Paul flew out weakly to right to end that threat.
“All we needed was a hit in one of those spots, just to put a run up, just to ease the whole thing,” Sanfilipo said. “Not to put it on anybody’s shoulders, but you capitalize, and it’s a 4-3 game. It was there for us to have. We had two guys we want at the plate with two guys on base. You get a hit there, it’s maybe 4-2. You cut that thing in half, and then you get to that bullpen, and that’s what we’re trying to do. You’re trying to outlast him. If it’s 4-2 in the seventh, and we get to their pen, it’s a win for us.”
“There were definitely a couple of times where they got a runner on second and they had scoring opportunities, but I’m a confident pitcher, and I know that if I execute my pitches, things are going to take care of themselves,” Matuella said. “I just focused on being aggressive and staying on top of the ball, being down in the zone, and I got out of it.”
Matuella’s fastball and his change up were “key” for him, he said.
“I’m very happy about that, because that’s a pitch I didn’t have last year for the vast majority of the season,” Matuella said. “It’s something I worked on a lot when I started throwing this fall and over winter break. It’s a pitch I’m confident throwing in all counts.”
Cal faces Duke again on Saturday with a 6 p.m. start time on Valentine’s Day, with 2014 seven-game winner Ryan Mason on the hill against Duke righty Andrew Istler, who went 8-8 last season with a 2.84 ERA in 76.0 innings of work, striking out 59 and walking 24, while allowing a .254 opponent batting average.
The Bears conclude the series on Sunday, with sophomore righty Alex Schick squaring off with Blue Devils righty