Duke Takes Series in Sunday Slugfest

BERKELEY -- A late two-out rally and a two-run homer from pinch hitter John Soteropulos isn't enough on Sunday against Duke, as Cal drops the rubber match 12-7 in front of over 700 at Evans Diamond.

BERKELEY -- During the football season, the #Pac12AfterDark mystique served up Hail Mary’s and last-second shenanigans. But, when the calendar turns, college baseball proves that it can be just as wacky on Sundays, as was the case on the first Sunday of the 2015 college baseball season.

Down in Malibu, Pepperdine won on a walk-off two-run home run against Tulane. In Palo Alto, No. 18 Stanford surrendered a 2-1 lead in the seventh against unranked Indiana, only to stave off a sweep with a two-run seventh of its own. In Fresno, No. 33 UC Irvine fell, 7-5 to unranked Fresno State for the third straight day. Finally, in Berkeley, California and Duke combined for 19 runs and 27 hits, and three lead-changes, as the Blue Devils escaped the Bay Area with a 12-7 victory and a series win over the Bears, scoring six runs in the final two innings as Cal went silent.

“Their eighth and ninth inning guys did a lot better job than our eighth and ninth inning guys,” said Bears head coach David Esquer. “We weren’t able to back them down. We got the leadoff guy on in the eighth, and it looked like things were going to stabilize a little bit, but I give them a lot of credit. They didn’t just hand us the game, when we got a one-run lead and we got the leadoff guy out. They got a couple of hits, and then a big swing.”

Cal had a big swing of its own in the bottom of the sixth, when junior pinch hitter John Soteropulos slugged a two-out, two-run home run to right field as part of a three-run rally with two down that tied the game at 6-6.

“It’s definitely a good day to be a hitter,” Soteropulos said of getaway days. “Sundays are good days to hit. Both teams, if the games have been close, you’ve been pitching who you think are your guys, so then you don’t have a bullpen, usually you pull the starters out faster, because that’s just how it works on Sundays.”

Bears sophomore starter Alex Schick lasted just 3.0-plus innings, before giving way to a Cal bullpen that proceeded to give up up eight runs on 10 hits, five walks, four wild pitches and a hit batter.

“We’re searching for a little firepower,” Esquer said of his bullpen, which threw 14 innings over the weekend. “Not a lot yet, right now, and it was pretty evident. We’re playing these four-game weekends on purpose, and when we pare back down to three, there will probably be a little bit more there, but on our way there, we’re trying to find a third starter that we can depend on, and one of the four guys will head to the pen and help us out there.”

After getting ahead 2-0 over the first two innings, Schick walked a tightrope in the third, issuing two walks and uncorking the one of six wild pitches thrown by Cal hurlers, leading to a sacrifice fly by Andy Perez.

With senior Dylan Nelson having gone three innings on Saturday, the Bears had to piece together the final six innings after Schick -- who struck out six of the first 11 batters he faced – couldn’t get an out in the top of the fourth inning, giving up three straight singles to lead off the frame.

“It leaves him quickly, and he’s got to be able to sustain and manage innings better,” Esquer said. “He has two dominant innings, and you’re not going to be dominant for nine. You’ve got to be able to manage innings after that, and maintain your stuff and just get them out. It’s great with six strikeouts in the first nine hitters, but after that, it was more of the same.”

Schick had thrown just 21 pitches after the first two innings, but threw 32 over the next inning and change before being lifted for righty Jordan Talbot. The side-winding sophomore proceeded to give up three walks, a wild pitch and a two-run single before being lifted for Collin Monsour without recording an out.

Monsour allowed an RBI double before getting two groundouts to end the frame.

After designated hitter Grant Diede worked a leadoff walk in the bottom of the fourth – one of six Bears leadoff men to reach base on the day – Tenerowicz, Preston GrandPre and Brian Celsi went down in order, putting momentum securely in the third-base dugout.

Of the six leadoff men to reach, three scored. Though he didn’t get aboard to lead off, junior Devin Pearson was picked off in the first inning, ahead of three straight singles that scored one run, but could very well have scored two. On Friday, Aaron Knapp was picked off with one out in the third, ahead of a double by Brett Cumberland, which would likely have scored the speedy center fielder and put the Bears ahead, 1-0. Knapp was also picked off in the bottom of the first on Saturday.

“Those two guys are trying to be really aggressive to try to get our running game going, and just not good fundamental baseball, right there,” Esquer said. “It’s a situation we are looking to steal, they are on their own, and they just, when the guy holds the ball that long, you’ve either got to shut it down and re-adjust and wait for another pitch. It’s just not the right timing to maybe take a chance.”

The pair of speedsters have a standing green light to steal, and Esquer said he won’t change that unless they continue to get erased.

In the top of the fifth, Monsour shut down Duke, allowing a two-out walk and holding the Blue Devils scoreless.

The bottom of the fifth saw a leadoff triple into right center by Knapp, and Pearson take a dose on the front arm to put two men on for the heart of the lineup. Lucas Erceg sent an RBI groundout to second, but freshman Cumberland lined out and senior first baseman Chris Paul -- who finished the day 2-for-5 – popped out to short center to end the threat.

The bottom of the lineup, though, worked some magic in the bottom of the sixth, when, with two outs, GrandPre sent a first-pitch single through the left side. With two straight left-handed hitters coming up, Duke pulled right-handed reliever Conner Stevens in favor of lefty Dillon Haviland. Esquer countered by sending right-swinging Soteropulos to the dish.

“I got down quick 0-2, and I was like, ‘Uh oh. That’s a quick 0-2,’” Soteropulos said. “I fouled one off, and I had actually choked up the first two pitches, but then I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not going to choke up. I’m going to try to go deep.’”

Go deep he did, putting center fielder Jalen Phillips into the wall with a crash and getting the Bears to within one, down 6-5.

Knapp dropped a drag bunt up the third base line to exploit the injured hand of Jack Labosky, and exploit he did, as Labosky fired wide of first, sending the ball into the right field corner. Knapp motored to third, and scored one batter later when Pearson sent a 1-0 offering from righty Sarkis Ohanihan humming over the second base bag for an RBI single to tie things up.

The Bears took a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh on a one-out RBI single through the right side of a drawn-in infield off the bat of Robbie Tenerowicz, but Duke exploded for another five-run inning in the top of the eighth off of a beleaguered Cal bullpen. That inning included a hard shot off the bat of Cris Perez that skipped off the infield lip and caught the sophomore second baseman in the face, before caroming off into shallow left to score Phillips and Andy Perez.

After getting 2.1 innings out of Monsour, Cal lefty Chris Muse-Fisher retired three straight, before GrandPre uncorked a wild throw on a Labosky grounder. GrandPre went 3-for-12 at the plate with one run and two RBIs on the weekend, but committed two errors in his first college weekend.

“He’s earned the right to get comfortable over there. He’s played very well in practice, and the games are different,” Esquer said. “He kind of learned a tough lesson there. He had a lot of time, but I think he should have stayed in his normal rhythm, rather than to try to take more time. He didn’t need to do that. That’s a tough lesson to learn: Just make your play and use your own clock; don’t worry about how slow the runner’s going.”

Muse-Fisher threw two wild pitches in a single at-bat to Justin Bellinger, but the Bears escaped without giving up a run. The writing, though, was on the wall. With the thin bullpen, Muse-Fisher trotted out for the top of the eighth, giving up three straight one-out singles that put Duke up for good. Third baseman Erceg – set to be Cal’s closer this year – took the hill, and proceeded to allow three hits and two runs in 0.2 innings of work, striking out one, throwing a wild pitch and hitting one batter.

“Muse-Fisher did a nice job, but we probably had to roll with him a little longer than we would have liked with a game tomorrow, otherwise we would probably have had some other arms available,” said Esquer, who wasn’t surprised at Erceg’s ineffectiveness. “I don’t know that I was surprised. He kind of got a late start on the mound, and we know that, eventually, he may have to work himself into being very valuable in there.”

Cal heads south to Palo Alto on Monday for a 1 p.m. tilt against the rival Cardinal, with the Bears sending soft-tossing freshman lefty Matt Ladrech to the hill against 6-foot-5 freshman Stanford righty Keith Weisenberg, a two-time all-state selection in high school, and a 38th-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2014 MLB Draft.

“We still have the freshmen,” Esquer said of the pitchers the Bears will have available against the Cardinal. “We’ll start with Ladrech tomorrow, go left-handed, and then Jeff Bain and Erik Martinez are available, as well.”

Bain and Martinez combined for 4.1 innings this weekend, allowing one unearned run on one hit and one walk with four strikeouts.

The most encouraging part of the weekend for Esquer was Paul, who leads the team with a .500 batting average after three games, going 6-for-12 with two runs and two RBIs with one walk and one strikeout. Last season, Paul hit .264, but had just two RBIs in 33 games.

“I think he matched his RBI output from a year ago. We need him to be an RBI guy, and he looks more relaxed,” Esquer said. “He’s a more confident player. We need that. We need him to have his best year.”

With Paul’s performance, Esquer is at least entertaining the idea of putting him fourth, and moving Pearson up to second, displacing Cumberland, who also had a strong weekend, going 3-for-11 with a run and a double with one walk, though he did strike out five times.

“We’ll see. Cumberland’s obviously been very good. That’s a lot to put on a freshman. We’d like to see a little bit more, a larger test sample to see if that trend will continue, but it could turn that way,” Esquer said. “Right now, I think we’re going to wait to get a little bit bigger test size to make sure that trend continues.”

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