SAN FRANCISCO -- After winning 10 straight games and four straight series, No. 24 California has stumbled over the last two games, leaving a total of 24 runners on base and wasting 5.0 no-hit innings from starter Alex Schick on Tuesday, as the Bears fell 3-1 to the University of San Francisco.
Cal (15-5) has lost the last two games – the series finale against then-No. 8 Oregon and Tuesday’s tilt on the Hilltop – and head coach David Esquer didn’t mince words after the loss to the Dons, who, after starting 1-11 – including an 11-0 loss to the Bears -- have since gone 7-2, including two wins apiece against Gonzaga and the Ducks.
“The last two performances were poor,” said Esquer. “To have that many opportunities and not come through at least once, it changed the complexion of both games, and with this one, how we would have pitched it.
“They’ve played well,” Esquer continued. “This team is absolutely better than that 1-11 start.”
Schick faced one batter over the minimum through the first three innings, and after giving up a walk in the bottom of the fourth, struck out the side on 18 pitches in the bottom of the fifth. Schick threw just 67 pitches in his second start of the year, after he’d been demoted to the bullpen after an abbreviated outing against Duke in the first series of the year.
“It was big,” Esquer said of Schick’s start. “The biggest positive is that he’s pitching more confidently. If we can get another pitcher out of it, that’s a big deal for us.”
Schick left the game up 1-0, thanks to a leadoff double by Denis Karas, a sacrifice bunt by shortstop Preston GrandPre and a sacrifice fly by Aaron Knapp.
“With Daulton Jefferies being down, we’re a little thinner than we want to be on the weekend,” said Esquer, whose team travels to Washington this weekend to face the Huskies. “If we had more pitching, we’d probably ride somebody as long as we wanted to, just like we did with Jeff Bain the last time.”
Karas had his fingerprints all over the game, starting in the top of the third. Karas sent a hard grounder to the right side and right through the wickets of third baseman Ross Puskarich to reach first to lead off the inning. GrandPre then laid down a bunt to the left side, where it was fielded by soft-tossing starter Sam Granoff, who fired way high to first and off the canted wall in foul ground, allowing GrandPre to reach. Next up was Knapp, who laid down a bunt to the exact same spot, except this time, Puskarich called off Granoff and took the ball himself, and also threw it high to first, but Knapp had already beaten the throw, loading the bases.
After right fielder Brian Celsi popped out to first on the first pitch, up stepped the Bears’ best hitter in Lucas Erceg. After Erceg swung and missed on an off-speed pitch, Karas got a verbal sign to bluff to home. Instead, he went full-on Jackie Robinson and tried to steal home, but all catcher Justin McCullough had to do was catch the pitch and drop his left hand to the ground to tag out Karas before he even came close to home.
Erceg then sent a high fly ball to right to end the inning, instead of a would-be sacrifice fly to plate a run, with still an out remaining in the frame.
“It was a poor decision,” Esquer said. “We’re asking him to bluff at third base, and he went. It’s stupid. We’re not going to steal home with Lucas Erceg at the plate. It’s part of why we deserved to lose. It was a misread verbal sign, because I know Brad [Sanfilipo] was asking him to bluff down the line, not to run. [The mental errors] all add up. Not any one play was the reason, but they all add up, and there are certain situations that just can’t happen. USF’s too good a ballclub, and we knew that. The first game, we got a great performance and scored some runs, but we’ve played them long enough to know that’s not the normal way they play.”
Karas did, however, save a hit in the bottom of the fourth. Right fielder Connor Hofmann sent a parachuting looper into shallow left, but just beyond the reach of GrandPre coming back from short. Just as GrandPre lost the ball in the sun, Karas came sliding in to make the grab. After a two-out walk to center fielder Derek Atkinson, Karas made a running grab on a line drive by Brendan Hendricks to end the inning.
Karas’s ill-conceived steal, though, was just one of several missed opportunities for Cal, which stranded 10 men on base against San Francisco. In the top of the fourth, catcher Brett Cumberland sent a drive to deep left, which was gloved by Hendricks, only for a collision with the wall to jar the ball loose for a stand-up double. Granoff then struck out the next three Bears in order. Granoff went 7.0 innings, allowing one run on eight hits and one walk, with 6 strikeouts.
“He was a little bit below hitting speed,” Esquer said of Granoff, who topped out at 79 and used breaking balls and off-speed pitches to keep Cal hitters off balance. “To his credit, he was able to throw three pitches below hitting speed. Sometimes, those lefties were tough.”
In the top of the seventh, Karas led off with a single to center off the end of the bat, and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt from GrandPre. Knapp then parachuted a single to short left to move Karas to third, and then stole second. With the infield in, junior Brian Celsi sent a grounder to short, where Nico Girratano -- son of Dons head coach Nino – fired home to erase Karas. Erceg then grounded out to short to end that threat.
San Francisco tied things up in the bottom of the sixth, immediately getting to reliever Jesse Kay for a leadoff single over Erceg’s head at first by McCullough. Kay was then pulled after two pickoff moves for Dylan Nelson, who promptly walked second baseman Zack McCoy and gave up a line-drive single to center by McCoy, to score pinch runner Blake Valley.
Nelson was lifted for Collin Monsour, who retired the next six men he faced – including striking out the side to end the bottom of the sixth.
“It was situational, where we were going to go hitter-to-hitter,” Esquer said of the reliever musical chairs. “We knew the game could have been won or lost there, and we didn’t want to risk it, so we went for the sure thing, and Nelly didn’t come back strong. He just didn’t look like himself.”
In the eighth, though, Monsour allowed a pop fly leadoff single to Ryan Matranga and a sacrifice bunt to pinch hitter Michael Eaton. Monsour intentionally walked Hofmann to keep the double play in order, but then surrendered a line-drive single to the left field corner, just past a diving Karas for a two-run double, spelling the end for the Bears.
Esquer does not quite know yet if Cal will have the services of Jefferies this weekend against Washington, after missing last weekend with biceps tendonitis.
“It’s nothing serious,” Esquer said. “Once someone comes up with a bit of tendonitis, it’s how quickly do you get them back.”
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