“It was coming. The adversity was coming,” said head coach David Esquer. “At some point, we were going to face some adversity. It’s here.”
The Cougars (13-15, 2-8 in Pac-12) came into the game hitting just .210 as a team, but banged out 10 hits against three Cal pitchers, including seven off of starter Jeff Bain. The Bears (20-8, 7-3) tallied just four hits on the night, and left 10 men on base as their 2-3-4 hitters -- Lucas Erceg, Chris Paul and Brett Cumberland -- went a combined 0-for-12.
“I know Chris Paul hit a ball good, and Erceg it a couple balls on the barrel today good, nothing to show for it,” Esquer said. “We’ve been saying it all along: This league just keeps coming at you every week, and if you don’t play well, 1-8 can beat you in our league, because they’re good enough. They’re not 1-8 because they’re bad. They lost some tough ballgames. They went 11 innings with Oregon State, they lose 2-0, and they got perfect gamed against Oregon State. They play some tough ball, but they just haven’t been able to win. They’re young, I think they’re very athletic and physical. If you don’t come out and play well, they’ll do what they did to us tonight.”
Bain – starting again in place of sophomore righty Daulton Jefferies -- was squared up early in the top of the first, and gave up a pop fly single that dropped between left fielder Mitchell Kranson -- who later hit a two-run homer to cut the Cougars’ lead in half in the bottom of the eighth – and shortstop Preston GrandPre.
That was just the start of the defensive issues for Cal, which gave up two runs in the top of the fifth thanks to two fielding miscues.
After Bain struck out first baseman Tyler McDowell for his third K of the night, shortstop Jack Strunc -- hitting just .192 on the year – laid down a drag bunt between third and the mound. Bain sprung off the hill to field the ball, but in came a charging Erceg from third. Erceg bowled Bain over and the ball stayed on the turf, allowing Strunc to reach first.
“They’re taught and we are drilled and practiced that if the third baseman ever calls the ball, you let him have it,” Esquer said. “We want a guy running this way [towards first] rather than having someone run the opposite way. That’s just fundamental baseball. We work on it. We worked on it yesterday. It hurt us.”
The next man up, left fielder Cooper Elliott -- hitting just .143 on the year coming in – sent a rocket just inside the line at first for his first double of the season, driving in his first run of the campaign on the back of Strunc.
After Wes Hatten flied out to right, second baseman Ian Sagdal sent what should have been the inning-ending grounder towards Paul at first, but the ball went right through his legs, allowing Elliott to score and giving Washington State a 2-0 lead.
“It was uncharacteristic. We just did not play tight, defensively,” Esquer said. “The first inning, we let that pop fly fall, we call a bunt, and they ended up scoring two – the third baseman calls for a bunt and the pitcher knocks him over – and then a ball gets through with two outs … You usually don’t win, and if you win, you’re lucky, with those things happening, plus, we only got four hits.”
The Bears wasted three walks by leadoff man Aaron Knapp -- who reached base all five times he came to the plate, with a hit and a hit-by-pitch – and six total on the night, with their best scoring chance coming with two men on and one out in the bottom of the third.
GrandPre singled on an 0-1 pitch from starter Sean Hartnett, and Knapp then took a 1-2 pitch in the right shin, bringing up Erceg and Paul – who came into the night hitting .383 and .351, respectively. Erceg squared up a 2-1 offering from Hartnett, but sent it right to center fielder Cameron Frost. Paul got behind 1-2, and then grounded out to short, ending the threat.
“We couldn’t bring him around,” Esquer said of Knapp. “We had one inning where we had the meat of our order coming up, they went right through two, three and four with a runner in scoring position.”
Bain managed to keep things close through 6.0 innings, and neither of the two runs he allowed were earned, but while his curve did appear sharp at times, and his fastball had good explosion up in the zone, he wasn’t as sharp as he was at the start of the conference season, when he was tapped to replace Jefferies.
“I wasn’t really happy with the way the ball came out of his hand today,” Esquer said. “He battled, only gave up two runs, but Friday night, you’d like to beat up the bat a little bit against a team that’s hitting under .250.”
Reliever Chris Muse-Fisher -- who’d come into the game with a 2.04 ERA in nine relief appearances – stepped in to relieve Bain in the seventh, and retired five of the first six hitters he faced, before Shane Matheny served a 2-2 pitch into left for a single, and then rode home on a first-pitch home run by Frost, a fly ball that kept carrying in the still night air at Evans Diamond, giving Washington State a 4-0 lead in the top of the eighth.
It was the first time that Washington State had hit home runs in back-to-back games since the series against Sacred Heart one month ago. The Cougars are last in the Pac-12 with just six circuit shots on the season.
“Sticking with the No. 12 team in the country is pretty good,” said Frost. “That gives us more confidence. It was a team win … It felt really good. I’ve been in a slump for a while, and it just feels good to get back out there. I was seeing the ball really well. They had pitched me away the whole time, so I was hitting away, and I got an away fastball, and it felt really good.”
Lefty reliever Matt Bower had been beating up the lefty-heavy lineup for the Bears for two innings, not allowing a single hit, but Kranson figured him out in the bottom of the frame.
Kranson – who earned the nickname ‘The Gaucho’ thanks to his prolific hitting since the team went to a restaurant in Seattle, Wash., called El Gaucho Steakhouse, plus the growth his very full mustache (it looks like a third eyebrow) – stepped up with Cumberland on first with a hit by pitch and no outs in the bottom of the eighth, and took two curveballs away before sending a home run of his own to right field, his second of the season.
“He threw me two curveballs in a row, to make it 1-1, and I knew he wasn’t going to go with a third curveball in a row, just with the type of curveball that he had,” Kranson said. “I was sitting dead-red fastball, and I got it.”
Bower then gave way to Sam Triece, who erased pinch hitter Max Dutto, and then closer Ian Hamilton slammed the door in the ninth, allowing a one-out single to Knapp before getting a rocket line-out to center from Erceg and striking out Paul to finish things off.
Cal next faces the Cougars on Friday at 7 p.m., with junior righty Ryan Mason (4-0, 2.74 ERA) facing off against veteran lefty Joe Pistorese. Pistorese, who’s 3-3 on the year with a 3.27 ERA, is 1-2 against the Bears in his last three outings, but sports a 2.08 ERA, with 9 strikeouts in 21.2 innings of work. Last time Pistorese faced Cal, he tossed a complete game shutout, allowing just five hits and two walks while striking out five last season.
“He’s been tough on us, and he’s going for them tomorrow,” Esquer said. “It’s going to be a really tough ballgame for us.”
The crowd should be better than the 427 who showed on Thursday night, with fans more accustomed to a Friday night game than one in the middle of the week.
“We’d been playing really well, and everyone is taking this loss hard,” Kranson said. “It’s not a good thing that we lost, but we’re definitely going to learn from it and come out hard tomorrow. The energy just didn’t seem like it was there. It seemed kind of weird. I know we’ll get that Friday night crowd tomorrow.”
Jefferies is still in the mix to get worked in at some point soon, Esquer said, as the Bears will need him down the stretch of Pac-12 play.
“He’s available, and he’s available the rest of the weekend. We’ll use him to get his pitches in, for sure, so we can build his pitch count up,” Esquer said of Jefferies, who has not pitched since before the start of Pac-12 play.
After going down with biceps tendonitis after his win against Chicago State on March 6, Jefferies has not pitched a single inning, and needs to have his pitch count stretched out again before he can reclaim his Friday night role. That might be a several-week process.
“We’ll see. He could be at 30 pitches, maybe 40. If he gets to 40, he could be at 60 next week, possibly, and it may be worth a start at 60 pitches,” Esquer said. “We possibly could start him next week. He just wouldn’t be able to go the full game. We’d have to double up and plan on someone else pitching. It depends. If we doubled up, we’d have him and Bain together. I don’t know what we’ll do, but it’s not ideal to try to figure out how to get his pitches in there without having him for a full game.”