BERKELEY -- The No. 12 California baseball team dropped its first series since the opening set against Duke, falling 4-0 to Washington State on Friday, but there was one silver lining to the anemic four-hit effort: The return of ace Daulton Jefferies.
The sophomore righty – who had not pitched since the March 6 opener against Chicago State due to biceps tendonitis – came on in relief of starter Ryan Mason in the top of the seventh, and proceeded to throw 3.0 innings of scoreless ball, striking out five on 42 pitches.
“We’ve got to have that,” said head coach David Esquer, who’s team is now entering the back half of the Pac-12 schedule. “He made them look like we’ve seen, when we watch on tape. That’s how they look against [Andrew] Moore from Oregon State, [Drew] Rasmussen from Oregon State, a couple guys from USC. They beat the bat up a bit. Our guys are more finesse guys, and they’re finding some holes.”
Jefferies’s return, though, wasn’t enough to ameliorate a struggling offense that has gone 11-for-92 (.120) over the past three games, and couldn’t get a foothold against veteran Joe Pistorese, who threw his second complete game in a row against the Bears (20-9, 7-4 in Pac-12), allowing four hits and a walk while striking out six on 132 pitches.
“He’s a competitor,” said Esquer. “We said before the game, it was two great competitors that were going to go out. Ryan Mason is a great competitor. He doesn’t always have his best stuff, but he always gives you a chance to win. They out-competed us in all phases. Their nine was better than our nine, and their pitcher was better than our pitcher.”
After Mason got weak contact on the first outs of the game against Cooper Elliott and Wes Hatten, the Cougars (14-15, 3-8) got five two-out hits and scored four runs in the top of the first. Ian Sagdal started things off with a 1-2 single, and then Mason walked catcher P.J. Jones before giving up a two-run double to right off the bat of Shane Matheny, his fifth double of the season.
Cameron Frost -- who hit a two-run home run on Thursday – sent an infield single over Lucas Erceg at third and into deep short, before a hard single off the bat of Tyler McDowell under the glove of a diving Chris Paul at first made it 3-0.
An RBI single on the ground through the right side by Derek Chapman -- his fourth hit in a row and fifth in his last six at-bats – finished off the scoring.
“They got five hits, with two outs and nobody on in the first inning, they put up a four spot, and we couldn’t answer,” said Esquer. “Hey, when you look at some of the plays, we hit four or five balls that put their backs up against the [outfield] wall, they dove and caught some balls. It isn’t meant to be right now, and we’ve got to dig our way out of it. We can’t be defined by it. We’re going to play again as well as we played before. I’m not worried about that. You just don’t want to dig yourself a hole.”
After losing the opening series against the Blue Devils, Cal went on a 14-1 tear, including taking three of four against 2014 College World Series participant UC Irvine.
“They want to win, and they’re trying really hard, and there isn’t a season where you don’t go through this a little bit, and you’ve just got to come out the other side. You can’t let this define you. Somebody that we thought maybe we should handle has beaten us twice.”
It was about this time during the 2011 College World Series season that Cal went into a bit of a funk. After winning seven straight, the Bears went 2-4 from April 1 to April 10, before taking the final game against Arizona, following the announcement that the program was provisionally reinstated after the Sept. 28 cut of five sports.
Those losses, though, were against USC and Arizona, not against a team like the Cougars, who came into the series having lost nine straight, and not having won a Pac-12 series. Cal, on the other hand, was tied for first in the Pac-12 with UCLA coming in.
“It stings, it stings,” Esquer said. “We had a golden opportunity to create some separation, more separation in the record. I don’t think those guys think of it, but it’s a race to 15.”
15 wins in conference play would clinch a winning record in the Pac-12, and almost certainly a Regional berth.
“We want our program to be in position to win the Pac-12 title, not just sneak in the back door,” Esquer said.
After Mason allowed those four runs in the first, he didn’t allow a single hit until Sagdal tripled with one out in the top of the fifth. A double to Chapman with two outs in the top of the sixth was the only other hit Mason allowed after that.
Jefferies came on in the seventh and immediately went 3-0 to Elliott, before getting him to fly out to left.
“I was ready to get back out there last weekend, but I think it was more beneficial that I rested more, got my arm ready, worked with the trainer,” Jefferies said. “I was just excited. I had some adrenaline going there, and that’s why I went to a 3-0 count, but I settled down.”
Jefferies then allowed a humpback liner into right off the bat of Hatten, before getting his first strikeout on the white-hot Sagdal, who at that point had seven hits in his last 12 at-bats.
A chopper over the mound by Jones went for an infield single, but Jefferies then got Matheny to ground to third, where Lucas Erceg tagged the runner going by to end the frame.
Jefferies struck out four of the next hitters he faced, with three of those coming on his curveball.
“He located his fastball well, his off-speed was really good, and that was maybe the best his breaking ball has looked all year,” said pitching coach Mike Neu. “We’re obviously going to need him to do what we need to do, to make the playoffs and make a push. That was encouraging.”
Jefferies said that his time off has actually helped his deuce, since he made adjustments to his delivery to help avoid a repeat of the biceps injury in the future.
“I’m teaching myself to stay back, and use my hips more, and not so much my arm,” Jefferies said. “I feel good. I talked with the trainers, to get my hips more loose, get more torque in there, so I don’t have to use my arm so much, and I’ve been working with Mike to get a more downward plane so I don’t have to pump it up there. We worked a lot on angle and not throwing as hard as I can every pitch, just pitching instead of throwing, and it’s worked out well.”
Esquer said that Jefferies should be on a pitch count next time out, but that count will be around 60, meaning that he’ll likely start next weekend against rival Stanford.
“Obviously, we took probably a little extra time with him, and he probably felt like he was ready to go last week, but we threw him in an intrasquad game, wanted to throw him 40 pitches today to get him back on track so he can pitch next week, and we’ll see what role we use him in, whether we start him or back him up,” Neu said. “Obviously we want to get him back in to start, but he did awesome. That was a great performance.”
Jefferies will throw a bullpen on Tuesday, which is his normal work day for a Friday start.
“It looks as though he’ll probably get the start next Friday, and we can piece it in behind him,” Esquer said. “It’s just important, in general, to have your best arm. That arm strength is a big piece, when you’re matching up on Friday night, and you’re not looking to finesse it.”
Cal will look to avoid a series weep on Saturday at 1 p.m., with freshman lefty Matt Ladrech taking the hill against a still to-be-determined starter for Washington State. Ladrech is 4-3 on the year with a 2.06 ERA in seven starts this season, allowing a .248 batting average to opponents.