Road Only Gets Tougher Against No. 3 UCLA

The past seven games have not been kind to the Cal baseball team, and the road to the postseason won't get any easier with a series against No. 3 UCLA on tap for Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles.

A month ago, No. 16 California was the toast of college baseball, having run off a 14-1 record after dropping the first series against Duke, and starting Pac-12 play 5-1, with a road sweep at Washington, tying the Bears for first place in the Pac-12 with 2013 national champion UCLA.

While the No. 2 Bruins (26-7, 12-3 in Pac-12) continued apace, Cal fell back to the pack, dropping back-to-back home series against Washington State (18-17, 5-10) and cellar-dwelling Stanford (14-19, 2-10). The timing, says head coach David Esquer, is not ideal, as the Bears have dropped from all but one national poll -- Collegiate Baseball.

“We’re not going to be able to hide the rest of the way,” says Esquer, who’s team heads to Los Angeles for a Thursday-Friday-Saturday match-up with the . Coming in front of us are the UCLA’s, the Oregon State’s, the USC’s and the Arizona State’s of the conference. That’s what this conference is made of, and yet, we’re capable. We’re capable of hanging with them, and putting ourselves in position to win ballgames. We’ve got to play a whole lot better than we did [against Stanford].”

The Cardinal battered the Bears (22-11, 9-6) – now in fourth place in the conference -- behind the resurgent hitting of outfielder – and one-time Cal football commit -- Zach Hoffpauir.

Hoffpauir went 6-for-12 over the weekend, with 9 RBIs, three home runs and a double. The weekend earned Hoffpauir Pac-12 Player of the Week honors, after coming into the series hitting just .154.

UCLA also had a busy weekend, taking the rivalry series with No. 11 USC at Jackie Robinson Stadium, downing the Trojans 9-3 and 8-3, bookending a USC 5-0 win on Saturday night.

“I think it does hurt, the fact that we didn’t take care of business in our home yard,” Esquer says. “Being 2-4 the last two weekends is not a positive. We have been good on the road, for some reason, over the past two years. At the end of last year, we won three of our last five series on the road. It’s probably a little inopportune, for sure.”

The Bears have been one of the better road teams in the conference this year, going 7-3 away from Evans Diamond, including a road sweep against the 2014 NCAA Regional participant Huskies. The Bruins, though, are a much sterner test, ranking third in all of Division I college baseball with a miniscule 2.30 team ERA. Cal – with inarguably its deepest and most talented pitching staff since 2011 – is 25th, with a 2.97 mark. The problem of late, though, has been defense. In the last six games, Cal has committed 14 errors, allowing 13 unearned runs. Before the past six games, the Bears had averaged just 1.2 errors per game, and had allowed just 18 unearned runs. Every run that UCLA can push across, with the Bruins’ pitching being what it is, will be that much more significant.

“We need to play – we talked, that there’s a difference between winning defense and championship defense – we didn’t even play winning defense,” Esquer says. “We were, earlier in the season, we were trying to make that jump from winning defense to championship defense, when you turn tough double plays in big spots, make great plays to save your pitchers. We just have a pitching staff that needs defense.”

What really hurt Cal on Sunday was the absence of senior first baseman Chris Paul. Three muffed defensive plays at first helped open the floodgates for the Cardinal, who scored a staggering nine unearned runs.

Will Paul be back this weekend? Esquer hopes so.

“We’re hoping sooner than later,” he said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ll probably know in a couple days, see when he starts moving around a couple bit.”

Without Paul – who’s hitting a team-best .353 with 7 home runs and 28 RBIs, with a .612 slugging percentage and a .445 on-base percentage (second on the team to freshman catcher Brett Cumberland) – the offense was only to manage a six-run eighth-inning outburst on Sunday, and precious little else against a pitcher Esquer said was nothing special. Apart from a 17-hit outburst on Saturday, Cal has not tallied more than 10 hits once in its past seven games, hitting just .240 over that span.

Before the last seven games, the Bears were hitting .300 as a team.

“If the hole wasn’t so big, man, it would have been a way different game,” says redshirt junior outfielder Brian Celsi. “Everyone started to relax, everyone started having fun again, and even being down five runs, we were all ready to go again. We just ran out of time. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot. Now, we know, and we know what not to do. We know what to do.”

Bruins ace James Kaprielian is 7-3 on the year with a 2.18 ERA, with opposing batters hitting just .224 against him. He’s sixth in the Pac-12 in ERA, 11th in opponent’s batting average, sixth in innings pitched (57.2), first in strikeouts (70, eight ahead of second-place Andrew Moore of Oregon State), first in batters struck out looking (28), first in wins and third in runners picked off (4).

Kaprielian, though, does have one chink in his armor – he’s allowed a team-high 15 extra-base hits, including four home runs on the season. Cal paces the Pac-12 in longballs with 33, eight ahead of second-place Oregon State, and nine ahead of the Bruins. Led by eight dingers from Lucas Erceg and seven from Paul, the Bears also have Cumberland, who’s chipped in six circuit shots, and four others with multiple four-baggers this season.

Cal has fallen behind in the first inning in each of the past five games, and have gone 2-3. The Bears have had to play from behind in each of their last six games, going 2-4.

“I don’t know what it is. Maybe everyone’s trying to be the guy,” says Celsi, who hit a grand slam on Sunday and came up with the game-winning single on Saturday night. “Sometimes, there’s going to be a different guy every night. It was Erceg for a week, it was Chris Paul on Saturday. You know, Sean Peters is stepping up right now, and Sean Peters doesn’t want to move. We all realize that it’s a nine-person lineup, and we’ve got to keep it moving. You can’t hit a five-run home run. No one on, you can’t hit a multiple-run home run. We’ve just got to relax. We’re doing a good job of changing it, but we’d better turn it around pretty quick.”

Cal will send sophomore Daulton Jefferies to the mound for his second start back off of injury, on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Jefferies as on a 60-pitch pitch count last time out against Stanford, and should be around 80 against UCLA.

After Jefferies, things get trickier for the suddenly-shaky Bears defense, with pitch-to-contact junior sinkerballer Ryan Mason (4-1, 2.93 ERA) and freshman left-handed control specialist Matt Ladrech (5-4, 2.45).

Mason will face off against senior lefty Grant Watson on Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. Watson – like Kaprielian – has started all nine games he’s appeared in, and sports a 2.24 ERA and a 5-3 record. Opposing hitters are batting .230 against Watson, who’s struck out 36 and walked 14 in 52.1 innings of work.

On Saturday, Ladrech will try to rebound from a rough outing Sunday, where he gave up five runs – three earned – on six hits and one walk in 4.1 innings.

“He can’t do it without defensive help,” Esquer says. “You look at his strikeout numbers, the guys who can absorb errors, strike people out. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy, he gets them to hit the ball with weak contact, and then, sometimes, they’re going to smoke it, but right at people, and you’ve got to make the plays. We didn’t do that [against Stanford], and it’s unfortunate. It all matters.”

It’s still up in the air who Ladrech will face on Sunday, but it will likely be either junior righty Cody Poteet or 6-foot-1 freshman righty Griffin Canning. Canning has gone 6-1 in 12 appearances, with eight starts, posting a 2.74 ERA in 49.1 innings of work. Poteet is 3-1 with a 2.37 ERA in 12 appearances, with seven starts. In 38.0 innings, he’s allowed seven doubles, one triple and two home runs, while opposing hitters are batting .239 against him – the highest batting average against among the Bruins’ regular hurlers, and the second-highest on the team.

Beyond the starting rotation, UCLA has one of the top bullpens in the country, led by closer David Berg, who comes into the weekend with a 1.07 ERA and a 3-0 record in 23 appearances. He already has eight saves on the season, and has allowed just one extra-base hit, with 42 strikeouts and only three walks.

NOTEBOOK
• While the Cal basketball team was busy committing both Tyson Jolly and Ivan Rabb, and while the football team landed running back Derrick Clark and quarterback Max Gilliam this weekend, the Bears baseballers also added a 2015 commit in 6-foot-3, 200-pound Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley right-handed pitcher Joey Matulovich.

Matulovich, in the midst of his senior season, was highly-sought-after, and currently sports a 0.87 ERA in 32.1 innings of work, with 50 strikeouts, three complete games and two shutouts. He’s 4-1 on the season in six starts, and has walked just nine men and allowed one extra-base hit. Most impressive, though, is the fact that he has two no-hitters this season, his latest coming in a 4-2 win over Amador Valley on April 3, where he struck out 14, walked three and allowed one earned run.

• Cal may get some offensive reinforcements, as the starting right fielder to start the season -- Devin Pearson -- says that he hopes to be back this weekend, after missing 19 games with a broken hamate bone, suffered in a 5-4 win over Chicago State on March 7.


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