LOS ANGELES -- On Friday, May 20, 2011, the California baseball team dealt then-29-20 UCLA a 4-0 defeat, downing then-Bruins ace – and future first-round MLB draft pick -- Gerrit Cole a loss behind future Chicago White Sox hurler Erik Johnson. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Johnson threw 120 pitches over 7.0 scoreless innings.
Fast forward to Friday, April 16, 2015, and California’s sophomore ace, Daulton Jefferies -- all of 6-foot, 180 pounds – beat up the Bruins bats, tossing 6.2 scoreless as No. 16 Cal downed No. 3 UCLA, 2-0, and out-dueling one of the top aces in the conference in junior righty James Kaprielian. The Bruins have now been shut out twice this season, with the first coming last weekend in a 5-0 loss to then-No. 9 USC.
“We’re supposed to, and that’s the way we take it – we’re supposed to,” said closer Dylan Nelson of downing the No. 3 team in the nation on the road. Nelson closed things out the ninth inning, striking out the final batter -- Brett Urabe -- to earn his fifth save of the season, showing not a whit of emotion. “We’re focused on winning tomorrow, winning the series, and we feel like we belong in that same category as they do.”
Kaprielian – who fell to 7-3 on the year – threw 107 pitches and struck out 11 Bears while wearing throwback duds to honor Jackie Robinson – who made his big league debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers 68 years ago.
“I thought we did a good job fouling some pitches off, and that makes you kind of irritating, when you foul pitches off,” said head coach David Esquer. “I think that ran his pitch count up, but he had a lot of strikeouts. He threw a lot of pitches because he was striking us out.”
Cal banged out seven hits, with the decisive blow against Kaprielian and Robinson’s Bruins coming in the top of the sixth, on a solo home run by sophomore third baseman Lucas Erceg -- a screaming one-out shot in the top of the sixth that bounced right off the right field-spanning commemoration of the 2013 College World Series title at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
“The last two weekends, we’ve fallen into a slump a little bit,” Erceg said of the Bears, who have gone 2-4 over the last two conference weekends, and have lost five of their last seven. “This weekend, we came out and felt that we needed to stick it to them, and prove ourselves. That’s exactly what we did tonight. It was an awesome team win.”
The save was big for Nelson, coming back from a disastrous outing last weekend against Stanford in which he gave up a six-run lead in the top of the ninth, necessitating a walk-off single in the bottom of the frame by Brian Celsi.
“I was just happy to get back out there, and it shows a lot about how much the coaches care to throw me back out there, after that, and trust me in that situation,” Nelson said.
The Bears (23-11, 10-6 in Pac-12) were finally able to set up their bullpen like they’d intended to at the start of the season, thanks to Jefferies’ efficiency. Despite not using his breaking ball much, Jefferies was able to work both sides of the plate and change the eye levels of hitters in his second start back from biceps tendonitis.
“It felt good,” said Jefferies, who was on an 80-pitch pitch count coming off of a 62-pitch outing against the Cardinal a week ago. “I just tried to stay with my routine, pitch by pitch, and get ahead of guys, throw strikes. They’re very aggressive, so they got themselves out, so that was nice.”
Jefferies tossed 84 offerings UCLA’s way, and admitted to watching Kaprielian work “a little bit,” but he said he stayed within himself and tried to get hitters out as quickly as possible. The approach worked, as Jefferies scattered seven hits and letting his defense do the work behind him.
“They’re pretty aggressive, so I just tried to throw a lot of strikes and get ahead early, let them get themselves out,” said Jefferies. “Not a lot of breaking stuff. I threw change ups in fastball counts, which was nice, got them off balance a little bit. I stayed fastball-in, fastball-away, let my movement do it.”
“Having our Friday guy, and then being able to go to a match-up lefty with Chris Muse-Fisher, who did a great job, Alex Schick got his one inning, and then to Nelson, that’s how you draw it up,” Esquer said. “We have not been able to do that.”
Jefferies got seven groundouts and three double plays, including a clutch twin killing in the bottom of the sixth to kill any kind of momentum the Bruins (26-8, 12-4) had brewing.
Jefferies allowed a 1-0 leadoff single to Kevin Kramer -- the only time the UCLA leadoff man reached base in four plate appearances – and fell behind 2-0 to designated hitter Brett Stephens, before getting a swing and miss on the change up, a called fastball on the outside corner, and then a 5-4-3 double play.
“Big, big,” Esquer said of the twin killing. “Each play was big. That’s when you knew it felt like a game that we really played well – time expands when you concentrate on every pitch. You felt like it was four or five hours, but that’s how it should feel.”
With the Cal dugout chanting “CP CP CP” for first baseman Chris Paul -- who returned from a strained hip flexor to record 11 putouts at first and go 1-for-3 on the night – the next hitter, Luke Persico, popped softly towards second, but Paul glided over and hauled it in himself for the final out of the frame.
Paul also played a part in the two-run top of the sixth.
Erceg’s longball set the table, and showed some return to form for the breakout star of the 2015 season, who’d gone 4-for-25 over the previous six games coming into the series. With his 1-for-4 day, Erceg has now gone 4-for-12 over the past three games, with three RBIs, three runs scored, a double and a home run.
“I’ve always stuck with the same approach, over the course of the season, and I wasn’t really trying to do anything special,” said Erceg, who now leads the Pac-12 with 9 home runs. “I was trying to get on base for the next guy. I saw the ball up, hit it hard, and it just happened to go out. I’m getting back into the groove. It happens. Players are going to get in their slumps, but it’s just how they pull out, and just keep with the same approach. It’s not necessarily about the results; it’s about sticking with the same approach, and staying with it.”
After Erceg’s circuit shot, catcher Brett Cumberland -- who went 2-for-3 on the night – sent a hard grounder up the middle for a single off of Kaprielian. Paul was next up, and after taking a ball in the dirt, Paul stepped out of the box to aggravate the UCLA righty. After Kaprielian came back with two straight strikes, Paul fouled the next offering back, before taking a ball low. With the count 2-2, Paul sent a slow hopper to third, where a charging Chris Keck had to hold onto the ball, with Cumberland going on contact.
Designated hitter Nick Halamandaris -- who came in hitting just .178 – sent the first pitch he saw from Kaprielian slicing foul to the left field line, but a sprinting Ty Moore overran the ball, and, reaching back, could not glove the pop for an out. Instead, it was just strike one.
Three pitches later, Halamandaris rocketed a single back through the box, scoring Cumberland despite an on-the-money throw from center fielder Christoph Bono. After a botched suicide squeeze by Brian Celsi resulted in Paul being cut down for the third out of the inning, Kaprielian stalked off the field, glaring at Moore.
“You need any little piece of any part of the game to help crack, if you can,” Esquer said. “Sometimes, it does take a defensive play that should be made, makes the guy throw a few more pitches, maybe something happens and you score a run. It can get to the pitcher.”
In the bottom of the seventh, UCLA looked to have a leadoff single on its hands thanks to Moore, but instead, Mitchell Kranson came sprinting over to the line, sliding and reaching backwards to make a highlight-reel grab to rob the hot-hitting junior, who came into the game pacing the Bruins with a .379 average.
Keck then banged a single to right, and Kort Peterson followed suit with a line-drive single to center, but Jefferies bore down for one more batter, getting catcher Darrell Miller, Jr., to swing and miss at the breaking ball down for Jefferies’ fourth strikeout of the night.
Esquer then brought in lefty Chris Muse-Fisher to face the left-handed hitting Bono, but UCLA manager John Savage countered, pinch hitting the right-handed hitting Sean Bouchard. Little did he know that Muse-Fisher’s numbers are actually better against right-handed hitters.
“We knew, either way, we knew that left-on-left would be a good match for us, and if they went right, he is as good against righties,” Esquer said.
Four pitches later, Muse-Fisher had a strikeout, and Bouchard had a seat, ending the seventh.
Sophomore Schick came on to start the eighth, spinning a curve for a called strike three against second baseman Trent Chatterton and needing just two pitches to get Kramer to ground out to short.
Then, the Cal defense made things interesting, as Max Dutto bobbled an easy grounder at second, and Erceg had trouble with the transfer on a grounder to third, putting Brett Stephens and Persico on board for Moore – who leads the Bruins with 34 RBIs.
Schick, though, got another grounder, this time to short, and while freshman Preston GrandPre’s throw was up the line, Paul deftly stepped off the bag and made the tag on Moore going by in a veteran move that was missing from that position on Sunday.
“That’s probably the only hiccup in the game,” said Esquer, who’s team committed six errors last time out. “We missed two routine balls there, and this was a big game for us, because this is the type of game we have to get comfortable with. From here on out, if we’re going to play big games that matter, and you’re going to be trading zeroes with teams, or trading runs with teams. It’s going to be close, and you’ve got to play clutch defense.”
Nelson then came on in the ninth, getting a called third strike on Keck with his slider, before hitting Peterson on an 0-1 slide piece. Miller popped the first pitch he saw to right, and then Nelson struck Urabe out on three straight pitches to spell the end.
“It was a good pitch, actually,” Nelson said of the slider that plunked Peterson. “It just broke more than I thought. I mean, that ball started off the plate away, and if it hits him, I’ve got pretty good stuff, so I wasn’t worried about it … The strikeouts are always fun.”
Cal and UCLA tangle again at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Friday at 4 p.m., on the Pac-12 Networks, with 6-foot-7 righty Ryan Mason (4-1, 2.93 ERA) going against senior lefty Grant Watson (5-3, 2.24).
“It’s a series that we should win,” said Nelson. “We’ve got the first one, and we’ve got to come back with Mason tomorrow.”
With a southpaw on the hill, there’s a chance we might see right fielder Devin Pearson in the lineup for the first time in a month, after he was sidelined with a broken hamate bone.
“Possibly,” Esquer said. “He’s going to play at some point this weekend. We really need him to play from Stanford, on. That’s when we really need him. We need him running around in Arizona. I’d hate to bring him back too soon, and hurt those chances. I would imagine, from Stanford on, we’re going to give him the best shot to let him go.”