The Bears (23-12, 10-7 in Pac-12) got off to an auspicious start, as a leadoff single by center fielder Aaron Knapp was erased by one of the Pac-12’s best left-handed pickoff moves, as left-handed Bruins starter Grant Watson picked off his league-best seventh runner of the season after just one pitch to two-hitter Mitchell Kranson.
Kranson proceeded to ground out to second, and Lucas Erceg flew out to center on a 1-1 offering against Watson to end the inning, and any threat Cal hoped to mount.
“It sets a poor tone for you,” said Bears head coach David Esquer. “You get a hit to lead off the game, and boom, he’s erased. You don’t even get a chance to swing with a runner on base, especially with a game that’s going to be as fine.”
The Bears would not get another hit until two one-out singles in the top of the seventh, while UCLA (27-8, 13-4) battered Bears starter Ryan Mason, touching up the junior righty for five runs – all earned – on eight hits over just 3.0 innings of work, with four of those runs coming in a 29-pitch first inning.
Mason retired Kevin Kramer easily enough, with a routine grounder to second, but after going 0-2 on both Brett Stephens and Luke Persico, allowed sharply hit singles to both, before allowing an RBI single over shortstop and into left center field to left fielder Ty Moore, who came into the game hitting .449 with runners in scoring position.
So began the UCLA onslaught.
“That was kind of a buzzkill there in the first inning, on both sides of the ball,” said head coach David Esquer. “You get picked off, and then you get the first guy out, you go 0-2, 0-2, and then base hit, base hit, and they just singled us to death. Mason just didn’t have anything to threaten with. He just wasn’t getting to the back of their swings, wasn’t executing pitches.”
After a walk to Chris Keck, Mason got Kort Peterson to send a little nubber to the right side, and he picked that up and tagged Peterson out, only for another run to score. Catcher ,b>Darrell Miller, Jr., then singled on an 0-1 offering under Pauls’ glove for a two-run single.
UCLA added another run in the bottom of the second, when Persico cashed in a leadoff ftriple to left off the bat of Kramer with a one-out RBI single.
“You just can’t do that against the No. 3 ranked team in the nation,” Esquer said. “You make it easy on them. I felt like, if we could come in and keep some steady pressure on them, it really could work in our benefit, and we didn’t do that.”
The Bruins tallied 11 hits in total off of four Cal pitchers, with Persico leading the charge, going 3-for-4 with a run and two RBIs.
Watson was not quite as brilliant as James Kaprielian and his big-league-ready curveball were on Friday night, striking out 11, but Watson nevertheless held the Bears off-balance, allowing just four baserunners in 6.1 innings, striking out four and throwing just 71 pitches before giving way to the Bruins’ superlative bullpen.
When scoring in the first inning, UCLA was 14-1 coming into Friday, and when leading after 6.0 innings, the Bruins were 20-0. The trio of Tucker Forbes, Grant Dyer and closer David Berg showed exactly why, throwing 2.2 hitless innings, with the only blemish being a walk by Dyer.
“He’s got those two lines,” Esquer said of Bruins skipper John Savage. “It’s like a hockey team. He’s got his A line when they’re ahead, and he’s got his B line when they’re behind a little bit, and he runs them out there in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. When you get down, their pitcher is basically pitching for six innings.”
When Watson allowed one-out singles to Kranson and Erceg in the top of the seventh, then, Savage had no compunctions about pulling his starter for Forbes, and his 2.16 ERA. Forbes quickly got ahead of Chris Paul with two called strikes, but Paul then lofted a ball to shallow right. Going back on the ball, second baseman Trent Chatterton called off right fielder Peterson, but dropped the ball, allowing Kranson to score, but he alertly was able to erase Erceg at second for the second out.
Freshman catcher Brett Cumberland then struck out swinging to end an eight-pitch at-bat, and the last scoring opportunity the Bears would have.
• Mason has not thrown a start as short as his 3.0-inning outing since May 3, 2013. It is tied for the shortest starting outing of his career. In that game – a 6-1 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., Mason allowed four runs – all earned – on four hits and three walks, with one strikeout. He had two starting outings of 3.1 innings last season. On Friday, he finished with 53 pitches, 36 for strikes.
“I didn’t see much stuff,” Esquer said. “He just didn’t have anything. There were no uncomfortable at-bats. The biggest at-bat was Miller’s at-bat, the two-run single to the right side. He wasn’t uncomfortable at all.”
• The one bright spot for the Bears was that a second reliever who was roughed up against Stanford last weekend – freshman Erik Martinez -- was able to get his lather up and provide some solid innings of relief, allowing two hits and one run with three strikeouts, but walking three. Against the Cardinal last Sunday, the righty threw just 1.1 innings (39 pitches), allowing six runs – though none earned – on one hit and four walks. On Friday, Martinez threw 59 pitches in 3.2 innings of work.
Converted sophomore catcher Jesse Kay threw 1.0 inning and walking one -- Christoph Bono -- who came around to score on a flare single to left by Chatterton off of Collin Monsour that just escaped a sliding Kranson’s mitt in the bottom of the eighth.
“Martinez came in, and I thought that was the best he’s pitched in a while,” Esquer said. “I think that’s going to work for us in the future, to get him comfortable in atmospheres and games like this. We’re going to need that.”
• Hitting coach Brad Sanfilipo ripped into his hitters following the game, as they worked the four Bruins pitchers for just 106 total pitches – fewer than Kaprielian threw in 6.0 innings the night before – and the aforementioned three hits, with just one walk on the day.
“We just made it easy on them,” Esquer said. “We’ve got to be comfortable against good staffs, and we didn’t do that today. We’ve got to come back and play well tomorrow.”
It wasn’t just the execution that bothered the Cal staff, but the quality of at-bats.
“Watson, for two or three innings, it was fairly easy, just breezed through it,” Esquer said.
• Right fielder Devin Pearson -- who last played on March 7, when he broke the hamate bone in his left hand on a backswing – returned to the lineup for the first time, on Friday, going 0-for-3 and playing all nine innings. Pearson was rusty at the dish, flying out on three pitches leading off the top of the third, grounding out to third on a 1-0 bunt attempt to lead off the top of the sixth and bouncing out to short on an 0-1, one-out offering in the top of the eighth.
Esquer was not sure if Pearson would start again in the Saturday series finale against Bruins righty Griffin Canning, a freshman with a 6-1 record and a 2.74 ERA.
“They’ve got Canning going tomorrow, so we’ll see how he feels coming off of the first time back out there,” Esquer said.
The Bears finish the series in Los Angeles on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., once again on the Pac-12 Networks.
Canning will square off against fellow freshman in Cal lefty Matt Ladrech, who’s 5-4 on the year with a 2.45 ERA. Last time out, Ladrech was the victim of porous defense against Stanford, allowing five runs – three earned – on seven hits in 4.1 innings.
“We try to pitch to ground balls, get balls on the ground, and the defense could have played a little better, but there were spots where I could have made some pitches,” Ladrech said of his last outing. “We’re going to get back to work this week and figure it out.”
As for the Bruins, Ladrech knows that the schedule doesn’t get easier from this point out. Stanford returns to Evans Diamond for a non-league game on Tuesday, and then the Bears travel to Arizona, host No. 4 Arizona State and, after a quick two-day trip to face Campbell, they host No. 11 USC and then finish the season at No. 20 Oregon State.
“We’re just going to try to beat them; we’ve been beating ourselves up the last few games,” Ladrech said. “If we can come in, get back to playing how we were before, I think we can take care of business. We’ve just got to stop beating ourselves up.”