It could also have been a misplayed roller up the first base line by starter Daulton Jefferies that led to a three-run fifth. Or, it could have been the decision by head coach David Esquer to go to his closer, Dylan Nelson, instead of riding set-up man and former starter Alex Schick with the game tied in the ninth inning.
After quickly striking out David Greer on four pitches, Nelson got ahead of Joey Bielek, 0-2, but instead of going with his slurve for the put-away, Nelson went with a challenge fastball on the inner half, which Bielek promptly banged into right for a single.
Nelson’s next pitch, to right fielder Trever Allen, was an 86 mph fastball down and in, but Allen spun on it and deposited the ball over the left center field wall to break a 3-3 tie, eventually giving the Sun Devils (29-13, 14-5 in the Pac-12) the win.
“He’s our guy at the end of the game,” head coach David Esquer explained. “If he holds them, it’s a two-for-one. We get two shots at it. If he holds one inning, we get two shots, and they get one.”
The Bears (27-15, 13-9) missed two golden opportunities early to jump on starter Seth Martinez, who gave up 10 hits in 4.2 innings.
In the bottom of the second, Cal got a one-out single by Devin Pearson, and a perfectly-placed single through the left side on a hit-and-run play by freshman shortstop Preston GrandPre to put two men on for powerful designated hitter Nick Halamandaris. Halamanadaris got behind quickly, 0-2, before striking out, and sophomore second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz promptly popped out to shallow center on the first pitch he saw.
In the bottom of the fourth, after Mitchell Kranson sent the first of three shots deep to the outfield that died at the track in the cold night air, Pearson sent a roller up the middle for a single.
GrandPre then came up with single to left on a hit-and-run play, and two pitches later, Halamandaris sent a hard shot through the right side for a single, loading the bases for Tenerowicz.
The sophomore infielder made three highlight-reel plays on defense over the course of the night, but given the opportunity at the plate to step on Arizona State’s neck, he once again came up empty, grounding into an inning-ending, 5-3 double play on the first pitch he saw.
“There was that one, and Halamandaris was up, first-and-third, with one out, earlier, and those two opportunities, you’d like to get a little breathing room with a lead, and we weren’t able to do it,” said Esquer.
The top of the fifth saw Jefferies – who’d made just 53 pitches in the first four innings of a scoreless tie – fanned Bielek on five pitches, but after getting ahead of Allen 0-1, everything changed.
Allen cued the next pitch he saw up the first base line, and Jefferies, rushing to field it, stumbled and missed the ball with his glove, though he did manage to push it towards first baseman Chris Paul.
“I didn’t know if Chris was going to get there,” said Jefferies. “I’m sure he said something, but I didn’t hear him. I went to go pick it up, and it didn’t even go in my glove. Chris tried to tag the bag.”
Jefferies tumbled over the first base bag, as Paul picked up the ball to tag it, but first base umpire Barry Larson called Allen safe.
“Chris grabbed it and tagged the bag with the ball, and I think I was in the umpire’s way, because he was out,” Jefferies said. “I think I was in the umpire’s way when he tagged the ball to the bag.”
From there, things fell apart. Jefferies struck out R.J. Ybarra, but a wild pitch on strike three allowed Allen to advance to second. A 2-2 delivery from Jefferies to Andrew Snow kicked off of catcher Brett Cumberland’s shin guard, and towards the Cal dugout, allowing Allen to move to third. Jefferies’s next itch nicked Snow on the elbow, putting men at the corners.
Center fielder Johnny Sewald then sent a hard grounder up the line at first, just inside the bag and past a diving Paul for an RBI double, and then Jake Peevyhouse sent a two-run double into the right field corner to put Arizona State up, 3-0.
“I just sped up too much,” Jefferies said. “I really wasn’t controlling everything, staying pitch-by-pitch. [Pitching coach] Mike [Neu], when I came into the dugout, he said I rushed a lot, which I agree with. You’ve got to go with it and stick with your approach.”
In the bottom half of the frame, Cal lost another run, when a would-be leadoff home run by Aaron Knapp was hauled back into the yard by Allen in right, but did get two runs back thanks to Paul, who slugged a two-run home run – his eighth of the season – to left center.
“Our team plays hard, and they’re not going to go down easily,” Esquer said. “We’re developing a comfort level at the highest level of our league, and I thought they did a good job.”
With two outs, the Bears got three straight singles, but the third – by GrandPre – sent Kranson – aboard with a single through the left side -- plateward, where he was hosed by left fielder Peevyhouse to end the inning and the threat.
Cal tied things up in the bottom of the seventh, when Paul laid down a perfectly-placed bunt between the mound and third base for an infield single, and moved to second on a single by Cumberland that snuck through the left side of the infield. After Kranson popped out on the first pitch he saw from reliever Eder Erives, the Sun Devils brought in Darin Gillies to face Pearson, who promptly shot an 0-1 offering off the tip of Snow’s glove at second for an RBI single.
Schick came on and tossed a scoreless eighth, walking one and striking out catcher Brian Serven to end the frame.
Halamandaris led off the bottom of the eighth with a high drive to center, but Sewald vaulted into the air to steal away a home run.
“Halamandaris, I don’t know if that ball was over the fence, but it was at the top,” Esquer said. That ball, and the one hit by Knapp, Esquer said, could have been out, but “they probably went further than they’d go during the day, with the wind.”
Schick – who spent part of last season and the early part of 2015 as a starter -- then gave way to Nelson to start the ninth, instead of Esquer riding him for multiple innings in a tie game.
“He’s been our guy at the end of the game, and if we’d have scored a run, he’d probably have been in,” Esquer said.
Instead, Nelson gave up his fourth home run of the season, and was dinged for his first loss.
Esquer said that there was “a little” temptation to leave Schick in.
“Nelly would have been our guy with a one-run lead, and we feel like, if we hold them, we’re hitting in the bottom of the eighth, and we get six outs to score, and they only have three, so we were playing the two-for-one there, if Nelly could get the zero, and he didn’t,” Esquer said. “They’re a good team.”
Cal and Arizona State go at it again on Saturday, with junior righty Ryan Mason (5-2, 3.12 ERA) facing off against Sun Devils lefty Ryan Kellog (7-1, 3.61), who’s eighth in the conference in strikeouts (56), sixth in innings pitched (76.0), seventh in batters struck out looking (18) and tied for second in wins, but is also tied for first with 12 wild pitches.
First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m., with a pregame ceremony to honor Brent Woodall, a member of the 1991 and 1992 baseball teams, and a former wide receiver for Mike Pawlawski during his time in Berkeley, catching 55 balls for 565 yards and four touchdowns during his Cal career.
Woodall was drafted in the 1993 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs, and on Sept. 11, 2001, he was among the 2,977 victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. He was working as an equities trader with Keefe, Bruyette and Woods on the 89th floor of the south tower.
Two weeks later, his family and friends started the Brent Woodall Memorial Scholarship Fund, which annually honors Bears student-athletes.
"Coaches, teammates, and friends will always remember Brent for his outstanding character, quiet leadership, quick wit and team first mentality," said Woodall’s former manager, Bob Milano.
"Brent was remarkable,” said Jon Zuber, a baseball teammate of Woodall’s on the 1992 squad. “To play two major Division 1 sports and excel at both of them while maintaining fantastic academic standing at Cal says all anyone needs to know about not only his athletic ability, but also his desire and determination. Through all of that he was just a normal, easy going guy and a tremendous teammate. It was always about the team with Brent. Whoever had the good fortune to be on a team with Brent was incredibly lucky. If there is one person who exemplified a Cal student-athlete, it was Brent Woodall."