In his three starts since a one-inning implosion against USC, California senior righty Ryan Mason was 3-0, with two complete games and just three earned runs, striking out 22 in 25.0 innings. The last two weeks, as he's stepped in for injured ace Daulton Jefferies (right calf tightness), he's gone 2-0, with 7.0-inning and 9.0-inning efforts against UCLA and Oregon. But on Friday night, on a dry, windy night in Tempe, Ariz., Mason was blown away, giving up six runs (five earned) in 4.0 innings, en route to a 6-4 loss to Arizona State.
"I didn't think he had good sink on his ball," said head coach David Esquer. "I think his ball was kind of flat. He had a little pop on it, but they were getting good swings off of him, which is unusual."
No. 15 Cal (20-10, 8-5 in Pac-12) dropped the first game of a series for the first time this season, and could not solve right Seth Martinez, who held great command of his fastball and working off of it with his breaker, keeping it down while Mason left his slider up in the zone and threw through his sink.
The top three hitters in the Bears lineup went just 2-for-14.
Martinez, after allowing Mitchell Kranson's 12th double of the year with two outs in the first, and then an RBI single off the bat of Pac-12 Triple Crown leader Brett Cumberland, retired nine of the next 11 hitters, with the only two reaching base doing so on an error and a walk. After allowing a double to the right center field gap by second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz in the fourth, he retired right fielder Denis Karas to end the inning.
"The top of our lineup did not produce much, at all, which makes it hard on us," Esquer said. "I think we just got an infield single out of our two top guys. I know Kranny went 1-for-5. That makes it hard on them. You can't be a one-man show and make Brett Cumberland carry you."
As Martinez worked through the Cal lineup, Mason got worked by the Sun Devils. Mason allowed a first-pitch leadoff single to Andrew Shaps, but got a fielder's choice grounder and then a pop out to left to Devin Pearson, playing his first game in the outfield this season, after being relegated to designated hitter duty due to an injured shoulder.
With two outs, he got ahead of athletic freshman outfielder Tyler Williams, 0-1, but the 6-foot-3, 236-pounder sent an inside-out drive to right center for an RBI double, and took third in a wild relay throw from Tenerowicz. Williams -- who tallied the first milt-hit game of his career on Friday, going 3-for-4 with a run, an RBI and two doubles -- then rode home on a 1-1 single by freshman Gage Canning, who kept his bat in the zone long enough to roll a change up from Mason through the right side to take the lead for Arizona State.
The Sun Devils got solid defense from their infield on the night, with a would-be single by Aaron Knapp with one out in the third instead being stopped on a diving try by first baseman David Greer, who then flipped from his belly to his behind and flipped the ball to Martinez covering first.
The next man up -- Kranson -- sent a drive to center, where Shaps stepped back, and then in, coming up short on a diving try as the wind blew the ball down. Kranson alertly hustled all the way to third, but he was stranded there as first baseman Nick Halamandaris struck out swinging.
"Coming out of that first inning, I hit my spot on that base hit, so I wasn't really mad about it, but I give most of the credit to my defense; they made huge plays for me -- great plays, actually," Martinez said. "That was the major difference."
Mason got ahead of nine of the first 10 hitters by throwing first-pitch strikes, but with one out and two strikes on Greer in the bottom of the third, he left a change up up in the zone, and surrendered just the second home run he's given up since the start of last season -- a stretch that's included 149.1 innings pitched without allowing a home run. Mason then walked veteran Colby Woodmansee, then Shaps, and gave up a line-drive single to the right side as catcher Brian Serven fought off a 1-2 pitch inside at the waist to give the Sun Devils a 4-1 lead.
"Greer is a stud," Esquer said. "I have a huge amount of respect for him. I think he's one of the better players in the league, if not one of the best hitters in the league."
With runners at the corners, Mason left his first pitch to sophomore Ryan Lillard up in the zone, which was promptly banged into the left center field gap to score two more runs.
"He threw [Greer] a change up that he hit for a home run, and you never know how guys react to that, and whether he came back just trying to over-effort the next few pitches," Esquer said, when asked if that one pitch to Greer derailed Mason. "They got a string of runners on and scored some runs. It's unusual to get a four-run inning, the way Mason has been pitching recently."
Arizona State came up with more sparkling defense in the top of the fourth, with sophomore Andrew Snow made a diving stop off a kangaroo hop on a grounder from Brenden Farney for the first out. A double to right by Tenerowicz -- who went 2-for-3 with two RBIs -- was the only blemish on the frame for Martinez.
"I tried to keep my tempo up," Martinez said. "The defense likes it, and it works for me. I think around the third inning, I was in."
In the top of the sixth, Cumberland ripped a leadoff single to center on an off speed pitch inside for his 13th multi-hit game of the season, but was erased on a 4-6-3 double play off the bat of Farney. That bit of defense rendered a titanic solo home run by Halamandaris -- over the scoreboard in right field -- less damaging, but the Bears had cut the lead to 6-2.
Mason exited after 4.0 innings and 74 pitches, giving way to true freshman Joey Matulovich. The first-year righty was, in a word, dazzling. In 4.0 innings of his own, he struck out six, and allowed only two hits -- both to Williams -- with no runs and no walks. He worked deftly inside and out, changing eye levels with an 87-90 mph fastball and throwing his 12-6 curve both for strikes and as a swing-and-miss pitch out of the zone.
"Williams, I thought he did a great job competing," Esquer said. "He's a young hitter, and he just competed. He got the barrel to the ball with some bat speed, he's strong, and I thought he did a great job. His numbers weren't great coming in, but he competed well tonight, and it looks like he's going to be a good player in the future."
Following 7.0 innings on Tuesday by fellow freshman Tanner Dodson in his first collegiate win, the Bears could be looking at the future of their rotation. Before last weekend's hiccup against Oregon, Matulovich had allowed three hits and one earned run over 6.0 innings in three appearances.
"It looks like they're becoming sophomores," Esquer said. "Matulovich was really good, and he held them at bay for us, and gave us an opportunity. He did everything we asked out of him."
Matulovich was particularly impressive in the bottom of the sixth, when, after seeing an inside curve punched past a diving Knapp in center for a leadoff triple by Williams, struck out the side on his downward-darting fastball and swing-and-miss curve.
With Matulovich on the hill, Cal scatted across another pair in the top of the eighth. After a Kranson bouncer up the middle went through Woodmansee's legs and into center, Martinez was lifted for lefty Eli Lingos. Lingos flipped Cumberland around to the right side (he came into the game hitting .492 left-handed), and struck him out swinging. Farney then sent a hot shot to the right side, but it was smothered by Greer, who threw to second to erase Kranson.
A five-pitch walk to Halamandaris set the stage for Tenerowicz, who got ahead 3-0, and then belted a full-count, letter-high fastball from Lingos into left center to drive in two. In came Saturday's schedules tarter, Eder Erives, who was ASU's closer for much of the first half of the season, before moving to the bump the last two weeks. Erives got Karas to fly out to right to end the threat, and then worked around a one-out infield single by Pearson in the top of the ninth for his fourth save of the season.
• Pearson's first game back in left went well, though he didn't get many chances and didn't have to test his arm. It's going to be a continual process for the Bears to get their leadoff man back into the swing of things in the outfield.
"[The shoulder] was good enough today, and we wanted to try it," Esquer said. "It's nice to have him out there, but we're going to take that day-to-day. I don't want to push him too far, because we definitely need him to hit."
• Having Matulovich pitch four shutout innings helps a beleaguered pitching staff that's still missing Jefferies, who's been good for at least 6.0 innings per start, and set-up man Alex Schick. The rest of the bullpen is well-rested, now, and with the lack of consistency from sophomores Jeff Bain (who goes Saturday) and Matt Ladrech (Sunday), that could prove important.
"We've got no certainty there, right now," Esquer said. "We need a good outing out of them, and we've got to support them with defense and some offense. I've been a little disappointed in our offense. People think that's our calling card, that we can hit a little bit, and we've not done that, not well enough to support our pitching."
• Cal has now lost three of its last four conference games, after sweeping both Oregon State and UCLA at home to vault to the top of the conference standings. Is it a mid-season malaise, or is the fact that the Bears have been missing Jefferies, plus the everyday grind of the Pac-12 schedule?
"I think it's a pretty relentless league, and you've got to bring your game to the field on a nightly basis," Esquer said. "There are very few times you get an at-bat or a game off, with someone who's at a level where the game is easy for them. These are high-level games with guys who know what they're doing, and you've got to bring your game to the field, and mentally, you've got to be ready to do that."
• Jefferies did make the trip with the team, and, Esquer said, he's getting closer to returning. Cal returns home on Tuesday for a non-conference game with Stanford, and then hosts Arizona for three, a midweek game against Cal Poly, and three more home conference games against Washington.
"He's cleared to progress to throwing, Esquer said. "It's just on him, on how he feels. There's no structural damage anywhere. He's throwing. He threw on Monday. He's kind of progressed and can take it all the way, but until he feels like he can deliver the ball and be safe doing it, we're kind of on his time table now, because everything has checked out."
Asked what the diagnosis was for the source of Jefferies's right calf tightness, Esquer equivocated.
"He had a lower leg that was bothering him, and it's nothing that's, he feels stronger now, but I think when he came back to throwing, he just had to find his release point," Esquer said. "He said he felt really awkward throwing on Monday, just trying to get back to it. It's just a progression. In combination, the technical terms they bring to it, they said it was not worth risking throwing. We've had everything checked out, and I think he's progressing to throwing. It was sore, and then we're just kind of moving forward."