Before Sunday, Arizona State freshman Zach Dixon had thrown no more than 17 pitches in any of his two previous outings -- both lasting less than an inning. He came out firing against No. 15 California, throwing a complete game shutout -- the Sun Devils' second of the year -- and shutting down the conference's third-best offense to the tune of 4-0.
"We are resilient, but to get shut out by a pitcher that had thrown just one inning the whole year, startles you a bit," said head coach David Esquer. "It makes you pause a bit. They all know that he hadn't pitched much the whole year, and we gave them no reason to take him out. We're fighting it a little bit. Maybe trying a little bit too hard. Maybe grasping for it a little harder than we should at this point, and not playing as free and easy as we did, early on. We'll get back to that, but it's one of those stretches, and it's on the road. You've got to play well to win on the road in this league, and we haven't done that yet."
It was the first time that the Bears (21-11, 9-6 in Pac-12) had been shut out since a midweek affair against then-No. 20 Michigan, losing 5-0 at Evans Diamond. Cal managed just three hits -- all singles -- against Dixon, who struck out seven, walked three and hit one. The Bears stranded six men on base.
"We squared up a number of balls, and could no get anything to fall," Esquer said. "We just had no way to attack them offensively. We could not get anything going. We hit a number of balls right at them. Devin Pearson I think hit three balls on the screws, right into their positioning, into two double plays, and probably would have hit into a third, but they didn't turn it."
The Sun Devils (20-13, 6-6) on the other hand, capitalized on the two opportunities they had against lefty starter Matt Ladrech.
The sophomore southpaw allowed back-to-back singles to start the bottom of the second, but then got a pop out by freshman Tyler Williams, and appeared to get the second out on a roller to third, but third baseman Mitchell Kranson didn't get quite the grip he wanted on the ball, and threw wide to first, pulling Nick Halamandaris off the bag and loading the bases. A first-pitch line-drive single to left off the bat of Daniel Williams -- who didn't have a hit all of March -- brought home a run, a walk to freshman Gage Canning brought in another, and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Andrew Snow brought home a third.
"We didn't back him up with good defense," Esquer said. "There were a couple plays in the third inning that we could have made, and Kranny doesn't make many errors, but he made one that loaded the bases with one out. He's not a strikeout pitcher, so that doesn't play to his strengths. We didn't do him any favors, defensively, in that third inning. We need to play good defense behind Matt Ladrech, because the ball's going to be in play."
For the next five innings, Ladrech was untouchable, allowing just two walks and not a single hit, while catcher Brett Cumberland caught two runners trying to steal, both in the fourth. Ladrech scattered six hits and four walks, while striking out two in 8.0 innings.
"He did a nice job, and really kept them off balance," Esquer said. "He really broke down a number of their hitters."
Cal had a chance to strike back in the third, when speedy senior Brian Celsi blooped a single down the left field line into no-man's land with one out, but a fielder's choice groundout by leadoff man Devin Pearson and a strikeout by second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz ended that ambition.
Dixon frustrated the Bears at every turn, getting a middle-in fastball just far enough inside for Kranson to not get barrel on it to lead off the fourth, resulting in a fly out, instead of a double or home run. After that, a single through the left side of the shifted infield by Cumberland and a walk to designated hitter Matt Ruff gave the Bears two on with one out, but a drive to right by Halamandaris -- surely tabbed for extra bases -- was robbed by a leaping Canning, who threw himself into the wall to make the grab.
Cal center fielder Aaron Knapp sent a grounder to second on the first pitch he saw, and through he was able to draw a fielding error from Andrew Snow to load the bases, GrandPre struck out on three pitches to leave the bases loaded. Knapp was moved from second down to seventh in the lineup, and Brenden Farney, who had gone 0-for-7 in the previous two games of the series.
"Farney's numbers right now aren't great versus left, and Knapp has our lowest on-base percentage and our highest strikeout rate, and that's not conducive to a leadoff hitter," Esquer said. "We're just trying to get more base runners for Kranson and Cumby when we get a chance, and we weren't able to do that today."
The Bears were held without a hit from the fourth inning on, while the Sun Devils added an insurance tally in the bottom of the eighth on two singles, an intentional walk and an RBI flare to left by catcher Brian Serven.
Cal returns home for an eight-game home stand, featuring a Tuesday-night tilt against Stanford, three this weekend against Arizona, another midweek game against Cal Poly and then a three-game set against Washington.
The Bears will have a staff day on Tuesday, because going into the weekend, Cal will need every arm it can get, as Daulton Jefferies will still be on the shelf. The plan, Esquer said, is to go with Ryan Mason on Friday, Jeff Bain on Saturday and Ladrech again on Sunday against the Wildcats.