BERKELEY -- Friday didn't start out well for No. 18 California, with head coach David Esquer making the executive decision to sit senior righty Ryan Mason due to shoulder soreness. The Bears are already without ace Daulton Jefferies (shoulder), but no matter who was on the mound for Cal against Arizona, as Wildcats starter Nathan Bannister spun a complete game shutout, striking out 11 Bears in a 3-0 win, and holding Cal to just three hits.
"Truth be told, they'd be out of the game, and we'd still have zeroes," Esquer said of Mason and Jefferies. "The best it could be was 0-0 headed into the 10th."
Bannister has now allowed just one run in his last 26 innings of work.
Cal (22-12, 9-7 in Pac-12) went hitless for the final four innings, with two runners called out in the final three innings because of interference. In the bottom of the sixth, left fielder Devin Pearson struck out on one of Bannister's devastating sliders low, but his half swing took him into the path of catcher Ryan Haug, as Robbie Tenerowicz tried to steal second with one out. The throw was off-line, but home plate umpire Joe Burleson called both men out due to batter's interference.
In the bottom of the eighth, pinch hitter Sean Peters sent a bunt to the mound, and Bannister, fielding a slick ball, threw wide and high to first, sending the ball into right field. The speedy Peters reached third, but again, was called out because Burleson determined that Peters ran inside the baseline line to first. Without a leadoff man on, the Bears went down quietly. On the night, Cal had just one leadoff man reach base.
"That was kind of how things were going for us tonight," said Esquer. "We had interference at home plate, had interference at first base, we didn't get anything."
Cal did get 2.2 hitless innings of relief from three of its most seldom-used relievers -- Akaash Agarwal, Jordan Talbot and converted outfielder Grant Diede, who backed up freshman starter Tanner Dodson (5.0 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 3 Ks, 81 pitches) and Aaron Shortridge (1.1 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 1 K, 35 pitches).
"The pitching that we did use, to hold them to three, that's really all you can ask for," Esquer said.
Those three -- Talbot, Diede and Agarwal -- had combined to throw 9.1 innings in nine appearances over the course of the season, and Esquer used the bullpen almost as if the game was 10-0, but with the way that Bannister broke down Cal hitters -- leading batsmen Mitchell Kranson, Brett Cumberland and Nick Halamandaris struck out a combined six times and went 1-for-10 -- the 3-0 lead certainly seemed like it was 10-0.
"They did a nice job," Esquer said. "Talbot hasn't pitched in a month, and Diede hasn't pitched in a month, either. Had it felt like the game were closer, you're trying to steal a couple innings and see if you can score. Who knows with Peters? If he gets to third base with nobody out and you put a run there, then every baserunner, the tying run's at the plate. You're not looking for that rally rally. You're looking for a baserunner and a swing, and maybe change the momentum."
After two double plays started by Kranson in the first two innings to keep the Wildcats (24-14, 8-8) off the board, Arizona finally broke through in the top of the third.
Haug started things off with a grounder deep to the hole at short, and shortstop Preston GrandPre -- who had made that throw just two innings earlier -- threw the ball high to first baseman Halamandaris, pulling him off the bag. A sacrifice bunt by shortstop Louis Boyd moved Haug to third, and then a surprise first-pitch squeeze bunt by center fielder Justin Behnke -- arguably the Wildcats' best bunter -- brought Haug home, as Dodson tried to come charging to the plate to scoop the ball to Cumberland with his glove.
With one out in the top of the fifth, Kranson charged a bunt by Boyd up the third base line, but couldn't get a grip on the slick ball, after a sudden downpour two innings earlier soaked the infield grass. A 1-1 bunt by Behnke to the right side saw Dodson pick the ball up and throw high to first, as he tried to throw over the runner, once again taking Halamandaris off the bag. After striking out second baseman Cody Ramer, Dodson saw Zach Gibbons send a slicing fly ball to right. Senior right fielder Brian Celsi appeared to lose the ball in the lights momentarily, and got a late break, and his dive to try to make up for lost time allowed the ball to get by him for a two-run double.
"Give them credit: They won the game executing two bunts. They get two bunts down, one scored a run and one eventually scored a run. We haven't done the little things to make those pitchers that are throwing a good ballgame just crack a little bit. We just haven't done that."
While Bannister worked both sides of the plate with a looping slider and spotted his fastball, flashing a change up that got two strikeouts, Dodson's command was spotty, at best, as he went 3-2 to four batters during his 5.0 innings of work.
"He did a nice job," Esquer said of Bannister. "That was an outstanding pitching performance tonight. It really was. That was maybe as good as we've seen all year. Probably not light-up-the-gun type of stuff, but it really was outstanding pitching. It just broke us down in a number of ways, and we really didn't get our swing off that often."
As for Dodson, who tossed 6.0 solid innings two weeks ago in his first collegiate win against Cal Poly, he did flash at times, with an explosive fastball and a swing-and-miss slider, he was uneven. He dropped to 1-3 with a 3.15 ERA
"It's just inconsistent," Esquer said. "The good is really good, and it's just becoming consistent. I think his better outings have been on the road, too, so you worry a bit -- what's his comfort level on our mound? Does he feel more pressure pitching at home? -- I don't know. He's been outstanding his last two outings at the road, at Cal Poly and at ASU. He pitched with a lot of confidence and threw the ball with a down angle, didn't get to a lot of three-ball counts and was pretty good in the zone."
With two shutouts in the last three games, Cal is struggling to find its rhythm offensively. Since starting conference play 7-2, the Bears has gone 2-5 in Pac-12 play.
"It's not unusual," said Esquer. "Our guys are trying hard. It's not effort, and it's not necessarily preparation. It really is the rhythm of the season. You're going to go through a difficult spell, and they want to be a team that's recognized at the top of the conference, and it's really hard. Sometimes, you get tested. You get tested whether you're worthy of it, and you need to earn it. This is our test, whether we come through the other side."
With the offense not clicking, Esquer said, Cal has been relying too much on the big swing. Going forward, he said, the Bears may have to take a cue from the Wildcats and "build some innings," with more bunts and hit-and-runs
"Part of it is, if you're good enough to sit there and swing and just beat people, that's fine, but sometimes, it's just about breaking the pitcher down, as much as it is getting three hits an inning," Esquer said. "Get him in trouble, get him thinking, put some pressure on their pitch calling and when they're not quite sure what you're going to do -- are you going to hit, are you going to slash, bunt, hit and run? -- that puts some decision pressure on them, and we haven't done that."
Cal's senior righty has thrown a team-high 55.2 innings this season, and over the last several weeks, has been called upon to move up to Friday in place of the injured Jefferies. He's carrying a beleaguered pitching staff on his shoulders, and after a 6-4 loss at Arizona State last weekend, in which he went 7.0 innings, throwing 97 pitches and allowing three runs on five hits and two walks, Esquer didn't want to take any chances.
"He was a little sore coming out of ASU, and he could have gone tonight, and it just isn't worth it for us," Esquer said. "If we're going to be the team we want to be, he needs to be pitching at the end of the year in big games. He feels that one week would help him out a little bit. It's just a little muscle soreness. There's no MRI. He's been checked out, and he could have pitched tonight. He would not have been at full strength, and I don't think it was smart. We're just not going to do that."
The offense wouldn't have done much for him, anyway.
"In hindsight, it's probably the best thing, because if he were to pitch seven innings and get no run support, it would really have been a waste of an outing," Esquer said.
This was the first start in Mason's career that he has missed.
Cal will send Jeff Bain to the hill on Saturday for a 7 p.m. tilt against Arizona, against lefty J.C. Cloney, who sports a 3-2 record in nine starts, with a 2.72 ERA over 53.0 innings of work, with 34 strikeouts to nine walks and a .257 batting average against.