For 15 minutes following No. 24 California's 4-2 loss at the hands of Washington, Bears head coach David Esquer laid into his team to a degree he hasn't in years. Cal (23-15, 9-10 in Pac-12) has dropped eight of its last nine conference games, and fallen from a first-place tie with Utah atop the conference to sixth out of 11 teams.
"We built up a pretty good cushion and you win that Friday game at Oregon, and since then, we just haven't been able to play well enough to win these tough ballgames," Esquer said.
Every mistake Cal has made since sweeping Oregon State and UCLA has been capitalized upon, including two wild pitches, one passed ball and one error on Friday night, with Ryan Mason on the mound.
"Those mistakes are the difference," Esquer said. "We can continue to feel sorry for ourselves, or we can not make mistakes. We've got to play better. We've just got to play better."
Despite those mistakes -- the passed ball and one wild pitch each led indirectly to runs, as did the error in the ninth by shortstop Preston GrandPre -- the Bears did have a chance to overtake the Huskies (24-14, 10-6) in the bottom of the eighth. With Washington up 3-2 thanks to an eighth-inning solo home run by John Naff off of Erik Martinez, catcher Brett Cumberland led off the bottom of the frame with a nine-pitch walk.
Kranson came in going 1-for-17 over his previous four games, but had tagged a first-inning frozen rope on a line-out to center in the first, and smacked a sixth-inning double into the teeth of the wind and off the wall in right center field. On other nights, that ball may have gone out.
With the Bears' best two hitters having the bats taken out of their hands, Nick Halamandaris and Jeffrey Mitchell both struck out against Washington closer Troy Rallings, who earned his 13th save with 2.0 innings of hitless relief, including four strikeouts.
"Good pitcher, tough at-bat, just not going to get the job done," Esquer said. "You've got to give them credit. They faced a tough pitcher, and the guy hit a home run to center."
The missed opportunities -- including a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Mitchell in the bottom of the sixth, after Kranson's double and Halamandaris taking a ball in the back from reliever Will Ballowe -- stung even more given the 5.1 solid innings the Bears got from Mason, whose line of seven hits, two runs (one earned), one walk and three strikeouts isn't quite indicative of his performance. His sinking fastball was particularly effective, as was his off-speed stuff, and none of the hits he gave up were particularly well-struck. He looked like the Ryan Mason from the first third of the season, and felt like it, too.
"I felt good, threw the ball down, had good velocity, good command," Mason said. "I was actually pretty happy with the way my arm was working. A few things didn't go our way. That's baseball. A few runs were tough against us. They played a clean slate of baseball, and we didn't. That's just how it goes."
Mason was unhappy missing last week's start, but the edict came from his head coach, and he had to bite his tongue.
"Eskie makes his decision, and I have to respect it," Mason said. "It's not my place to tell him he's wrong. Was it painful for me watching our pitchers get stretched, because I couldn't be out there? Absolutely. I respect Eskie's decision, though, and it was good to be back out there this week, with them."
Second baseman Levi Jordan, seeing how tough it was to get a knock against Mason in the traditional sense, bunted with two strikes for a surprise single to lead off the fifth. Each of the Huskies first three men to the plate in the frame, in fact, squared around to bunt. After Mason fanned shortstop A.J. Graffanino, left fielder K.J. Brady squared, and took a wild pitch down and in, allowing Jordan to advance. A fly out moved Jordan to third, from where he would score on an 0-2 roller by Jack Meggs under Mason's glove and up the middle.
In the top of the sixth, Mason got a quick groundout, and then a bleeding grounder through the right side off the bat of MJ Hubbs. A ball down and in got by Cumberland for a passed ball, allowing Hubbs to reach second. Naff then sent a shot past a diving Halamandaris at first, and right fielder Brian Celsi came on charging, and came up firing. The throw to the plate was in time, if a bit high, and Cumberland was able to corral it in time, and turn to block the plate. But, the sophomore catcher was unable to hang on to the ball, allowing Hubbs to score.
"You put some pressure on your catcher to block, and we weren't able to pick up any bases that way, but three bases, at least, the guys moved up and it led to some runs," Esquer said. "Those mistakes are the difference."
Mason was then lifted for Martinez, who used his curve to fan Josh Cushing and then got Jordan to fly out to center to end the threat. Though Martinez took the loss, he did give up just two hits in 2.2 innings of work, with five strikeouts on 44 pitches.
"I could have gone deeper in that game, but they made the decision to put E-Mar in, in that situation, and he did a great job," Mason said.
Mason exited after 73 pitches, after not having started last week due to tightness in his shoulder.
"We've got to take care of him, and they did a good job," Esquer said."They put some balls in play on the ground, which is what we should have been doing, ourselves. We just couldn't get the ball low enough, in play."
The loss also wasted a comeback night for Pearson, who came in on an 0-for-16 slide the last five games, in part due to a shoulder that still isn't 100-percent healthy. Pearson went 2-for-4 with each of Cal's runs, double off the wall in left center field in the bottom of the second, and then rode home when GrandPre sent a chopper over drawn-in third baseman Chris Baker.
Celsi would work a one-out walk to put two men on for center fielder Aaron Knapp, who flew out to right, moving GrandPre to third. But, with hot-hitting Robbie Tenerowicz at the dish, Celsi got caught napping at first by starter Noah Bremer, and was picked off, 1-3-4 to end the threat.
"I'm trying to keep myself as healthy as possible, get some rest, but we want to win, and I think we're pressing a little bit," Pearson said. "Most important thing is that we're competing and we're into the games, but they're just not going our way. We've got to find a way. No more excuses."
After the Husies added runs in the fifth and sixth, led off the bottom of the seventh by sending the eighth pitch he saw from reliever Alex Nesbitt -- a slider, after seven fastballs in a row -- over the wall in left center for his second home run of the season.
"I've just been making little tweaks, little adjustments to my swing, to try to be as relaxed as possible, and it's all coming together," Pearson said. "I was fired up. That was huge to answer back, after they'd been sticking it to us. We'll get them tomorrow."