Stanford was 3-10 in its last 13 games, following the first game of the annual Big Series, but that doesn't quite hold a candle to how much California has struggled.
After Saturday's 6-4 loss to the Cardinal -- which clinched the season and weekend series for Stanford -- the Bears are 3-11 in their last 14 Pac-12 games, and have tumbled from first place all the way to seventh. Cal has now lost five series in a row.
Ace Daulton Jefferies has been out for seven weeks, and may or may not be available this coming weekend against Northwestern.
"Over six weeks, if he goes 3-3 -- and that's not very good for him -- we're in good shape," said head coach David Esquer. "If he goes 4-2 or 5-1 because he's Daulton Jefferies [...] it's uncharted waters for me. I've never lost a No. 1. But just to see the ripple effect that it has throughout your whole team, it's a tough loss. We have not rebounded well from it. It's a delicate balance. Our pitching is our confidence. If we've got a super power, or respect from people around the country, it's our pitching ... and our defense."
The more immediate concern for the Bears was a paucity of volume from the third base dugout, which was silenced after one of two throwing miscues by sophomore shortstop Preston GrandPre.
In the top of the third, GrandPre served a soft liner into center for an RBI single in the top of the third to stake the Bears to a 1-0 lead. But, a low and off-line throw on a would-be inning-ending double play turn in the bottom of the frame sapped all of the energy from the Cal dugout, and allowed the Cardinal to tie the game, as Jack Klein -- aboard with a one-out single -- scored from second.
"The feeling in that dugout and on the field, on that first mistake, which just tied the game, was palpable," Esquer said. "It was negatively palpable. That's unfortunate, because that's not who we really are."
"We haven't had our defining moment. Over the next 10 games, we're going to have it. Who knows if it means a playoff berth? Who knows if it means just finishing over .500? Who knows if it means turning it around and playing a little better? I've been with a lot of team, and I refuse to believe that a defining moment of our season is going to be that we had our top two pitchers out on a certain weekend, were called out for stepping on home plate and giving up five runs in the eighth inning. That's not going to be the defining moment of our season. I refuse to believe that it's going to." -- David Esquer
With one out in the bottom of the fourth, GrandPre once again uncorked a wild one, taking Nick Halamandaris up the line at first on a grounder off the bat of Quinn Brodey. The ball skipped deep into the ample foul ground at Sunken Diamond, and Brodey advanced all the way to third. A sharp single through the left side of a drawn-in infield by Alex Dunlap brought Brodey home.
Third baseman Mikey Diekroeger lined a run-and-hit shot off of starter Tanner Dodson's glove for an infield single, and Dodson then proceeded to walk the next two hitters, forcing in a run. A hot shot to the right side by catcher Bryce Carter, stopped by a diving Halamandaris, scored another run, putting the Cardinal up, 4-1, and a line drive RBI single to left by Matt Winaker finally chased the besieged Dodson.
"To illustrate where we're really at, if we're playing with some confidence and a little steam, that mistake doesn't mean a thing, they don't mean a thing, that first one doesn't mean a thing," Esquer said.
Freshman Joey Matulovich then came on to get the final out and stop the bleeding, and then threw 2.1 more hitless, scoreless innings.
"He really has grown up a lot," Esquer said. "And, Dodson was better. Obviously, Dodson was better than the results, just based on the fact that he was about to be four pitches and two outs, and instead, it turns into a five-run, 35-pitch inning, a 30-pitch inning. We've got to support our pitching with defense. It's simple. That's going to be the difference. The difference in yesterday's game was pitching and defense. If we match up hitter for hitter, our averages are higher at every position than theirs is, but the difference is: Can you pitch and play defense?"
In the top of the seventh, the Bears plated two, with Aaron Knapp's groundball triple up the first base line being cashed in on a swinging bunt to the left side by Denis Karas. Diekroeger's throw to first on Karas's grounder sailed up the first base line, moving Karas to second. A fly ball to center by GrandPre moved Karas to third, and he then rode home on a wild pitch from starter Chris Castellanos.
After getting a quick pop out to second to lead off the bottom of the seventh, Matulovich gave way to Keaton Siomkin, who promptly gave up a worm-burner single up the middle to shortstop Tommy Edman, and then a liner off of his own leg by Brodey to put men at first and third.
Siomkin, without recording an out, was lifted for sophomore Erik Martinez, who, after giving up a line-drive run-scoring single to left on his first pitch to Dunlap, caught both Diekroeger and pinch hitter Brandon Wulff looking at strike three to end the inning.
Cal mustered one run in the top of the eighth -- on an infield single by Devin Pearson and an RBI double to left center by Halamandaris -- but big thumpers Robbie Tenerowicz and Brett Cumberland flew out and popped out, respectively. Cumberland is now 2-for-21 in his last five games.
"We haven't helped ourselves, defensively, and it's pressured our offense," Esquer said. "Guys are trying to do too much, or having to step out of what they used to be able to do. We've relied on our offense and our ability to drive the ball and hit a couple homers, but the homer doesn't mean much to us, anymore, because we need multiple run-scoring innings."
Esquer on the Pac-12: "Who would have thought that Friday night, Oregon State versus Cal, would have such a lasting impact on the rest of the season? [Drew] Rasmussen goes down and Jefferies goes down. It impacted the whole league, the strength of the league. It impacted our season. We haven't had our Friday guy for seven weeks. Again, Stanford doesn't have Quantrill. They faced it last year -- they had Quantrill and then he went away, and it affected their whole season. We have the guy to win Game 2. [Ryan] Mason is as dependable as they come, and you don't want to make excuses, but it's just the fact, and it happens. When you have someone pitching as well as Daulton is, and you lose him for seven weeks, he could be bad, at 3-3 or 3-4, and those are season-changing wins for us, that we just don't have, and we really haven't had anybody. We haven't been good enough as a team to make up for that. It's not just a good enough pitching staff; it's being good enough as a team. Our offense was affected by it. It affected how we play. The bullpen is bleeding and leaking oil. The good thing: Dodson and Matulovich have developed, and [Alex] Schick is back, but we'll see."
Halamandaris on the loss of Jefferies: "We love playing behind Daulton, and he is a tremendous asset to the team with his ability to pitch and get outs, but I feel for Daulton. I wish we had him. But, I think we were built and raised to be a little bit tougher than to rely on one guy to make or break our season. I think some of the frustration is the expectation that we could overcome -- we should -- and we're going to, but I think there's a little tension that builds up when we're trying hard. Baseball's a pretty difficult game when you're gripping. We've encountered that beast the last five or six weeks, and it's easy to say, 'Go have fun and play,' but it's easier said than done."
Cal's ace, who left with a 6-0 record and a 6-0 record and a 1.29 ERA, threw off of a mound on Friday.
"It's going to be up to him," Esquer said. "He's the type of guy that, I'm not going to push him to pitch. If he feels good enough, he will pitch. He's been cleared to do so. It is based on his comfort level."
Before the season, Jefferies was tabbed as the No. 24 prospect in the 2016 MLB Draft. There are literally millions of dollars on the line with his arm, and that strained subscapular muscle.
"I don't know how much that is playing a part," Esquer said, with regards to Jefferies. With regards to Esquer using him, though? "For sure. Our team's record, or my record, or what I do, is not worth his future. I've never been one to do that, and I wasn't going to roll Mason out there, even though he said he probably could have pitched against Arizona, because I just don't believe in it. We didn't win a game that weekend. Who knows? I could have gotten really greedy and pitched him in the eighth or ninth inning with a five-run lead. I'm just not willing to do that with our players."