BERKELEY -- California's 6-5 loss to Utah on Monday night was a microcosm of the Bears' season. Daulton Jefferies tossed a scoreless, hitless first three innings on 38 pitches, with the offense humming and Aaron Knapp using his speed to keep the Utes off balance, staking the Bears to a 3-0 lead.
But, just as Jefferies went down with a shoulder injury after his first six starts, so too did he have to exit after throwing 38 pitches, and with him, went Cal's energy.
After Jefferies was removed, the Bears held together at first, but then things came off the rails. Cal held serve behind Matt Ladrech, but a home run, a missed call at second and three runs in the sixth tied things up. Just as Cal went 17-13 without Jefferies (13-13 taking out a record-setting four-game sweep of hapless Northwestern), the Bears fell back to the pack.
Just as the Bears had four interference calls against Arizona during the depths of their swoon, so too did the officiating turn against them in the middle of the game, as Utah scratched across three runs in the top of the sixth, with a missed call at second turning Brett Cumberland's third runner thrown out into a stolen base.
Then, when opportunities knocked, they went unanswered. In the bottom of the seventh, Knapp lashed a leg double to left, and then took third on a wild pitch by reliever Andre Jackson, but both Devin Pearson and Robbie Tenerowicz struck out, with Tenerowicz chasing ball three in the dirt to strand Knapp at third.
As with Jefferies return, there was some light, as Cal took the lead back in the eighth on a two-run double by Denis Karas, but, in the top of the ninth, with emotional leader Ryan Mason returning to the mound after his 89-pitch Saturday loss, the light turned to darkness. After entering with two men aboard and getting two strikeouts, Mason allowed a booming double to right center by ninth-place hitter Kody Davis, spelling the end for the game, and in all likelihood, the Bears' playoff hopes.
"This team was fighting hard. They really fought hard. For some reason, the game is not going our way, and this game, and a couple other games, we don't know the reasons why." -- David Esquer
It felt like the last game of a Regional, head coach David Esquer said, a Regional that Cal has to sweep Washington State in order to have a chance of reaching. The selection committee, Esquer said, would take Jefferies's return into account, "if we give them some reason to do that. We're one of the top three or four teams on the West Coast when he's healthy. If he's able to pitch full games, we could return to pretty high status and be a pretty tough out in a Regional. We have to win enough games to make that a factor. Tonight was big to make things easier to make that case, and we made it much harder on ourselves."
Cal didn't give the committee much on Monday.
"We were selling out for this one," Esquer said. "We were selling out. It was important to us. He wanted the ball. He was two-thirds of the way there, and couldn't finish it out. It must be Utah's year. They've got some magic going. We're pulling out all the stops to try to get this thing turned around.
"A lot of the people who know more than I do say, 'Hey, listen, you want to get to 15 wins in league, and that gives you a shot [at the playoffs].' I'm not the one who knows everything, and, who knows? With Jefferies building up, we garner some respect that we'd be pretty tough to beat [in the playoffs]. We've got to give them a reason to take us, and we haven't done that, yet."
The win kept the Utes (23-26, 17-10 in Pac-12) atop the Pac-12 standings, despite being under .500 overall.
Esquer said he would have liked to get more out of Jefferies -- who missed seven weeks with a SLAP tear in his throwing shoulder -- but he wasn't willing to sacrifice his junior righty's professional hopes, as Jefferies is projected to go within the first two rounds of the Major League Draft.
"I would have loved to have gotten five more innings out of him," Esquer said. "It's just not smart to do that for him. He hasn't been built up to those pitches, yet."
Jefferies was of the same mind, and said that he would have loved to have pitched two weeks earlier -- coincidentally the same amount of time it took for him to get the MRI that diagnosed the problem. The past eight weeks have been "the worst experience of my life," said Jefferies, who counts among his experiences taking a metal bat to the face in his youth.
"The big thing was conditioning my arm," said Jefferies. "We're going to work up to 50-60 pitches at Washington State. I felt like I could have gone that distance today. That was a big positive out of a negative outcome of the game, but I felt good, and it helps to take the pressure off with two runs on the board in the first inning."
"These guys are like my brothers and Esquer's a great step-dad, I guess, but I've been extremely anxious and just waiting for the moment to get on the mound," Jefferies said. "I knew the first batter was going to be a bit jittery, a lot of adrenaline coming into it. I just stuck with what I knew."
Jefferies's fastball rode up early in the outing, but he still faced the minimum over his three innings, throwing 38 pitches.
"I don't usually miss up or miss at all, so I was a little anxious, but at the end of the day, it's baseball, and you've got to take a step back and relax and take a deep breath."
With lefty Matt Ladrech on the bump, the Bears added another run in the fifth. Knapp used his speed to beat out an infield single to short to lead off the frame, and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Pearson. Robbie Tenerowicz struck out swinging on a ball in the dirt, and after catcher A.J. Young threw to first to record the out, Knapp broke for third. First baseman Hunter Simmons threw wildly to try and get Knapp, allowing the junior center fielder to sprint home.
Young led off the next frame with a 2-1 solo homer to left, and Davis chipped in a first-pitch single, spelling the end for Ladrech. Reliever Erik Martinez then came on, and allowed a single to DeShawn Keirsey through the left side, and both runners were bunted over into scoring position.
Shortstop Dallas Carroll then ripped a full-count single to left, scoring another run and cutting the lead to 3-2.
With Kellen Marruffo at the dish, Carroll stole second on what was shown on replay to be an on-the-money, on-time throw from Cumberland, but Cal's protestations fell on deaf ears. On a 1-2 pitch to Simmons, Carroll laid down in the dirt, prompting a throw to second from Cumberland, and while Carroll got into a run down, Keirsey was able to trot home from third to tie the game.
"We're aware that they run some of those slip plays, and we're just not [...] for some reason, he threw the ball down, and we wished he didn't," Esquer said. "We know that they run those slip plays, and our coaching staff has talked a lot about those plays, but heat of the moment, he just reacted to it, thought there was an out there, when there wasn't."
Utah inched ahead in the top of the eighth on a fielder's choice with the bases loaded against Martinez, but the Bears struck back in the bottom of the inning, when third baseman Denis Karas poked a ground ball double up the first base line, cashing in Cumberland and Halamandaris, who scored from first after a four-pitch walk.
Reliever Alex Schick, though, walked Simmons to lead off the top of the ninth, before Mason entered, striking out Andre Jackson and Josh Rose, before walking Zack Moeller. The double to right center brought home pinch runner Ellis Kelly and Simmons for the winning tally.
While Jefferies, one National League scout said, put himself back into the first-round conversation in front of two dozen scouts in attendance, saying "Daulton was Daulton, and that's what he needed to do," Jefferies takes no consolation.
"This season was built around the seniors," Jefferies said. "They didn't have a chance to go to the playoffs except for last year, and they, along with everyone else, are pretty hungry to go back. We have extremely good senior leadership, and it trickles down to our freshmen, stepping up in big spots like Joey Matulovich and Ty Greene, guys like that. We're excited to get after it, and hopefully, we take these next three games."
Jefferies will likely not start on Friday against the Cougars.
"40 pitches, I don't know if that's enough time," Esquer said. "He may need to be later in the weekend."