BERKELEY -- Before the season, California head coach David Esquer said, "We're going to be young, painfully young. Sometimes, I say that young and dumb isn't a bad way to go. We're going to test that."
The Bears certainly looked young on Friday, dropping the first of a four-game set to visiting Gonzaga, 5-2, after a balk led to the go-ahead run, and a baserunning blunder cut a rally off at the knees.
"There's some youth and inexperienced fingerprints all over today's game," Esquer said.
Cal starter Tanner Dodson walked a tightrope all evening on Friday. Without much command of the lower half of the zone, he didn't have much of an offense going for him, outside of right fielder Jeffrey Mitchell.
The sophomore out of Pleasant Hill, Calif., made a run-saving diving grab in the gap in the top of the fourth, and slugged his second home run of the season -- an opposite-field job, like his first -- in the bottom of the frame, but that was about all the excitement the Bears could muster, scratching out just five hits and two runs against a trio of Gonzaga pitchers, despite being gifted with three errors.
After Mitchell's blast tied things up, the Bulldogs (4-4) mounted an unlikely rally, as catcher Jake Roberts reached on a passed ball, a cutter down and in for strike three that he swung at, and then watched skitter to the backstop. Dodson then issued a seven-pitch walk to right fielder Daniel Fredrickson, and before he could deliver one pitch to left fielder Sam Brown, he balked, moving both runners into scoring position.
He then got a quick groundout to shortstop Cameron Eden, but the ground ball would have been a double play was good for just one out, and scored Roberts, giving Gonzaga a 2-1 lead.
Despite that, Cal (2-6) did have a golden opportunity to climb back into the lead in the bottom of the fifth, putting Jonah Davis aboard with a four-pitch walk with one out. With the run-and-hit on, left fielder Anthony Walters poked a pitch at his eyes to the left side, where shortstop Gunnar Schubert flubbed the transfer for the double play, and both runners were called safe.
With first baseman Andrew Vaughn at the dish, Davis stole third, and as the throw from Roberts glanced off of third baseman Jeff Bohling's mitt, Walters scrambled for second.
Vaughn belted a 3-0 fastball to deep left center, and while Davis tagged, the freshman Walters -- instead of stopping halfway -- got all the way to third. When center fielder Tyler Frost made the catch on the dead run, Walters had to sprint back to second. As he did that, Davis ran at less than full-speed towards the plate.
"It was a simple tag-up-and-score, so he wasn't going to be the problem," Esquer said.
Before Davis could touch home, Walters was thrown out at second, and the inning ended without a Cal run.
"I don't know, really," Esquer said, when asked what Walters was thinking. "It's one of those, you're going to chalk it up to a freshman mistake with the game moving pretty quickly. His job there is to stay halfway, and you could drop the ball at the feet of an outfielder with him halfway, and he'll beat the throw to home. There's no reason to be in a hurry there. Like I told the team, the game is getting real now, and it's playing at a high level; it doesn't matter whether it's a Big 12 team at Texas Tech, or a WCC team like Gonzaga. It's a highly-competitive game, and you can't make mistakes."
Dodson would grind out 6.1 innings, allowing six hits and striking out five on 99 pitches, fanning Roberts for the first out in the seventh before exiting for freshman lefty Arman Sabouri. Dodson battled himself all night, with just 17 first-pitch strikes on 26 batters. It didn't help that catcher Tyrus Greene was charged with three passed balls, not turning his glove over on Dodson's heavy sinker.
"I really believed, and I told him, with all due respect, and tried to table it the right way, for as little stuff as he had today, I thought he did a great job of giving us a chance to win," Esquer said of Dodson. "He got us through six and a third, and he's capable of being way better than he was tonight."
Sabouri entered with one out in the seventh made quick work of the next two batters, fanning Bohling on a pitch up in the zone to end the frame. The eighth was another matter. Sabouri gave up a leadoff single to Frost, and after Frost was sacrificed to second, a darting offering from Sabouri skipped in the dirt and through Greene, moving Frost to third. Walters came in from left to serve as a roving fifth infielder up the middle with Schubert at the dish, but he wasn't needed, as Sabouri fanned Schubert for the second out. Then, Sabouri got a little loose, losing first baseman Jake Veith on a six-pitch walk, and then giving up an RBI single up the middle to pinch hitter Parker Price on a center-cut 0-1 offering, making it 3-1.
"We basically played the same game," Esquer said. "They just did more with those opportunities. They've got a runner at third, we had a second-and-third with one out and we get a strikeout, and they just flip a ball over the pitcher's head and they score a run. The baserunning mistake took another run off the board from us. It's a whole different ballgame with both of those runs scoring. You're pitching it different, just doing a lot of things different."
Gonzaga added another two in the top of the ninth on a two-run double by Jacobs to right center off of reliever Ian Lutz. In the bottom of the ninth, freshman Conner Bock drove home his first collegiate RBI with a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Greene.
Cal resumes action on Saturday in a 12 p.m.-4 p.m. doubleheader. Freshman righty Jared Horn will start the 12 p.m. game, and a question mark for the nightcap. Sunday's 1 p.m. series finale will likely see freshman righty Rogelio Reyes take the hill. Esquer said that if the Bears have a chance to win, they will go with Joey Matulovich and then Erik Martinez out of the bullpen. If they don't use Matulovich in the first game on Saturday, he would likely be in line to start in the second.