MORAGA, Calif. -- Over the weekend against Arizona State, California issued just 5 walks to 24 strikeouts. In fact, over the last six Pac-12 games, the Bears walked just 16. Since a 21-walk weekend at UCLA, Cal had given up just 27 free passes in eight games.
Against a red-hot team like St. Mary's on Tuesday -- a team who gave No. 1 Oregon State all it could handle on March 28 in a 4-3 loss -- the Bears could ill afford to give the Gaels free bases, but that's exactly what they did. A combination of four first-year hurlers walked eight in the first four innings, allowing St. Mary's to pile up a 12-2 lead that, despite a Cal comeback effort, turned into a 24-7 win.
Were it not for a 20-0 loss to UCLA three weekends ago, Tuesday would have been the worst loss of head coach David Esquer's tenure in Berkeley, tied with an 18-1 loss to Fresno State in 2004, and narrowly beating out a 17-1 thrashing at the hands of USC on April 11, 2008, and an 18-2 loss to Arizona State on April 27, 2008.
For 33 minutes after the game, Esquer stood in shallow right field and talked, lectured and at times, wildly gesticulated at his pitchers. Snippets of his presentation wafted over to the front of the dugout, including something about a car crash, and marital infidelity.
"Baseball's hard," Esquer said. "You don't just get to try hard and be a good person and succeed. It just doesn't work that way. This is a game that you've got to confront, and you've got to attack what you don't do well. It's just what it is."
The Gaels (20-11, winners of three of their last five) scored their first 12 runs on just seven hits, piling up base runners thanks to those eight free passes. All told, an error, a ball that got lost between the catcher's legs, 11 total walks, three hit batters and three wild pitches gave St. Mary's 18 free bases. The Gaels were 13-for-22 with runners on base, and 12-for-19 with runners in scoring position.
"One of the things we're trying to find, as a group, is how comfortable are you at throwing those pitches on a foreign mound, where it's different dirt, it may feel different, the background's different -- it's just different," said Esquer, whose team is now 3-9 away from Evans Diamond. "That's what you're looking for -- are we comfortable, and are we making those strides to be good on foreign soil? -- that is a step. It's going to be a learning part for this team, no doubt."
St. Mary's scored in bunches, with five runs in the first, two in the third, five more in the fourth, three in the sixth and nine in the seventh.
Of the Gaels' 18 hits, six were for extra bases, including four home runs -- a grand slam by designated hitter Kevin Milam, a solo shot by Eddie Haus, a two-run shot by catcher Jackson Thoreson and a three-run job by pinch hitter Joe Vranesh in the bottom of the seventh to cap off the nine-run frame.
The Bears (15-15) are now 1-3 in midweek games this season, and have lost three straight non-conference games, sandwiched between two Pac-12 sweeps.
"I'm not worried about this game," Esquer said. "I'm more worried about some of the development and the road blocks that some of our young kids are facing, and I don't want them to be all alone."
Blow by Blow
That first-inning grand slam by Milam against reliever Ian Lutz (freshman starter Rogelio Reyes allowed a hit, and walked two, before being yanked) erased a first-inning solo shot by Jeffrey Mitchell, and it was off to the races.
JuCo transfer reliever Jack Cosca allowed another pair in the bottom of the third, walking leadoff man Zach Kirtley before right fielder Eddie Haus sent a one-out worm-burner past a diving Denis Karas at third. A would-be double play ball by Thoreson was too slow to turn, and Ripken Reyes's throw to first pulled Andrew Vaughn off the bag. Third baseman Austin Chauvin, hitting .500 with two outs, banged a 1-2 curve on the ground through the left side, scoring two.
A leadoff home run by Denis Karas in the top of the fourth -- into the same right field jet stream -- provided a momentary respite, but the Gaels were back at it again in the bottom of the frame, scoring 5 against Cosca and freshman lefty Arman Sabouri. After a walk and then a sacrifice bunt, Cosca hit center fielder Joey Fiske. Left fielder Brett Rasso -- hitting just .214 with runners in scoring position, banged a 1-0 fastball into left for an RBI single.
Cosca was spelled by Sabouri, who'd allowed eight earned runs in his last two appearances, getting just one out.
With men on first and second and one out, Sabouri got what looked like a tailor-made double play ball to third, but Reyes, covering second, took his eyes off the throw from Karas, and the ball shot into shallow right, plating another run. Sabouri then walked Milam to load the bases, and then issued a five-pitch pass to Haus, walking in a run on Cal's seventh walk of the afternoon.
After a sacrifice fly, Sabouri walked the bases loaded again, by issuing a four-pitch pass to Chauvin. A bouncer over the mound by Charlie Zaloumis brought another run home, but Vaughn was able to throw home to cut down the trailing runner and end the bleeding.
"Rogelio and Sabouri are going to be real important to us," Esquer said. "They need better days than they had today, and recently. I just want to make sure everybody's invested in helping them get through it."
Reyes has now walked 18 batters this season in just 21.0 innings of work, while Sabouri has allowed 10 runs (8 earned) in his last three outings, recording just three outs.
"We really planned on [Reyes] going two or three innings, but the more disturbing part of his numbers are, I think he has more walks than innings pitched now -- he definitely has more free bases than innings pitched," Esquer said. "He didn't get here doing that. He's not throwing 94, 95 miles an hour, where you're like, 'Yeah, he's a little loose with his command.' He's an 86-88 command kid, so there's something else getting in the way, whether it's comfort level, anxiety or pitch plan or something. We've got to try to help those kids through those times."
The Bears came back with a five-spot of their own in the top of the fifth, with pinch-hitting catcher Korey Lee drilling the second pitch he saw off of Ty Madrigal into right center for a double. Mitchell came up with his second shot into the right field jet stream, trading places with Lee on an RBI double. A Vaughn walk and back-to-back doubles by Karas and center fielder Tanner Dodson brought in two more.
Dodson's double, though, hit off the top of the wall in right, and looked to have hit the yellow line, signifying a home run. Head coach David Esquer argued his case, but to no avail.
Instead, the Bears had to settle for an RBI ground out to short by designated hitter Matt Ruff. Big Max Flower saw just one pitch from reliever Cameron Neff, popping out weakly to right on an off-speed pitch away. Neff served up a grounder by Reyes, but survived a bobble by his own second baseman to come back and fan hot-hitting Cameron Eden with a slider well off the plate away, ending the inning.
Neff and reliever Andrew Hansen would not allow the Bears to threaten again, while a parade of Bears relievers -- Jack Wolger, Akaash Agarwal, Connor Jackson, Kevin Flemer -- proceeded to give up 12 runs (all earned) on 11 hits and two walks in the sixth and seventh. Rogelio Reyes took the loss, his third poor outing in a row. Over his last 3.2 innings of work, Reyes has allowed seven earned runs.
"When we weren't able to hold it at 12-7, we had Dodson, [Erik] Martinez and Vaughn, if we could get to the seventh inning, and we're winning -- we're ready to use Dodson, Martinez and Vaughn," Esquer said. "It just didn't get to that point, so it becomes, 'Just empty the bench.' We play Thursday, so we couldn't run somebody out there too long."
The Bears next travel to Salt Lake City for a Thursday-Friday-Saturday series at Utah coming up this weekend.
Junior infielder Preston GrandPre made his in-the-field season debut, manning second base in the eighth. GrandPre broke his right hand diving for a ball in practice the last week before the season opener against Cal Poly. He pinch ran last weekend against Washington State, and took batting practice on Tuesday. The career .276 hitter said he "felt fine," but the training staff is taking things day by day.
"We're inching our way back," Esquer said. "Obviously, it looks as though we'll try to put him back out there before he's really ready, fully back. Having him back, he's a career .280 hitter for us, or pretty close. That's helpful. Ripken's done a nice job there, and if I'm looking at a place, without injury, he may be able to sneak back in there and start at second."
Right-handed sophomore Aaron Shortridge hasn't pitched since March 4, due to tenderness in his arm. He's being brought along slowly.
"We are waiting to see if he can bounce back from stress," Esquer said. "Thomas [Eager] is taking it easy on him. He's stressing him, and then making sure that he can be stressed over and over, rather than blow it out in one outing and not feel good."
Center fielder Jonah Davis injured his throwing shoulder while diving for a ball in center field last weekend. He was cleared to hit live today, but did not take batting practice.
"We held him back one more day from swinging live, but he's close," Esquer said. "He could hit. Probably will DH first, before he goes back out to center."