BERKELEY -- California sophomore righty Joey Matulovich hadn't gotten out of the sixth inning of a game since April 8 -- the last day he recorded a win. Since then, he'd gone 0-2 with a 10.59 ERA. He needed a win. Going 7.0 innings and striking out 6 against No. 6 TCU, while allowing just one earned run against the Horned Frogs sure reads like a win, but the youthful Golden Bears did what they've done during this late-season gauntlet against four straight top-10 teams: They made youthful mistakes.
Cal (22-27) made four errors -- two leading to runs -- and committed a base running blunder that choked off a nascent rally in the seventh, with the heart of the lineup coming up, to drop the opener to TCU (38-13).
"Two of the three runs, we didn't stop the ball from going into center field," said head coach David Esquer. "It's hard to give them those opportunities against a good team like that."
The one earned run Matulovich did allow in the Horned Frogs' 3-0 win on Thursday was a home run with two outs in the first inning, surrendered to powerful catcher Evan Skoug, who popped his 16th longball of the year over the left field fence on the first pitch he saw, after Matulovich fanned the first two.
The Horned Frogs (38-13) rapped out two singles in the top of the second, and with one out and men at the corners, Matulovich got a swing and a miss for a strikeout on left fielder Josh Watson, but with both runners going, catcher Tyrus Greene's throw to second was whiffed by freshman shortstop Cameron Eden. Instead of a strike'em'out-throw'em'out double play to end the inning, TCU plated its second run of the game.
The Bears were no-hit over the first 5.0 innings, striking out 6 times against a pair of Horned Frogs pitchers, as TCU set up their playoff rotation by throwing starter Jared Janczak for just 3.0 innings, and then turning to lefty Nick Lodolo for the next 3.0.
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1775654-andrew-vaughn-brin... "I thought their pitching did a very good job, and I was more concerned that we couldn't see their sliders," Esquer said. "Our guys were not seeing that breaking ball well at all. They were reading fastball, and it was breaking ball. That was more concerning to me. Out of hand, we were swinging. First at-bat of the game, I think [Preston] GrandPre broke down twice, and Mitchell did the same. The guy's good. [Janczak]'s numbers are good -- 60 innings, 30 hits -- but he did a nice job, and that pitch was a problem. Beyond that, Lodolo comes in, and we still didn't do a great job against him. We knew the slider was a pitch for [Janczak], but we really hadn't seen it before. We haven't played them very often, so you don't have a lot of tape or any experience, other than playing them the year before, first time out."
Cal had a chance to break through in the bottom of the seventh, when right fielder Jeffrey Mitchell delivered a flare single to right just out of reach of Cam Warner. Reliever Sean Wymer -- TCU's go-to arm out of the bullpen this season, with a team-leading 24 appearances -- then came to the mound against Pac-12 home run leader Andrew Vaughn.
Playing in the most games he's played in a calendar year -- thanks to his summer ball with the Healdsburg Prune Packers and a full 49 games for the Bears -- Vaughn has begun to wear down, it would seem. Vaughn has gone homerless for the last 9 games headed into Thursday (and 9-for-28 during that span, seeing his average drop from .363 to .345), but still presents a dangerous bat. That said, on the second pitch to Vaughn, Wymer buried a slider to Skoug, and Mitchell took off. He was easily caught in a run-down, freezing on a hard Skoug pump fake, and erased. Vaughn grounded out and Denis Karas lined out to end the frame.
"We had that one opportunity," Esquer said. "We gave [Mitchell] instructions to not go unless the ball had kicked away from the catcher, and he anticipated ball in the dirt, and went ... It certainly does [change the complexion of the inning]. You wouldn't be so concerned had the instructions been clear for him not to go unless the ball kicks away from the catcher. We reiterated that two or three times, and he just somehow, the game sped up on him a little bit."
Matulovich allowed a leadoff single in the top of the eighth to designated hitter Connor Wanhanen, giving way to Aaron Shortridge after 112 pitches -- his longest outing since March 19, against Oregon. Shortridge got Skoug to 2-1, before getting a swing-and-miss for the strikeout, but Greene, with the runner going, buried a throw to second in the dirt in front of the bag, which bounced into center, moving Wanhanen to third. After a drawn-in Vaughn made a highlight-reel stab at first to retire Skoug, Shortridge was lifted for appearances leader Andrew Buckley.
Mitchell, perhaps with his botched advancement attempt on his mind, took his eye off of a fly ball to right. The fly was deep enough for a sacrifice, but he took his eye off the ball for a split second, allowing it to drop, and Wanhanen to score the third and final run.
"You worry a little bit," Esquer said. "He went on that ball in the dirt the half inning before, and he shouldn't have ... Who knows if he thought he couldn't make up for that play with that play, and then kind of just mentally knew the ball was going to be too far to eliminate the sacrifice fly, and I think he just lost a little concentration."
Cal committed 4 errors on the night, and only were able to muster 3 hits against four Horned Frogs pitchers, striking out 8 times as the TCU pitching staff threw just 93 pitches.
"I'm never too concerned with how many pitches the team throws [against us]," Esquer said. "We're a little bit of an ambush-hitting team, anyway. We hit early [in the count] and we've had some of our better games with low pitch-count games because we hit so early."
Mitchell did make a sparkling defensive play to throw a runner out at third after his dropped fly ball, and center fielder Tanner Dodson made a one-handed, over-the-shoulder grab in the top of the ninth to keep a run from scoring and end the frame, but it was too little, too late.
"There were some flashes of us doing what we need to do to beat a really good team," Esquer said. "Obviously, Matulovich's pitching was certainly positive. When two of the three runs score on balls we can't catch in the middle of the diamond, like I told them, if Vaughn decided he was just going to whiff every ball in the dirt and let the ball tip off his glove, then he'd make a whole lot of people worse, too."
Cal and TCU continue their series on Friday at 7 p.m., televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
Looking at the Tape
Though he may not have gotten the win, Matulovich did make a big leap backwards in order to move forward. During the last week, Esquer showed Matulovich film of one of his former teammates "Black" Jack McDowell, and it helped Matulovich come to a realization.
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1778506-highlights-dodson-... "It was one of Eskie's Stanford World Series games, when he played with Stanford," Matulovich said. "He showed me all of his misses throughout one of the games he pitched in the World Series, and he missed a lot, but they won the game. It really stuck with me ... It was just an approach. I was just trying to throw the ball hard, and wherever the spot was for the fastball or a breaking ball, I was throwing it towards that side of the plate, and see what happens. If it was a fastball away, it was going to be away, and I was going to throw it with all I had."
Esquer said that Matulovich's breaking ball had been very average over his last seven outings, but he was able to steal strikes on Thursday with that, and his change up.
"Best he's had," Esquer said. "Best breaking ball he's had. The hitter told you that, and it was good. It was a real positive sign for us. We'll take any of that development, any time we can get it. Dodson's outing the other night was a positive. Matulovich today, we can build on that. It's been a long time coming, and we needed to get there, but getting there was pretty difficult."
"It felt really good," Matulovich said of his breaking ball. "I've been working on some stuff, and Eskie and I had been watching a lot of old film, on being OK with misses, and not always hitting your spot, and that kind of sunk in with me, and being able to relax a bit. [Pitching coach] Thomas [Eager] and I have been working on consistently throwing my breaking ball and my change up off my fastball."