BERKELEY -- Despite threatening No. 9 Oregon with a one-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth from junior catcher Andrew Knapp, and getting a runner to third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the California baseball team could not come all the way back against the rolling Ducks, as the Bears dropped their seventh straight game, 5-4, to the Pac-12 frontrunner to fall to 16-19 on the year and 5-10 in conference play.
For the first time in the three-game series, the middle of the Bears lineup finally got going, with the two-through-five hitters going a combined 6-for-13.
First baseman Devon Rodriguez broke out of a 1-for-25 slump with a 2-for-4 day, rocketing a single to left center with one out in the sixth and rolling a groundball single through the right side in the bottom of the eighth to set up Knapp's home run.
"That's where his hits have been when he's on, and that's been absent," Esquer said. "Obviously the ball hit lower is a big deal, so that was a big plus sign for us."
"It's been a struggle, but it's baseball, and you're going to have your ups and downs," said Rodriguez, who's tried everything to get out of his slump -- including going sans batting gloves on Sunday -- and finally tweaked his swing a bit so that he started leaving his hands back a bit longer. "I've been staying positive and trying to grind through every at-bat. I'm just changing everything up ... I'm really just trying to simplify everything. When I started trying too hard the last couple days, I really had to stay within myself and know that, when I simplify everything, it's good enough. No pitcher's going to get me out if I just stick to my plan and don't try to do too much."
Rodriguez's single in the eighth came after a bizarre series of events to start off the inning. With Danville (Calif.) Monte Vista product Christian Jones on the hill, leadoff man Devin Pearson took a 1-2 fastball in the upper left arm, and began heading to first. Home plate umpire Travis Reininger, though, brought Pearson back, determining that he did not make sufficient effort to get out of the way of the pitch. It was the third time in the series – and second time in the game – that a Cal hitter had been called back after taking a dose, with shortstop Mike Reuvekamp being the victim in the bottom of the third.
Esquer came out to argue, but to no avail, and the speedy Pearson grounded out to short. The next hitter -- sophomore second baseman Brenden Farney -- then took a curveball in the right shoulder to put one man on with one out.
"We probably are developing a reputation for that," Esquer said of Cal's propensity to not back away from inside pitches. "I'm not worried about that, because I think it serves its purpose with us, that we're not going to move and get out of the way. If people think that getting us out inside is where to go, they'd better be good inside."
Rodriguez's single through the right side moved Farney to third to set up Knapp's three-run homer, which could have been a grand slam had Pearson been allowed to take first.
"That was unfortunate," Esquer said. "I don't know what he saw. He said he saw him move towards the ball, and I didn't see that."
Blow by Blow
Oregon (27-8, 12-3 in the Pac-12) pounded out 14 hits for the second game in a row, including doubles from Brett Thomas and Scott Heinemann (who went 2-for-4 with two RBIs to cap off a 6-for-13 series), and a home run from Heinemann -- his third in two games.
Bears starter Dylan Nelson was roughed up in the top of the first, allowing one-out singles to Aaron Payne and Ryon Healy before his second pitch to third baseman Mitchell Tolman skipped off the heel of Knapp's glove to allow a run to score. Heinemann then sent a liner into the right field corner to plate Healy, giving the Ducks a 2-0 lead.
From there on out, though, Nelson allowed just two more hits, finishing his 5.0 innings with eight hits while striking out five.
"You hope to just keep getting better, and they kind of own their stuff to where they feel like they can do that the next time out, and the time after that and the time after that," Esquer said. "That's going to be the key for our team, and the growth of this group and the people who are currently in the program. It's about getting to a certain level and then being able to maintain."
After an RBI groundout in the bottom of the second by sophomore third baseman Chris Paul cut the lead to 2-1, Nelson allowed a leadoff homer to Heinemann in the top of the sixth, before being lifted for righty Logan Scott.
After a single by Tyler Baumgartner, a sacrifice bunt and a bunt single by Connor Hoffman, Scott got shortstop J.J. Altobelli to pop out to Farney in shallow right and then alertly covered first for Nick Halamandaris -- playing just his second game at first -- on a high chopper to Farney for the final out of the frame.
"You always think about who's playing the position and stuff like that, but you've got to know that, if the ball's hit to the right side, as a pitcher, you're getting over every single time," Scott said.
With two men on and one out in the bottom of the sixth, Esquer pulled Paul in favor of freshman Max Dutto for the left-on-right match-up, but Oregon skipper George Horton countered by calling in lefty reliever Garrett Cleavinger and his 1.83 ERA.
Dutto worked the count to 2-2 before swinging and missing on a Cleavinger breaker inside to end the threat.
"That guy's tough," Esquer said of the left-handed-throwing Reed. "His numbers against right-handers are tough, and I thought one of two things -- we would get him out of the game or we would be able to face him left-handed, where his splits are much higher against left-handed hitters. So, we took a chance, and obviously we got him out of the game, but that spot came up and hurt us later on and was not productive."
The Ducks stormed back in the top of the seventh, with Payne leading off with a line-drive single to right and Healy sending a high chopper off the tip of Dutto's glove at third to put men at first and second. Tolman then sacrificed the runners to second and third, and Scott dealt four wide to Heinemann to set up a double play.
After getting ahead of Baumgartner 1-2, Scott's fastball missed just low and in, and Baumgartner then sent a shallow fly ball to right for a sacrifice fly to make it 4-1. Pinch hitter Ryan Hambright then served a flare back of short for a single to plate Healy for the fifth and final Oregon tally.
"He left that change up, up, for the base-hit that drove in a run on an 0-2 count, and we're going to get that guy -- he's either going to swing or check swing on the change if it's down," Esquer said. "To be the team we want to be, we're going to throw that pitch down and we're going to get that out, or the chopper to third that we mishandle, there's enough of those things, or in the first inning, the short block is not going to advance the runner or the passed ball won't move another runner into scoring position and a base hit is two. To be the team we want to be, we've got to clean those things up, and when you play this team, you've got to clean those things up."
Scott threw 4.0 innings, allowing two runs on six hits and one walk, striking out three.
"The biggest issue was my two-strike change up," Scott said. "I had the strike-one and I had very good location on my fastball, and I had my slider for the first three innings, but what's been troubling me all year is my put-away change up, which is the reason why lefties are able to hit so well against me, as they have."
After Knapp's fifth longball of the season got the Bears to within a run in the bottom of the eighth, Scott got the Ducks in order in the top of the ninth, setting the stage for a potential comeback.
Right fielder Jacob Wark worked a four-pitch walk from closer Jimmie Sherfy, and after he was pulled for speedy pinch runner Sean Peters, pinch hitter Mitchell Kranson laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Peters into scoring position.
Reuvekamp then sent an 0-2 grounder over the mound and behind the bag at second, but Altobelli ranged to his left, gloved the roller and fired to first to erase the Cal shortstop, putting Peters at third for Pearson. After taking a curve up and in from Sherfy, though, Pearson fouled out to Healy to end the game and put a final nail in the Bears' second straight conference sweep.
"We're playing hard; we're just not coming out on top right now," Rodriguez said. "It's going to be a grind. No one said it was going to be easy. We're playing hard and we've just got to stay the course. We can't get too down, can't get too high. We're going to come out on the other side."
The Bears get back at it on Tuesday against San Francisco in a 2:30 p.m. tilt at Evans Diamond. Esquer was unsure as to which pitcher he would start, though it could very well wind up being a staff day in preparation for a three-game weekend series against Pac-12 foe Washington State.
"It'll be the same as what they're going to do, which is to staff it up and probably pitch everybody for one," Esquer said. "We played them last time, and it was staff-versus-staff."