BERKELEY -- On Friday, it was California junior catcher Andrew Knapp who played the dual role of both the hero and the goat, as he slugged a double and a homer, but also committed a crucial two-run error that led to a one-run loss.
On Saturday, Knapp's potential heir behind the dish -- freshman Mitchell Kranson -- was Cal's Janus of the evening, with two misplayed balls at third that led to three Cardinal runs overshadowing a 2-for-4 day at the plate and his first collegiate home run in a 9-4 loss -- the fourth-straight defeat for the Bears, who have now dropped seven of their last eight.
"Not the best defensive day, for sure," said Kranson.
After a frustrating 9-8 loss on Friday, Cal (22-30, 10-19 in the Pac-12) came out flat against the Cardinal (28-21, 13-13), as junior side-armer Trevor Hildenberger allowed three runs in the top of the first with two outs -- the first of five runs he surrendered with two outs.
"It's unusual, coming off yesterday's game," said head coach David Esquer. "We've just got to play better.
The Bears answered back in the bottom of the second, starting a one-out rally with a first-pitch single by Kranson and a second-pitch groundball single by Chris Paul through the left side. First baseman Nick Halamandaris then took a fastball in the lower back to load the bases for right fielder Jacob Wark, who sent a hard grounder through the left side for an RBI single. Redshirt freshman Brian Celsi -- who struck out with the tying run on third and one out the night before -- then worked a six-pitch walk to load the bases for freshman center fielder Devin Pearson.
Pearson fell behind 0-2 before grounding into a 6-4-3 double play -- the first of three twin killings (all to end innings) Cal grounded into on the night.
"The key was the bases-loaded at-bats," said Esquer, who saw his team strand nine runners on base, six of those in scoring position. "They were more productive in their bases-loaded at-bats than we were. We miss a ball down the line for two runs and we hit into a double play. We had another bases-loaded at-bat that we didn't score. The double play, and I think of their first five or six runs, four were put on by walk or hit-by-pitch, we just can't put them away."
Cal went 1-for-7 on the night with runners in scoring position, while the Cardinal went 5-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
After the Bears cut the lead to one in the second, Stanford scored twice in the top of the fourth, when with one out, first baseman Brian Ragira sent a hard grounder to third, where Kranson tried to backhand a tough hop and saw it kick off his mitt and into foul territory, allowing Justin Ringo and Alex Blandino to score, making the score 5-2 in favor of the Cardinal on a ball that very well could have meant an inning-ending double play.
"That was a tough play, a short hop hit pretty hard to my backhand, and it just came out of my glove," Kranson said.
Stanford plated another pair in the top of the fifth off of Hildenberger, who got ahead 1-2 to catcher Brant Whiting before walking the junior backstop and then allowing an 0-1 single through the left side to Blandino. Left fielder Wayne Taylor then sent the second pitch he saw into deep right with Wark playing well off the line, scoring both Whiting and Blandino on a two-run single.
"We just can't put them away in a number of ways -- put them away in the inning, put away the hitter with two strikes -- just haven't been able to put them away," Esquer said. "To their credit, they've stayed constant on us. I don't think they let us feel like we've been on top of them at all, yet. They always have runners on base or they're squaring up a ball on the barrel -- just haven't pitched well enough. Then, the defense bit us today, which is untimely. I think Kranson's been pretty good over there, pretty solid, and a couple balls got by him today ... That's unusual for him. He's actually played OK over there."
Cal loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the fifth, but Knapp tried to pull a breaking ball on the outer half from reliever Logan James, grounding into a force at third and scoring a run. James uncorked a wild pitch on his first offering to designated hitter Devon Rodriguez, before walking the junior slugger to load the bases for Kranson, but the freshman infielder jumped at the second pitch he saw from James and grounded out to short to end the threat.
With Ragira on first with a leadoff single and no outs in the top of the sixth, Kranson again came up short with the glove, whiffing on a hard shot off the bat of center fielder Austin Wilson. Reliever Kyle Porter then hit second baseman Danny Diekroeger to load the bases, and after striking out Whiting, surrendered a sacrifice fly to Blandino, who went 2-for-3 with two runs and two RBIs.
"That was, I was pissed," Kranson said. "I should have made that play. It hit a little something I thought, but I'm not going to make that excuse. I just missed it."
Kranson led off the bottom of the eighth by taking a belt-high, 1-2 fastball from James deep over the right center field wall, right through the real estate formerly occupied by Cal's old scoreboard for his first collegiate home run. Kranson finished the night 2-for-4 with two runs and one RBI, and is now hitting .366 (15-for-41) with eight RBIs, eight runs, four doubles and one home run in his last 11 games.
"That felt really good," Kranson said. "I had faced Logan before, in high school summer ball, so I knew what he had. I took one -- he threw me a first-pitch fastball -- and then I fouled off a fastball straight back, and that was the same, exact pitch I hit out."
Stanford loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the ninth on two walks and a single off of reliever Ryan Wertenberger, who was pulled in favor of freshman Jake Schulz. Schulz promptly hit Ringo with his first pitch, forcing in the final run of the contest.
Cal got two men on with two outs in the bottom of the ninth on a Brenden Farney single and a four-pitch walk to Knapp, but Rodriguez flied out to center to end the game.
James earned his second win of the season with 4.2 innings of relief, allowing just one run on four hits, with three walks and five strikeouts. Hildenberger fell to 5-4 with the loss, allowing seven runs -- all earned -- on eight hits and three walks, striking out three.
All but two Bears starters registered hits on the evening, led by Kranson's 2-for-4 line. The Cardinal saw five hitters tally multi-hit games, though only one of Stanford's 12 hits went for extra bases.
Cal concludes the three-game set on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Evans Diamond, honoring departing seniors Logan Scott, Justin Jones, Wertenberger and Ryan Sandler. The Bears will likely turn to sophomore righty Dylan Nelson for the start on the bump. Nelson is 1-5 in 19 appearances on the year (seven starts) with a 4.25 ERA in 53.0 innings. Nelson has 37 strikeouts to just eight walks, but opposing hitters are batting .311 against him.
"He probably is [running on fumes], but we don't have much choice," Esquer said. "We just need to decide whether we're going to try and shorten the game with somebody else or go with him from the start. They've come out smoking. The first two days, they've scored on us early and we've had to come back both days. We just have no sense of stability like we're going to hold them down and let the offense go."
Cal has hit .270 off of the Cardinal in the first two games (20-for-74) with seven walks and two hit batters, but with just three extra-base hits and has no wins to show for the effort.
"I think their pitchers have given us quite a bit, as a matter of fact," Esquer said. "I think they've given us opportunities. They've given us bases with hit-by-pitch and walks with some hits mixed in there. We just haven't cashed them in."
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