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May 14, 2012

3-for-4 day from Delfino not enough

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BERKELEY -- The California baseball team was swept for the third time this season - and the second at home, in conference play - on Sunday, finally busting out of a bit of an offensive funk and battling No. 10 Arizona, but nevertheless falling 7-4.

"It was just not enough," said head coach David Esquer. "When it comes right down to it, we just haven't shown enough."

After some brilliant moments during the season - taking two of four from Nebraska and taking two of three from Texas on the road - the team has perhaps played its best baseball of late, as far as pitching and defense are concerned, keeping the No. 10 Wildcats close in all three games.

"We're all-out just to find ourselves a little bit and just win some games," Esquer said. "That doesn't change. We just have to win some games. When we play good enough to win games, we probably played good enough to win a game or two here. We just haven't done it. Our starting pitching, obviously a three-spot early in two ballgames, that makes it tougher on you when you're not swinging the bat well."

Senior catcher Chadd Krist -- who has had a rough season after deciding to return after being drafted in the 13th round by the Chicago White Sox -- was 0-for-8 in the series coming into Sunday, but nearly socked his fourth homer of the season with two men in the bottom of the second inning, following a three-run first from the Wildcats.

Krist crushed a 2-2 pitch from sophomore starter James Farris off the wall of the RSF in left, but just a few feet foul. Three pitches later, instead of hitting another one to Oakland, Krist sent a ball that would barely make it to Bancroft Ave., on a down-slope through the left side of the infield for an RBI single, bringing the Bears within two.

True freshman shortstop Brenden Farney then came up with his fourth double of the season -- a two-run job to tie the game at three.

Beleaguered junior lefty Justin Jones, though, could not hold the line, allowing another run in the top of the third as the Wildcats took the lead for good.

"When you break down the weekend, when you get picked on a wheel pick, and the hidden ball trick, they outplayed us," Esquer said. "We're not good at creating our own breaks, and when you play on such a fine line, those breaks can be the margin of victory. But, when you create some margin for error with good baseball and consistent offense, all those things, you forget those."

For the third game in a row - after a dubious batter's interference, a borderline-illegal hidden ball trick and an amorphous strike zone over the previous two games -- the Bears again saw some inconsistent umpiring, which elicited at least one complaint that prompted third base umpire Kelly Gonzales to give pitching coach Mike Neu the heave-ho from across the diamond in the top of the first.

"He just mentioned a couple things to the umpire, while he was on the mound," Esquer said. "I thought the umpire was maybe looking for a little bit of trouble there, too. You don't have to yell across the diamond, with no curse words being said. It was pretty frivolous, if you ask me. It hurt us. Mike's a big part, his ability to call pitches and do those things, we were able to call some pitches here from the side and let Chadd have the run of the game, and there were some young mistakes. No different than a freshman getting picked on a wheel play at second base in a big spot."

Though Cal banged out six hits - with three coming from junior first baseman Mitch Delfino to snap an 0-for-6 skid in the series - but after a three-run second, couldn't manage to string a rally together.

The Bears were 2-for-3 with runners in scoring position over the first 2.1 innings, but went 0-for-2 from then on out, with one runner picked off at second and another cut down on the basepaths.

"[Neu] got kicked out in the second, we scored three, so it was just not constant enough," Esquer said. "We just didn't sustain it, probably on a day that you should have been able to sustain it. He was a solid pitcher, but not electric stuff."

After junior lefty starter Justin Jones got a quick groundout to short to lead off the game, he surrendered a ringing single to left to Johnny Field before dealing a four-pitch walk to shortstop Alex Mejia.

Right fielder Robert Refsnyder then sent a grounder through the right side and under the glove of a diving Delfino to drive home a run. A wild pitch by Jones to Seth Mejias-Brean allowed another run to score, and as Krist chased down the ball and threw home with Mejia chugging down the line, Jones looked away for a split second, trying to apply the tag before the ball was in his mitt. Neu came out to settle Jones down, but after he had gone back to the dugout, got the boot from Gonzales. The Bears then went down in order in the bottom of the frame, giving Jones -- who had thrown 26 pitches -- little rest. Jones labored again in the second, throwing 28 pitches.

After Cal came up with a game-tying three spot thanks to Krist and Farney, though, Jones looked to settle down in the third, getting a grounder to short from Refsnyder. The throw by Farney was wide, bringing Delfino into Refsnyder, and the former third baseman was alert enough to swing around and make a tag before Refsnyder reached first. First base umpire Scott Higgins, though, saw things differently.

"He saw the tag," Esquer said. "It wasn't a question. He said he did tag him, but he felt like [Refsnyder] was close enough to the base that, in the position that he tagged him behind him, he had already reached the base. He saw tag and foot. He saw the tag, though. He wasn't saying he whiffed the tag."

After a Mejias-Brean fly out to right, Nones tried to pick Refsnyder off at first, firing up the right field line and allowing the Arizona right fielder to reach third. Refsnyder would score on Jones's second errant pickoff throw to first with catcher Riley Moore at the dish, breaking the tie and giving the Wildcats the lead for good.

Jones lasted four innings, surrendering five runs -- three earned -- on six hits and four walks with three strikeouts.

Cal had another shot in the bottom of the third, but Delfino was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double with one out, and two straight walks to junior Vince Bruno and Krist were left on the board when center fielder Chad Bunting struck out on a full-count breaking ball low and away.

Sophomore lefty Kyle Porter took the hill for four innings -- his longest stint since a four-inning, no-hit performance against Nebraska on March 11, before shoulder trouble severely limited the would-be weekend starter for the rest of the year.

"It's tough," Esquer said of the season, which has seen unexpectedly woeful defense and two presumptive starters go down with injury and a third - preseason All-American Jones - struggling through the first half of the season after recovering from a nerve injury suffered during the NCAA Super Regionals. "Because of the recruiting -- or the lack of recruiting -- you're on such a thin line of a margin for error. We knew, quite frankly, that if we were going to come through this with enough pitching to get to the playoffs, and we knew we had probably a starting lineup that could get us there, it was a fine line. It had to be precise. If someone asked me how to describe the season, I would say, 'Devon Rodriguez is hurt, and that's a big blow to us, and 45, 46 games in, Kyle Porter has 15 innings and Justin Jones is 4-7. That's not the recipe or the formula for getting your team to where you want them to be."

Porter allowed two runs on four hits with two strikeouts, effectively mixing his pitches and changing speeds and showing good velocity and a healthier arm slot. Porter did give up a solo eighth-inning home run to Field, though, the third eighth-inning round-tripper Cal has surrendered in the series and the fourth longball.

"Just getting him out there is big for us," Esquer said. "It's the better he can feel. Again, with a couple of the pitcher transfers and the recruiting not being there on top of it, with Jones and Porter not being right, God, that's a tough mountain to climb. Now, hey, had they been healthy and having their regular return and having their best years, yeah, you'll take your chances. It just hasn't gone our way this year, yet."

Farney led off the bottom of the fourth with a walk, and was followed by a free pass to Mike Reuvekamp. With junior left fielder Darrell Matthews at the dish, Farney was caught napping on a wheel play, and was picked off, 1-4-5, with Reuvekamp taking third. A 1-2 groundball single through the right side scored the Bears' fourth run, but in the top of the sixth, Porter allowed a leadoff double to Field, and then a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly to account for the Wildcats' sixth run.

"One is not enough," Esquer said, of coming through in the clutch. "One is not enough. If you're a team that's, if you look down the line, the teams, whether it's Oregon or Arizona, they did a good job of creating an inning out of nothing. Two outs, nobody on, and all of the sudden, there's a run. Maybe because of our help, or someone else, they get a two-out hit and we just didn't do a good job of bringing that in. When you're that team, you're constant, and it's a little tough when you have to hope that Tony Renda can come up to bat as often as possible. You can't do that."

The Bears take the field on Monday in a non-conference match-up against Washington State, who they beat two out of three up in Pullman last weekend. True freshman lefty Chris Muse-Fisher will get the start.

"They're pretty left-hand dominant, so we'll let Chris go as many pitches as he can," Esquer said. "We've got Logan Scott also available and a couple other guys, like [Joey] Donofrio."

After starting the season as the closer, Scott will be auditioning to take on a weekend starter's role next season, if the two incoming freshman power arms Cal Becker and Ryan Mason aren't quite ready.

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