BERKELEY -- With just one hidden ball trick and two gift runs, the California baseball team's postseason leash got just a little bit shorter on Friday against visiting Arizona.
The Bears fell in game one to the No. 14 Wildcats, 3-1, and failed to capitalize on two prime scoring opportunities late in the game, as Arizona starter Kurt Heyer proved just why he's one of the best pitchers in the Pac-12, tossing his eighth career complete game and fifth this season.
10 years ago, Arizona first base coach Brett Scyphers -- then a sophomore second baseman -- pulled off the hidden ball trick in the CIF Southern Section Division I title game at Angels Stadium for Adolfo Camarillo High School, helping the Scorpions to take the state title over Lakewood. On Friday, though Scyphers insisted he had nothing to do with it, his protégé's used that same ploy against Cal in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The Bears had led off the frame with two straight singles from senior Danny Oh and sophomore right fielder Andrew Knapp, but after Knapp rapped a sinking liner to left off his hands, Heyer called his infielders to the mound. With the Wildcats bullpen starting to warm, Heyer stepped off the mound and held what looked like your average confab. What Oh didn't realize was that shortstop Alex Mejia came away from that meeting with the ball in his mitt.
Click Here to view this Link."I thought I saw Heyer walk over the mound and come back down, but I just didn't see where the ball was," Oh said. "That was just a dumb play on my part. I just started shifting my feet to start talking to Andrew Knapp, and the shortstop was just waiting for me. One foot came off right when I turned around, and the shortstop was just waiting right there. Unfortunately, it happened at a big gime."
Oh was tagged out, and Heyer proceeded to retire Cal's two leading hitters -- junior second baseman Tony Renda and hot-hitting Mitch Delfino -- in order, fanning Delfino on a filthy slider for his eighth strikeout, ending what was the Bears' last scoring opportunity.
Cal (25-20, 9-13 in Pac-12) left six runners on base against Arizona, and despite holding the conference's top offense to just six hits, could not manage a win in the series opener.
"Their team came up with the big play and caught us napping there," said Bears head coach David Esquer. "That's what it takes to win."
After Cal managed a run in the bottom of the first on a walk, a hit and a sacrifice fly by Delfino, the Wildcats (31-15, 14-8) plated a run in the top of the third on an RBI infield single by Mejia to drive in second baseman Trent Gilbert, who reached with a leadoff walk.
The eighth-place hitter for Arizona was arguably the player of the game despite not registering a single hit. Gilbert went 0-for-1 but had three walks and two runs scored, with one coming in a disastrous top of the fifth for Cal starter Michael Theofanopoulos.
"It's the eight guy, the eight hitter, and you set it up for the nine hitter to not even have to swing the bat," Esquer said. "Now, the nine hitter gets to bunt."
After retiring four straight Arizona hitters, Theofanopoulos dealt a five-pitch walk to Gilbert to lead off the fifth, with Gilbert taking second on a sacrifice bunt from Brandon Dixon.
Center fielder Joey Rickard then drew a seven-pitch free pass from Theofanopoulos to put two men on with left fielder Johnny Field at the dish. Sophomore right-handed reliever Michael Lowden -- who came into the game with a 2.51 ERA in 14.1 innings of work and a .196 batting average against - could not find the strike zone either, missing on four straight pitches to load the bases for Mejia.
"He just didn't have it," Esquer said. "He came out and he just didn't have it."
Lowden over-threw his fastball with the pressure mounting, and forced in a run with a five-pitch walk to Mejia, allowing Arizona to take a 2-1 lead before serving up a tailor-made double play ball to end the inning. The damage, however, was done.
"It's tough," Esquer said. "[Theofanopoulos] is a little miscast on Friday, but he's getting some valuable experience. What it takes to win on Friday is a real small margin of error. You've got to give the other team a really small margin of error. That's what the best Friday guys do, and that's what [Heyer] did today."
After making Heyer work during a 29-pitch first inning, the Bears fell flat against the Wildcats ace, as Heyer retired 18 of the next 19 hitters.
"He puts pressure on you with strikes," Esquer said. "He doesn't give you much, and quite frankly, their second run was a pure gift. Four walks. They didn't even have to swing the bat. He doesn't give you much, and you give him a gift like that on a Friday and that's a big deal. Then, you get caught off of second base on a hidden ball trick, that's a big deal on a Friday. It completely takes the momentum away. It's unacceptable. It just can't happen."
Vince Bruno sent a seeing-eye groundball single up the middle with one down in the bottom of the seventh to break the spell, and center fielder Darrell Matthews came up with a 1-0 single with two outs for pinch hitter Chad Bunting, and Bunting sent a 2-2 slider up the middle which handcuffed Gilbert to load the bases for freshman shortstop Brenden Farney, but the first-year infielder was robbed by Mejia on an 0-1 cue shot, as the junior shortstop ranged to his left, backhanded the grounder, planted and fired to first to end the inning.
Matthews finished the day 2-for-4 as the only Cal player with more than one hit.
A two-out no-doubt solo home run by right fielder Robert Refsnyder in the top of the eighth off of freshman lefty reliever Chris Muse-Fisher accounted for the final tally.
Muse-Fisher threw 3.2 innings, allowing just two hits while striking out two.
"He did what he had to do," Esquer said. "He missed on a pitch against their best hitter, and it's the Pac-12. You've got to be good. You've got to throw good pitches to good hitters. It was a little up and a little fat and hey, he did what Pac-12 players normally do. Maybe not in the age of this (deadened) bat, but they normally do that to those pitches."
The Bears will send ace righty Matt Flemer to the mound on Saturday in a 1 PM start against sophomore Konner Wade. Flemer has been one of the best hurlers in the Pac-12 this season, boasting a 7-3 record with a 2.25 ERA and 56 strikeouts to just 12 walks in 88.0 innings of work.
"Hopefully, we learned some things about where the outs are and how to get them out," Esquer said. "Hopefully, it's something we can take into tomorrow's game and like I told the team, we don't have much time to shake the cobwebs from finals out. We've got to get there in a hurry. We've got to get back to midseason form in a hurry."
Wade is 6-1 with a 4.29 ERA, having allowed 78 hits and 28 walks in 84.0 innings of work. Wade has allowed 19 extra-base hits, and opposing hitters are batting .248 against him this season.
Cal likely has to win at least five games out of the next eight conference contests to be in a position to make the playoffs.