BERKELEY -- This was not the game they wanted. This was not the game they needed. This wasn't even a game they could grudgingly accept. As far as the next page in the script for the California Golden Bears' 2011 baseball season, this one went over about as well as Gili.
Cal -- ranked No. 23 in Collegiate Baseball -- fell on Friday with a resounding thud in the first game of this weekend's Big Series against rival Stanford, repeatedly coming up empty in big spots and dropping an uneven 3-2 contest to set up Saturday's now-crucial doubleheader.
"In big games, you've got to be able to make big plays, and be able to run plays," said head coach David Esquer. "You look at any of the tournaments -- the SEC, the ACC, the Big 12 Tournament -- it comes down to two-strike hitting, two-out hitting, not walking leadoff hitters. The game of baseball, there's a script to it, a little bit. Talent has a lot to do with it, whether you can overcome a mistake, but there's some script to how things go wrong and when they go wrong."
The Bears (31-19, 13-12 in the Pac-10) out-hit the No. 26 Cardinal (31-20, 13-12) 9-5, but could not take advantage of two Stanford errors and stranded 10 runners on base, wasting an 11-strikeout effort from starter Erik Johnson, who dropped to 6-3 on the season.
"11 strikeouts, but two leadoff walks that scored," Esquer said. "We're playing too good a team. The game of baseball, there's a recipe for it. The leadoff walks will kill you. They killed us, and it's not a secret. They didn't do anything extraordinary to win the ballgame. They just let the game of baseball take care of itself."
Johnson walked the first batter of the game -- Stanford catcher Zach Jones -- before allowing a one-out single to Tyler Gaffney and a run-scoring fielder's choice grounder to short off the bat of sophomore third baseman Stephen Piscotty.
Cal came back with a run of its own in the bottom of the frame when a one-out single from junior shortstop Marcus Semien was cashed in thanks to the Cardinal's first fielding miscue of the game. With Semien on second, junior catcher Chadd Krist fired a hard grounder to the hole at short, and a bad throw from Kenny Diekroeger drew first baseman Brian Ragira into Krist running up the line. The ball came loose, allowing Krist to reach and Semien to come around and tie the game.
For the next four innings, Johnson was electric, mixing his mid-90s fastball with an ankle-breaking slider and the occasional power curve to strike out six of the 12 hitters he faced.
"What was really working was the fastball; my command was on," Johnson said. "I was throwing a lot of first-pitch strikes and then came back and struck out a lot of guys with the fastball. I was moving it in and out and they weren't even touching it. That's how I got to groove all the way to the sixth, and they couldn't catch up."
Over that same stretch, though, Stanford starter Mark Appel deftly navigated the Bears lineup and got out of several big jams. In the bottom of the second, Cal stranded Vince Bruno and Mitch Delfino at first and second with two outs when senior left fielder Austin Booker struck out on an 0-2 slider.
In the bottom of the third, Semien and sophomore second baseman Tony Renda rapped out back-to-back singles to lead off the inning and were sacrificed to third on a bunt from fourth-place hitter Krist. With one out and two men in scoring position, Appel caught right fielder Chad Bunting overswinging on a slider in the dirt for a strikeout and then got sophomore first baseman Devon Rodriguez to bounce out harmlessly to second to end the potentially game-breaking inning.
Semien again tried to get something going in the bottom of the fifth with a one-out single to left, but was caught stealing on a pickoff throw to first from Appel, who had wasted two earlier attempts where he had runners at first dead to rights, allowing Delfino and Krist to scamper back in the first and third.
"We were really pressing and guessing. It was a guess type of steal and we were willing to risk being out at second base, to be honest with you," Esquer said. "We were going to lead a little bit early and that's fine. We can cover ourselves and get back if we need to, and we did on those two occasions. To be honest, we were willing to risk the out anyway. The guy who was at the plate, we were comfortable with him leading off the next inning. We were trying to get to second so that a base-hit would help us. "
After Semien was erased and the pressure was off, Appel was able to get Renda to fly out to center on an 0-2 breaking ball.
"We were running a hit-and-run, and he had picked twice before," Semien said. "We hadn't seen him go three times in a row, yet, so I just got caught leaning. I hold myself accountable for that play. We could have got back and kept the inning going if I was on base. I hold myself accountable for that."
The Cardinal were able to break through in the top of the sixth again thanks to a leadoff walk issued by Johnson, who issued a five-pitch walk to center fielder Jake Stewart. After struggling to find his control against Jones, Johnson finally was able to get a swing and miss on the high fastball with Stewart breaking to second on the full count. Krist fired to second and had Stewart dead-to-rights, but the throw was dropped at the bag by Renda.
After getting designated hitter Ben Clowe to ground out to third, Johnson surrendered an RBI single to right by Gaffney. The strong-armed Bunting charged hard and came up firing, but inexplicably delivered a three-hopper to the plate, allowing Stewart to score.
"He's plenty capable. I don't know whether the ball slipped or not. He's plenty capable," Esquer said. "It didn't happen, but it's no different than in an at-bat not getting a hit. The play was there, he didn't make the play. They did."
After a visit to the mound by pitching coach Dan Hubbs, Johnson promptly gave up a 2-2 flare into shallow right-center by Ragira, bringing Gaffney around and staking Stanford to a 3-1 lead.
"I walked the first guy and they did a good job of capitalizing on my mistake," Johnson said. "That's my fault there. That big inning in the sixth never should have happened. I'll take the blame for that one.
"Sometimes, leadoff walks happen, but I've got to be the better pitcher."
The middle of the Bears order came up empty yet again with some undisciplined at-bats in the bottom of the frame, when Krist flied out to right to lead off and Bunting tomahawked a fastball at his eyes deep to left but foul over the wall. Bunting flailed at a slider away, spinning himself into the dirt, before finally pulling an outside pitch right into a groundout to third.
Even with that disappointment, Rodriguez came back one batter later by crushing his fourth home run of the season through the wind and over the wall in right to cut the lead in half. Delfino then came up with a 1-0 low-liner into the right field corner for his 12th double of the year. After a coaching visit to the mound, Appel was able to get off the ropes again by taking advantage of freshman center fielder Louie Lechich's youthful exuberance, getting the Stockton, Calif., native to fly out to left on just the second pitch of the at-bat.
"It's the same story as the whole year," said a clearly-frustrated Esquer. "We get picked off at first base on a hit and run, and we couldn't come up with a big play in the big spot. That's too bad, because they won the spot they needed to win with the two-out base hit and the two-strike base hit to score runs. They did a better job. They just did the better job in the big spot today."
The Bears once again had an opportunity in the bottom of the seventh, when after a clutch sliding snag on a Bruno low liner to left by Gaffney, Booker reached first when Appel couldn't hold onto a flip from Ragira. Booker was erased on a chopper to short from Semien, and then Renda flew out to center on the first pitch he saw to end the frame.
In the bottom of the eighth, Krist tried to get something going by delivering an unexpected bunt up the third base line, but he flashed bunt too early, allowing Piscotty to get a running start and nail the junior backstop on a circus play thanks to a barehanded grab and an off-balance throw across the diamond. After an infield single from Bunting, Appel was lifted for lefty closer Chris Reed, who got Rodriguez to fly out to left on the second pitch of his at-bat. A line-drive single by Delfino put men at first and second for the left-handed-hitting Lechich. who pulled the trigger on the first pitch he saw and grounded out weakly to first, clinching Appel's fifth win of the year and Reed's seventh save.
"The games are close enough and we're a good enough team and we're playing good enough competition. It's thin, the difference between winning and losing," Esquer said.
Cal has now gone 6-5 in its last 11 games, a record eerily similar to the ends of seasons past. In 2010 and 2009, the Bears finished 5-8 in their final 13 games, and in 2008, they finished 6-7. This season, though, neither Josh Satin nor David Cooper are walking through that clubhouse door. For all the dramatic finishes this season, including five walk-off wins, this bunch seems once again to be struggling down the stretch.
"I think we're playing better people and I think if you look up and down the league, there's not a lot of people that are running 10 over .500 as we get into league," Esquer said. "You can see the cluster of teams and it's just not happening. It's too good a league with the competition."
After the final out, the team was visibly furious, with some players throwing some equipment around in the corners of the dugout out of frustration.
"We play for the big spot, and we had runners on second and third with one out, and all it takes is a groundball up the middle and we're fine," Johnson said. "We had plenty of spots open to take advantage, and we didn't capitalize. I've got to give them credit, because when the spot was there, they took advantage of it. Leaving 10 runners on base, you're not going to win a game like that."
Semien was one of just two Bears hitters to register multi-hit days, going 3-for-4 with a run and a walk. Delfino also had a multi-hit game, going 2-for-3.
"My second at-bat was the only fastball I got a hit off of, the first one was a slider and the third was a change up," Semien said. "He started to work me in a lot more as the game went on, but he was leaving pitches over the middle of the plate that I just took right up the middle."
But even with his big day at the dish, Semien wasn't satisfied.
"We know we're in a tight race here to finish the season strong, and we can't afford to lose these games, especially at home," Semien said. "We need to play better at home and win at least one tomorrow and go from there."
The Bears and the Cardinal finish the regular season on Saturday with a doubleheader scheduled to start at noon.
Saturday will be Senior Day for Cal, which will honor pitcher Kevin Miller, utility player Dwight Tanaka and Booker. There will also be a beer garden down the left field line throughout the day.