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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before the 2012 campaign began, the California baseball team was set to have one of the better defenses in the Pac-12. Athletic shortstop Derek Campbell was clock-settingly dependable in fall and winter practice. Reigning conference player of the year Tony Renda was returning at second. Mitch Delfino had made just six errors at third base. Postseason hero Devon Rodriguez was set to be a rock at first.
When the dust settled after Wednesday's 8-5 loss at Stephen Schott Stadium to Santa Clara, the Bears had committed a Pac-12-worst 62 errors -- just one fewer than they'd committed in all of 2011 -- and wasted some clutch hitting on the part of Delfino, who went 2-for-4 with two RBI singles to up his season average with runners in scoring position to .556 (15-for-27).
"It's a simple formula, and it's the same formula: We're not going to win - and won't deserve to win - until we pitch and play defense," said head coach David Esquer. "We can hit enough but nobody hits enough to make up for the defense that we're not playing. We're making up ways to beat ourselves."
The Broncos (18-12) took advantage of three Cal miscues and scored four unearned runs, after hammering ousted closer Logan Scott for four hits and four runs in the bottom of the first, benefitting from a dropped pop-up by Renda and one hit batter.
Scott ground threw two more innings, giving up three more hits and hitting another batter before exiting his third career start. After a clutch two-inning save at Texas just one week ago, Scott has seen opposing hitters go 9-for-18 at the plate against him with six earned runs and three hit batters, raising his ERA to 4.43 and his opponents' batting average to .365. Senior catcher Chadd Krist saw his own struggles continue on Wednesday, and despite taking sole possession of second place on the program's all-time doubles list with a ninth-inning two-bagger, went 1-for-5 with one run. He is now 4-for-24 in his past six games.
"His numbers will tell you that he's just not even close to how he finished last year," Esquer said of Scott. "Again, there's a lot of guys that are just searching, trying to get back to where they were before, and that's really not how you play baseball. You never get to just recapture what you were before. You've got to either establish something new, or you continue on the way you were doing it before. You frustrate yourself trying to think about, 'Why don't I just do it the way I used to?'"
Cal (17-14) struck back in the top of the third at the site of their 2011 Super Regional triumph over Dallas Baptist, beginning with a leadoff home run from Renda - his third of the season. With one out, sophomore right fielder Andrew Knapp drew a six-pitch walk from Santa Clara starter James Smith, setting the stage for the powerful Chad Bunting.
The senior center fielder ripped an 0-1 curveball down the third base line and into the left field corner, bringing Knapp around from first. On the relay throw, second baseman Greg Harisis lost the handle on a slippery ball, allowing Bunting to advance to third with the 82nd RBI of his career. A sacrifice fly from left fielder Darrell Matthews brought Bunting home to make it a one-run affair.
True freshman lefty Chris Muse-Fisher tossed a 1-2-3 fourth, setting the stage for Cal to tie things up in the top of the fifth. With one out, designated hitter Vince Bruno -- who saw his nine-game hitting streak come to a halt - drew a five-pitch walk, and after Krist saw a big drive die on the track in left, Renda took a free pass of his own. Up stepped Delfino, who sent a seeing-eye bleeder up the middle to bring Bruno around to score.
"I was hoping to get Chadd going a little bit," said Esquer, who took Delfino out of the No. 2 slot to try and elicit something from senior backstop Krist. "Anyone who's been in the two-hole has kind of got going a bit. We may have to stay with [Delfino hitting second], but unfortunately, the results aren't going to change. It's who's pitching and playing defense."
With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Campbell -- who has found a tentative home at third -- tried to backhand a grounder by center fielder Matt Ozanne, only to see it go right through the wickets and into left field. After a single by left fielder Pat Stover, catcher Peter Summerville sent what looked like a tailor-made double play ball up the middle to freshman shortstop Chris Paul, but the grounder took a Broncos bounce and squirted into center, plating Ozanne.
With runners at the corners, though, Campbell got a measure of redemption, gloving a hard grounder to third by pinch-hitter T.J. Braff by ranging to his left, spinning and firing to first for the final out.
Defensive lapses once again plagued the Bears in the bottom of the sixth, when Muse-Fisher, after issuing a leadoff walk to third baseman Matt Glomb, bobbled a bunt from slick-fielding shortstop Justin Viele, putting two men on with no outs. A sacrifice bunt by Harisis and a sacrifice fly from first baseman Andrew Biancardi put Santa Clara up by two, 6-4.
Sophomore righty Michael Lowden came on in relief of Muse-Fisher and deftly spotted his fastball on both sides of the plate in his best outing of the year, holding the line for 2.2 innings, allowing just one hit, but once again, the Cal leather let him down.
After another clutch single to right by Delfino in the top of the seventh to once again bring the Bears within one, the big-hitting junior -- playing an unfamiliar first base after a rash of errors at third -- whiffed on a routine throw from Renda on a leadoff grounder from pinch hitter Casey Husband. After a sacrifice bunt by Glomb and an infield pop-out by Viele, Lowden issued an intentional walk to Harisis, before loading the bases with a free pass to Biancardi. On the first pitch he saw, Ozanne sent a line-drive single to center to score two runs and all but close the door.
"The bunt right back to you, the throw from second, that's making up an error," said an exasperated Esquer. "There's that ball that could probably have almost hit [Campbell] in the foot, and it goes down the line. It's tough to watch, and it's embarrassing for us, as coaches, to feel like we prepared them to perform like this, but that's what we're watching right now."
After spending 12 of the past 13 games on the road -- going 6-6 against USC, No. 21 Arizona State, No. 25 Texas, San Francisco and Santa Clara -- Cal finally heads home for seven straight home contests at Evans Diamond, having seen its RPI drop from the low-30s just weeks ago down to No. 77.
"I don't know, I don't know," Esquer said, when asked if a homestand will help the Bears to get into some kind of rhythm against Washington and Utah. "It's almost like playing at home, now, is playing on the road, because it's not even normal for us. I don't know. I'd like to say yes, but I can't say that, for sure."
Cal will play three games this weekend against the Huskies (17-13, 4-5 in Pac-12), starting with a Friday afternoon tilt at 2:30 PM, with sophomore lefty Michael Theofanopoulos on the hill. Saturday and Sunday's contest -- to be started by senior righty Matt Flemer and resurgent lefty Justin Jones, respectively -- will both begin at 1 PM at Evans Diamond.