ROUND ROCK, Tex. -- Postseason heroics, preseason accolades, past honorifics, none of them mattered for California junior lefty Justin Jones on a steamy Friday evening.
The Bears ace turned in perhaps his worst outing in a Cal uniform, giving up eight runs in 2.2 innings of work as the Bears dropped the series opener to fellow 2011 College World Series participant Texas, 13-3.
Jones shouldered a laborious 83 pitches, allowing eight hits, two walks and hitting one batter.
"That was easily the worst start of my life," Jones said. "It's one of the worst feelings of my life. To go out and just mess the bed, I'm supposed to go out there as a Friday starter and set the tone. That's not what I've done."
Jones fell to 2-4 on the season, and has now lost each of his last three starts. Over those three starts, Jones has a 7.61 ERA, throwing 14.2 innings, giving up 24 hits, 18 runs, 12 earned runs and seven walks while striking out just five hitters.
"I have to start doing it soon," Jones said. "Next start, I guess. I just need to keep doing the same thing, and eventually, it's going to come. Everything feels fine. It's just finding rhythm and learning how to throw the ball again. Everything feels fine, it's just finding it. I've never been a loser like this, so it's kind of tough. I've got to find it. It's as simple as that."
Jones failed to establish the inside fastball, and without that, his curve and change proved useless. He lived off the outside half of the plate, and was afraid to come inside with his fastball, allowing hitters to sit on mistakes over the plate, which were in the mid-80s, as opposed to the high-80s, low-90s fastball Jones showed early in the year.
"They didn't flinch on his change up, they didn't check swing on a breaking ball," said head coach David Esquer. "They don't have to. They're not in fear of the fastball in."
The Bears (14-10) showed more of the same, and not in a good way, committing two errors in the bottom of the first inning to kick off the Texas onslaught.
Jones gave up a full-count single up the middle to leadoff man Mark Payton, and No. 2 hitter Jordan Etier then sent a one-hopper up the middle to the left side of the second base bag. True freshman Chris Paul -- starting just his fourth game at shortstop after playing his entire high school career at that position -- saw the ball kick off the heel of his glove and into center, turning a sure double play into a two-on, no-out jam.
"It was hit pretty hard, and I should have caught it," Paul said. "I'm not making any excuses on it. I booted it."
Jones was able to get ahead of third baseman Erich Weiss, 0-2, but the sophomore then lined a flat curveball into left field for an RBI single. Texas's leading hitter -- Jonathan Walsh -- then stepped to the plate, and after two bluffed pick off attempts from Jones, the Longhorns called their first of two double steals of the inning. The throw from Cal catcher Chadd Krist bounced in front of second baseman Tony Renda and skipped into center field, allowing Etier to score on the Bears' 47th error of the season.
"I'm a groundball pitcher," Jones said. "I hope I get it to my infield, to save my pitch count, so I don't think about the errors one bit. If we make an error, and I'm not good enough to get out of it and back my team, then that's on me."
After walking Walsh, Jones was able to get first baseman Alex Silver to swing and miss on a change up away for the first out of the game, but with catcher Jacob Felts at the dish, Longhorns head coach Auggie Garrido called for the second double steal of the inning, with Walsh and Weiss taking second and third. A fly out to right by Felts plated Weiss, before Jones finally got junior designated hitter Landon Steinhagen to fly out to right.
"We make the error on the second hitter of the game, it's going to be a double play ball, and then, all hell breaks loose," said head coach David Esquer.
Things didn't get much better after that, as Texas starter Nathan Thornhill threw 4.0 perfect innings, breezing through the Cal lineup with a plus change up and pinpoint control.
The Bears had just eight plate appearances where they saw four or more pitches over the entire game.
"Well, a little bit, we are aggressive, and what makes us dangerous, it works both ways," Esquer said. "What could make you dangerous against good pitching, is you swing, so you become dangerous, but also, what makes you pitchable, is you swing. So, there has to be a middle ground, and sometimes, you think that some of our guys are aggressive, trying to make something happen, and they think that earlier in the count is going to be better, so it is a little bit some of, our hitters don't feel as confident in the count, trying to get it over with, early."
As Cal went up and down with nary a whimper, Texas continued to pile on, scoring in the first five innings, with a four spot in the bottom of the third spelling the end for the beleaguered Jones, who failed to save the bullpen, which has been a major concern for Esquer and pitching coach Mike Neu.
"You're caught," Esquer said. "There is a strategy, where you want him to throw 100 pitches, so we can save our pen, because we're not that deep, but, he was at 80 pitches through three innings, and that's not fair to anybody. We had to get him out. You'd like him to go 100 pitches and see how far he can get into the game, maybe a couple quick innings to get you into the fifth, but it just wasn't going to happen."
Silver led off with a first-pitch single to right, and moved to second on a bunt by Felts. A hard hopper up the middle by Steinhagen put men at first and third for second baseman Brooks Marlow, who promptly banged the fifth pitch he saw from Jones into center for a sacrifice fly, making it 5-0, Texas.
With two outs, Jones got ahead of No. 9-place hitter Taylor Stell, 1-2, but then sent his 74th pitch of the evening into Stell's back, putting men on first and second for Payton. Payton took the first pitch he saw into left field for an RBI single. After getting ahead of Etier, 0-2, Jones spun around to second and fired to Renda, but Stell had already gotten a lengthy jump and was well on his way to third, and Renda held the ball to make sure Payton did not advance. None of that mattered, however, when Etier teed off on a payoff pitch and laced a shot to left. Matthews misjudged the flight of the ball, took his eyes off of it, then mistimed his leap in the left field corner, as the ball narrowly avoided his outstretched mitt and landed in the corner for a two-run double. 8-0, Longhorns.
Jones was lifted for soft-tossing lefty Chris Muse-Fisher, who finished off the third by fanning Weiss on five pitches.
After the Bears went down in order on just nine pitches in the top of the fourth, Muse-Fisher walked hot-hitting Walsh on five pitches, then balked him over to second with Silver at the dish. After two fly outs, Steinhagen cashed in the free rally with a mammoth two-run blast off the batter's eye in center field to make it 10-0.
The Bears finally got on the board in the top of the fifth, when Thornhill left several change ups high in the zone, surrendering two straight singles to Krist and Andrew Knapp to lead off the inning. After fanning center fielder Chad Bunting, Thornhill surrendered a line-drive double to left center field to Matthews to make it 10-1. A sacrifice fly to the base of the wall in left by Paul, aided by the warm evening air at Dell Diamond, scored Knapp.
Junior righty Ryan Wertenberger then came on, and before settling in with a plus curveball working off his low-90s fastball, gave up a leadoff triple to Stell and a double to center to Payton for his third hit of the game, and second RBI. The Texas right fielder finished 3-for-5 with three runs scored and two RBI on the evening.
Wertenberger bore down to get Etier out on a cue-shot to short, and then fanned Weiss on a big bender, before Walsh got off the schnide and notched his first hit of the day, banging a deuce into center for a two-our RBI single.
Cal scored just once more, thanks to Renda. A throwing error by Weiss, coming across the diamond on a slow roller by Vince Bruno, allowed the speedy junior to reach second, and after a fly out by Mitch Delfino, Renda brought Bruno around with a line drive single into shallow center in the top of the sixth.
In five of the first six innings, Texas saw its leadoff hitter reach base.
"They just got relaxed and were able to just swing the bat, and that's not their M.O. normally," Esquer said of Texas. "It's getting guys on base, moving them up and then playing for one run, and they were able to do a lot more damage than that against us."
In the bottom of the frame, Esquer took the axe to his defensive alignment, inserting former starting shortstop Derek Campbell at third, moving Delfino to first and moving Knapp from first to his natural position at catcher, putting Krist on the bench.
Delfino made a veteran play in the bottom of the eighth, fielding a bouncer between first and second in front of Renda for a 3-1 groundout, and looked wholly at home on the other side of the diamond.
"Well, I'll be honest, that's an alignment that I'm considering, very strongly," Esquer said. "We've got to give ourselves a chance to play the best defense that we can, and even that being said, I don't know that that' sthe answer, but we've got to keep looking, because we've got to give our pitching staff at least a chance. Whether that means that Derek plays third and Mitch plays first and Knapp will probably go into the outfield, and he hasn't done a bad job [at first], but it gives us the best chance to play better defense."
Delfino did not play first base at all during games last season, but might have to play a bit more, what with the uncertainty surrounding the knee of projected starter Devon Rodriguez.
"I don't know if he's more comfortable, but it's just kind of a, hey, as I think about it, it's an idea that I had that, hey, obviously Mitch is struggling a little at third base this year; he's made more errors already this year than he had all of last year," Esquer said. "Derek didn't start off well at shortstop, and Tony's been our most improved defender and our steadiest defender. Knapp, even with his inexperience, has not played poorly, but you just don't know how much his inexperience could come in to play. He's done fine. He has to stay in the lineup, and he's also worked very hard - we had plans of him being an outfielder for us. During the year, all our preseason work, was making him ready to play the outfield.
"When Devon got hurt before the season started, he had to learn in a hurry, how to become a first baseman. It doesn't look good [for Rodriguez] right now. It was more of a set-back. Unfortunately, it doesn't look good. We're going to have to learn to have life without him. That's a big miss. We probably felt it a little more last weekend. I literally felt that, that was the first time where I felt like with Devon in our lineup, we win two. We go from being, in my estimation, better than them, through the middle of the lineup, and better at first base, to not as strong in the middle of the lineup, and they were better at first base. That was the first time I felt like that, all year long."
Cal will face the Longhorns in Game Two on Saturday at 4 PM Central, with senior righty stopper Matt Flemer on the hill.
"We need him," Esquer said. "Quite frankly, what we need is, we need our pitching staff. Justin and Kyle haven't been able to do it, to give coach Neu a chance to call pitches. We can't call a location and we can't call a pitch. We're just calling whatever his best chance to throw a strike is, and that's not how you attack a team like Texas."