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April 26, 2011

Bears drop fourth straight

STANFORD -- You could say that the No. 20 California baseball team has hit a rough patch, but that would imply that the Bears have at least hit something. After getting swept by No. 8 Arizona State this past weekend and shut out in the second and third games of that series, Cal had to resort to a near-complete lineup turnover to get on the board on Monday night against No. 21 Stanford, but even that wasn't enough as the Bears fell 9-5.

"This isn't a good time for us," said Cal head coach David Esquer. "Offensively, we lost our way."

After winning five straight games, the Bears (24-13) have now dropped four straight, and seen their team batting average dip from .305 to .290, with a rise in team ERA from 2.79 to 2.97. During the four-game slide, Cal has hit just .192 (30-for-156).

Senior right Kevin Miller was rocked for eight runs (seven earned) on 11 hits and a walk, as the Cal starting lineup mustered just four hits against a bevy of Cardinal hurlers. Stanford (20-13) on the other hand, was an offensive dynamo, banging out 13 hits and working just two walks in 39 plate appearances.

Center fielder Jake Stewart led the hit parade at the top of the Cardinal order, going 3-for-5 with two runs and four RBI. Stewart got things going in the bottom of the first, lining a 2-2 fastball from Miller over a leaping Tony Renda for a single. Catcher Zach Jones then came up with a high hopper over a drawn-in Mitch Delfino at third to put runners at first and second. As left fielder Tyler Gaffney struck out looking, both runners stole over into scoring position for third baseman Stephen Piscotty, who hammered a Miller curve through the hole on the left side to give Stanford an early 2-0 lead.

"I just think that he was able to cover both (of Miller's) pitches," Esquer said. "He got hits on the change up and the fastball, Piscotty got us on a breaking ball that was supposed to be in the dirt."

In the bottom of the third, Jones reached on a throwing error from shortstop Marcus Semien, and advanced to third on a seeing-eye groundball single through the left side from Piscotty. Stud shortstop Kenny Diekroeger came up with an RBI single to left to put the Cardinal ahead 3-0.

"It's the little things when you're not playing at the top of your game, they move the runner on a 3-2 pitch with nobody out and we don't get quite a grip, those are the things that come out to be big," Esquer said. "If we get a grip, we throw the guy out at third base and now they've got a runner at second base with two outs. Little things like that, we're not doing well, and we've got to turn it around."

Stanford plated two more runs in the bottom of the fourth, once again, thanks to Stewart. After right fielder Brian Guymon lined a one-out single to left past a diving Delfino, designated hitter Dave Giuliani drove a first-pitch offering from Miller back up the middle, slicing into right center field. Sophomore right fielder Vince Bruno bobbled the drive near the warning track, allowing Guymon and Giuliani to advance to second and third. Stewart came up with his second big hit in as many at-bats, sending a hard grounder just inside the third base bag for a two-run double.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Cardinal struck again for three runs. After a one-out walk to Guymon, Giuliani inside-outed a 1-1 pitch from Miller on the ground up the third base line for a double to put two runners in scoring position for Stewart, who promptly delivered a line-drive double to left on Miller's 100th pitch of the game to put Stanford up 7-0. That pitch spelled the end for Miller, who saw his record drop to 5-3 on the season and his ERA jump from 1.38 to 2.34.

Monday was Miller's second sub-par start in a row, after he surrendered four runs on six hits against Pacific on April 5. With a two-year history of hip issues, Esquer is not concerned that Miller's lower half could be the problem.

"I don't think it's anything physical; well, other than if he's fatiguing a bit, but I don't know that to be true," Esquer said. "I was looking at his velocity, and some pitches were over 90. Early on, it didn't look as crisp as it could be, but it was kind of sporadic. They did a good job, and he's our best pitcher. They handled him."

Next up on the bump for the Bears was junior righty Joey Donofrio, who quickly gave up a line drive back up the middle on an 0-1 pitch to Jones.

Frustrated with the ineptitude of his starting lineup, which had , Esquer made wholesale changes in the top of the seventh, sending David Buscovich to the plate for Devon Rodriguez, Paul Toboni in for Delfino and Louie Lechich in for center fielder Darrel Matthews. The lineup shuffle paid off almost immediately, as Buscovich led off by taking a dose in the foot from reliever Dean McArdle, followed by a one-out walk to Lechich.

Freshman designated hitter Michael Theofanopoulos then came up with his first collegiate home run, as the tongue-tying Pleasanton, Calif., native notched a triple-word score on a three-run no-doubt-about-it bomb to left field to score Cal's first runs in 28 innings.

"He's performed. He hasn't had an opportunity, but he's performed in the fall - he was one of our better hitters in the fall - he hit in January, he hits on Wednesdays when we have our intersquad, but we just haven't had the opportunity to give him a chance yet," Esquer said. "It's a long time coming, but he's been at the top of our list that, when the chance could come, for a long time."

The Bears notched another run in the top of the eighth off reliever Scott Snodgress. The junior lefty started out by surrendering a 1-2 sinking liner into left to newly-entered shortstop Derek Campbell, and then delivered a full-count walk to left fielder Dwight Tanaka, who entered the game as part of the seventh-inning switches. After freshman catcher Andrew Knapp -- in for junior Chadd Krist, who went 0-for-3 -- got caught looking at strike three on a belt-high 91-mph fastball, Buscovich came up with a 1-1 bouncing single to the left side to load the bases for Toboni. The sophomore first baseman out of San Francisco St. Ignatius lofted a sacrifice fly to shallow center, allowing the speedy Campbell to tag up and score.

"We've got to find ourselves, and watching that second lineup play, there was a little life to it," Esquer said. "It's mental. It's mental. You've got to send a message that we're tired of watching that same type of performance, and they weren't going to score. That first team wasn't going to score. We were going to get shut out again tonight."

With runners at first and second, Lechich took the first two pitches from Snodgress for balls before a called strike on a 90-mph fastball over the outer half. Trying to spark the offense, Lechich laid down an ill-advised drag bunt which went right back to the mound for a quiet 1-3 groundout, ending the threat.

"It was on his own," said a perturbed Esquer. "I think he was just trying hard and he knew that our guys were building momentum. I think he was thinking that maybe left-on-left, that that play would be open. At that point, you were just trying to watch kids play and see what they would do in that situation. Had it been successful, boy, we would have been singing his praises, but it wasn't and it looked like maybe not a great decision."

Stanford came back to plate yet another run in the bottom of the eighth thanks to some shaky play from the battery of Knapp and Donofrio. After a leadoff single from right fielder Austin Wilson, Knapp whiffed on a first-pitch fastball to pinch hitter Danny Diekroeger, allowing Wilson to advance to second. With Stewart at the plate, Donofrio uncorked a wild pitch on a 1-2 offering, The ball skittered to the backstop as Wilson motored around third and scored when Knapp's throw to Donofrio came in low and late.

Knapp caught two innings on Monday, and has now spent just seven innings behind the plate while Krist has spent 339 frames behind the dish this season. The durable junior backstop leads the Pac-10 with 20 doubles and is hitting .322 on the year, making him an enticing pro prospect when he becomes eligible for the Major League Draft in June.

"He's going to be fine," Esquer said of Knapp. "He's our future behind the plate and he's going to be outstanding, it's just that Chadd Krist wasn't what he was today when he was first behind the plate, too, so there are some growing pains, but he's going to be outstanding."

Cal managed a whimper of protest in the top of the ninth, when senior Austin Booker -- moving from left field to second in place of Renda in the seventh -- reached base on a dropped third strike and came around to score on an RBI double from Campbell.

Campbell was one of few offensive bright spots for the beleaguered Bears offense, going 2-for-2 with a run and an RBI. Campbell has seen action in three of the past four games, going 4-for-9 with two doubles, a run and an RBI.

"That second team just did a better job coming in with some life and showed that with just a little freedom of play, we scored four runs in the last three innings," Esquer said. "We should have been playing like that at the start, but we weren't."

Cal went down in order three times on Monday, and didn't see a runner get past second until the seventh inning. In all, the Bears left seven runners on base. Cal went 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position on Monday, and during the four-game losing streak, the Bears have gone 7-for-39 (.179) with runners in scoring position.

On Deck
Cal next takes the field this weekend for a three-game set against Oregon (21-17, 4-8 in the Pac-10). The Ducks are 8-10 away from PK Park in Eugene, and will take on Portland at home on Wednesday before heading to Berkeley.

The first game of the series will take place on Friday at 2:30 PM, followed by Saturday and Sunday tilts at 1 PM at Evans Diamond.


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