This past Sunday, with some free time to kill (what with AndBears off in SoCal following our women's basketball team and all), I decided it was finally time to go check out Cal's 2009 Baseball team. Baseball was the first sport that I played, and the first sport that I loved, and it always disappoints me to think that I didn't go down to Evans Diamond to catch more games as an undergraduate, when admission was free. Even now, adult tickets are only $8, which means that if I had the time, I could attend a whole weekend series against Stanford for less than the cost of a reserved ticket to a Cal Basketball game.
Anyway, if you've never been, Cal Baseball is a fabulously relaxing way to spend an afternoon. You can sit wherever you want (bleachers, picnic benches, even a sloped lawn behind the visitor's bench), hang out with your friends, and shoot the shit while a baseball game happens in front of you. As baseball tends to be, sometimes it's exciting and tense, and sometimes you're waiting for something to happen while the pitcher throws over to first three times in a row, trying to keep the runner close. If you're looking for nonstop action, the NCAA Basketball tournament was playing on big screen TVs in dingy bars across America. But on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in early Spring, it's an absolutely fantastic way to while away a lazy day.
As an added bonus, Cal's opponent for the weekend was Stanford. Watching our Bears defeat the 'Furd is always a worthwhile endeavor, and it was with this hope in mind that I struck out for Berkeley. The Bears took two out of three from the Cardinal this weekend, but I won't yet tell you which game we lost -- wouldn't want to spoil the ending for you, now would I? Here's a quick preview, though: the game took 12 innings and featured 4 home runs and 2 blown saves, with plenty of drama to spare.
First off, the Bears starter, sophomore Brian Diemer, wobbled his way through six innings, getting out of jam after jam, some of his own doing. He's got some good stuff, striking out nine hitters, many of them looking, but he had trouble with control. And I'm not just talking about missing-the-plate-and-walking-people lack of control (though he did walk four hitters); I'm talking about missing-everything-and-hitting-the-backstop lack of control. He was only credited with two wild pitches, but that's just because it doesn't matter how much you miss by if no one's on base to advance. Oh yeah, and he also hit a batter. When Diemer got it across the plate, he was tough to hit; he just needs to work on getting it across the plate more consistently.
Really, Stanford needed help plating all three of the runs they got off Diemer. They got a couple of singles in the second, the second being a nice piece of hitting by Toby Gerhart (yes, that Toby Gerhart), but would've left the inning empty-handed except for a double steal and a wild pitch. Their second run, in the 5th, came off a walk, another stolen base, and a solid double to the left-center wall, but it was the run in the 6th that was really unearned: Diemer walked two hitters, and with two outs and a 3-2 count on the next batter, both runners took off (like you're supposed to). Diemer's pitch missed, walking the hitter, but Bears' catcher Dylan Tonneson reacted instinctively to the runners' movement, firing a strike down to third, trying to catch the runner who was now advancing safely on the walk. Completely unaware of this new development, the Bears' third baseman, Michael Brady, stood stock-still as the ball sailed past him and into left field, allowing the lead runner to score and the others to advance. The error was on Tonneson, who never should have thrown the ball, but it still seems like Brady should have been aware there was a ball being thrown his way. Honestly, it was the sort of play I expect to see in Little League, not in Division I College Baseball.
It seemed that Tonneson really struggled to throw out Stanford base-stealers all day. Perhaps the Cardinal runners were just that fast; they stole 5 bases on the day without being caught once. However, Tonneson's release looked fast enough, and he pretty much threw strikes down to the bases, so it seems likely that Stanford was merely getting great jumps off the Bear pitchers. Whatever the case, it sure seemed like Stanford had no compunctions about taking any base they wanted, whenever they wanted.
Meanwhile, the Bears' hitters were doing nothing -- and I mean nothing -- off of Stanford starter Jordan Pries. Pries no-hit the Bears through the first five innings, and it was starting to look like the gift runs the Bears gave the Cardinal were going to be more than enough. Then, Head Coach Dave Esquer made a nice move, pinch-hitting for the 3B Brady. Brady wasn't having a great day, going 0-1 at the plate and allowing a runner to reach on a muffed grounder in the 4th, so it may not have been his lack of reaction to Tonneson's throw in the top of the 6th that caused his replacement, but then again, it seems awfully conincidental.
Whatever the case, the pinch-hitter for Brady, freshman Marcus Semien, promptly broke up Pries' no-hitter with a home run over the left-center wall. Finally, some life from the Bears! Pries responded to losing his no-hit bid by plunking two of the next three batters, and just like that, Stanford Coach Mark Marquess yanked him for a reliever. Little relief was found, however, as the Bears' cleanup hitter, Mark Canha, took a nice fat pitch and drove it over the left field wall for a home run and a 4-3 Cal lead.
When you attend a Cal sporting event, you expect to hear a healthy dose of Cal fight songs during the downtime. Even at events the Cal Band doesn't attend, I've usually heard their recordings piped in over the PA system. Not Cal Baseball, however. Here, we get a nice snippet of classic rock after every half-inning; songs like "Fortunate Son", "Tom Sawyer", and the terminally-overplayed "Smoke on the Water" are standard fare here (I guess "Smells Like Teen Spirit" counts as classic rock now -- am I that old?). However, I did notice that on this day, when all kids were given both free admission and free baseball cards for attending, the PA system guy went out of his way to play both "Tequila" AND "Cocaine". Is this the sort of message we should be sending to America's youth?
Last year, as a freshman, pitcher Kevin Miller began his career by tossing 44 innings without giving up an earned run, causing him to be named to the Freshman All-American team. This year, with the Bears losing Tyson Ross to the MLB Draft, Miller was widely expected to play a major part of the Bears' rotation. It has not worked out that way, however, and had I been to more Cal Baseball games, I probably wouldn't have been surprised to see Miller enter the game as a reliever in the 7th. As it was, it seemed odd to me that a guy so highly-touted last year was still doing long relief work for the Bears.
Although it's hard to get a sense of the position players after only seeing one game, I would like to highlight the defense of Bears' 2B Jeff Kobernus, who made some sparkling plays around the keystone bag, including a diving stop of a hard grounder up the middle in the 8th. The play went for an infield single, but stopping the ball saved the tying run from scoring at third, and Miller got the next guy to fly out harmlessly to center to end the threat. Although Kevin Miller wasn't dominant, allowing baserunners in every inning he pitched, but he managed to get strikeouts when he needed to, and it looked like Cal was going to escape with a win with the strange stat line of 4 runs on 2 hits.
Alas, 'twas not to be. Miller began the 9th by giving up a home run to Kellen Kiilsgaard to tie the game (no shame in that -- Kiilsgaard has 5 of Stanford's 11 home runs on the year). The Cardinal threatened for more, but Miller shut them down, and when Cal was unable to respond in the bottom of the 9th, we were in for some bonus baseball!
Both teams would continue threatening to score from here on out. The Bears' looked like they might have something in the 10th after a leadoff single, but Marcus Semien, the hero of the 6th inning, would be the goat of the 10th. His bunt attempt went right to the pitcher, getting the lead runner thrown out at 2nd, and then Semien would be thrown out at second himself at the tail end of a strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out double play. Oh well, we can't be heroes all the time...
Then, in the 11th, Kiilsgaard led off the inning with another home run, this time to give the Cardinal their first lead since the 6th. With the Bears still struggling offensively (Cal had by this time amassed a total of three (3!) hits on the day), it looked like curtains for our valiant Bears, and with the sun getting low on the horizon and the kids who got in free surely getting restless after 3+ hours, fans started heading for the exits.
Oh ye of little faith! Miracuously, the Bears answered in the bottom of the 11th; two singles and a sacrafice fly ensured that we'd get at least one more inning out of this contest before it was decided. Cal couldn't hit much that day, but they managed to do it when it counted.
I spent much of the game lying on the lawn behind the Stanford bench. It was exceedingly comfortable, but it did have its downside; namely, I was right behind the Stanford bench. For the entire game, the rest of the Stanford team was on the railing, jawing words of encouragement(?) towards their own players (or possibly words of discouragement towards the Cal players). There was nothing bawdy or particularly insulting about their blabbering (it was all essentially variations on the old "hey batterbatterbatter" standard), but when 30 guys were going at it all game, well, I can honestly think of few thing I find more annoying that this. I couldn't say whether it got to the Cal players, but it sure got to me.
Then again, perhaps it did get to our pitcher, at least. The Bears in the 12th gave up no hits, but four walks, only one of them intentional, brought across the go-ahead run once more for Stanford. Ugh. I'd like to be able to say I kept the faith at this point, after Cal's inspiring rally in the 11th, but I didn't. I even wrote in my notes at the time "Unsatisfying way to lose - 4 walks in the 12th".
The Bears didn't die quietly, though, with pinch-runner Dwight Tanaka leading off the inning with another single (amazingly, the first time ALL GAME that the Bears had more hits than runs). Semien got the bunt down this time, but Tanaka would get no further than second, and that was all she wrote. Stanford 6, Cal 5. ragnarok disappointed. An enjoyable afternoon, to be sure, but man, losing to Stanford sucks. I've seen enough losing to Stanford to last the rest of my life, thank you very much.
All in all, Cal Baseball looks like a pretty good team this year. Not great, probably not as good as last year's team that made the NCAA Tournament, but pretty good, and they should at least hold their own in the Pac-10 this year. By all rights, Cal should never have even gotten this game to extra innings with just 2 hits, but Cal pitchers wriggled out of jam after jam (they put runners on in every inning), stranding 17 Stanford runners over the course of 12 innings. But sometimes, you make your own luck, and last Sunday, the Bears made enough to almost, almost sweep the weekend series against Stanford.