Cal and Houston battled for almost 4 hours this afternoon before the Bears finally fell to the Cougars 12-9 in 12 innings. Although the loss is fairly disappointing, particularly since Houston lost to USF yesterday, Cal sluggers proved that even on the ballfield that the Bear will not quit, the Bear will not die.
And dead is exactly how the Bears' attack could best be described through the first five innings. Hardthrowing Houston FRESHMAN righty James Conlee stymied the Bears through 5 innings, giving up only two walks in the first three innings of mowing down Cal batters. Cal's only baserunners were DH Devin Rodriguez and SS Marcus Semien, and Conlee immediately erased Semien with his excellent pickoff move, ending the third on a depressing note for the Bears but beginning an early end to the frosh's first career start.
These short innings didn't help Cal's starter Chris Petrini, who struggled through three innings of work in his first start of the season, giving up 5 hits and 3 walks. The Cougars scored one in the second and added two in the third on a two out, two strike, two run homer by Houston RF Codey Morehouse, who should have been retired on a foul ball that dropped between Jimmy Bosco and Mark Canha. That indignity overshadowed a couple of nice defensive plays in the difficult second: a slick pop-up slide and throw by freshman CF Darrel Matthews to hold Cougar 1B/closer Matt Creel to a single, and a Semien-Brian Guinn-Canha double play to end the inning and Petrini's day.
Conlee was visibly tired as he pitched the fourth, throwing fewer and fewer of his lively fastballs and more and more breaking balls. Slugging C Chadd Krist (below, not practicing his bunting) and 3B Tony Renda each "singled" in the fourth, helped by Houston SS Blake Kelso's weak throws from deep in the hole, and RF Jimmy Bosco singled in the fifth. Although the Bears stranded all these runners, the action on the basepaths helped push Conlee towards the showers. Perhaps hoping to repeat his success with Semien in the third, or accustomed to picking runners off easily in high school, or an overeager coach who forgot the score, he repeatedly threw over to first to hold these runners on. Bosco must have drawn at least 8 throws in the fifth, by which point Conlee was holding a 5 run lead and running on fumes, each pitch slower and sloppier than the last.
The next Houston runs came off Cal punching bag/long relief man, senior righty Daniel Wolford, making his staff-leading 7th appearance of the year. Getting the call in the fourth, his first few pitches were all over the place, but he settled down and retired the Cougars in order. Trouble ensued in the fifth as the Cal outfield misplayed a blast from Houston 2B Austin Gracey into a triple, followed by a double and a single leaving runners at the corners with nobody out. Again Wolford responded to the adversity, giving up a run to get an out on a grounder and retiring the next two batters easily. He started slow again in the sixth, giving up a leadoff double to 3B Jake Runte, but prevented Runte from scoring by picking him off third, and recovered to get out of the inning unscathed. Wolford threw quite a few strikes in the dirt, and Krist did a nice job of handling and blocking every one of them.
Houston pitcher Mo Wiley made the Bears miss Conlee in the fifth, allowing only Canha to reach base when he nicked his jersey with a pitch. Freshman lefty and former Ponderosa Bruin Matt Evanoff relieved Wolford, an interesting choice to face the 8 righthanded bats in the Cougar lineup, and promptly surrendered two runs on a single and two doubles. Two fantastic diving stops by Renda at 3B turned sure hits into outs and helped Evanoff get out of the inning with the score "only" 7-0.
Your correspondent was gathering his belongings in the fifth when, with one out, Bear DH Devin Rodriguez singled to left, and Bosco singled to right. After Semien popped out, 9th batter Matthews stepped in, 0-2 on the day, and blasted a double to deep center to drive in Rodriguez with the first Cal run of the day. Floodgates now opened, Guinn and Danny Oh followed with singles and Wiley headed for the bench as Houston RF Codey Morehouse walked in to the mound having only allowed 5 hits in 8 innings of work during the season. Canha singled, Krist and Renda doubled, and Rodriguez returned to drive in Renda with the tying run on his second hit of the inning! Junior speedster Austin Booker came on to run for Rodriguez and stole his way to second with the go ahead run, but Bosco was retired on a hard grounder to Houston 1B Creel.
The front end of the Cal pitching staff now relevant to this game, freshman Justin Jones, fresh off his complete game win last Friday at Rice, entered to blank the Cougars in the 8th while closer Brian Diemer started getting loose. Houston responded by moving fireballing closer Creel over from 1B, and he retired Semien and Matthews on dribblers before Guinn walked and stole second only to be stranded when Oh grounded out.
Houston tied the game again in the 9th on a pair of singles off Diemer and an error charged to Semien, but Creel saved the day by grounding into a double play to keep the Bears within 1. Creel climbed the hill again for the bottom of the ninth, and was almost cut off at the waist when Canha (below, facing Creel) drilled one of his fastballs straight back into his gut and got to first before anyone could get to the ball.*
Bear Backers stood and cheered as slugging sophomore cleanup hitter Krist (.462/.525/.942) stepped to the plate with the tying run on first and no outs. And they sat down again when KRIST SQUARED TO BUNT. The good news is that Chadd Krist is as good at bunting as he is at fielding and slugging, and moved Canha to second. The bad news is that Canha was doubled off second when Renda lined out to Kelso, ending the inning and forcing Cal's beleaguered bullpen to extra frames.
Diemer struck out Runte to start the 10th, but surrendered two singles and a hard grounder that scored Cougar LF Zak Presley from third. Freshman Michael Lowder entered with runners on the corners and one out and got two popups to salvage the Bears' chance at a win.
Creel stayed on to pitch the 10th with little left in the tank, his fastball slowing and his catcher calling more breaking balls, and Booker started the inning with a rocket to left. With no out, Bunting followed by, well BUNTING, as the Cal bench again played for the tie. Semien flied out to center, not deep enough to let Booker tag, but the 5'10", 165 lb. Matthews drilled one to the base of the wall in deepest CF, flying into third with the winning run. Guinn worked the flagging Creel for a walk, but Oh could only manage a grounder to 1B as Canha watched from the on deck circle.
As the afternoon light began to fade, the Bears' chances went with it. Lowder walked Cougar C Chris Wallace to start the inning, and pinch runner Dakota Dill (another candidate for the All-Texas Baseball Name team) scored from second on a single by the inexhaustible Creel, who scored when Presley homered. Creel staggered out to retire Canha and strike out Krist but surrendered a single to Mitch Delfino and finally headed for the showers. Senior William Kankel entered and got Booker to ground out, giving the Cougars a chance to make their plane home and closing out their long California road swing with a rousing 4-1 record.
Cal falls to 9-6 overall and starts packing for a three game trip to San Luis Obispo, taking on the Cal Poly Mustangs in a three game series beginning Friday night. The games will be broadcast on the SLO ESPN affiliate, and the bandwidth misers can use the gametracker on the Cal baseball site.
*Attention NCAA: Aluminum bats are dangerous when wielded by future major league batters against future major league pitchers. Creel (and Canha) were very lucky today.