OMAHA, Neb. — Chad Bunting tumbled onto the right field warning track Sunday afternoon, a soon-to-be triple sailing over his shoulder, a cloud of dust billowing up as he hit the dirt. The ball had tipped off the Cal outfielder’s glove and Virginia, with one out in the eighth, plated its third run.
“Couldn’t quite get full extension,” Bunting said.
So it went for the Cal baseball team in its first College World Series game in nearly 20 years, the upstart Bears holding the floodgates back in a 4-1 loss. Close, maybe, but not enough against a clearly superior team.
Cal (37-22) is this year’s underdog, the only team that entered Omaha with fewer than 40 wins. The Cavaliers (55-10) are the No. 1 overall seed, and at TD Ameritrade Park, they backed up every single vote.
In a contest that stayed scoreless through six frames — the first time a CWS game has since 1987 — it was Virginia that had the late scoring burst. The Cavaliers scored all four runs in the seventh and eighth innings, piecing together singles and sac flies to trudge ahead to a 4-0 lead.
“They dropped some hits in there that a lot of people don’t think are pretty hits,” coach David Esquer said. “But the people who know, those are hitters’ hits.”
Virginia connected on four of their nine hits during that same span, and was in scoring position every inning except the sixth. The game stayed close because the Bears made Cavaliers starter Danny Hultzen work on the mound.
Cal senior Austin Booker led off the game by taking two straight pitches from the MLB Draft’s No. 2 overall pick. The count was 2-0. He fouled off several more, and earned himself a free base on nine pitches.
Booker drew another walk on eight pitches in the third inning. By the fifth, Hultzen had already thrown over 80 pitches and tied a season-high three walks.
The ACC Pitcher of the Year came through when needed. He walked two batters in the first inning, but struck out three to end it. He gave up only one extra-base hit. When Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda laid a bunt along the third baseline to lead off the sixth, Hultzen fielded the ball and whipped it to first as he fell backwards onto the grass.
“Hultzen was as advertised,” Esquer said. “He was tough. A little bend, but no break.”
Cal starter Erik Johnson bent away freely, his touch-and-go command deserting him. The Chicago White Sox’s second-round pick walked five of the 15 batters he faced, striking out just two while allowing a pair of hits.
But the junior righty, like Hultzen, didn’t give up a run, getting plenty of help from his defense before exiting after three innings. Reliever Logan Scott kept pace for the next three, shutting out Virginia before putting two eventual runs on base to start the seventh.
Cal is backed against a wall, elimination threatening them in every remaining game. Yes, the Bears have been here before, and they’ve outscored opponents 96-26 in the eighth and ninth innings.
It’s a different story in Omaha. The team will face Texas A&M Tuesday afternoon, the Big 12 co-champion in the regular season and tourney winner. There are no Alcorn States here to cushion a fall.
The Bears don’t have much to lose in the closing act of the dream season, but they’ll take the stage like they still have something to prove.
“I told them, ‘If you don’t come to win, we might as well not go,’” Esquer said. “We get a participant’s badge or trophy whether we win or not. Let’s come here to win.”
Jack Wang covers baseball.