After producing four runs in the bottom of the second inning, it looked like Cal baseball’s lineup was going to keep rolling after a walkoff grand slam in a 13-9 win the night before. Sophomore Joey Matulovich let up two runs in the top of that frame, but put together enough four run innings and you’re basically guaranteed a win no matter what you get out of your pitchers.
But Cal’s bats fell quiet as quickly as it took them to first get hot, and eventually fell behind of the Trojans. But lo and behold, the offense came up with the big inning when needed again, scoring three runs in the bottom of the eighth to take the lead that stole a game for the Bears. In an ugly, but on-brand game, Cal walked away with the 9-8 win.
“The thing that we’ve had to learn is, how do we make mistakes and not give up the game,” said Cal head coach David Esquer. “It can’t be one or two mistakes and then it snowballs into a loss, them learning that somebody can make a mistake and you don’t need to lose the game. … We have not played great baseball or clean baseball.”
Cal took its lead in the bottom of the second on a solo homer from junior Denis Karas, a two RBI triple from junior Preston Grand Pre and a bunt single from freshman Cameron Eden. It was a complete offensive bombardment, and it looked like the Bears were in excellent position to run away with this game. But the Trojans only held them to two runs over the next five innings, and USC took full advantage of that scoring vacuum, aggressively attacking Cal’s pitchers in every frame, putting up six runs and taking an 8-6 lead.
Matulovich has continued to give mediocre starts in April after coming on strong in March. He looked dominant in the first inning, generating two swinging strikeouts with a changeup that baffled Trojans early on. But USC figured out whatever was confusing them pretty quickly and tagged him with four earned runs over five innings. Matulovich generally works best by inducing weak contact, but the ball was exploding off of the Trojan’s bat, and he gave up two home runs in the outing. Another run scored because of his indecisiveness in fielding a bunt, managing to both allow a runner to make it to third and the batter to reach first.
“In April, and this is typical of the Pac-12, everyone hits an average curveball,” Esquer said. “You need to have a good secondary pitch to survive. That’s something (Matulovich) is going to have to improve to be on top of those hitters as we get into the hotter weather.”
Esquer turned to Andrew Vaughn, who had been playing first, to relieve Matulovich, but Vaughn immediately gave up a three-run homer and the lead.
In the bottom of the eighth, Eden tied up the game by once again scoring Grand Pre, but this time on a two-run homer to left, opting for fireworks over subtle small ball. On his way around the bases, Grand Pre apparently had words with Trojan junior Adalberto Carrillo, who was responsible for two home runs of the night, and it ended in an ejection for Grande Pre.
“(It was) just immature, trying to show some fire. He’s out tomorrow — you get ejected, you’re out that game and the next one,” Esquer said.
Unphased, sophomore catcher Tyrus Greene reached second base on a well-hit ball, putting the winning run in scoring position. Sophomore Jeffrey Mitchell Jr., who up to that point looked lost at the plate, was due up. Mitchell Jr. was hitless in four at bats and had an uncharacteristically poor strikeout. But facing a 1-2 count, he singled up the middle to score Greene and give the Bears a lead.
“(Esquer) was talking about how he can tell that I’m not necessarily feeling great at the plate. I had an ugly strikeout,” Mitchell Jr. said. “But he was talking to me about how regardless of how I feel, I’m able to grind through and how important that is. We talked a lot in the start of the year about how it may not be in your first at bat, your second at bat, third at bat, it might be your last at bat that’s most important, so you can’t take yourself out of the game.”
Cal blew the chance to put up some insurance runs when freshman Connor Bock came up to pinch hit with the bases loaded, and struck out swinging. Regardless, junior closer Erik Martinez, who was credited with the win the night before, pitched an excellent ninth inning to seal the Cal win. On the last out, he let a slow grounder pop off his glove, but he recovered to make the throw to first in time.
It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. How else should it have ended?