After four straight losses in late April, Cal baseball coach David Esquer started tinkering with his lineup. Change for change’s sake, he said then, desperate to shake things up after the team’s putrid offensive stretch.
The runs ticked back up a little, but Esquer wasn’t finished shifting the order. Stability might be on its way — the latest incarnation of the Bears was enough to gut out a 4-0 win over UCLA Friday night.
Senior Austin Booker led off for the second time this year, drawing a walk to open the series in Los Angeles. The left fielder had spent the entire season anchoring the ninth spot in the lineup until Esquer moved him to the one-spot against UC Davis on Tuesday. Booker averages .316 at the plate, but entered Jackie Robinson Stadium with only six walks.
His seventh didn’t go to waste. Shortstop Marcus Semien, the Pac-10 leader in sac bunts, padded his total with another to move Cal (30-16, 13-9) into scoring position. Second baseman Tony Renda turned the second pitch he saw into a single through center, and the Bears were up 1-0.
The score stayed that way for the next 58 at-bats.
Cal starter Erik Johnson wasn’t quite perfect on the mound, but seven shutout innings did just fine for Esquer’s squad. Under the lights before a crowd of 892, Johnson (6-2, 1.94 ERA) surrendered only two hits to the Bruins, walking four and striking out seven on 120 pitches. The home team never truly threatened, putting itself in scoring position just twice against the junior from Los Altos, Calif.
He may have counted himself lucky to face the third-worst offensive team in the conference — especially given his Bruin counterpart.
Opposite Johnson on the rubber was UCLA’s Gerrit Cole, who could have been a pinstriped multimillionaire by now rather than an amateur decked in powder blue — although admittedly an amateur that’s part of the fourth-best pitching staff in Division I. Three years ago, the Yankees plucked the 6-foot-4, 220-pound specimen out of the MLB Draft at 28th overall, ready to shove around $4 million at a 17-year-old.
Cole matched Johnson nearly pitch for pitch, going six scoreless innings of his own after the first-inning slip-up. The junior has struggled with slow starts recently, but flustered the Bears this outing to the tune of six strikeouts and a lone walk.
Even late in the game, Cole was still scratching 97 on the radar gun — so Cal jumped all over the Bruins once he was gone. UCLA (29-20, 14-8) yanked Cole after seven innings and 30 batters; it wasn’t long before they hooked another.
Freshman Zach Weiss relieved Cole, but got some rest of his own after giving up a single and a sac bunt to put a Cal catcher Chadd Krist at second base. Junior Mitchell Beacom was worse, walking two batters to load the bases. Freshman Andrew Knapp doubled into left field on full count, scoring all three runners for the final 4-0 tally.
With the win, the Bears are now one game behind UCLA for third place in the Pac-10. The teams return to the field Saturday at 2 p.m. for the second game of the series.
Jack Wang covers baseball.