Poor execution dooms Bears against Card

The Cal baseball team was silent. They packed their bags wordlessly and quietly tidied the Evans Diamond infield. Vince Bruno slamming together the soles of his cleats was the only thing that broke them out of their reverie, but even that was only momentary. As soon as he was done throwing his things, the Bears returned to their tasks, eyes downcast and burning.

Losses never sit well, but Friday’s 3-2 defeat to the Cardinal in the final week of the regular season stung especially hard.

“We know we’re in a tight race to finish the season strong,” shortstop Marcus Semien said. “We can’t afford to lose this game, especially at home.”

Cal has gone 14-14 since April 1. The difference between victory and defeat hasn’t been talent — it’s been, as it was on Friday afternoon, a failure of execution.

Stanford’s pitchers retired the Bears in order only twice (once in the bottom of the ninth). The Cardinal even helped Cal out with two errors, one of which allowed Semien to score from second. But the Bears’ nine hits were all for naught, because Cal couldn’t seem to do much with them.

The third inning said it all. Semien lead off the frame with a single up the middle against Stanford starter Mark Appel, and second baseman Tony Renda followed with another single to shallow right. Catcher Chadd Krist laid down a perfect bunt to advance the runners to second and third. There they stayed. Right fielder Chad Bunting struck out and first baseman Devon Rodriguez grounded out to end the inning.

At the end of the day, the Bears (31-19, 13-12 in the Pac-10) stranded 10 baserunners.

“Leaving 10 runners on base,” starting pitcher Erik Johnson said, “you’re not gonna win a game like that.”

Even Johnson, who should have been the star of the game, couldn’t look back at his day with satisfaction. The righty struck out 11 in seven innings, sitting down the Cardinal in order from the second through the fifth innings. His fastball was popping, clocking in around 91 mph, and the prolific hitters of Stanford looked lost.

“I was moving the fastball in and out,” Johnson said. “They weren’t even touching it.”

But after the game, one stat stood out: walks. Johnson opened the game by issuing a free pass to catcher Zach Jones. Jones later came around to score. In the sixth, Johnson led off with a walk to center fielder Jake Stewart. Johnson retired the next two batters, but Stanford got better with two outs. Left fielder Tyler Gaffney singled Stewart in, third baseman Stephen Piscotty walked and first baseman Brian Ragira scored Gaffney with a gaper to right.

“The leadoff walks will kill you, and they killed us,” coach David Esquer said. “It’s not a secret, and they didn’t do anything extraordinary to win the ballgame.”

After the game, the Bears took the unusual step of holding a team meeting. With Saturday’s doubleheader against Stanford (31-20, 13-12)  marking the end of the regular season, time is running out for Cal to cure all its woes. NCAA regional spots will be announced on Monday morning, and a sweep at home would be a poor final submission to the selection committee.

“It’s thin, the difference between winning and losing,” Esquer said.

The Bears have tomorrow to prove they can fall on the winning side of that thin line.

Katie Dowd covers baseball.