Cal baseball falls short in ninth against No. 19 Rice, loses three of four in Houston

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It was the top of the ninth inning in a 0-0 game against No. 19 Rice on Monday afternoon, with a runner on third and two outs. Star catcher Andrew Knapp stood at the plate with an opportunity to significantly alter the momentum of the Bears’ season with one swing of the bat.

A win over the Owls would have salvaged a split in the Houston College Classic and brought Cal to 6-6 on the season. Sophomore Dylan Nelson hurled six shutout innings in the Bears’ best starting pitching performance of the season, keeping the Bears in the game as the offense sputtered inning after inning.

With a well-placed line drive, Cal’s offensive struggles would fade into oblivion. An RBI single would put the Bears in a prime position to stamp a signature win onto what had been an otherwise uneven season.

But a Knapp groundout to the second baseman squashed the rally. In the bottom half of the inning, reliever Ryan Wertenberger allowed three consecutive singles and Rice walked off with a 1-0 victory and Cal’s chances at securing a quality non-conference victory.

After dropping the last two games of last weekend’s series to No. 25 UC Irvine, the Bears faced off against unranked Baylor in an opportunity to snap the brief losing streak.

But the Bears’ streak grew to four after falling to Baylor 9-0 on Friday and No. 1 North Carolina 11-5 on Saturday. The season’s dominant trope of inconsistent starting pitching continued to plague Cal in the two opening games.

Ace Justin Jones once again failed to pitch into the fifth inning against Baylor, allowing just two runs but struggling with control once again. Freshman Jake Schulz held the first-ranked Tar Heels at bay for three innings, but everything unraveled in the fourth as Schulz let in eight runs before he could get three outs.

The Bears finally received a quality start from freshman Collin Monsour on Sunday, but the potency of Cal’s bats rendered Monsour’s 5.1 inning, one-run effort irrelevant. Knapp led the charge with a home runs and 3 RBI’s as the Bears trounced the Cougars 13-2.

Although Nelson’s final line on Monday was spotless, his performance itself was not. He worked himself into a jam in the bottom of the second, loading the bases after allowing two singles and an error. A double play bailed him out, and Nelson escaped the inning unscathed.

While Nelson shut down the Rice lineup, the Owls’ own starting pitcher Chase McDowell matched Nelson every single inning. McDowell pitched all nine innings, allowing no runs and scattering five hits.

Cal squandered a prime chance to grab a run off of McDowell in the top of the seventh after shortstop Mike Reuvekamp reached on an error by the Owls’ third baseman. A sacrifice bunt and a groundout put Reuvekamp on third base with two outs, and slugging first baseman Jacob Wark stepped up to the plate with a platoon advantage on the right-handed McDowell.

But Wark couldn’t convert the RBI opportunity, and the Bears’ hopes of a series split whooshed by like Wark’s bat past the McDowell fastball.

Michael Rosen covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.