Games between top rivals usually bring out the best in teams. But on Sunday, Stanford brought out the worst in the No. 14 Cal baseball team.
After splitting the first two contests in thrilling fashion — a 4-2 loss Friday and a 11-10 win Saturday — the Bears needed Sunday’s game to save face after giving the Cardinal its first conference win of the 2015 campaign Friday night.
Instead, the Bears were shellacked at home, 12-6, and committed a season-high six errors. It was a day of frustration and mistakes that would decide the series, raising more questions after Cal’s second straight conference-series loss heading into its road trip to UCLA.
“There is a difference between winning defense and championship defense,” said head coach David Esquer. “We didn’t even play winning defense. It does hurt that we are 2-4 the last two weekends.”
The first game of the series was a relatively quiet affair, with Stanford (14-19, 2-10 Pac-12) pulling out the victory. Cal sophomore Daulton Jefferies returned to the starting rotation, but his outing lasted only four innings in order to ease him back into game shape.
On the other hand, the second game of the series was not for the faint of heart. Entering the top of the eighth inning, Cal (22-11, 9-6 Pac-12) held a seemingly comfortable 6-1 lead, but Stanford plated three to pull within two at 6-4.
Fans at Evans Diamond collectively sighed with relief when Cal responded and put four runs on the board in the bottom of the frame. It was 10-4, and once again the game seemed to be in hand.
But it was premature.
The Cardinal shocked everybody and scored six runs to tie the contest up at 10-10, an unfathomable comeback that left the Bears searching for a reason for their collapse.
Yet despite this blow to its gut, the Cal offense was able to breathe life into its bats. With two outs, designated hitter Nick Halamandaris delivered a double and was later pulled for Jefferies as a pinch runner. Then junior Brian Celsi stepped to the plate.
The junior grounded a seeing-eye single up the middle, and Jefferies barely beat out the throw at home. The team mobbed Celsi as Esquer looked on in disbelief.
“It was euphoric,” Esquer said. “I was proud of (Celsi). He had a tough day on Friday — didn’t come up with big contact, let alone a big hit. He had a tough at bat and came through with a big hit.”
In the rubber game, Cal starter Matt Ladrech, who has been relied upon in many series-determining games, struggled through a rough start. The Cardinal was able to jump out to a 1-0 lead behind two walks, a sac bunt and a sac fly, not recording a single hit.
Ladrech would calm down, but his defense wouldn’t follow suit. In the third inning, two errors from shortstop Preston Grand Pre produced two unearned runs for the Cardinal. Ladrech was pulled after four-and-one-third innings and was charged with five runs, but only three were earned.
“The defense was not there at all today,” Esquer said. “Ladrech cannot survive without defense because he is a contact pitcher. You will murder him if you cannot play defense.”
But what was already an ugly game turned into a blowout in the top of the sixth when Stanford scored six more runs, pushing the score to 11-0.
The Cal bats made a little noise in the bottom of the eighth when Celsi came through with a grand slam, pulling the Bears within seven at 11-4. Second baseman Max Dutto and left fielder Sean Peters scored later in the inning, pulling Cal within five at 11-6.
For a brief moment, Cal seemed poised to pull a comeback comparable to Stanford’s incredible one the previous night. But then, the little flame the Bears had ignited flickered out, and Cal would drop the series finale, 12-6.