Despite arriving in Baton Rouge as quite the underdog, the Bears put together a competitive series against a perennial baseball powerhouse in No.13 LSU. Cal held the lead entering the final two innings of each game, but LSU took advantage of timely hits and home runs to earn two wins in three games against the Bears: 4-3, 2-5 and 5-4.
“I thought our guys did a great job of competing. We put ourselves in a situation to win all three games,” said head coach Mike Neu. “I think, in the big picture, for us to have the opportunity to win the series and get the sweep against a very good team shows that we’re moving in the right direction.”
The Bears’ young pitching staff did well to keep the Tigers from stringing hits together for big innings, but they had difficulty preventing the long ball, conceding five home runs over three games. At the plate, sophomore Darren Baker served as a bright spot in the lineup — Baker moved down from the leadoff spot to fifth in the order and delivered a 6-for-12 series with 3 RBI and a run scored.
“Darren is one of our best hitters and one of our best RBI guys, so if we could put him up in a spot where he could be up with guys on base as well, it gives us two guys, with Vaughny (Andrew Vaughn), that could drive in some runs…I think we found something that was pretty solid,” said Neu.
In game one, the Bears were in control for eight-and-two-thirds innings, but LSU’s late final-inning heroics spoiled freshman Sam Stoutenborough’s chance at a multi-inning save.
After junior Cameron Eden’s solo shot in the first, LSU tied the game on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the third, but a wild sixth inning gave Cal a tentative 3-1 lead. Bears sophomore Sam Wezniak started the two-out rally with a single and advanced on a wild pitch. Clearly rattled, the LSU pitcher allowed a run following three consecutive walks, and in the following at-bat, redshirt sophomore Brandon McIlwain hustled home on a passed ball.
Junior Arman Sabouri and Stoutenborough had allowed only two runs and already had two out in the ninth inning. With two runners on, Stoutenborough struck out the LSU batter with a wild pitch, which allowed the batter to reach first safely. The next man up was Tigers shortstop and junior Josh Smith, whose single to center field drove in two winning runs.
Due to rain in the forecast Sunday, the two teams met for a doubleheader of seven-inning games that would decide the series. In the first game of the day, Cal took advantage of some clutch hitting of their own. Cal’s freshman starter Grant Holman pitched in a scoreless stalemate through five innings, until LSU sophomore Brock Mathis turned on a hanging breaking ball that landed over the left-field wall for a solo home run.
The Bears quickly responded in the top of the sixth, however, scoring all of their five runs. After entering the game in relief, LSU junior Todd Peterson gave up three runs in less than ten pitches. Beginning with sophomore Quentin Selma’s pinch-hit double, the Bears earned a walk and strung together four consecutive hits for a 5-1 lead.
Another solo shot off the bat of Smith let LSU closed the gap to three runs, but LSU was unable to mount another serious comeback. In the ninth inning, freshman Sean Sullivan earned his third save this season for the Bears.
Cal followed the traditional starter approach in the first two games of the series, with each starter going at least five innings, but returned to the opener strategy in the rubber match. “We will continue to experiment with using an opener to put our best guys in the most high leverage spots,” said coach Neu about the change in tactics.
Despite securing an early 4-1 lead in the third, the Bears pitching staff could not quell the Tigers’ attack for seven full innings. In the second, Neu handed the ball to junior Rogelio Reyes, who had not allowed a run in over ten innings this season entering the game. Reyes, unfortunately, allowed three runs in three innings of work on two home runs and an RBI double. When Reyes exited the game, however, the Bears still maintained a 4-3 lead.
In the bottom of the sixth, LSU freshman Cade Beloso lined his second home run of the day to right field, driving in two runs to give the Tigers the final 5-4 margin.
Cal may have dropped two winnable games this weekend, but they exerted control against one of the best teams in the nation. Now, the Bears set their sights on their final nonconference tuneup game against San Jose State on Tuesday. The Spartans (9-6 overall) defeated a solid Saint Mary’s team 7-3 early in the season in a one-game matchup similar to Cal’s own upcoming battle with San Jose.
Max Mennemeier covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].