Costly defense makes the difference as Cal softball is swept in LA

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The scoreboard and stat sheets from a hard-fought weekend in the hostile confines of Easton Stadium in Los Angeles only tell a small portion of the story. Cal dropped all three matchups against No. 1 UCLA (31-1) this weekend, but the way in which the Bears handled the nation’s top team was admirable and unexpected, to say the least.

Two critical mistakes by Cal in the latter innings of the first two games of the series effectively turned the series on its head, resulting in a pair of one-run losses and squandering any possibility of vengeance for the Bears in the series. Game three was the knockout punch, as Cal was held to one hit in a 6-0 thumping.

“I thought overall series we played well. Those were some tough games for both sides. We needed more timely hits to win,” said Bears head coach Diane Ninemire. “(On Sunday,) things kind of got away from us, and we need to take our resiliency into this week against UOP and Washington. We need to hold together.”

Entering the weekend, Cal was devoid of hope after losing its first two conference series of the season to Utah and Stanford, giving up 39 runs in five games to the pair. An embarrassing midweek loss at the hands of UC Davis on Wednesday made the challenge of conquering the Bruins, then on a 13-game winning streak, that much more daunting.

With the cards stacked against them, the Bears were able to flip the switch, shutting down arguably the most potent offense in the country and challenging them pitch by pitch until the late innings in the first two games of the series. While Cal’s bullpen struggled to find a dominant foothold, for the most part, the team played stellar situational defense and was able to pick the Bruins’ pitching lock on offense — a feat that most teams have failed to achieve this season.

Cal was leading 2-1 in game one heading into the bottom of the seventh before UCLA’s junior outfielder Jacqui Prober collided with Cal’s first baseman Alexandra Perez, forcing Perez to drop the inning-ending double-play ball that would’ve ended the game, giving UCLA a lifeline in extra innings. An RBI single in the bottom of the eighth by junior centerfielder Bubba Nickles sealed the win for the Bruins.

Cal’s stout pitching bled into game two, with senior Kamalani Dung giving up only one run and five hits in a losing effort. Cal was able to conjure five of its own hits against UCLA’s freshman flamethrowing phenom Megan Faraimo but was ultimately unable to capitalize on its sporadic good fortune, leaving six runners on base.

Game three finished as most suspected the entire series would play out — with Faraimo holding Cal’s offense to one hit while earning her 11th win of the season. The Bruins amassed 12 hits on the day, putting the game to bed after redshirt sophomore outfielder Aaliyah Jordan hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning. Zoe Conley gave up a career-high 12 hits for the Bears in her ninth loss of the season.

Despite their losses, the Bears can take solace in knowing they can compete with the best in the country. They will need the same chip on their shoulder heading into this weekend’s series, as ESPN’s No. 7 Washington (29-6) comes to town after a midweek matchup against the University of Pacific (14-18) on Wednesday.

Defensive inconsistency has been the plight of the Bears all season long. If they reverse the script and start minimizing their lack of organization across the diamond, the Bears can become a force to be reckoned with.

Spencer Golanka covers softball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.