By definition, a dagger is a short knife with a pointed blade. In sports, however, the term takes on a whole new meaning — the precise moment when a team knows that a game is lost. It can come at any time, strike in any situation and be held by any player. On the field, the threat of an unexpected dagger means that nothing is a guarantee.
The Bears played with cutlery last weekend as they won two games against Auburn and New Mexico, but came up short against No. 18 Missouri and Nebraska. Cal finished the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic with an even 2-2 record.
Whether Cal got off to a flying start or Auburn — a team usually ranked in the top 25 — simply faltered, it was clear that the Bears were cooking up an upset as they struck for three runs in the first inning. After surrendering one run on three hits in the first, Cal pitcher Alexandra Perez buckled down for the rest of her outing and held the Tigers hitless for the next three frames.
After an Auburn defensive miscue loaded the bases and extended the fifth inning, freshman Candace Yingling had an at-bat worthy of a seasoned veteran that culminated in her first home run in a Cal uniform. Despite falling behind in the count 0-2 with two outs, she refused to fold at the plate. Instead, she smoked the next pitch out to left-center for a grand slam, giving the Bears an 8-1 lead that they would hold to the very end.
“We were all pumped to start off a big weekend in Palm Springs,” said third baseman Makena Smith. “I think everybody knew what we needed to take and everybody just brought 100%, brought the energy, and brought what we needed to get a win.”
Smith continued to be a huge contributor the next day after Cal came out on the back foot early. No. 18 Missouri tagged the Bears’ pitching duo of Perez and Romero for six runs in the first two innings, but a Smith single in the third knocked in two as Cal bats began to chip away at the deficit. Missouri added an insurance run in the fourth, but hits from Cameron Kondo and Yingling in the fifth drove in two more. Heading into the sixth inning, the Bears were down 7-4.
The blue and gold would not give in, even against ranked opposition. Smith and Lauren Espalin singled before Mikaya Coelho pounced all over a 2-0 offering from Eli Daniel for a three-run shot that tied the game at 7. Going into the final frame, Cal was within striking distance of their first win over a ranked opponent this season.
This time, it was Missouri who delivered a dagger to the Bears’ hopes in the form of a three-run homer off the bat of Kimberly Wert. One more run crossed the plate before the Bears could stop the bleeding, but the damage was already done. Cal failed to muster a second comeback and the game ended 11-7.
Smith, who went 3 for 4 with 2 RBIs, was optimistic about the team’s performance despite the loss.
“On my part I think that I was put in the right situations, but my biggest goal is to produce for the team and get some runs in,” Smith said. “I think that the team did a really good job at doing their part and I know we had a lot of people hitting RBIs and a lot of clutch hits.”
In the second game of the Saturday double-header against Nebraska, Smith also tallied three hits — but a total of five errors by the Bears buoyed the Cornhuskers to an 8-2 win. This time, a five-run fourth inning for Nebraska punctuated by three Cal defensive lapses was the turning point. By the time the Cornhuskers were retired in the fourth, they had been gifted a lead that the Bears were unable to recover from.
On the last day of the tournament, Cal prevailed over New Mexico in a scrappy 5-3 contest. Smith extended her hitting streak to 10 with a three-run bomb in the fifth and Romero allowed only one run in six innings, but all their efforts were nearly nullified by a late Lobos rally. A two-run homer in the seventh nearly revived New Mexico, but Perez promptly slammed the door to finish the tournament with a win.
“We have our little kinks to work out but everybody knows what it takes to get where we want to be,” Smith said.
That much is clear — the weapons that Cal has, both on the mound and at the plate, are more than capable of getting results. The only question that remains is whether they’ll be sharp when the time is right.
Chanun Ong covers softball. Contact him at [email protected].