Cal takes season opener on walk-off, loses next 3 on costly errors

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Staff

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Cal’s 2021 season started off with a bang — one that went nearly 400 feet. In a moment that didn’t seem possible just a few months ago, sophomore Dylan Beavers stepped up to the plate at Evans Diamond last Friday evening and drove in the first two runs of the season for the Bears, depositing an opposite-field home run in just Cal’s second at-bat of the day.

Their last hit of the night may not have been so loud, nor traveled as far, but the screams that erupted from the blue and gold’s dugout afterward made it all the more deafening. In a game of many missed opportunities, it was Connor Mack who stole the role of hero.

His ninth-inning RBI single walked it off for the Bears, who won their opening night game for just the second time under head coach Mike Neu. It was Cal’s first game in 346 days, nearly a year removed from the early cancellation of the team’s 2020 spring season.

“It was exciting to get back out there and have some really big moments in that game coming back,” Neu said. “Everyone is excited to get back on the field and compete.”

Trailing 3-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Bears benefited from a couple of 50/50 calls, including a liner that, although initially appearing to be caught by the Pacific left fielder, was ruled a hit and an incredibly important balk call. After a run-scoring double play, the stage was set for Mack, who lined a base hit into center field for his third – and most important — hit of the game.

“I was just trying to stay in the moment and get a fastball,” Mack said. “All the guys in front of me did a great job of getting that rally going and tying up the game. It was ‘next guy up’ and it just happened to be me. It was a lot of fun.”

Perhaps even more unusual than the events leading up to Mack’s hit was the postgame celebration, or lack thereof. In what would normally be a packed opening night crowd celebrating a walk-off, not a single peep could be heard from the bleachers, filled only with 10 or so scouts.

“It feels more private,” Mack said. “The big moments are quieter, but it’s cool to hear our guys cheer on our guys.”

Despite the late-inning dramatics to open up the season, however, the blue and gold couldn’t keep the momentum against the Tigers. The next three games of the series brought Cal back down to earth, highlighting the work that still needs to be done to overcome the lack of complete preseason practices.

Game three of the series, a 5-2 loss in Stockton, displayed all of the Bears’ early season flaws, both offensively and defensively. The lineup only produced four hits against five Pacific pitchers while leaving 10 men on base. As a whole, Cal went 0-14 with runners in scoring position.

“Obviously the pitching is a little ahead of the hitting,” Neu said. “We have a chance to have a really competitive lineup, but it’s going to take some games to just get back into it and get our timing down.”

The struggles continued for the Bears’ position players in the field as well. Cal committed five errors over the course of the two weekend games, including three errors in game three that led to four unearned runs. In a 5-2 ballgame, that made all the difference.

“We’ve got to play really good defense to give our pitchers the support behind them,” Neu said. “We’ve had a few miscues early where I feel like we can clean them up, but we will continue to get better as we get more comfortable.”

It was the same story in game two — the Bears fell down early and lacked the offensive spark to mount a comeback, eventually dropping the contest 6-3. Following the theme, Cal only managed six hits.

While the batting lineup and defense struggled mightily, the pitching staff flexed their talent and depth, displaying why they were tabbed as the team’s biggest strength coming into the season. The Bears’ bullpen allowed just seven earned runs in 21 ⅔ innings.

Leading the charge was junior Nick Proctor, who threw 4 ⅓ perfect innings in relief during Friday’s opener and struck out four in a 1 ⅔-inning appearance in game four. Proctor, who was one of Cal’s best bullpen options last year, boasting a 2.03 ERA, proved again why he has earned Neu’s trust in tight games.

Jack Wolger, Mitchell Scott, Joe Ammirato, Mitch Benson and Stevan Zobac also threw scoreless relief appearances in Cal’s three losses. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Aaron Roberts looked sharp in his debut for the blue and gold, flashing a strong fastball and a plus 12-6 curveball as he struck out two in his inning of work.

With both team’s bullpens getting worn down over the weekend, however, Monday’s matchup turned into a slugfest. After falling into an early 5-0 hole, Cal put on a home run barrage, ripping off a three-homer third inning courtesy of Hance Smith, Quentin Selma and Beavers, followed by a dinger from Steven Zobac in the fourth inning.

Yet, critical mistakes again proved costly for the Bears, as a bases-loaded walk and subsequent RBI single gave the Tigers a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the seventh — a lead they would not relinquish. The loss was Cal’s third in a row and dropped the team to a 1-3 record.

“We’re just going to continue to get better and better, but it’s going to be a little bit of a process,” Neu said.

Along with the mid-inning offensive onslaught, a bright spot for the Bears was pitcher Josh White’s performance, as the sophomore gave up just one earned run while striking out seven in 5 ⅔ innings of work.

Cal’s success on the mound this weekend came without top starter Grant Holman, who was scratched from his Friday night start due to soreness. Holman, a preseason All-American, is expected to be a top contributor both on the rubber and in the lineup, and his absence was clearly felt. Neu kept him on the bench out of an abundance of caution, however, and expects the tall right-hander to be back for next week’s series.

That series, a home and away four-game tilt against San Francisco, has quickly turned into quite the matchup. The Dons are riding into Berkeley off of an incredible upset of No. 2 UCLA, whom they beat in two of three games in Westwood last weekend.

If Holman can indeed work his way back for the series, the Bears’ rotation looks as formidable as any in the conference, with Holman, Sam Stoutenborough and Sean Sullivan leading the pack. Neu will have a plethora of options for a game four starter as well, including freshman Paulshawn Pasqualotto.

The bats remain the biggest X-factor for Cal, who will need to find some sort of consistency in the lineup if it hopes to start winning. Senior Darren Baker has been the go-to guy thus far, producing five hits, six runs and three stolen bases from the leadoff spot. However, teammates Nathan Martorella, Selma and Beavers have all gotten off to slow starts, garnering just nine hits in a combined 46 at-bats.

Elsewhere in the lineup, freshman Jag Burden showcased his potential with a two-hit game three, which included a double. Burden, Keshawn Ogans, Zobac and Brian McClellin have been thrust into crucial roles on this young squad and will be expected to produce early on.

For the green and gold, who will occupy the third-base dugout this weekend, striking a balance between hitting and pitching has not been a problem. Jacob Munoz and Jordan Vujovich will anchor the lineup, while Landen Bourassa, who shut down the Bruins on Friday night through a five-inning, one-run outing, will lead the San Francisco’s pitching armada.

The Dons have suddenly proven themselves a talented WCC power, but if there’s any time for the Bears to find their footing, it’s against a quality team from just across the Bay. Cal will have its first crack at it Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. when the battle in the Bay begins.

Noah Parker covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].