BERKELEY — Before Tuesday night’s game between the University of San Francisco Dons and the California Golden Bears, Cal head coach Mike Neu and USF skipper Nino Giarratano commiserated.
Neu had lost his ace — junior righty Jared Horn — to appendicitis the first week of the season, and lost the other two-thirds of his weekend rotation to either graduation or the draft last year. Giarratano countered: He’s missing his Nos. 2-4 starters due to various arm injuries.
“We’ve just got a bunch of freshman,” Neu said.
Pitching was conspicuous by its absence on Tuesday, as the Dons and Bears combined for seven home runs and 11 extra-base hits, including a big, three-run blast by reigning college baseball player of the year Andrew Vaughn in Cal’s five-run fourth. The Dons had a chance to respond in the sixth, but couldn’t bring home a run with the bases loaded and no outs, and that missed opportunity cost San Francisco, as the Bears came away with a 10-7 win.
“We battled back three times in a game where we could have probably just laid down,” said Giarratano. “We put together really good at-bats. Disappointed in that bases-loaded, no-out situation down 10-5, but I think it was just our inability to stop them with two outs.”
San Francisco went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, 0-for-9 with two outs, and in an echo of what forced them to have to win in their final at-bat on Sunday, left eight men on base against the Golden Bears.
Cal (10-8), on the other hand, hit .273 with two outs, 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position and 12-for-22 in advancement opportunities. Most importantly, the Bears slugged four home runs, starting with a leadoff job from left fielder Cameron Eden.
After Dons lefty starter Grant Young surrendered Eden’s fourth circuit shot of the season, he served up a letter-high hanging breaker to reigning Golden Spikes Award winner Vaughn, who hammered a single to left with one out. Right fielder Max Flower then golfed an 0-1 pitch for a single down the left field line to put two on for freshman catcher Cole Elvis and dangerous two-sport athlete Brandon McIlwain. Young, though, got a pop out and a groundout to get out of the jam.
Dons second baseman R.J. Cordeiro, starting just his fifth game of the year, responded in a big way in the top of the second, crushing his first home run of the season off the top of the Edwards Track Stadium bleachers in right, driving in Brandon Allen to give the Dons a 2-1 lead.
In the bottom of the third, Young worked out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam allowing only a run, surrendering a sacrifice fly to Elvis to tie things up.
As Young got out of another jam, so too did the Dons add another tater, with Jonathan Allen jumping ship for his seventh home run of the year. The solo shot to lead off the fourth re-took the lead for San Francisco, 3-2, and tied Allen with Vaughn, who is on pace to hit over 20 home runs for the second straight season. Vaughn, though, wouldn’t be idle for long.
“Jon Allen is a great player, just tried too hard tonight to maybe match, or do too much for us,” said Giarratano. Allen went 1-for-4, and struck out in the ninth with his teammates yelling, “We need you to lead us.”
On the first pitch of the bottom of the frame, shortstop Sam Wezniak got that run right back with a solo shot of his own: a line drive off the concrete facade of the Recreational Sports Facility in left.
After walking Grant Holman on seven pitches, Young gave up the ghost, in favor of little-used senior righty Jordan Barchus. He promptly gave up a rocket single up the middle to third baseman Quentin Selma and walked Eden to load the bases. Second baseman Darren Baker — son of former San Francisco Giants manager Dusty — sent a line-drive sac fly to right, and Vaughn, after seeing nothing but off speed and breaking pitches against Young, teed off on a batting practice fastball from Barchus and promptly deposited it onto the roof of the RSF, 386 feet away, for his eighth home run of the year, racking up three RBIs in the process.
“We talked about not letting Vaughn beat us, and he beat us,” Giarratano said. “We knew it was going to be a slugfest. I just didn’t want to give Vaughn the opportunity to beat us. He’s just too good. He’s just too smart. You throw him a breaking ball, he watches it; you throw the same pitch, he hits it off a scoreboard. You throw him a hanging breaking ball early in the game, base hit to left field.
“You know, I saw [former San Diego star and 2016 NL MVP] Kris Bryant in the league, and a lot of people ask that question: Kris Bryant or Vaughn? Obviously at the time, Kris Bryant was unstoppable, but these are two guys, they’re both big league hitters.”
The Dons, though, didn’t go quietly. Sunday’s hero Jacob Munoz stroked an inside-out double into left center with one out in the fifth, and Tyler Villaroman ripped the second pitch he saw into the right center gap to bring him around on an RBI triple. Villaroman would ride home on a sacrifice fly to right by Jack Winkler, cutting the lead to two.
After a shut-down inning from Julian Washburn, the Dons loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the sixth, but couldn’t get a run home, with pinch hitter Robert Emery popping out, Urata lining out and Munoz striking out looking. Cal would go on to add three more in the bottom of the inning, with a Flower RBI single and a two-run, opposite-field home run by Elvis.
“The home run down the right field line with a base open, we didn’t make good pitches,” Giarratano said.
Robert Emery got two of those back in the top of the eighth, with an opposite field jack that hit midway up one of the Edwards grandstand’s support columns. San Francisco, though, would get no closer.
“The positive that you can take away is that, offensively, this is a really good club,” said Giarratano, whose club rapped out nine hits on the day. “Defensively, this is a good enough club. We’ve just got to pitch better. When you score seven against Cal on a Tuesday, you probably should win that game. At Stanford, we gave up eight. We gave up eight the last Tuesday, and we gave up 10 here, so we’ve got some things we’ve got to fix.”
Giarratano was, however, pleased with the fact that the Dons were able to hang with last season’s Pac-12 home run leaders.
“I’m really proud of this team, I like this team, this is a team I want to go to battle with,” Giarratano said. “I want to fix the pitching, but this is definitely a team I want to go to battle with.”
Getting injured starters Grant Nechak and Daniel Slominski back in the next two weeks should help. With two starters back in the mix, Young and Alex Pham can go back into their bullpen roles.
“It’ll be tremendous,” Giarratano said. “If we get Nechak and Slominski back, that means that Scotty Parker’s pitching on a night like tonight. It helps Joey Stills rest a little bit. We desperately need it.”