University of San Francisco reliever Alex Pham pitches in the sixth inning of the Dons’ 4-2 loss against the UC Davis Aggies on April 23, 2019 at Benedetti Diamond in San Francisco. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

Dons squander opportunities against UC Davis in midweek loss

After a slugfest on Monday against Aggies, San Francisco’s bats go quiet back in the City

BENEDETTI DIAMOND — In the top of the sixth inning against UC Davis on Tuesday, with two outs and two men on, University of San Francisco relief ace Alex Pham fired a pickoff throw to first. There were two problems. First: First baseman Riley Helland was nowhere near the bag, and the ball hit nothing but the brick facade by the dugout. Second: Pham had balked.

Pham wound up loading the bases, but got out of the jam — and another an inning later — but like that botched pickoff play, it was a bizarre day for the Dons, who came in having scored 35 runs over their last four games, but could barely manage two against the visiting Aggies despite six hits and even more solid contact.

In Tuesday’s 4-2 loss, Pham was able to work around his career-high five walks in 1 1/3 innings without allowing a run, but the offense wasn’t nearly as nimble, going just 2-for-14 with runners on base and going hitless (0-for-9) with men in scoring position. Facing a team with just 12 wins and liking a boost headed into a weekend series against Gonzaga — a team tied with the Dons for second place in the West Coast Conference — it was an uninspiring performance.

“We didn’t have good at-bats with runners in scoring position,” said head coach Nino Giarratano. “We didn’t move runners when we had an opportunity to move runners. Too many strikeouts in key situations … We just couldn’t get it together to score.”

To add to the weirdness, Tuesday’s game was a close, six-run affair played in under three hours, less than 24 hours after the two teams combined for 33 runs on 38 hits in a 19-14 Dons win that took just over four hours. The loss itself, though, was not weird; San Francisco is 3-7 in midweek games, largely because injuries to the pitching staff have forced San Francisco to sell out to win the weekends.

Freshman starter Josh Mollerus gave up two runs in the first on a homer and a sacrifice fly, but threw three scoreless frames after that, at one point retiring nine in a row before the Aggies (12-22) cashed in a leadoff walk with an RBI groundout in the fifth. A leadoff walk would bite Mollerus again in the sixth. After a free pass to right fielder and three-hole hitter Alejandro Lara, Mollerus got two quick outs before Lara swiped second on a low, skipping throw from catcher Robert Emery.

Pham — who had a sparkling 2.19 ERA this season — entered, and promptly gave up a 3-1 RBI single to sophomore first baseman Spencer Gedestad.

With 62 strikeouts to 13 walks in 49 1/3 innings this season, Pham then suddenly lost control, walking two to load the bases, and balking two men over. He finally got out of the jam with a strikeout, fanning second baseman Jalen Smith with a breaking ball away to end a 23-pitch inning.

“It was rough for him,” Giarratano said. “He didn’t have command of the slider, didn’t have command of the curveball like he normally does. I thought the fastball was pretty close, but if he commands the other pitches, those probably aren’t walks.”

Pham — who threw 53 pitches pitching midweek for the first time this season — issued another three walks in the seventh, loading the bases before getting out of that jam. Only once this season had Pham walked as many as three, and that was in 5 1/3 innings on March 24 against San Diego. His career high was four, against Xavier at Benedetti Diamond on March 8, 2018.

“He’s been great for us for 10 outings in a row,” said Giarratano, who last used Pham on Friday, and has him scheduled to pitch the back half of the game this coming Saturday, as he’s done most of the season. Had Pham not pitched on Tuesday, he’d go a season-long eight days between outings.

“He’ll get back on it,” Giarratano said. “It was good for him to sharpen up today … I didn’t want this to be his outing in Spokane.”

San Francisco (24-17) was poised to make a comeback in the bottom of the seventh, loading the bases with no outs on a single and a pair of walks, but a 6-4-3 double play and a strikeout ended the threat, with the Dons scoring just one run.

San Francisco had another chance in the eighth, with a Nick Yovetich leadoff double past a dividing Garret Kelly in left center, a groundout by RJ Cordeiro and a gutsy six-pitch walk taken by freshman Kyle Knell, who watched ball four come in just off the plate away at the knees. A sacrifice fly by Tyler Villaroman cut the lead to 4-2.

Jack Winkler — the Dons’ leading hitter — then rolled a single through the right side to bring up Riley Helland, but he flew out to deep left to end the threat. Allen took a dose to lead off the ninth, and advanced to second on a wild pitch, but Aggies reliever Steve Ouellette retired the next three men in order, striking out two, to end the game.

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