BENEDETTI DIAMOND — The California Golden Bears came into Benedetti Diamond as arguably the hottest team in college baseball, having won 16 of their last 20 games and sweeping Utah on the road. They needed a win on Tuesday — their final midweek game of the year — to stay in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament berth.
The San Francisco Dons can’t do much in terms of goosing the selection committee. Their fate is inextricably tied up in how they finish the West Coast Conference season, and whether or not they can win the WCC Tournament in Stockton later this month.
San Francisco made things interesting against the surging Bears, but after creeping back to within one run following Cal’s four-run first, the Dons could get no closer. The Bears scored runs in each of the final five innings against a parade of San Francisco relievers, banging out 15 hits for an 10-5 win, as all San Francisco could do was get work in before its final WCC weekend against BYU.
“We were there,” said head coach Nino Giarratano. “We just couldn’t make enough pitches to keep them down.”
San Francisco (27-22) got behind early, with sophomore Julian Washburn turning in arguably his worst outing of the season, allowing four runs on four hits and a walk with one wild pitch in just one inning of work. Normally a reliever on the weekends, Washburn didn’t look too comfortable against the Bears’ vaunted lineup, featuring batters one through six with averages .298 or higher.
After a leadoff single by Cameron Eden, designated hitter Korey Lee made the Dons pay for intentionally walking Andrew Vaughn with one out, as he’s done all year. Lee socked a run-scoring double high off the right field netting to give the Bears a 1-0 lead with one out in the first, and second baseman Darren Baker then rapped a single back up the middle to score two. After taking second on the throw, Baker rode home on a single by Sam Wezniak, who drove a 1-0 fastball high off the right field netting, putting Cal up 4-0 on starter Julian Washburn.
San Francisco managed to claw its way back into the game in the third, thanks to some key mistakes by the Bears, whose bullpen has been a weak spot. With one out, rliever Ian Villers dotted center fielder Tyler Villaroman, who then Villaroman stole second and continued on to third after catcher Cole Elvis’ throw down skipped past second baseman Baker. An infield single by Jack Winkler cut the lead to 4-1.
Winkler himself swiped second on a low throw, and took third on a groundout. Then, a Villers delivery got by Elvis with powerful Jonathan Allen at the plate, and Winkler sprinted home, beating a sliding tag by Villers to cut the lead to 4-2. Jacob Westerman launched an 0-1 offering from reliever Carson Olson just over the wall in left to lead off the bottom of the fourth, cutting the lead to one.
As San Francisco inched back, freshman Rich Mollerus had his second big outing in his last week. Last Tuesday against Sacramento State, Mollerus threw 3 2/3 scoreless frames of relief, allowing two hits and striking out four. After two middling appearances against Pepperdine (1 1/3 IP, 3 H, 1 ER), he went 3 2/3 against the Bears, allowing just one run on four hits.
The one run he did allow came home without him on the mound. After getting the first two outs in the fifth, he allowed a first-pitch single by Max Flower through the left side, and walked Baker. Left-hander Grant Young then came on mid-count to face Wezniak, and allowed an RBI single to center.
After Jonathan Allen’s WCC-leading 17th home run of the season in the bottom of the fifth, the Bears answered right back. After Connor Mack led off the frame with a double, he advanced to third on a wild pitch off catcher Robert Emery’s mask, and rode home on a Cameron Eden sacrifice fly to right, making it 6-4 in Cal’s favor. Baker’s speed added another, as he beat out an infield hit, swiped second, took third on a wild pitch and stole home on a pickoff to first in the seventh.
“A positive is, we battled back after being down 4-0,” Giarratano said. “The way we defended, I thought was pretty good. I thought we put together some good at-bats at times. I thought a couple guys came in and threw strikes and did their job, so I’m excited about that.”
San Francisco threatened in the bottom of the seventh, putting two on with one out after a walk to Allen, but they c0uldn’t push a run across. The Bears pushed across another run in the eighth, thanks to a Quentin Selma line shot off pitcher Jordan Barchus’ foot, a walk and a smash up the middle by Lee. Second baseman Kyle Knell fielded the ball behind the bag and flipped to second, too late to get Andrew Vaughn, and while the middle infield stood around the bag, Selma came around to score.
Elvis left the building in the ninth for a one-out, two-run homer against closer Joey Steele in the ninth, and San Francisco added a run on an RBI single by Riley Helland with one out in the bottom of the frame to close out the scoring. The Dons threw eight pitchers out on Tuesday in order to get ready for the weekend.
“We had to get Washburn work and we had to get Joey Steele work,” Giarratano said. “The rest of those guys, we were trying to sharpen them up. We’ve been trying to sharpen them up for quite some time, but they’ve given up quite a few runs, so it’s been pretty difficult. I know that we’ve given up close to 10 runs for probably 80 or 90 percent of the Tuesdays.”
The Dons now head to Provo for their final WCC series of the season, trying to make up for a missed opportunity two weeks ago in a road sweep at the hands of Gonzaga. The rest of the conference has two weekens left, meaning that San Francisco will have to wait and see how the rest of the schedule shakes out to determine their postseason fate.
“It’s difficult, but that’s the way the graduation schedule is, and we take that bye week, and we’re going to use it with [Cal State] Northridge, because they had a bye week, but it’s difficult to finish early,” Giarratano said. “In the kind of race that it is right now, it’s down to one or two games, but had we taken care of business at Gonzaga, we’d probably be excited to finish a week early.”
San Francisco is tied for third in the WCC with Loyola Marymount, which owns the tiebreaker in head-to-head matchups. At 14-10 in the league, San Francisco could see a challenge from St. Mary’s, which sits in fifth at 12-9. The Gaels (27-18) face last-place Santa Clara (11-34, 4-17) this coming weekend, and then finishes the conference slate with three games at Pepperdine (20-19, 11-10), which sits in sixth. The top four teams head to Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton for the conference tournament May 23-25.
“We’ve got to win the series,” Giarratano said. “We’ve got to win two out of three, if we want to get into the postseason tournament.”
Note: Allen’s home run tied Arnie Sambel for the fourth-most home runs in a single season in USF history. Sambel hit his 17 in 1990, which led the West Coast Conference.