Leake Outduels Johnson in Game One of ASU-Cal Series

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Erik Johnson may have established himself on Friday as the newest No. 1 guy in the Cal baseball team's constantly evolving rotation.

The freshman right-hander pitched into the eighth inning against No. 3 Arizona State, showcased a brilliant out pitch and used it to effectively retire right- and left-handed hitters.

He set down nine hitters in a row at one point. He even got a few of the breaks that a successful starter needs, like a pop-up to first baseman Mark Canha on a hit-and-run that Canha caught with his foot on the bag for an inning-ending double play.

Afterward, coach David Esquer said it was "maybe as good (a start) as we've had against a good ballclub."

All that was missing was the win. And that's because for as good as Johnson was, Sun Devils junior Mike Leake was better.

Leake threw his third complete game of the season and won his 10th in a commanding performance at Evans Diamond, as Arizona State captured the first of a three-game series against the Bears, 3-1.

With the win, Leake (10-1) became only the second pitcher in Sun Devils history to win 10 games in three consecutive seasons. He also lowered his ERA to 1.54 -- undercutting teammate Josh Spence for the Pac-10 lead.

"He's a major leaguer, he really is," Esquer said of Leake. "That doesn't mean it's OK to lose to him, because we don't think so. But he's a big leaguer. He's tough. He throws strikes, fields his position. He does everything you're supposed to do."

Leake's fastball hovered around the 90 MPH mark for most of the game, but he threw it with running movement to go with a changeup and nasty slider. Most of his seven strikeouts came on the slider, which he ran across the plate to the outside corner against right-handers to great effect.

"We've got to tip our hat to him," Cal third baseman Michael Brady said. "He has good control, keeps the ball in the zone. And his slider's got real late movement, real hard movement. It has the same spin as a fastball, it looks like, same speed."

Leake made one mistake on the day -- a fastball that snuck back over the plate into the wheelhouse of Bears catcher Chadd Krist in the third inning. Krist hit a line drive over the wall in left field for his second home run of the year and the second homer given up by Leake in 81 2/3 innings this season.

Krist's homer cut the ASU lead to 2-1 after three innings. Cal (18-21, 5-11 in the Pac-10) threatened again in the fourth when it put runners on second and third with two outs, but Leake got Brady to fly out to right field to end the inning.

From that point, Leake was virtually unhittable. He retired the next 14 hitters that he faced and didn't allow a runner until Bears shortstop Brian Guinn lined a single into center field to lead off the ninth inning.

"Pitching's not that easy," Esquer said. "But the way he moves the ball around and throws his breaking ball makes it look like it's a little easier than it really is."

Arizona State (30-8, 14-2) had two relievers up in the bullpen during the ninth, but coach Pat Murphy never appeared to be on the verge of removing Leake from the game. The junior retired Canha on a popup to first base and coaxed a comebacker out of Jeff Kobernus, which he made a fine play on by wheeling and throwing to second to start the game-ending double play.

Johnson, the hard-luck loser, could only watch with the rest of the Bears as their ninth-inning rally hopes fell along with their hottest hitter.

The Cal freshman matched Leake, zero for zero, from the fourth inning through the seventh. He lasted 7 1/3 innings despite a rocky first, in which he gave up a home run to the Sun Devils' Jason Kipnis and loaded the bases with one out before getting Johnny Ruettiger to line into a double play.

Arizona State tacked on single runs in the third and eighth innings, both on RBI singles by catcher Carlos Ramirez after the leadoff hitter reached against Johnson.

"We pitched out of a jam in the (first), but the reality is every other opportunity they got, they took advantage of," Esquer said. "They moved a guy over and scored him (in the third), and then they've got a runner on second base and the guy gets a base hit.

"That's the difference in the game. They came through. Our guys were making it tough for them to come through, and they did a nice job."

Johnson struck out a career-high seven hitters and dazzled the crowd for most of the game with a devastating curveball. His first drew murmurs from the 329 in attendance and he exploited it for the next seven innings, throwing it both to get ahead in counts and put hitters away. He left in the eighth to a loud ovation.

"You have to match up pretty strong against a guy with a 1.00 ERA," Esquer said.

"Erik pitched fine for us, he really did, but we just couldn't support him."

Game time was a brisk two hours and 16 minutes with the two hurlers going back and forth in the middle innings.

The Sun Devils don't lose much on the mound from Friday to Saturday. Left-hander Josh Spence, a junior transfer, takes the mound for game two sporting a sparkling 8-0 record and 1.56 ERA.

Esquer said that the Bears will probably start right-hander Dixon Anderson.

"Considering the score (on Friday), we know we can play with them," Brady said. "If we'd showed up and hit a little better, we could've easily won that game.

"We know now that we can shut them down and if we take better approaches at the plate and be a little more selective, we'll have a real good chance."

First pitch on Saturday is scheduled for 1 p.m.

Tags: CAL BASEBALL, DAVID ESQUER, MICHAEL BRADY, ERIK JOHNSON


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]



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