Controversial Call Cuts Short Cal's Comeback Against Trojans

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After a week and a half off, the Cal baseball team needed eight innings to wake its bats up against USC on Friday.

When the Bears finally did start hitting, a questionable call against them -- one that left Cal players and fans completely stunned -- put a premature end to what might have been an equally stunning ninth-inning comeback.

Trailing 4-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, the Bears scored twice and had the bases loaded with two outs. Designated hitter Blake Smith hit a slow grounder to Trojans second baseman Joe De Pinto, who tried to flip to shortstop Grant Green for the force out at second.

De Pinto's flip was low and Cal's Jeff Kobernus, moving from first to second, appeared to slide in safely ahead of the ball. Umpire Kevin Daugherty, though, ruled Kobernus out.

Kobernus threw his hands up in disbelief, Brett Jackson slammed his helmet down crossing home plate and coach David Esquer sprinted over to argue with Daugherty to no avail, as USC escaped Evans Diamond with a 4-2 win.

"Umpire just said (Kobernus) didn't get to the base," a visibly upset Esquer said. "That's his explanation."

It wasn't good enough for the Bears' coach, who said that his team's resilience was nice but not near close enough to consolation for the loss.

The only good thing about the call for Cal (23-28, 8-17 in the Pac-10) may have been the fact that it was caught on video, as Fox Sports Net Bay Area taped the game for a delayed broadcast. Video replays showed that Kobernus was safe.

"We made a good battle at the end, but unfortunately the game's about winning and losing," Esquer said. "Kids fought hard, but coming up short is coming up short."

The Trojans (27-27, 12-13) benefited from three home runs and an outstanding start by junior Robert Stock. Stock pitched seven shutout innings, gave up just four hits and struck out seven.

For a while, it looked like left fielder Mike O'Neill's leadoff home run would be enough to give Stock his fifth win. But freshman first baseman Ricky Oropesa added a two-run homer in the top of the sixth and catcher Hector Rabago went down and got a low slider for a solo shot in the seventh to give Stock some breathing room.

Besides the home runs, one of which -- Oropesa's -- came on a 3-0 fastball, the Trojans had trouble getting anything going against Cal starter Erik Johnson, who had emerged from a mercurial pitching staff in the last month as the clear-cut Friday starter. Johnson threw the staff's first complete game of the season, scattering nine hits while striking out four and seeing his record drop to 3-6.

"I wanted him to prove to himself that he could (go nine innings) so I was going to make him finish no matter what," Esquer said.

Johnson said that he "had no doubt" that he could finish out the complete game, especially after the team's break for finals gave him time to rest his right arm.

"It was whether or not I could pitch my way to that spot," he said. "Pitching a complete game, you've got to prepare yourself. I thought it was a good outing."

The Bears' offense, however, gave him no support until the ninth, coming dangerously close to being shut out for only the second time this season. It was reminiscent of this time last year, when Cal emerged from finals week only to be blanked twice in a row at home by UCLA.

"No one should (shut us out), based on our reputation," Esquer said. "They really shouldn't. And we almost got shut out today."

Cal avoided that fate in the bottom of the ninth with an RBI single by Jackson and a run-scoring double from shortstop Brian Guinn that came within two feet of being a game-tying home run. But after Kobernus was hit by a pitch to load the bases, right fielder Mark Canha lined out to right field to set up Smith's at-bat and the controversial game-ending call.

"We came out rusty," Esquer said. "Took us nine innings to shake the rust off. So hopefully we can come out tomorrow and play the first like we played the ninth today."


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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