Bears Dealing With Bullpen Issues Despite Earning Split Against No. 9 Rice

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With the season about a month old, the Cal baseball team is still figuring out who it can go to in the late innings to protect a lead.

By splitting this weekend's four-game series at No. 9 Rice, the Bears showed that their starting rotation can match up with anyone, and that their bullpen isn't quite there yet.

Relief pitching was shaky in game one, which Cal still won behind Erik Johnson's strong start. Then it imploded on Saturday when the Bears (9-5) looked like they might win the series outright at Reckling Park in Houston, Texas. The bullpen took over a 7-2 lead in the sixth inning of game three and surrendered 24 runs over the next three innings, mercifully staunching the final score at 26-11.

With new life, the Owls (10-7) earned the split by winning Sunday's game, 7-4.

"You don't get those opportunities too often to win a series against a national power, and we had our opportunities," coach David Esquer said. "We just didn't finish."

Not finishing, Esquer said, was the message of the weekend. The second half of the series itself got away. In game four of the series, Cal had a 3-2 lead that it couldn't hold. In inning four of that game, the Bears loaded the bases with no outs and couldn't deliver the big hit, settling for a pair of sacrifice flies.

But "not finishing" started with a group of relievers that gave up 30 runs in four games. Although the bullpen kept Sunday's game close after Rice scored seven runs off of starter Kevin Miller, it struggled mightily when pitching from ahead.

"Our starters have been so good and we think that's going to continue," Esquer said. "But we plan on them being able to hand off the lead to a lot of guys and we've got to be able to hold it.

Johnson's six scoreless innings on Friday were almost negated as Daniel Wolford and Brian Diemer allowed Rice to score six times in the final three innings and put the potential winning run on first base in the bottom of the ninth.

That memory was certainly fresh in Esquer's mind the next night, as he allowed freshman Justin Jones to finish out a complete game in a 6-4 win.

Jones had to work through six hits and four walks, but Esquer said that his pitch count didn't get to the point where it had to be monitored until the seventh inning.

"That's a situation where you just let a guy run," Esquer said. "But quite honestly, it was also the same scenario we ran into on Thursday, where we had a lead, went to the bullpen, and by the time it was over we were holding on."

The Bears' bullpen was operating down a man due to the length of the series. Miller, typically used in middle relief, was out of commission early in the weekend because he was slated to start game four.

But of the seven relievers who pitched over the weekend, only freshman Matt Evanoff escaped unscathed, throwing a scoreless eighth inning on Sunday. For that reason, Esquer said that Evanoff might get more of a look in future series.


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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