March 11, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The good fortune Rice enjoyed with California opted to pull sophomore righthander Erik Johnson after six innings of near-spotless work was negated at the worst possible time: with one out and the bases loaded and the Owls trailing by two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
For an offense that has struggled to collect hits at opportune times, what unfolded next was equal parts frustrating and expected. With the tying run on second base, junior right fielder Chad Mozingo scorched a line drive that California second baseman Brian Guinn plucked out of the air. Guinn hastily threw to first in an attempt to double off Anthony Rendon, who had scurried back to the bag as the play developed ahead of him.
But pinch runner Daniel Gonzales-Luna was on second and had his back to the bag, so the subsequent throw to second resulted in a game-ending double play and an 8-6 defeat at Reckling Park on Thursday evening.
"Right off the bat I just knew I smoked it, and then I looked and thought that might get right by him (Guinn)," Mozingo said. "He dove a little bit, and that was just a good play. I didn't quite hit it up the middle enough."
While California (8-3) rolled to a 6-0 lead behind Johnson (3-0), its sluggers in the middle of the order, and some impeccable defense, the Owls (8-6) were consistently one foot short of turning an out into a key hit. The Owls stranded runners at the corners in a scoreless third inning, were robbed of base hits by California outfielders Danny Oh and Darrel Matthews in the fourth and eighth and, while they scored four runs in the seventh, did so without the benefit of a backbreaking hit. Rick Hague singled ahead of two bases-loaded walks, a catcher's interference and a fielder's choice ground out that pushed across the final run of the frame.
Clinging to a 6-4 lead, the Bears responded with a home run from first baseman Mark Canha, a triple by third baseman Tony Renda, and a daring drag bunt with two outs that rebuilt the lead to 8-4. Rendon drove home the final two runs of the contest with a solo homer in the eighth and a bases-loaded walk ahead of Mozingo in the ninth, but Rice managed just two extra-base hits compared to the Bears' total of five.
"I wanted to go up there and hit a walk-off (home run)," Rendon said of his at-bat in the ninth, his first this season with the bases loaded. "He (Bears righthander Brian Diemer) gave me the first pitch where I should have done it, but I fouled it (off). I had the pitch and should have hit it."
Rendon carried his weight with two RBIs and a pair of walks, but with the first three batters in the Rice order failing to record a hit until the ninth, Rendon led off the second, seventh and eighth innings. Cleanup hitters are tabbed to drive in runs, a tall task when the bases are empty.
While the Owls stranded eight base runners, California made the most of its scoring opportunities. All six Bears that reached against Rice lefthander Taylor Wall (0-3) scored, with catcher Chadd Krist smacking a first-pitch, three-run homer out to left in the first inning and Renda following an intentional walk of Krist with a first-pitch, three-run homer out to left-center in the sixth. Wall was lifted for Matthew Reckling, who was sharp until the eighth. The two runs Reckling surrendered ultimately proved to be the difference, but the Owls' misfortune put them behind the eight ball well before Reckling entered in relief.
"A lot of times our hitters in the past have complained about the conditions at Reckling. Well good Lord, you can't have better conditions," Rice coach Wayne Graham said of the wind blowing out to left. "We didn't really square the ball up much, and that's disappointing.
"We've faced good pitching and we haven't met the challenge so far. Hopefully the pain of not having done well against good pitching will make us better hitters. We hope so. There are a lot of guys that aspire to the major leagues, and they're going to have to hit that (good) pitching."