With two outs in the top of the sixth, freshman third baseman Cam Hart hit a grounder to shortstop and reached on the subsequent throwing error.
While it was the first and only error committed by California (3-9) Wednesday night at Evans Field, it was symptomatic of the meek and mistake-prone play which cost it a 5-0 defeat at the hands of No. 5 Michigan (7-5).
In the top of the first, the Wolverines loaded the bases thanks to a pair of four-pitch walks and a high pop-up off the bat of junior shortstop Jack Blomgren that fell between two converging outfielders. Sophomore second baseman Riley Bertram’s double to the opposite field plated two of three first-inning runs.
Sophomore left-hander Walker Cleveland took the mound for Michigan in the bottom of the first, making his first appearance of the season.
“Walker’s a big-game pitcher,” Bertram said. “Every time he gets on the mound for a start, you can expect four or five innings scoreless.”
Added Michigan coach Erik Bakich: “Walker did a great job putting up four zeros. I thought that really set the tone for the game. … He really did a good job of pitching out of any jams he was in.”
Cleveland made good on the high expectations. With only one strikeout in his four innings, he had to rely on the defense to tend to balls in play. His faith was well placed; in the bottom of the first, a grounder down the first base line, nearly identical to Bertram’s run-scoring knock earlier, was handled by redshirt senior Matthew Schmidt and originated an inning-ending double play. Cleveland helped his own cause by assisting on back-to-back pickoffs in the second inning.
“It’s a good rally killer,” Cleveland said. “It’s nice to have — (pitching) coach (Chris) Fetter always works on it with me. It’s a nice weapon to have.”
California pitcher Lucas Gather was lifted after the first inning, necessitating a parade of seven relievers.
“Teams employ that tactic a lot in the midweeks,” Bakich said. “They give everybody one inning of work, and sometimes it’s very effective because the offense can’t settle in and figure a guy out.”
The tactic was effective against the Wolverines, whose three-spot in the first was the closest they’d get to posting a crooked number. But Michigan only went down in order twice; junior catcher Joe Donovan hit his first homer in the fifth and Bertram tacked on an RBI single in the seventh, providing two insurance runs.
“Seeing it fly felt good,” Donovan said. “Always want to get that first one off your chest.”
The Golden Bears’ one rally — a walk and hit-and-run to put runners on the corners in the eighth — was too little, too late. They stranded nine overall runners, only twice sending more than four runners to the plate in a given inning.
“(That) tells you you’re doing a good job of getting guys on,” Bakich said, “but you’re not doing a good job of getting them home.”
Michigan helped prevent the latter half of that equation by shifting dramatically against both righties and lefties, daring hitters to go the other way and find a hole. The risk paid off, as California consistently hit into the shift for routine outs.
After scoring a combined nine runs but stranding a combined 20 runners over the Wolverines’ two midweek games, Bakich has his eyes on more crooked numbers.
“We have said we need to be better at scoring more runs,” Bakich said. “Scoring four runs a game is just not indicative of our potential as an offense. We’re better than that.”