LOS ANGELES -- The college baseball season has entered the home stretch and UCLA can't seem to find the late-season magic that carried the Bruins to the College World Series finals last year.
And, it seems, they might be trying just a little too hard to find it.
UCLA lost to California, 4-0, Friday night at Jackie Robinson Stadium, getting only three hits and wasting a solid effort by ace Gerrit Cole in the opening game of a crucial three-game Pac-10 Conference series.
The Bruins (29-20, 14-8) got only four runners past first base against California pitcher Erik Johnson, and struck out 10 times in the game -- seven times with runners on base. It was only the third time this season UCLA had been shut out, but it was the Bruins' fourth loss in six games.
"I think everybody is trying just a little too hard," Cole said. "I think everybody realizes how big the games are late in the season and I think everybody is pressing a little bit. In terms of the caring factor and the trying factor, I think it’s there, just maybe a little too much."
Maybe it's the pressure of trying to live up to the magical run of last season when UCLA won 13 of its last 17 regular season games and rode that momentum all the way to a national runner-up finish.
Case in point: With UCLA trialing, 1-0, Friday night, Bruins shortstop Pat Valaika was on first and was stealing when a 3-and-2 pitch to Jeff Gelealich got away from Cal catcher Chadd Krist. Valaika saw the passed ball, put his head down and headed for third base, ignoring the stop sign from third base coach T.J. Bruce, but Krist threw him out to end the inning.
"I saw the ball get away and just took a chance," Valaika said. "I was trying to make something happen. Maybe too much, I’d say."
It was a shame that the offense came up empty on a night when ace Cole (5-7) turned in a gutsy outing. He pitched out of trouble nearly every inning. Cal (30-16, 13-9) had a big rally brewing in the first after scoring a run and getting runner to first and third with one out, but Cole put up consecutive strikeouts to end the threat.
He got an inning-ending strikeout with runners at first and second in the third inning. He settled down, retiring nine consecutive batters before Cal put runners at second and third with two outs in the seventh. He ended that threat with, what else, a strikeout.
"It’s what great pitchers do," UCLA coach John Savage said. "You have to pitch out of problems. But they wore him down."
Cole needed 132 pitches to get through seven innings, so that strikeout to end the seventh was the last batter he'd face Friday and most likely the last batter he'd ever face at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Cole is expected to be a top-five pick in the June major league draft and this is UCLA's last home series.
He finished with six strikeouts and a walk and gave up one run and six hits, and acknowledged it was frustrating having to leave a 1-0 game in the seventh.
"You try and get a complete game every time out," he said. "But you throw as many pitches as you need to to throw up zeros. I think both sides did a good job running the pitch count up. I wanted to go back out. I felt good, but you throw 130 pitches or whatever it was in seven innings and that's tough."
UCLA had a good chance to tie the score when pinch hitter Marc Navarro was hit by a pitch and advanced to third on consecutive groundouts, but freshman pinch hitter Brenton Allen struck out looking -- one of six UCLA batters to go down with the bat on his shoulder -- to leave Navarro stranded.
After Cole left, the UCLA bullpen let the game get out of reach. Lefty Mitchell Beacom came in with a man on second and one out and struck out Cal left-handed hitter Devon Rodriguez. After an intentional walk to Mitch Delfino, he walked Louie Lechich -- another lefty -- to load the bases.
Pinch hitter Andrew Knapp, a freshman who hadn't played since April 25, then laced a 3-2 fastball to left field for a bases-clearing double and a 4-0 Cal lead.
"We had the matchup we wanted left on left and we ended up walking the lefty on a 3-2 count," Savage said. "Then the next guy hits a two-strike double. So you have to give them some credit. We didn’t get the job done out of the bullpen and they did."
The loss drops UCLA out of a tie for second and into third in the Pac-10 standings. They are three games behind conference leader Oregon State with five games to play, so winning the conference is a longshot at this point, though the Bruins haven't yet given up hope.
"Once we get a few hits going, we’ll get rolling," Valaika said. "That’s how it’s been all season. We just have to get that first one."