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May 21, 2012
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BERKELEY -- After California junior Tony Renda hugged his mother and signed autographs, he surveyed Evans Diamond. Reflected in his ice-blue squint was three years of grinding, dirt, grime, pain, victory, defeat and -- most of all -- memories, capped off by a come-from-behind 6-5 win over No. 11 UCLA on Sunday.
It may have been Senior Day for the Bears (27-24, 10-17), who have struggled to find an identity a season after a trip to the College World Series brought the program back from the dead, but for Renda -- who will likely be taken at the end of the first or top of the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft -- it was his last game at home, too. He walked over to assistant coach Brad Sanfilipo, clapped him on his left shoulder, and said, simply, "It's been fun."
"It's something we were known for all last year, and we just haven't been able to dig it out of ourselves," said head coach David Esquer, who's team registered six walk-off hits last season. "I think with the Senior Day, the kids really wanted to win it for the guys who were leaving. I think they found that motivation. They found something to play for again."
That's about as emotional as the 5-foot-7 fireball ever gets, and it took a win evocative of the miracle 2011 season to bring him even that far. His roommate from last season -- senior two-time All-Pac-10 catcher Chadd Krist -- was, appropriately enough, the hero of the afternoon, going 2-for-4 with two runs and two RBI, including his fourth home run of the season. Krist -- who went from being a walk-on to tying the all-time program career doubles record -- had struggled since coming back for his senior season after being taken in the 13th round of the draft by the Chicago White Sox, but fittingly, on his final day at Evans Diamond, he had a day to remember.
"Well, shoot, he's finished the whole journey of getting here," Esquer said of his senior backstop. "One, you want to get here, and you don't know where you're going to stand. Then, you win the job and you not only win the job, but you perform better than anybody in the conference and your team goes to the World Series and you graduate and you're going to get drafted and you're going to play professional baseball. He's completed the journey almost here, and I'm really proud that he's come from where he came from."
Renda, for his part, went 1-for-4 on the day, with his third-inning one-out single moving him into a tie with Major League veteran Xavier Nady for sixth place on the program's all-time hits list at 243.
After sophomore starter Michael Theofanopoulos fell behind 1-0 after a rocky top of the first, Krist delivered in the bottom of the inning with a two-out RBI single up the middle to knot things up at 1-1.
The Bruins (38-14, 17-10) crept ahead in the top of the fourth against reliever Kyle Porter, who walked three of the first four hitters he faced before being removed for junior righty Logan Scott. Scott got Kevin Kramer to fly out to center before hitting shortstop Kevin Williams to force in a run. Scott -- who has had his fair share of struggles this year after going 1-2 with a 3.09 ERA last season -- then induced a groundout to short from star center fielder Beau Amaral to stop the bleeding.
"You go with the short leash on your Sunday starter and you can't let Kyle Porter get himself out of that trouble and just give him innings to pitch," Esquer said. "You've got to manage it to kind of give yourself a chance, at least early within the first six innings, to keep it a game. You may leave yourself a little naked at the end, but it was big."
The Bears pulled even when Krist -- sitting curveball -- hammered an up-and-in fastball for a circuit shot to left center, but could not press the advantage, seeing a walk and a stolen base by junior center fielder Darrell Matthews go unrewarded, as senior right fielder Chad Bunting struck out looking and sophomore Derek Campbell -- playing second base with Renda sliding over to second -- grounding out to third to end the inning.
"We've yet to win a game with any lineup that I've put out there, so it couldn't have been wrong," Esquer said of Renda moving to short, which he did for the second day in a row. "I had the relaxation of, 'It can't be wrong,' because if we were to not win, it's just another one. Getting him out there was just for change's sake. He hadn't played great at shortstop in practice or anything. He wanted to do it, and giving him the opportunity gave us a little bit of a different look."
UCLA got to Scott in the top of the fifth, when the junior reliever allowed two straight two-out singles, followed by a two-run double by designated hitter Cody Regis, putting the Bruins up, 4-2.
Cal junior third baseman Mitch Delfino -- who, with his .353 average, 11 doubles, four home runs and 35 RBI, will also likely leave via the draft -- came up with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the fifth.
The Bears were 5-for-26 in the series with runners in scoring position going into that at-bat, and Delfino -- who had hit over .500 in those situations for much of the season -- was on a personal 0-for-7 slide with runners in scoring position. Delfino didn't do anything to help those numbers, though, lining into a double play at first to effectively kill the rally, as Krist popped out on the first pitch he saw to end the threat.
Scott, though, didn't blink. He retired UCLA in order in the sixth and after two men reached with one out in the top of the seventh, Scott served up a tailor-made double play grounder to Renda at short to hold the line.
Then, the magic came back. Campbell -- who came into the game having endured a season of frustrating defensive lapses and position changes while batting .234 -- lined the third pitch he saw from starter Zach Weiss into right center field, dropping in front of a sprinting Amaral for a single.
With Weiss lifted for reliever Grant Watson, senior Danny Oh -- hitting 12-for-23 in his last seven games with nine runs scored and three RBI - stepped to the dish and, in his last home game, sent a 1-0 line drive single through the left side. A sacrifice bunt by junior designated hitter Vince Bruno -- 2-for-3 on the day -- put two runners into scoring position for Renda.
"He made me ground out last night and I wanted some redemption," Bruno said. "But, hey, it all worked out."
The reigning conference player of the year flied out to center, where Amaral then fired home to cut down Campbell easily and snuff out the rally. The Bears, though, had shown life. They had a heartbeat. This wasn't about the draft anymore, or playing in the top summer wooden bat leagues. This was about the seniors -- Krist, Oh, Bunting, Matt Flemer, Stephen Pistoresi, Paul Toboni and Joey Donofrio -- and the juniors who had helped fuel the 2011 run.
"You're not looking for the big things," Esquer said. "It's a lot of the little things. That's one thing UCLA did well earlier in the weekend: a lot of the little things."
Focusing on the little things was something that the Bears had lost track of this season, and was one of the reasons why they so often have failed to come up with the key hit or make a needed play on defense.
"It happens a lot when you start to struggle in the big spot," Esquer said. "Sometimes, individuals want to become the guy that can unleash the tension that's binding people up, and what ends up happening is that people end up putting more pressure on themselves, and it just doesn't work that way. You need to have someone who can take that pressure off of you or the moment happens and then, everyone relaxes."
Donofrio was called upon to pitch the eighth -- the last time he would take the Evans Diamond mound -- and the adrenaline was pumping.
Donofrio clipped Regis's jersey with a big breaker inside to lead off the inning, but then induced a 6-4-3 double play from first baseman Matt Giovinazzo and a groundout to third by Kramer, giving his offense the shut-down inning they needed to rediscover that elusive ounce of purpose.
With top reliever David Berg on the hill in the bottom of the eighth, Delfino chopped out to third. Krist worked the count to full before sending a fastball bounding to the left side. Williams ranged to his left and fired wide to the home-plate side of first, pulling Giovinazzo off the bag. Krist evaded the tag. Safe.
"I was just trying to get on base, have some good at-bats so the guys behind me can drive me in," said Krist, who came into the game batting .278 and raised his average to .282. "I ran into a few balls, had a few good things happen, so I was glad I could score some runs for us, early."
Krist's heir-apparent behind the plate -- Knapp -- sent Berg's 2-2 offering screaming into the right center field gap for an RBI double, his 15th of the season and the Bears' 11th hit of the day.
A four-pitch walk to Matthews spelled the end for Berg, bringing ace closer Scott Griggs to the mound. Griggs had thrown 1.1 hitless, scoreless innings with two strikeouts the day before, but couldn't turn back the tide of emotion on Sunday.
"We had a day to see him, and I don't think he had all his stuff today," Krist said. "We put some good at-bats together, put a flame to our tail and after we faced him yesterday and he kind of shut us down, it was nice that we put some good at-bats together to score some runs."
Bunting -- 0-for-3 with one strikeout -- took a curve high and away for ball one, and then saw a fastball down and away escape catcher Trevor Brown, allowing both runners to advance. Bunting went down to bloop the next pitch into center, just over the diving Williams and between two converging outfielders to tie the game at 4-4.
"I look forward to being nervous," Esquer admitted. "I haven't been nervous a whole lot in the last two weeks, and that's unfortunate. It's just the game anxiety. You look for that. That's what makes the game fun. Having that again was nice."
Campbell attempted two bunts -- fouling off both -- before shortening up and sending a clothesline single into left to plate Matthews and give Cal a 5-4 lead. After Oh struck out swinging on a breaking ball down and in, it was up to Bruno to provide some insurance.
Bruno worked the count full and then drove a single into center with enough topspin to get down in front of a charging Amaral, bringing Bunting around to score.
"I had the luxury of honestly, watching, yesterday and today, watching everyone hit Griggs before I even came up to bat," Bruno said. "When I got up there, I had something in mind. He likes to go early with the fastball and then bury the curveball, so once he buried the curveball, I swung at the first one and knicked it a little bit. The second one, I took, so when I took it, I knew that he was probably going to go up in the zone and try to beat me up in the zone because he didn't want to go 3-2. I saw the pitch up and just put it right up the middle, and thank God we got a run out of it. I was hoping that would just be an insurance run, and thank God I did it."
Donofrio caught Williams looking on a fastball on the inside corner to start the top of the ninth, and then saw his 0-2 slider hit well into center by Amaral. The speedy Matthews dashed back to his right, spun around and snagged the drive for the second out.
"I told Mike [Neu] before I went out for the ninth, I said, 'If you think they're going to go down 1-2-3, you're crazy,'" Esquer said. "That's just not how we're doing it these days. We're having to work for any bit of success that we get, obviously, having to get two hits off of their reliever, who has hardly given up any hits all year long. That's the bed we make at this point in time, but I'm glad to see our kids do it, because I think they've proven to themselves that it's in them."
Left fielder Cody Keefer sent the second pitch he saw dribbling in front of the plate on a swinging bunt, and miscommunication between Donofrio and Krist delayed the senior backstop just long enough for Keefer to come within a step of first. Krist's rushed throw allowed Keefer to not only reach first safely, but advance to second for the powerful Jeff Gelalich, who took advantage of the miscue with a 2-2 RBI single to right, bringing UCLA within one.
Brown sent a single of his own to left center, but Gelalich was held at third thanks to a strong throw by Oh.
With a season-high crowd of 1,087 fans holding its breath, freshman pinch hitter Eric Filia-Snyder worked the count to full, before Donofrio pumped a fastball over the corner at the knees for a called strike three.
"I wouldn't have had it any other way," smiled Donofrio, who earned his degree in Economics and American Studies. "This has kind of been indicative of the kinds of teams I've been a part of. When we get down, we always find a way to get back in it and get ahead. We make the best of bad situations. We were down early, but we keep fighting back and got a four-spot in the eighth. I just wanted to make sure I not only didn't let my team down, but the seniors, too.
"Being able to do that for them and do it for all the guys out here, it really feels good, because nothing feels better than a win. We can forget the first two games."
Donofrio moved to 6-1 on the season with his 2.0 innings of work, allowing one run on three hits with two strikeouts.
"You talk about a journey, Joey's had a journey himself," Esquer said. "It was rough on him early on in his career. He didn't get much time and up until this year, really, he hadn't pitched meaningful innings. He'd pitched innings, but now, he's right in the middle of the game, win or lose, and he's done an unbelievable job of going nowhere to somewhere."
Cal now heads into a season-ending three-game set with No. 11 Stanford at Sunken Diamond, needing three wins to keep playoff hopes alive.
"I think this was really the only time of the year that I felt that it was the type of energy that we had last year," Krist said. "I think it was good for us, to go on to the Stanford series with this type of a win. It's not the end of the season, but it's a nice end to the homestand."
"When I look back at my career at Cal, I won't think about the two games we lost to UCLA," Bruno said. "I'll think about the Senior Day that we came out here and we hung with them and we hit their best guy. We got three or four hits off that guy. That's something to take away. That's going to be good for everybody."