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May 28, 2011

Bears finish season on rain-soaked afternoon

BERKELEY -- For the fourth straight season, the California baseball team limped to the finish, capping off its roller-coaster 2011 season with not a bang, nor a whimper, but a resounding thud.

Accented by the drip-drip-drip of heavy rains that dampened a 4-2 loss to rival Stanford before washing out what was shaping up to be a 7-1 debacle in the middle of the fourth inning of the scheduled Saturday doubleheader, the Bears (31-20, 13-13 in the Pac-10) slogged to a 6-7 record in the final 13 games of the season, losing the last two against the Cardinal.

"They were obviously definitely handling us," said Cal skipper David Esquer. "That was not good. They were playing very well. This is similar to the stretch against Arizona State, where we just couldn't get out of our own way, and really, just, with opportunity, it was the tale of two teams. They continually got the hit with runners in scoring position and we can't say that we didn't have those same opportunities."

The Bears did their best to get in their own way at every opportunity on Saturday, wasting several prime scoring opportunities in what turned out to be the season finale in front of a season-high 1,358 fans at Evans Diamond.

"It was awesome," sophomore second baseman Tony Renda said of the crowd, which included Athletic Director Sandy Barbour as well as former Cal pitcher Bill Frost, who threw out the first pitch before the noon tilt in honor of his program-record 169 strikeouts and career 1.12 ERA. "That was great. You don't see it often. I just wish we could have played better for the people that came. The first game today, we made it a little bit of a game, but it would have been good to perform better in front of a crowd like that. It was one of the first times that I've felt, going into a game, that we had a real home field advantage here. When we go on the road, other teams have home field advantage because of their fans, and we don't usually get that, but the turnout today was great."

Starter Justin Jones didn't help matters much, surrendering 12 hits to the Cardinal (32-20, 14-12), with five of those coming on infield singles and another four coming on groundballs through the infield.

"A lot of their contact was on the back of their swings, they were behind it and I jammed a lot of guys, it's just one of those times when jam jobs just go through," Jones said.

Stanford banged out four hits in the top of the first, scoring two runs against Jones during the 20-minute frame and setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

Jones allowed a leadoff single to Cardinal catcher Zach Jones, and after a sacrifice bunt from designated hitter Ben Clowe, left fielder Tyler Gaffney delivered the first infield hit for Stanford, batting a slow chopper to first that died in the grass. With men at first and third, third baseman Stephen Piscotty lined a flat curveball into left for an RBI single, putting the Cardinal on the board.

"It's frustrating to know you're doing your job and they just beat you," Justin Jones said.

First baseman Brian Ragira then rolled a grounder towards third, but sophomore Mitch Delfino, instead of tagging the runner or the bag, threw high to second, preventing what would have been an inning-ending double play as Renda was only able to make the force out.

After a walk to shortstop Kenny Diekroeger, right fielder Austin Wilson delivered a slow chopper to Delfino playing back at third on yet another Justin Jones curve for an infield single.

"Jones was not good enough early in the game, to be quite honest," Esquer said. "We talked about our pitching performance yesterday, [Erik] Johnson was pretty good, and if he wins that game, we think, 'OK, we won, but it wasn't a great performance.' Jones, hey, if we'd have won the game 5-4, it would have been a winnable pitching performance, but not a great pitching performance because he wasn't making pitches early, he was behind in the count and couldn't put a guy away. You could tell by the quality of their contact. They didn't miss his change up often enough. They squared his change up, they squared his breaking ball, and usually, for a pitcher like Justin to be good, he's either getting to the back of their swing or the front of their swing, and early on, in the first three innings, they were finding the middle of their swing too often and on all his pitches."

Offensive struggles started from the outset for the beleaguered Bears. After a leadoff walk to senior Austin Booker, Renda sent a dying flare to shallow right for a sure-fire single, but the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Wilson made an athletic grab to rob the Cal second baseman. With junior catcher Chadd Krist at the dish, Booker was picked off to end the inning.

The Bears did manage to stumble into a run in the bottom of the second, scoring one without getting a single hit against Cardinal starter Jordan Pries. Krist led off with a two-hopper to third, and reached first when the throw from Piscotty sailed, taking Ragira off the bag. Junior center fielder Chad Bunting sent the second pitch he saw out to short, where the roller got through Diekroeger's tangled legs, putting men at first and second for Devon Rodriguez, who laid down a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position.

Pries then hit Delfino in the left foot to load the bases for junior Danny Oh, who squirted a high chopper to second for the fielder's choice force out, bringing Krist home.

"We had the bases loaded with one out and we got second and third with one out again, and we didn't get the hit," Esquer said. "You count the same opportunities that they had, and they got base hit, base hit. It's frustrating because it's a broken record. The game, the way it is now, you're not going to out-muscle anybody and the margin for error is not as great with the way the offense goes, and you've got to win the big spot. You've got to come up with the big at-bat, you've got to get the big hit in the big spot. They did that over and over, and we continually didn't do it over and over. It was almost comical."

Stanford added runs in the top of the third and the top of the fourth, all on two outs. In the top of the third, Ragira chopped the first pitch he saw over the second base bag for a single, and was followed by a roller under Rodriguez's glove off the bat of Diekroeger.

Justin Jones had Wilson at 0-2, but threw three straight balls before the big right fielder fisted one to the right side. Renda plugged the hole, gloving the spinning ball on the outfield grass as it skittered towards the foul line and making a heroic effort to turn and fire home, but his throw was high and late.

In the bottom half, Renda poked a two-out single up the middle on the third straight slider away he saw from Pries, but his aggressiveness eventually got the best of him. On Pries' 1-0 pitch to Krist, the junior backstop threaded a perfectly-placed hit-and-run groundball single through the right side, and as Renda barreled into third, Wilson uncorked a perfect throw on a line from shallow right to cut down the sophomore infielder and end the threat.

"The rule of thumb, the way baseball goes, is that you've got to be 100-percent sure going to third base with two outs," Esquer said. "Knowing Tony and knowing that I think he really felt like he was trying to ignite some aggressiveness in our team by running hard and being safe, he was again, trying too hard."

While the Bears couldn't capitalize on a golden opportunity, Stanford did. With two down, Zach Jones -- aboard with a leadoff single -- got a huge jump on the first pitch to Gaffney and had second easily stolen on a ball in the dirt. As the ball spun towards the backstop. Zach Jones made the turn and went for third.; Krist delivered a low toss to Delfino, which skipped into shallow left as yet another run scored, putting Stanford up, 4-1.

Justin Jones was off his game for the first half of the contest, showing no command of his breaking ball and missing up with his fastball and other off speed pitches. His patented 12-6 curve was flat and showed none of the sharp snap that it's had during his previous outings.

"That's a big pitch, because if he throws that curveball, it adds six inches to his fastball, because now, you get to two strikes, and maybe the hitter's going, 'OK, I've got to fend off that breaking pitch,' and you sneak the fastball by them," Esquer said. "That's where a pitcher like Justin Jones has to make a living. He's got to be able to sneak that fastball by you when he gets a chance, and that's all set up with his off speed pitches, and they weren't good enough."

After the fourth inning, Justin Jones settled into a bit of a groove with whatever pitches he could find, throwing four shutout innings. He allowed just two more hits and struck out two.

"I just got in a groove, really," said Justin Jones. "That first inning was a little shaky, I didn't really have a rhythm. Then, I found my rhythm later on, and from there, I felt great."

Pries kept the Cal hitters off balance all day, deftly working inside-out with his plus fastball through the first three innings, then pitching backwards in the middle of the game by turning primarily to his off-speed and breaking pitches to utterly confound Bears hitters, who had to change their approach seemingly on an at-bat-by-at-bat basis.

"After the first three innings, I think he had a stretch where he threw almost all breaking balls or change ups," Esquer said. "At one point he threw 19-21 pitches off speed. At some point, when a pitcher starts to do that, you've got to make him change his pattern, which means you're probably going to have to offense on some off-speed pitches. If you're going to continue to be out [in front], he's just going to wear you out with it, and he did. I thought once we got him in the stretch, it gave us a little bit of an opportunity, because he wasn't quite as clean out of the stretch. Again, the game fell into our lap late, where we had those situations to get a hit, and you get a hit and the ballgame's going to be tied or you can play for a win in the bottom of the ninth, but we haven't been doing that this weekend and we didn't do it."

Pries moved to 5-5 on the year with a 7.1-inning, six-hit, two-run (neither earned), one-walk, three-strikeout performance. Jones threw eight innings, allowing 12 hits and four earned runs while walking one and striking out four.

"In the first inning or two, he was throwing mostly fastballs and then that completely changed," Renda said. "He was keeping everything down, he had a pretty good change up today and he just got us fishing and was beating us up a little bit. His stuff wasn't overwhelming, it was more just maybe deceptive. He's got good off-speed that he can throw for a strike and he can make you think it's a strike and throw it for a ball and get you fishing. When a guy has three or four pitches that he can throw for a strike at any time, it makes it tough to hit, and he had that today."

Cal stumbled and bumbled on the base paths in the bottom of the fifth, once again failing to get the big hit. With one out, sophomore designated hitter Vince Bruno hopped one off the lip and over Lonnie Kauppila at second for a single. Semien followed up with a hard liner to right for a single of his own, putting two on with two outs. With Renda -- the Bears' best hitter -- at the dish, Semien and Bruno tried to advance on a slider low and away which squirted past Zach Jones behind the dish. While Bruno got a decent jump, Semien looked lost, and was easily erased for the final out of the inning on a throw by Zach Jones to Diekroeger.

"We got thrown out at third going first-to-third, we got thrown out at second base on a wild pitch, it's hard to run yourself out of that many innings," Esquer said. "Maybe it's the kids trying really hard to try to be that spark that turns the momentum and gives us some offense, but it just wasn't working.

"I'll be honest, that probably wasn't a ball that a runner would move up to second on, because it's moving away from third base and that's a tougher play. But, [Zach Jones] is moving into a throw to second base, so you've got to be a little bit more careful. [Semien] hesitated enough to make sure that the runner from second was reading it that way, and it gave them enough time to make an easy play, almost an embarrassingly easy play, on Marcus. He didn't even get into a slide."

The final four innings saw Delfino play the goat several times. In the bottom of the sixth, once again with two on and two outs thanks to Bunting taking a pitch in the back and Rodriguez taking advantage of a Pries mistake up by banging a single to left, Delfino flew out softly to right.

In the bottom of the eighth, Renda and Krist reached with one out thanks to a line drive single to left center and an errant pitch which hit Krist in the left arm. After flailing at two straight sliders low and away, Bunting tapped Pries' third offering softly in front of the plate. Instead of letting Zach Jones call the play, Pries rushed in, fielded the ball and wheeled to fire to second, seeing his throw zip through Kauppila's legs. Renda came around to score, and instead of having men at second and third with two outs, Stanford was now facing a first-and-third with one out situation.

That spelled the end for Pries, as Cardinal skipper Mark Marquess went to the pen for lefty closer Chris Reed. Reed got the powerful Rodriguez to roll a grounder to first, where Ragira alertly fired home to erase Renda easily. Up stepped Delfino, with his .455 slugging percentage. Reed spun three straight sliders low and inside, and with the count 3-0, caught the inside black with a darting fastball.

Reed then went back outside and caught that corner with another running fastball. With Bunting going, Delfino lined the next offering foul to the right side, then popped the next one foul and out of play to the right. Delfino reached for the next pitch off the plate away, and weakly popped out to shallow right.

Appropriately enough, the Bears ended the game with a 6-4-3 double play, grounded into by Booker after a leadoff single from pinch hitter Paul Toboni.

Reed earned his second save in as many days, throwing 1.2 innings and allowing one hit while striking out one.

Extra Bases
-- Even with Justin Jones' struggles lately, Esquer wanted to save senior Kevin Miller for relief work in the second game of the doubleheader. Miller did come on in relief of Dixon Anderson, who gave up three runs in his first two innings, but lost his footing on the hill and gave up four runs while walking three straight hitters in the top of the fourth before the game was called. Miller had only issued 12 free passes on the year.

"You would think with their lineup being eight out of nine right-handed hitters, again, you're looking ahead and Justin's been one of those guys for us, has gotten the ball and done a good job," Esquer said. "We always feel he's just an inch away from finding that rhythm that he has showed at times this year and showed his whole freshman year. He's a quality pitcher, and he's a guy that can really shut down a good lineup. He's just got to find a rhythm."

-- Pries established the fastball early in the game and then went backwards, getting strikes early with his breaking ball and off speed pitches, using his hard slider to great effect. Even though he hit three batters and issued one walk, while the Cardinal committed three fielding errors, Cal was unable to capitalize.

-- Over the past four seasons, the Bears have faded badly down the stretch, going a collective 22-30 in the final 13 games of the 2008-11 regular seasons.

"If it was something that I could put my finger on, it would be something we would focus on all preseason the next year to make sure that didn't happen," Esquer said. "The season can kind of grind you down and I don't know that, at some point, playing quality teams in the last 15 games, we play all Pac-10 teams, every year, and they're better teams. That's kind of the next leap that you have to make in this league, is to be able to withstand quality opponents at home and on the road."

This year, Cal went 6-7 down the stretch, doing itself no favors going into Monday's NCAA Tournament Selection Show, for which the team will gather in their basement locker room in Haas Pavilion to watch as a group while the coaches will watch from their office.

"It makes me nervous," said Esquer. "You do see stories of teams that finish win-some-lose-some and are battling towards the end, and then find a rhythm in the playoffs, and you're hoping to do that. Now, hey, obviously we're hoping to do something that hasn't been done before, I think, ever, here, which is to be in the Regionals three of the last four years. That would be something that would be positive for us, if that happens."

This is the first time that Cal has reached the playoffs in three of four years.

Esquer was asked what he would say to the selection committee going into next week, and answered that his team's record against other top national teams should speak for itself, as the Bears are currently ranked 34th in RPI, a spot which has traditionally meant a team would be fairly secure in the knowledge that it would reach the playoffs.

"I think our schedule and who we've played kind of speaks for itself, in the factors that they think are important," Esquer said. "We've RPI'd fine all year long, and we made a concerted effort to go on the road and play good people and tried to play the best, most diverse competition possible, which is playing teams from the Big Ten, the SEC and we've tried to seek those types of games out. That's what they ask of you, and that's what we've tried to do."

-- Prior to the first game of the scheduled doubleheader, seniors Booker, Miller and Dwight Tanaka were introduced during Senior Day festivities. Before the aborted second game, Miller's father Steve Miller and closer Matt Flemer's mother Ann Flemer threw out ceremonial first pitches, followed by the Save Cal Baseball quartet of Sam Petke, Doug Nickle, John Hughs and Mike Knapp -- father of freshman Andrew Knapp and a standout catcher at Cal in 1985 and 1986, as well as a 42nd-round draftee of the Oakland Athletics -- threw out ceremonial first pitches.

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