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June 11, 2011

Bears move one step closer to Omaha

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's a simple equation that works just as well in the octagon as it does on the baseball diamond: Ground and Pound.

On Saturday night, the California baseball team's sophomore southpaw Justin Jones kept the high-flying Dallas Baptist bats grounded, while juniors Chad Bunting and Marcus Semien took care of the pounding, delivering a pair of three-run home runs to power the Bears to a 7-0 victory, and within just one win of reaching their first College World Series since 1992.

"I'm happy with the way that we came out," said head coach David Esquer, who's team took an early 3-0 lead in the top of the second and never looked back. "The key to our team is to be able to stay loose and play loose in the moment. We don't play any better when we try harder or we focus more or try to do more, so one of the keys for us as a club, is, can we be relaxed, stay relaxed and come out and do that. A big part of that was Chad's three-run homer, which let us kind of take a little bit of a deep breath and get relaxed in the atmosphere, here."

That atmosphere was positively electric, as a packed house at Stephen Schott Stadium reverberated with chants and cheers of the Cal faithful, which dominated the decidedly partisan throng.

"We couldn't ask for more from the home crowd that came out and supported us," Esquer said. "That was a big lift, and I think that was in our favor … It was outstanding. To have an atmosphere like that at a Cal game, it's kind of cliché to say the 10th man, but it's something extra out there for us.. That's unusual, and our kids really appreciate it."

The players, for their part, had never experienced that kind of home field advantage, and they didn't disappoint, banging out 11 hits and holding the Patriots to just three base knocks.

"I'd say yeah, for sure, this was the biggest crowd," smiled Jones. "It was pretty awesome. It's not a normal thing, over at Evans Diamond, to get this big of a crowd and have everyone into it to back us up. They're a part of our team, and it was wonderful."

Instead of the vaunted Dallas Baptist (42-19) offense being the story of the day, it was the Bears who did the mashing, victimizing starter Brandon Williamson for 10 hits and seven runs in 7.2 innings of work. Out of 118 pitches, 87 of Williamson's tosses were strikes.

"It's good, because we, in the postseason, have made an effort to be more patient up there, especially early in the game," Semien said. "We were on his fastball and on his off-speed too, so we were patient and it helped us out."

On the other side of the ledger was Jones. After allowing a first-inning rocket up the middle to Dallas Baptist slugger Jason Krizan, the quixotic lefty Jones became flat-out mystifying for the Dallas Baptist hitters, retiring eight of the next 13 hitters on either a strikeout or a ground out without allowing a single hit.

Whilst Jones was busy wheeling and dealing, the Bears' offense began to turn the engine over. Bunting -- who had a two-home run game back in Houston during last weekend's Regional action -- came up big again in the top of the second.

With one out, sophomore first baseman -- and the hero of Monday's comeback win over Baylor -- Devon Rodriguez crushed a 2-1 offering from Williamson into right-center field for a single that brought the fans to their feet. Sophomore third baseman Mitch Delfino followed up with a base knock of his own, lining the second pitch he saw from Williamson the other way into the right field corner for a single.

Williamson then made the cardinal mistake of giving Bunting a change up out over the plate on the second pitch of his at-bat. Bunting said 'Thank you very much,' by promptly tomahawking the offering over the wall in left for a no-doubt-about-her circuit shot, his third of the postseason.

"He got ahead of me with a fastball, and I figured he probably wasn't coming back with a fastball over the plate," Bunting said. "Luckily for me, he left a change up in the middle part of the plate and it was up a little bit, and I was able to keep my hands back, put a good swing on it and was able to put it out of the yard."

Jones, for his part, didn't allow another base runner until there were two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, when, after getting left fielder Austin Elkins to fly out, and fanning designated hitter KJ Alexander, he dealt a six-pitch walk to second baseman Tyler Robbins. But even then, junior catcher Chadd Krist picked up the slack, blocking a 2-0 pitch in the dirt to first baseman Ryan Behmanesh and firing back to first baseman Devon Rodriguez for the back pick to end the inning.

"Justin was fantastic, he was in control the whole time he was in there," Esquer said. "I think [the home run] let us settle in, in the ballgame, and it let Justin pitch ahead and give us a good feel for what they were going to be, offensively. They're an aggressive club, and by no means did I - at any point in the game - did I feel secure with a three- and four-run lead with their offensive numbers. I thought the ball was carrying pretty good, and I know that their offensive style is to get the ball airborne and let the ball carry for them, so I thought it was just a tribute to Justin how in-control he was, to be able to hold them down."

Jones' curve became sharper as the game went on, his change more indecipherable and the strikeouts began to mount. He kept the ball down and used each of his pitches to keep the Patriots off balance.

"In my pregame, I felt pretty good," Jones said. "I just went out there, had all my stuff, and once I had everything, I knew they weren't going to hit me. It takes confidence to be out there, and I had tons of it.

"My fastball felt like it had life, with some extra movement, some late movement. I kept them off balance with my cutter and my change up and with two strikes, I just buried them with my curveball."

As he finished warming up for the bottom of the seventh inning, Jones felt a twinge and grabbed his left arm. The coaching staff and trainer Shane Besedick came sprinting out, the worry on their faces easily discernable. After a brief confab, head coach David Esquer returned to the dugout and told sophomore righty Logan Scott to warm up.

"He experienced some tightness in his biceps, kind of a cramping and a discomfort, so we weren't going to take any chances with that," Esquer said. "We've had him checked already, and nothing's structural. His shoulder, his elbow, it's just muscle tightness in his biceps, so we're just going to test that further and go from there."

Jones began experiencing tightness on his first warmup toss, but tried to work through it.

"The first pitch, I felt a little tightness, and then the last pitch, I was like, 'Well, let's see how I can do, throwing 100 percent,'" Jones said. "I threw 100 percent and I felt my biceps cramp up a little bit, so I knew I couldn't go from there."

Jones had allowed just one hit through six innings, throwing 50 of his 75 pitches for strikes and fanning three -- not an easy act to follow. But, Scott indeed kept the ball rolling, needing 14 pitches to retire the Patriots (42-19) in order in the bottom of the seventh, with a little defensive help on foul pop up grabs by Krist and Rodriguez, and a tough grounder that Rodriguez took off the chest but shoveled to Scott to end the inning.

"It was so important, because, with a 4-0 lead, if someone comes in and is a little bit of a wreck, it can change the whole tenor of the game," Esquer said. "If a guy walks one or two guys and then they pop one, it's a different ballgame, so for him to be able to stabilize and take the baton from Justin and keep rolling pretty good was big for us. He had his change up working, which was able to neutralize a little bit of the left-handed hitters, and that's what you need against their lineup, because they're tough."

The pounding continued anew in the top of the eighth, when, again with one out, the good-luck-gold jerseys began to work their magic. The hobbled sophomore designated hitter Tony Renda -- not playing at second because of a gimpy quad - checked his swing on a two-strike fastball away, but the ball inexplicably got by catcher Duncan McAlpine and all the way to the backstop, forcing Renda to turn over his weary legs as fast as he could, beating out the throw at first.

Renda was then lifted for senior Dwight Tanaka -- the inventor of the famed rally capes -- and after a full-count walk to Krist, Semien parked an 0-1 curve over the wall in left and onto the indoor batting facility for Cal's second longball of the day and his fifth of the season.

"Like Chad did, I just tried to keep my hands back and hit it in the air," Semien said. "It just seemed to be going today, a little bit, so I was happy about that."

Scott kept right on humming throughout, tossing three scoreless innings in earning the first save of his college career, allowing two hits and striking out one.

In the bottom of the eighth, Scott got some more defensive backup. After a leadoff single from center fielder Landon Anderson, third baseman Kenny Hatcher rolled a grounder deep into the hole at short, but Semien ranged to his right, backhanded the ball, turned and fired to freshman Derek Campbell at second, who avoided a hard-sliding Anderson and delivered a strike to Rodriguez just in time for the 6-4-3 double play.

"It seemed like every time, if it was getting to a critical moment, we came up with a big defensive play or a big pitch, and with two foul balls and a nice double play turned with Marcus and Derek Campbell," Esquer said. "Those were great pickups for the whole team, because then they don't extend the inning and get another hitter to the plate."

Fate has a way of humbling everyone, though, as before the bottom of the ninth inning, Scott took a spill as he ran onto the field from the Cal dugout. The crowd gasped, but Scott got up, dusted himself off, and proceeded to give up just one hit and one hit batter in the bottom of the ninth before getting the dangerous Krizan to fly out to center to end the game.

When asked what if felt like to be one win away from Omaha, Esquer, Bunting, Semien and Jones each flashed a reflexive smile before the skipper composed himself.

"We can't even think about that at this point," he said, perhaps a bit too emphatically. "We're not going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about that. We feel pretty good about where we're at, but we've got a lot of work to do, and we've got a tough opponent on the other side that's going to play for their lives, and we know what that's like. We respect them and we respect the game enough to come out ready to play tomorrow."

The Bears and the Patriots go at it again on Sunday night at 7 PM Pacific. Former Cal star and Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Tyson Ross will be in the house. With a win on Sunday, the Bears will advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Starting pitchers are slated to be junior righty Erik Johnson (6-4, 2.91) for the Cal and righty Jared Stafford (8-4, 3.03) for Dallas Baptist.

"We're leaning towards Erik Johnson, who we think is rested enough," Esquer said. "He pitched twice during the regional, starting on Friday and then he started again on Monday, so we felt like backing him up, at least one day, would be good for him. I think it being a night game tomorrow night, I think it probably feeds into what he has a little better."

Stay tuned later tonight for an extended notebook and a photo feature on tonight's win.


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