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June 13, 2011

Bears are Omaha-bound

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Uncross your fingers. Open your eyes. Come out of your darkened holes. The impossible is nothing: the California Golden Bears are going to Omaha.

Grizzled catcher Chadd Krist -- who was just two and a half years old the last time the Bears went to the College World Series in 1992 -- came back from an 0-for-4 opening-game performance to go 2-for-4 with three RBI and an unconscionably long two-run home run in the bottom of the first to kick start the Cal offense to a 6-2 win over Dallas Baptist and a berth in the College World Series for the first time since 1992.

Sophomore Tony Renda -- hobbled by a his injured quad -- came back from his own 0-for-4 day on Saturday to go 3-for-5 with an RBI.

"You know, Chadd and I are roommates, so we usually eat an apple before every game," Renda chuckled. "We forgot to eat our apples yesterday. We did everything else the same, that's why we won. We just got to get our apples, so we both went 0-for-4 on the day but we had our apples today. We were sure of it. We both came up with some hits, so it felt great. To get this win and go to Omaha is amazing."

Junior Erik Johnson came back from two disastrous starts in Houston to throw 6.0 innings of masterful baseball -- his longest outing of the 2011 playoffs -- using all four of his pitches to silence a vaunted Patriots lineup.

"It's obviously an incredible thing for their program, with everything that they've gone through, and they deserve all the credit," said Dallas Baptist head coach Dan Heefner. "I thought they played very well both games, in all three phases of the game - pitching, hitting and defensively - they did a great job. They just flat beat us."

The Bears didn't have to come back in the late innings to win this one. This was so much more than that. This was a team that wasn't supposed to do this. They weren't even supposed to exist. Guess someone forgot to tell them that.

"I don't know what to say," said head coach David Esquer, who's shock of black hair has a few more grey strands in it than at the start of the season. "I'm looking at the box here so I can believe it. It's on paper. I'm so proud of our guys. I'm so proud of our staff. Pitching coach Dan Hubbs talked about a couple times, when he was a pitcher at USC, when he was close, when he was in the final game but never quite got to Omaha. Assistant coach Tony Arnerich was in the Regional final [for Texas Tech] at Fullerton, but didn't get to Omaha. Coach [Brad] Sanfilippo is just like the rest of us. He was a mutt baseball player like myself and Coach Hubbs, and to take this team and to be a part of this team is just so gratifying.

"We were cut as a program when we were just in informal workouts. We hadn't even had our first full team practice. To watch our kids on that Saturday go out and play baseball like nothing was happening, like that's what they were meant to do, and then behind the scenes have to deal with all the pressures of trying to figure out their lives, and then to be here today, I could not be prouder of a bunch of kids and a staff to have gone through what we have and to come out the other side. They'll never forget this the rest of their lives."

Krist -- who has been a rock behind the plate all season, catching all but 10 defensive innings -- dealt the latest body blow to history in the bottom of the first. After a leadoff walk to senior Austin Booker and a pop out from Renda, Krist stepped out of the box and had a brief confab with Arnerich, who told him to watch the middle infielders shift when soft-throwing Jared Stafford threw an off-speed pitch. Krist took that nugget and turned on a hanging curve, launching a 2-2 curveball over the hitting facility beyond the left field wall, more than 400 feet away. 2-0 Bears on the team's sixth circuit shot of the playoffs.

"I don't know, I didn't really see where it landed, but I knew that if I got it up in that jet stream, that it was probably going to go out," Krist said. "I didn't necessarily see how far it went, but I was just happy that, with that home run, right off the bat, we got some runs."

In the top of the second, an RBI double by Dallas Baptist third baseman Kenny Hatcher made it 2-1 in favor of the Patriots.

"I kind of had my juices flowing in the first inning, and Coach Esquer comes up to me and taps me on the shoulder and says, 'Catch your breath,'" Johnson said. "That just made me relax. I took a deep breath and just realized where we are and what we've accomplished, and let's go to Omaha."

Johnson, though, began to back off his fastball and introduce his breaking and off-speed pitches, slowly but surely settling into a groove.

"Early, our plan was to work ahead and be on time with the fastball," Hatcher said. "Then, he just, it's difficult when he starts throwing all of his pitches for strikes, you don't know what to look for. He just caught us off balance a little bit."

Cal answered and picked Johnson right up in the bottom of the second. Sophomore center fielder Darrel Matthews rifled a 0-1 single back up the middle. Freshman Derek Campbell -- starting just his eighth game of the year -- battled back from 0-2 and smoked a 2-2 offering back up the middle to put men at first and third. Enter: Booker. The little spark plug drove the fifth pitch he saw deep into right center. Speedy Patriots center fielder Landon Anderson gave chase, but bobbled the bounce off the wall, allowing Campbell to blow through a stop sign at third and score. 3-1 Bears.

"Campbell in the lineup, the second baseman, he had a great game," said Dallas Baptist closer Chris Haney. "I think he had three hits. Booker moves the ball pretty well and right after that, the DH in Renda, when your nine-hole produces three and you come out and your two-hole's got three, all Booker's got to do is move them over, you've got a pretty good chance. They hit the ball real good. They like to move.

The sell-out crowd of well more than the announced 1,431 -- thanks to extra standing-room tickets released before the game -- erupted. They began to allow themselves to believe.

In the stands, head football coach Jeff Tedford and his wife Donna looked on. From up in the bleachers, program alum and Oakland Athletics starter Tyson Ross and his teammate on the 2008 Long Beach Regional squad Alex Rollin smiled. One section over, tight end and first baseman Jacob Wark -- not on the postseason roster - sits next to defensive tackle Austin Clark in his Memorial Day stars and stripes Cal baseball cap and Bears football sweats. Down in the lower bowl, volleyball star Tarah Murrey is on the edge of her seat. Elsewhere, Save Cal Baseball Foundation luminaries Sam Petke and Doug Nickle grit their teeth. Stephen Schott Stadium began to crackle.

The Patriots came back and scored another run in the top of the third, when shortstop Joel Hutter tucked an RBI double into the left field corner to score Anderson, aboard with a one-out single. Johnson bore down. The Big Puma threaded two 91-mph fastballs on the outside corner to get ahead of first baseman Ryan Behmanesh 0-2, and then blew away the junior on a 92-mph heater for his second K. A good lather building up, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound power pitcher started to hum.

"I think Justin Jones laid it out for me yesterday," Johnson said of Saturday's starter. "He was mixing his change up in with his curveball and that cutter and he mixed well with all four of his pitches. I think that was the key for me tonight. At one point in time, I had all four of my pitches working for me, and, even though I go out in the first inning and throw mostly fastballs, my curveball, change up and slider were working for me tonight."

Bottom of the fourth. Junior right fielder Chad Bunting -- who crushed a three-run homer in Game One -- came up big once again, as he squeaked the first pitch he saw just fair by a foot down the left field line for a leadoff double -- his fifth extra-base hit of the postseason. Matthews then went down to one knee to sky a fly ball out to center to move Bunting to third. Enter: Campbell.

Along with playing stellar defense in the field in place of the injured Renda, Campbell went wild at the plate, going 3-for-4 with two runs and an RBI, which he cashed in with a ringing double off the wall in left-center to plate Bunting. 4-2 Cal.

"They were very aggressive," Heefner said. "We probably could have done some things maybe to try and expand a little bit and keep them off-balance, but the biggest one was offensively. They really, and you've really got to give them credit, they've got good arms and they executed pitches well. That's been a strength of ours this year, and we definitely didn't show what we've done most of the year even against quality arms like that. We would have liked to made them closer games than they were, but they did a great job."

In hushed tones throughout the stands, fans dared to hope. No one would say it. No one would jinx it. Even in the dugout, players exchanged knowing glances without saying a word.

A groundout to the right side by Booker moved Campbell to third for Renda, who answered with a line drive RBI single to right -- his first hit of the series.

Johnson fed off the energy, lived off of dreams, thrived on the building -- but still cautious -- optimism.

In the top of the fifth, he blew designated hitter Josh Wilson away with a reach-back fastball at 93, then forced second baseman Tyler Robbins to pop out to Booker. Johnson's 84-mph slider on a 1-2 pitch to Anderson was rattled out to Campbell, who corralled the tricky hop, and in the blink of an eye, transferred and fired to first baseman Devon Rodriguez. 12 outs away from no-way-Jose.

"He did a great job," Renda said of Campbell's defensive play. "In Coach deciding to not have me play defense this weekend, I was completely fine with it, knowing that Derek Campbell was playing second base. The kid can straight-up pick it. He's probably one of, if not our best, defender on the team. He's smooth, he's got a great arm and he can play all three of the positions. He could probably play first base too, so I'll give him that. He's a great player, and he did a great job."

Top of the sixth. Senior righty Kevin Miller warming in the pen. Johnson walks Dallas Baptist slugger and NCAA hits leader Jason Krizan on five pitches. Johnson needed just two pitches to retire Hutter and Behmanesh on fly balls to Matthews prowling the center field grass. Then, Johnson issued a six-pitch walk to catcher Duncan McAlpine. Two on, two outs and Hatcher at the dish, with his .288 average and 47 RBI.

Johnson gets a called strike at the knees, then just misses the outside black with an 85-mph slider. Hatcher fouled away a lot and outside fastball, and the next pitch missed off the plate away. Another foul ball. Johnson reared back and fired. Foul tip, into Krist's mitt. Fist pump. Inning over. Krist cried out with all the fire in his belly. Nine outs away.

As if there wasn't enough magic already in the Santa Clara night, the Bears waved their magic wands yet again, for the umpteenth time this season. Campbell led off the bottom of the sixth with a bunt, kissing the chalk on third base line, but was gunned down on a perfect throw from Hatcher. Booker then bounced a single over the head of the drawn-in third baseman, and was followed by a carbon-copy base-knock from Renda. Krist left nothing to chance, sending a hard hopper back up the middle, off the glove of the diving Robbins and into center field for an RBI single. 6-2 Bears.

After 95 pitches, four walks, four strikeouts and just three hits, Johnson took a seat. Miller, who was itching to pitch all day on Saturday, finally got his chance. After allowing a one-out single to Wilson in the top of the seventh, he proceeded to catch Robbins looking at strike three on the outside corner with a darting 90-mph fastball and then retiring Anderson with the bat on his shoulders, staring at an 89-mph heater that jumped back over the outside edge. Miller -- drafted earlier this week by the Houston Astros -- heaved his fist into the night as the Bears moved to within just six outs of Omaha as his mother stood up and cheered in her No. 41 jersey.

From the veteran righty, Esquer turned to the freshman lefty, as Freshman All-American Kyle Porter took the mound in the top of the eighth. After firing three straight fastballs to left fielder Austin Elkins to get ahead 1-2, Porter lost his first curve of the night in the dirt. 2-2.

"I was excited to be out there," Porter said. "I just wanted to get the ball. I was biting at the bit just to get the ball, and to be a part of it, and I was just happy to be out there, throw some strikes and get some outs."

His next sweeping deuce was grounded to Campbell, who made the easy toss to Rodriguez. Five outs to go. Wilson made things interesting, rapping a groundball single through the left side on a full-count offering from Porter, but the young southpaw -- who was just days old the last time Cal went to Omaha -- found yet even more magic in that arm of his, fanning Robbins on a 90-mph fastball on the outside corner for a called strike three. The crowd stood in unison. Four outs away.

Up stepped Anderson, Dallas Baptist's second-leading hitter, with his .358 average, 21 stolen bases and 88 base hits. Porter's first-pitch Uncle Charlie was chopped foul at the plate. He missed low with his next pitch. The third offering was cued foul towards the Patriots' third-base dugout. Porter -- who stayed with the program those many months ago, despite the fact that it was facing elimination at the end of the year -- reared back and uncorked an 89-mph fastball on the outside corner. Called strike three. Yet another fist pump. Three outs away.

"I don't think my spikes were on the ground that entire inning," Porter said. "The adrenaline was crazy. The first few pitches, I struggled to find the zone because the adrenaline was going real good. The fist pump at the end was just, I was really into it and we were three outs away from Omaha."

As the top of the ninth dawned, Journey's Don't Stop Believing blared on the speakers. From the pen, junior closer Matt Flemer emerged, walking slowly to the mound. As he reached the center of the diamond, Flemer -- playoff beard intact, despite the protestations of his parents Paul and Ann -- looked around. The crowd was on its feet. 2,862 hands were clasped, hoping, praying, believing. What was going through his head?

"Don't hit the guy. Don't hit the first guy," Flemer smiled. "What a feeling. I've stayed up all night thinking about the last three outs of the game. These guys, I mean, the first guy I thought about giving a fist pound to was Derek Campbell. For that kid and Kyle Porter, four weeks in, to not have a program next year, and for them to do what they did today, has just been truly remarkable. I took it in for a moment. I looked at everybody. I looked at the fans, and I was like, 'There's no way I'm giving up four in the ninth.' I just knew I had to throw my pitches.

"Coach Hubbs came out and he said, 'I know you have your little routine, but ESPN has their commercials,' so I went out there and I wanted to make sure I timed it perfectly. I guess I did, because Chadd told me, 'Hey, we're ready to go. Let's do it.'"

Hatcher strode to the plate and fouled off Flemer's first offering. His second pitch missed just off the plate away, and his third zipped in just below the knees. Behind 2-1, Flemer ran a fastball inside for a fly out to right. Two outs away.

Elkins swung and missed at Flemer's first heater. The crowd began to chant: CAL-I-FOR-NIA. CAL-I-FOR-NIA.

Flemer missed low. 1-1. The crowd got up on its toes, pounding and stomping at the metal flooring. Swing and a miss. With as much noise as 1,431 people -- plus standing-room-only spectators, plus fans standing on balconies beyond the outfield wall, plus the knothole gang down the left field line -- Flemer got Elkins to ground out to shortstop Marcus Semien, who's father Damien -- a former Cal wide receiver -- looked on from his seats on the first base line, right next to the Bears' dugout.

One out away from history. One out away from destiny. One out away from Omaha. Flemer didn't waste much time. His first pitch to Wilson was lined softly to Campbell. No vacuum on earth could have sucked the air out of that stadium with more expediency than that sinking liner. Then, just like that, shoelace grab. Pandemonium.

"I didn't know if Derek caught it," Flemer said. "I just, I didn't know, I thought of so many different ways to celebrate last night, and I threw my glove down, looked at everybody over in our part of the stadium -- the whole stadium. Those 'California' chants gave me goose bumps. I just wanted to make sure I didn't get killed down there. I knew it was going to hurt, but what a feeling. We've been dreaming about that ever since I got here. What a feeling."

Flemer was buried beneath a pile of blue and gold, as the weight of his teammates crushed down upon him. Never has it hurt so good. And it just wouldn't be this team if there weren't some shenanigans beforehand.

"Coach sent Jones down, and he said, 'Porter's got the next few guys this inning,' and I dropped a couple words I shouldn't have dropped," Flemer said, breathless and tired after giving what seemed like hundreds of postgame hugs. "I ran down to the dugout, and I was like, 'Hey, I got the ninth. I don't know what you're talking about.' Coach Hubbs came down to the bullpen while I was throwing, and he could tell I was ticked off. He's like, 'Alright, well, do you feel good?' And I said, 'Yeah, I feel great.' He said, 'Alright. Go get 'em.' I stopped and I looked at him and asked, 'Does that mean I'm going in?' He said, 'Yeah, we were joking with you the whole time.' Man, what a feeling. He closed at USC and he's taught me everything, how to be a closer this year, and it's been awesome."

Once the players extricated themselves from their postgame love-fest, the turned as one to the fans and yelled, "GO!" The entire stadium, still packed, answered back: "BEARS!" After several rounds, the players pointed to the fans and applauded, thanking them for bringing the program back from extinction.

"We just wanted to get the crowd into it," Porter said. "They came out and supported us and we just wanted to acknowledge them. It was awesome."

"The only reason we're around is because of the people that back us," Renda said. "The people that put their own money, their hard-earned money, behind us and behind this program, and have supported us through it all, I'm forever grateful that they came through for us, came through in the clutch and, and with them behind us, we're an extremely strong team, and if we stay together as a group, we're even stronger."

Afterwards, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour embraced Ann Flemer, such a large part of the Save Cal Baseball effort. "I've said it so many times," Barbour smiled, "but I've never been so happy to be proven wrong."

"The extra-special meaning was that we're going to Omaha," Krist smiled, when asked what was behind the cheerleading. "I think we're all really excited, and the fans stuck with us through everything. They were here for the support, and especially the alumni. The alumni were out there, the pregame and everything, all the events that took place that the alumni have done, it's not only for us. It's for them, too. It's for everyone who's ever been on the California Golden Bears baseball team."



Extra Bases
-- Cal out-hit one of the nation's most prolific offenses by the tally of 24-7, outscoring the Patriots 13-2 in the Super Regional. The Bears have amassed double-digit hits in six of their seven postseason games.

"I believe that they did a really good job of mixing up and throwing off-speed in hitter's counts and pitching backwards," Hatcher said. "They made good pitches and we just didn't capitalize on the ones they missed. It seemed like they did hit the pitches that we missed with."

-- After a 42-20 season, Dallas Baptist isn't the least bit shy of rooting for Cal when the College World Series starts this weekend.

"They're a very respectable team," said Patriots closer Chris Haney. "They had some pretty quality starts, especially with Johnson tonight, and any team that can throw out a couple pitchers that can go six or seven innings apiece is very respectable … Of course, the team that puts you out, you like to think you see them make a little run, you like to think, 'We were that close.' They were a pretty class act. Their coaches seemed to have a good relationship with their players. We're happy for them, just like they'd be happy for us if we were on the reverse side."

Haney entered the weekend with 15 saves on the season, but was a non-factor in the series, as the Bears never trailed. Haney threw 2.2 scoreless innings in relief on Sunday, allowing three hits and two walks while striking out five.

"We definitely talk that with 31 guys on a team, everybody has a role," Haney said. "I've been closing for the school throughout the year and DB's offense is always pretty stout. They score a lot of runs. At the beginning of the year, I was kind of looking like, 'Well, am I going to throw or not?' They're great, the defense is great behind us, we hit the ball well. Ultimately, it's nothing I do on the mound. I just happen to be that guy that's lucky to be on the bump at the end of the game. Just to get on the mound and get in the game and share that with my teammates, a lot of those guys have been with each other for three years. There's the four of us from the 2008 class that went on to the [Texas] A&M regional, just to get out there and be with them and share something, to share that experience, was a huge blessing."

-- Dallas Baptist is now 3-5 in NCAA postseason games all-time and 0-2 in Super Regional games.

-- Stafford took the loss, dropping to 8-5. He threw 70 pitches in 3.2 innings, allowing six hits, five runs (four earned) with two walks and three strikeouts.

-- Johnson moved to 7-4 on the season with the win, his first in this postseason.

-- Booker notched his fourth multi-hit game of the postseason, going 2-for-4 with two runs and a walk at the top of the lineup. Three other Bears tallied multiple base hits, including Renda, Krist and Campbell. Six of Cal's nine starting hitters recorded at least one base hit. Renda has gotten at least one hit in 12 of his last 13 games.

-- The win was Esquer's seventh postseason victory in his 12 years, with six coming this season. Those six playoff wins are the most by the Bears since 1980.


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