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February 17, 2012

Jones fans six as Bears roll Tigers



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BERKELEY -- For baseball fans and players alike, Opening Day is like a second Christmas, with hope, base hits and strikeouts all wrapped lovingly under a cloudless sky. For California's own excited puppy dog, it didn't take long to start tearing open the wrapping. In his first start against opposing hitters since June 11, 2011 --and his third extended outing since recovering from a stretched nerve in his left biceps -- junior lefty Justin Jones tossed five innings and twirled his curveball tinsel all 'round visiting Pacific, en route to a 9-1 victory.

"It's kind of like when I opened my Power Ranger toy, when I was six years old," said the eminently quotable southpaw. "It was perfect. I thought I would be a little more excited, a little more antsy, but I was surprised. I kind of kept my cool all week and it'll be the same thing [next week]. It's something I've been doing since I was eight years old, so I just go out and do the same thing, over and over again."

In 5.0 innings, Jones threw 70 pitches -- just a shade under his pitch count of 75 -- and used a darting two-seam fastball along with his trademark Uncle Charlie to fan six Tigers, allowing one run on four hits and one walk.

"He was solid," said head coach David Esquer. "I was really happy that the breaking ball was a put-away pitch for him today. I thought that was good. At times, the fastball got away from him, but it's a little rust he's got to shake off. I think he got the adrenaline from a real game, but I was pleased, because -- hey -- he put us in position to win, and got the win."

In his first time calling pitches on his own, two-time All-Pac-10 catcher Chadd Krist shepherded Jones through his first start of the year, working both sides of the plate and letting the lefty's breaker do all the talking, calling for the big looper as the final pitch on all six strikeouts. Jones used both the power curve and the 12-to-6 bender after establishing his fastball early in the game.

"Right off the bat, I knew I had it," Jones said of his curveball. "It was in my back pocket. It was just a matter of when I was going to pull it out. It felt good."

It took a while for the Bears' offense to get rolling, but after sacrifice flies by sophomore Andrew Knapp and Krist, Cal put up a three-spot in the bottom of the sixth thanks to a costly Pacific miscue.

Knapp -- who went 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI in his first career start at first base -- led off the sixth with a dying quail to shallow center off reliever Chris Larsen. After drawing the infield in by feigning a bunt, senior center fielder Chad Bunting came up with a groundball single up the third base line on a slash to move Knapp to third and taking second on the throw. With Knapp breaking on contact, junior third baseman Mitch Delfino bounced an 0-2 offering from Larsen to short, where Josh Simms made not just a mental error, but a physical one, as well, firing wide to third baseman Dustin Torchio and allowing two runs to score. A groundout to first by senior right fielder Danny Oh moved Delfino to third, and a sacrifice fly by junior left fielder Darrell Matthews put the Bears up 5-1.

"It almost is counter-intuitive," Esquer said. "You think, if you play small, you only play for one run, but we've been doing it long enough that we know that some of our biggest innings have been keyed off of a bunt. Then, you get that next hit and they may press to try to throw a guy out at the plate. You've got runners moving all over the place. That's kind of our baseball. Sometimes we've got to play boring, but that's kind of the beauty of the game, in the detail and the boringness. That's how we do it. We've always done it. We're more mature and more experienced, and you think, well, let's just swing free because everybody's returning, but I've got to fight the urge to do that, because we've won because we've played a certain style."

Cal added another run in the bottom of the seventh thanks to some more small ball. Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda drove a 1-1 offering down the left field line and past a diving Brett Christopher for a stand-up double, and was moved to third on a bounce-out to the right side from designated hitter Vince Bruno, knocking Larsen out of the game.

Krist then drove the third pitch he saw to right for the Bears' fourth sacrifice fly of the game. Krist went 1-for-3 on the day with a double and two RBI. Last season, Krist led the Pac-10 in two-baggers with 27.

Bunting led off the bottom of the eighth with a double of his own - driven high and deep down the left-field line and off of the 320-foot sign - and came home on an RBI single up the middle by Delfino.

Following a line-drive base hit through the right side by Matthews and a fly out to left by sophomore Derek Campbell, Renda drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases for two-sport athlete Jacob Wark. The 6-foot-3 tight end/first baseman bounced a 2-2 offering up the middle for a two-run single, marking his first hit and first two RBI in a Cal uniform.

"I love it," Esquer smiled. "I love it. Our players love him. He's a great teammate. He's really got no ego. He's a great teammate and a perfect fit for us. The guys really backed him. You saw the bench erupt when he got that hit. They love having him out here. I've had no better player in my program. He's just the nicest kid I've ever been around."

Sophomore side-armer Ryan Sandler came on to close things out in the ninth, baffling Pacific with his off-speed and curling slider for a 1-2-3 frame, capping his first appearance since March 8, 2011 by fanning pinch hitter Taylor Murphy on a change up low and away.

With Jones on a pitch count, the Bears bullpen was busy on Friday, with senior Joey Donofrio tossing two scoreless innings, followed by a one-hit, no-run inning by true freshman Keaton Siomkin and Sandler's final frame.

"I think they did solid, and we're going to have to get them out there," Esquer said. "It's really going to come down to really some development of some guys, who are going to have to pitch quality innings. The game was a little separated, so we allowed them to get their feet wet without any real stress and duress there. We're looking for guys who can pitch when the game's 5-4, 6-4, not 8-1 or 9-1, so we've got to get guys out there."

Donofrio made 10 appearances in 2011, allowing just one earned run in 12.2 innings of work. On Friday, he showed great command of all his pitches, setting up first baseman Erik Lockwood with fastballs at the knees before getting a swing and miss for his first strikeout to lead off the top of the sixth. After a ringing double to right by Allen Riley, Donofrio threw four straight sliders to veteran catcher Jason Taasaas, getting a called strike three on the inside corner. He used the slider again to get Simms swinging to finish off a nine-pitch seventh.

"I was really happy to be able to get out there in the first game, a one-run game, and it shows that [Esquer] has confidence in me," Donofrio said. "It really helped me out. My slider, I didn't even have that, last year. I really worked on it over the summer and in the fall, and it really has developed into a pitch I feel like I can throw for a strike in any count. I have a lot of confidence in it."

Donofrio -- who threw 24 pitches -- will be entrusted with a variety of roles this season given the graduation of Kevin Miller, and the moves to the starting rotation of senior Matt Flemer and sophomore lefty Kyle Porter necessitated by the departures of Erik Johnson -- who was in attendance, along with fellow Chicago White Sox draftee Marcus Semien -- and Dixon Anderson.

"I think he was solid. I think that was the best he's pitched in his career," Esquer said. "That's good for us. That's a great sign, because we need it."

Cal had to turn to the pen early because of two surprising fielding miscues that allowed the Tigers to extend innings and Jones's pitch count. In the top of the second, Lockwood bounced a grounder to normally-sure-handed Campbell at short, but the athletic sophomore saw the ball take a tricky hop and glance off the heel of his mitt for an error.

"I wanted to take the ball and throw it at his face -- Nah, I'm jokine," laughed Jones. "I really didn't care. It's the start of the season. I'm going to trust them, no matter what the scenario is. If the game's on the line, I'm going to want the ball hit to Campbell. I'm going to want the ball hit to Mitch, Renda, Knapp, whoever's at first. It's not a big deal at all. I just have to go out and minimize the damage and get them another ball to get their morale back up."

Though Jones was able to get out of the inning unscathed, he threw 19 pitches.

"We made two mistakes that were kind of uncharacteristic of how we've been practicing, but it's a real game, and it's a little different," Esquer said. "I think you've got to get into game rhythm. I don't think you really get into your defensive rhythm. Most teams don't get into their defensive rhythm right off the bat. You'd love to, but sometimes it takes a little while, but hey, I think we're going to be a really solid defensive team when it's all said and done."

In the top of the fourth, designated hitter Peter Miller led off with a hard grounder to third, off of Delfino's chest. Instead of setting his feet and making a controlled throw, the junior rushed and sailed one over the leaping Knapp for a two-base error. Though Pacific failed to score, Jones again had to work a bit, throwing 15 pitches.

"It would have been better had we not missed a couple balls," Esquer said. "His pitch count would have been down, and he probably would have gotten through the sixth. He just got to a point, after we made those two errors that led off innings, that we just ran his pitch count up and it got him out of the game."

Knapp was one bright spot in the field, making a heady play on a grounder between first and second for the put-out to Donofrio on a shot by Curtis Gomez and picking a throw out of the dirt on the back end of a 6-4-3 double play in the top of the first. Knapp also corralled a wide throw from Krist after Jones fanned left fielder Jacob Goulder on a curveball in the dirt in the top of the second.

"He played very solid, defensively," Esquer said. "He made a couple nice plays over there. We looked at it as very similar to when Chad Bunting went down last year, and we really felt like, it's not ideal, it's not how you would draw it up, but we have a chance that if someone comes through, we're going to be one player stronger when Chad comes back. Someone's going to get an opportunity to play that maybe wouldn't be in the lineup every day -- it's not Knapp; Knapp would have been in the lineup somewhere -- but someone else, and hey, if someone takes hold of it and plays solid for us, we're going to be solid, when Devon comes back."

Injury Update
Knapp manned first in place of injured starter Devon Rodriguez, who suffered a sprained posterior cruciate ligament diving for a ball in practice last Friday.

"It looks like four weeks," Esquer said. "He banged his knee and strained his PCL, and the PCL, I guess that's the one they wouldn't even operate on if it was completely torn. It just has to heal."

On Deck Freshman All-American Porter won't make his scheduled start on Saturday in Stockton against the Tigers, after a bit of shoulder tendonitis interrupted his spring practice routine. The 6-foot-2 sophomore out of El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Oakridge was 6-0 in 2011, tossing 57.0 innings and posting a 1.89 ERA in 25 appearances and four starts, including a six-inning, seven-hit, three-run, one-walk, four-strikeout effort against Texas A&M for the Bears' first College World Series victory since 1980.

"Porter, we've got to build him back up a little bit. His innings aren't built up to where we want them to be," Esquer said. "He's fine. He's been cleared. He's healthy. He's not injured. It's just a matter of getting him through his bullpens and some live hitters before we go."

Instead, Flemer -- an All-Pac-10 honorable mention selection as a closer in 2011, when he went 4-2 with a 1.83 ERA in 39.1 innings out of the pen, notching six saves -- will take the hill at 1 PM at Klein Family Field.

Pending Saturday's outcome, sophomore lefty Michael Theofanopoulos could get the nod on Sunday, when the Bears finish off the season-opening series at 1 PM at Evans Diamond.

"There's another opportunity -- whether Kyle pitches this weekend or next weekend -- if someone can come through, we're one pitcher stronger when we come out of it," Esquer said.

Notebook
With the new home white jerseys still yet to arrive, the Bears sported their good-luck gold pullovers - sans the College World Series patches - and new NIKE caps. Jones - ever superstitious - was able to get a grey underbrim, as opposed to the standard navy, and had already scrawled his lucky graffiti before the game, with 'I am king of this world ... this land ... this diamond ... my field.'

The official attendance for the opener was 602, including the Cal Band, Johnson, Semien, Washington Nationals farmhand Jeff Kobernus, Willie and Jean Ross --- parents of Oakland Athletics righty Tyson Ross -- and their other son: San Diego Padres farmhand Joe Ross. Tyson is already in Phoenix, Ariz., for Spring Training. Also in attendance was 2012 signee Grant Diede.

Renda went 2-for-3 with two runs and two walks at the top of the lineup ... Bunting went 2-for-4 with two runs ... Delfino, Oh and Matthews each notched a hit, with Matthews going 1-for-2 with a run, an RBI and a walk.


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