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April 6, 2012

Bears bring back the magic in 5-4 win



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LOS ANGELES -- Blink, and it's 2011 again. Squint, and Dedeaux Field looked a lot like Reckling Park. On Thursday night, the California baseball team found magic once more, coming back from a 4-0 deficit and four costly errors to defeat USC on the road, 5-4, with the eventual game-winning hit coming from -- Who else? -- Tony Renda.

"That looked like last year, didn't it?" smiled senior righty Matt Flemer, who, scheduled to take the hill in game two, was charting pitches behind home plate and could barely contain his elation as the Bears -- and Renda -- clawed back to win their third straight game and fourth in their past five. "It looked like last year. It looked just like last year. Everything that we did last year, came out in the last four innings."

After falling behind 4-0 against Trojans freshman Stephen Tarpley, committing three errors in the first five innings -- two of those by Renda -- and not recording a single hit, Cal (17-10, 2-5 in Pac-12) rattled off seven hits in the final four frames while playing nearly perfect defense. By the time Renda stepped to the dish in the top of the ninth, the Bears - thanks to two straight hits off the bats of Vince Bruno and Mitch Delfino -- had tied the game at 4-4 against one of the top closers in the Pac-12: Wyatt Strahan.

"It helps when the pitching coach has been calling pitches against you for two years," Renda said, referring to former Bears pitching coach Dan Hubbs, now an associate head coach for the Trojans. "I knew what was coming."

Strahan had taken the hill in the top of the ninth having not allowed a single run -- earned or otherwise -- in 13.1 innings this season. After getting junior outfielder Darrell Matthews to fly out to left, Strahan surrendered a line-drive single into the left center field gap by Bruno. With the count 1-2, Delfino took the fifth offering from Strahan in the dirt, allowing Bruno to scamper to second. Delfino then kangaroo-hopped the next pitch he saw up the middle and over second for an RBI single to center, knotting the game up at four apiece.

Up stepped Renda, who came into the game hitting .351 on the season and had gone 0-for-2 with two walks -- one intentional -- on the evening. Renda popped the first offering -- the expected curve -- up and back over the netting behind home plate, foul.

"I'd seen his sharp curveball and he pretty much had just a straight fastball," Renda said. "I knew he was going to try to get ahead with the curveball, and that's why I swung."

The next pitch was a fastball on the inner half, and Renda -- proving that at 5-foot-7, he was still every inch the reigning conference player of the year -- spun around on it, scorching a grounder just inside the bag at third and into the left field corner, where Dante Flores lost a crucial second trying to get a handle on the drive. Delfino came around to score easily, and Renda chugged into second with a double.

"It's Pac-12 pitching; we've seen it a lot of times," Renda said. "I was just looking to get on for Chadd [Krist], and something better happened."

In the stands, Flemer -- set to go in game two at 6 PM on Friday -- pumped his fist and let loose a shout.

"I couldn't even say anything in the stands until the last couple innings," Flemer smiled breathlessly. "Oh, my gosh, that was big."

For the first time this season, senior Joey Donofrio took the ball as the Cal closer, and came up big, striking out the side to earn the first save of his career and sending Flemer into a frenzy. Just like last year, these Bears just don't do anything easy.

"Unfortunately, not," sighed a weary head coach David Esquer, who wore a track in the Astroturf inside the Bears dugout, pacing up and down throughout the final innings. "It's typically how we do it. We had three errors and we had to make up for a lot of mistakes. We've got to give ourselves something else to count on, other than just hitting."

Blow by Blow
For the first five innings, Tarpley worked his fall-off-the-table change off of a precision high-80s fastball on both sides of the plate. Cal made consistent solid contact, but always right into Trojan leather. Through five innings, Tarpley had thrown just 60 pitches.

Bears starter Michael Theofanopoulos -- making the first series-opening start of his career - had a tougher go. After a missed double play opportunity on a high throw to second in the bottom of the first forced Theofanopoulos to throw five extra pitches, USC broke through for its first run of the game in the bottom of the second.

Catcher Kevin Roundtree sent a 2-1 fastball up the middle to Renda, who ranged to his right to get in front of the grounder, but then rushed the throw to first and threw the ball up the first base line, where it was stopped by Andrew Knapp, who made a good play to keep Roundtree from advancing to second.

Theofanopoulos used a swing-and-miss change and a 90-mph fastball to get ahead of the next hitter -- right fielder Jake Hernandez -- who sent a 1-2 fastball bounding toward shortstop. Freshman Chris Paul got the ball to Renda with plenty of time, but the junior preseason All-American rushed the throw and fired into the USC dugout.

After third baseman Kevin Swick rolled out to third, designated hitter Brandon Garcia came up with an RBI single to right.

"Stupid errors. Just stupid," Renda said. "I tried to make too much out of an easy play, and I got a double play ball that was just dripping wet from something in the grass, and I let it fly. You just have to learn how to put it in the past: Whatever, hit me another one."

The Trojans continued to dink and dunk, not getting much good contact against Theofanopoulos. In the bottom of the third, center fielder Garret Houts bunted Flores - on board with a leadoff single - over to second for second baseman Adam Landecker. Landecker bunted the first pitch he saw up the first base line, with Knapp charging. Theofanopoulos had, however, gotten a quick break, and was in better position to field the ball. Knapp backed off and then, inexplicably, started back in for the ball. By the time Landecker hit the bag, no one was there to receive the flip from Theofanopoulos, putting men on first and third for ever-dangerous Matt Foat, who came into the evening hitting .409.

On a 1-2 change up from Theofanopoulos, Foat sent a ground ball with eyes between third and short to put USC up, 2-0.

Knapp then ended the inning with a clutch 3-6-3 double play to raise both his confidence.

In the top of the fourth, the Bears hit Tarpley hard -- but again had nothing to show for it. Renda took a 89-mph fastball, belt-high, to deep left, but the cold night air and prevailing wind -- going from left to right field -- kept it in the park. USC had no such problems in the bottom of the inning, when Swick sent an opposite-field solo shot off the scoreboard in right to put the Trojans up by three.

Bruno then dropped an easy pop up in shallow left field, but Theofanopoulos was able to work out of the jam, getting Flores to line out to second and inducing a 5-4 force out on a grounder by Houts.

The Trojans pulled even further ahead in the bottom of the fifth, when another group brain cramp allowed a Texas Leaguer by Roundtree to drop between three Cal fielders for an RBI single.

Then, something shifted. The Bears began to chirp, and the breaks began to go their way. Even though sophomore Derek Campbell had just two plate appearances on the evening, his leadoff at-bat in the top of the sixth was arguably the most important of the game. Up to that point, Tarpley had been able to make quick work of the Cal lineup, but Campbell fouled off six pitches in the 10-pitch battle, finally slicing out to right field. But, on his swing, he just nicked Roundtree's mitt. As Campbell trotted back to the dugout, he was told to stay at first, thanks to catcher's interference.

Bruno sent a single into right center field, and Delfino worked a five-pitch walk to load the bases for Renda. Tarpley stepped off the rubber, adjusted his belt, and, pitching under pressure for the first time all night, missed wide with a fastball, then high with a change. His fastball had dropped down to 86. Renda took a strike, and then saw yet another fastball tail well off the plate, away. Renda had not worked a walk in 22 games, but Thursday was his night, and he watched the next pitch sail up and away for ball four, forcing in a run.

With no outs and the heart of the order at the plate, both Krist and Knapp went down easily on a called strike three and a foul out to first. Right fielder Chad Bunting saw nothing but breaking balls, and with the count full, just barely got a piece of a curve to stay alive. Bunting -- who came in with just three walks -- then laid off a curve in the dirt, walking in yet another run. Though Garcia came out of the pen to fan Paul on a change up to end the threat, the damage was done. The door was open.

"We're still trying to figure out how we're going to have to play to beat quality teams. We don't do it pretty, enough, but we can grind. We keep saying that, but we can. We can grind," Esquer said. "We can grind with anybody, and our kids didn't have their heads down. They had no hits and three errors, down by three and they were kind of getting them on and getting the in, every time, and we've been doing this long enough -- and they've been doing this long enough -- that you just have to hang around and give yourself a chance, and they did that."

Theofanopoulos had held the line as best he could given the play in the field, surrendering three earned runs on nine hits in 5.0 innings of work and throwing 92 pitches.

"They did a good job on the three runs; the first one was unearned," Esquer said. "Then, I think the next three were ust kind of, get him over, get him in. Leadoff guy on, get him over, and they did a good job of doing that. But, he did a good job of managing those innings. They weren't more than one run an inning, and from where he started the season, he was giving it away too much. He's better."

Theofanopoulos handed the ball off to two true freshmen in succession, in righty Keaton Siomkin and lefty Chris Muse-Fisher. The game proved to be not too big for either of the first-year hurlers, who combined to throw 3.0 innings of one hit ball.

Pinch hitter Danny Oh led off the top of the seventh with a single into right, and was bunted to second by Matthews. Bruno came up big again with a groundball single up the middle, scoring Oh easily to bring Cal within a run. Bruno finished with a 3-for-5 day with one stolen base in the leadoff spot, scoring two runs and driving in one.

Knapp and Paul teamed up for clutch defense in the bottom of the frame. Paul made an expert play on a handcuff-hop grounder to his left by Foats for the second out, and, after two straight hitters reached base, it was Knapp's turn, when Paul fielded a hard grounder by Swick and threw over Knapp's head at first. Knapp, though, with his father -- former Cal catcher Mike Knapp -- and brother -- 2013 Bears commit Aaron Knapp -- in the stands, leaped into the air, gloved the throw and came down on the bag for the final out of the inning.

"He made a really good play on the first Chris Paul throw," Esquer said. "If that tips off his glove, the guy's going to score. That could be the dagger run that just puts the game away."

The Final Frame
After Cal inched ahead in the top of the ninth, Donofrio -- coming in for the first time as the closer -- slammed the door shut with a flourish.

"(Pitching coach) Mike [Neu] told me when I was going down there in the ninth that, if we get the lead, I'm going in," Donofrio said. "That felt really good to get out in there, in a game like that, when the team's working so hard to come back. I know we struggled a little bit early, but being able to get the lead in the ninth, I wanted to make sure to close the door and not give them really much of a chance."

Left-handed pinch hitter Garrett Stubbs led off, taking three straight fastballs before fouling the fourth up and to the left to run the count to 2-2. Donofrio then unleashed a back-foot slider to get the light-hitting freshman swinging.

"We knew they had three righties coming up," Neu said. "Joey's been unbelievable against righties all year, and we were just basically trying to get to his slider. I think the first two hitters showed us how good his slider was today. He threw that slider to a left with two strikes to strike him out."

Up next was Landecker, sitting on a 3-for-4 game. He didn't fare much better. Donofrio missed away with the slider, but came back with a darting 92-mph fastball over the outside half. After missing again outside with the slidepiece, Donofrio's 90-mph fastball was fouled off of Landecker's shin. After a check swing on an 81-mph slider didn't yield a punch-out, Donofrio took a bit off and spun a 79-mph breaker in at the knees for a called strike three.

Appropriately enough, the next Trojan to the dish was Foat, owner of seven doubles and two homers on the year with a .548 slugging percentage. After missing with his first pitch, Donofrio came back across with a 91-mph fastball for a called strike, then saw Foat foul one down the right field line.

"The 3-2 slider to that last guy, we were just trying to get to the end," Neu said. "I think [Foat] knew it was coming, and that's how good it was today, for him. If he can throw that pitch and they know it's coming, and they still have a tough time with it, it's great. It's a nice way to end it, right there, with him coming in and getting the job done."

Foat swung and missed at an 82-mph slider in the dirt, setting off a restrained celebration in the Cal dugout. There are, after all, two more games to go.

"He did great. He did great," Esquer said of Donofrio. "He's done great, all year long, and hey, when you haven't been in that situation, you don't know exactly how that's going to work, and those three guys, in that situation, you've got a guy who's crowding the plate and looking to get hit by a pitch, he's throwing strikes. He gets three strikeouts, he strikes out the side. You can't ask for more."

On Deck
Flemer will face off against righty Andrew Triggs on Friday at 6 PM at Dedeaux Field in a battle of the senior moundsmen. Triggs is 2-3 on the year in eight appearances (seven starts) with a 3.38 ERA. In 50.2 innings, Triggs has struck out 44 and walked nine.

Flemer has won his last two starts for the Bears, including a 12-2 thrashing of 2011 College World Series participant Texas last weekend and a 3-2 win over then-No. 14 Arizona State the weekend prior.

"He's been our rock. He has. He's been our rock," Esquer said. "The last two outings, a win at ASU and a win at Texas, then his next outing's at 'SC. It doesn't get tougher than that, as far as name baseball schools. He's got a chance to go for the triple."

The 19th-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in the 2011 Major League Draft after an all-conference season as the Cal closer, Flemer now leads the Cal staff with a 4-2 record and sports a 2.68 ERA as the second-day weekend starter. Flemer has struck out 27 hitters while walking just five in 50.1 innings of work this season, with opposing hitters batting .219 against him.

"I just have to attack the zone," Flemer said. "It's kind of been the same thing the last couple weeks. Whenever we've been behind in counts, their offense has done something, and whenever we've been ahead in counts, we've dealt. I thought Theo did a really good job. I think we made four errors behind him, but he only gave up four runs. That was big. Even that home run that went to right kind of just got up in the wind. No one hit him hard. If you get it up in the wind here, to right, it's going to go. The key is to keep the ball down, let them get themselves out."

Saturday's starter is still up in the air, but for the moment, it will be junior Justin Jones, who has floundered after a nine-win breakout year last season.

"He's going to go Saturday, and I think he's fine, he just needs extra rest," Neu said. "We're just trying to get him healthy, and get the ball coming out of his hand well. I think he's throwing the ball OK, but we've just got to get him rested and get over this little dead arm from the injury. Once he gets over that, he's going to be fine."


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