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April 20, 2012

Bears host Utah in three-game set



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BERKELEY -- Just over a year ago, a fresh-faced second-generation California baseball player was plucked off the bench in the first series of what figured to be the program's last season. The Bears were tied with Utah in the ninth inning, in the second game of a doubleheader.

He didn't disappoint.

"Eskie (head coach David Esquer) just put me in," now-sophomore Andrew Knapp said as he stepped off the field following Thursday's practice, as Cal prepares to face the Utes again in a three-game set this weekend. "I think it was a slider, but I don't really remember."

After going 1-for-3 with two RBI and a double in the first game of the season-opening twin bill, Knapp stepped to the dish with a chance to win the game after the Bears came all the way back from a 5-2 deficit in the ninth. With two on and two out, Knapp delivered, sending a game-winning RBI single to right field.

"I was just trying to get something good to hit," Knapp recalled. "I was just trying to make sure I didn't strike out. It's pretty much a blur. I was clueless."

"That was kind of indicative of our team last year," Esquer said. "We were kind of not in the game at all, and then all of the sudden, the game came in our lap, and we took advantage of it. I remember Andrew Knapp getting a big hit to keep us in game one, and then to win game two."

Knapp's walk-off was the first of six for the 2011 Bears, and one of three coming from then-true freshmen, including the starter for Friday's 2:30 PM tilt against Utah, left-handed hurler Michael Theofanopoulos.

"That was a pretty incredible weekend to start off my college career," Knapp said. "With the program where it was at that point, I think it just set the tone for the whole season, like, we're not going to give up, no matter what. We're trying to get some of those things going our way now, this year."

This season, Knapp is far from the clueless freshman role player. He's played wherever Cal has needed him. The catcher by trade has spent time at first base, filling in for the injured Devon Rodriguez, and lately right field, as third baseman Mitch Delfino -- troubled by arm soreness -- has moved to first. Knapp has two outfield assists since moving to right, and at the plate, he's been almost as steady as they come. Knapp is hitting .295, is tied for third in the Pac-12 in doubles with 12, leads the team with 16 walks and has thrown in two home runs, for good measure, to go along with 18 RBI.

"He's getting better," Esquer said. "He just keeps getting better. The change up is becoming less of a mystery to him. That's going to be his development, right now. His walks to strikeouts are good. He leads our team in walks, and that's a sign of maturity."

Cal (20-15, 4-8 in Pac-12) welcomes Utah in for a three-game set this weekend, having won three of its past four games, while the Utes (10-25, 5-10) have lost seven of their past 10, and are struggling in their first season in the Pac-12.

"There's no pushover in the Pac-12," Knapp cautioned. "They're going to push us hard and they're going to play good defense. It'll be a good weekend for us to play good baseball and try to get a couple wins."

Utah has lost powerful first baseman C.J. Cron, who was picked up in the first round of the 2011 Major League First-Year Player Draft. In his place, though, the Utes have found another big power source in senior James Brooks.

"He's a quality hitter," Esquer said. "The report's out there, that you can't make a mistake. He doesn't miss it often. He's a good player."

Brooks is hitting .322 and is tied for second in the Pac-12 with eight home runs. Brooks is third in total bases and fifth in slugging percentage (.573).

"They obviously don't have the big first baseman, the first-round draft choice," Esquer said. Everyone says they're capable. They got off to a slow start, but they went on the road and beat USC at USC, beat Oregon once, beat Arizona once and beat good people, so they're plenty capable."

After losing 12 of their first 18 games -- all on the road -- the Utes have gone 4-13, with two runs coming against the Trojans, who edged the Bears, two games to one, in a trio of one-run contests in Los Angeles several weeks ago.

"Obviously, sometimes, we're capable of letting anybody beat us," said Esquer, who's team has committed a conference-worst 69 errors on the season. "It's a dangerous weekend."

The Utah pitching staff has seen quite a bit of shuffling this season, and their .314 batting average against is the highest in the conference, as is their 5.29 team ERA.

"Their ERA is not as bad as it could look," Esquer said. "Offensively, I think they're starting to warm up a little bit, although their park is a real offensive park with the altitude, so you really can't look at the pitching numbers and trust them a whole lot."

The Utes are hitting a conference-worst .243, but over their past five games, they have hit .269, and over the past three, are hitting .294.

"If they get a good pitching performance to get out ahead of you, they'll pour it all into a game to beat you," Esquer said. "They'll do whatever they can to beat you, to win one game."

Utah is slated to start Joe Pond (2-6, 6.07 ERA) against Theofanopoulos, who has shown vast improvement as the season has progressed, and particularly since moving into a weekend starting role. Theofanopoulos is 2-3 on the year with a 4.44 ERA, but over his last four starts, Theofanopoulos has allowed nine earned runs in 24.0 innings of work for a 3.38 ERA.

"He's been getting better every week," Esquer said."He's been minimizing what he gives the opposition, and he's got to continue to do that. If he reverts to old form, it's a real dangerous Friday for us, no matter what Friday it is. We've got to minimize the inning when he gets in trouble and just minimize what he gives the opposition -- a walk or a wild pitch -- not so much the hit, but the walk or the wild pitch."

On Saturday, emergent senior ace Matt Flemer (5-2, 2.15) will square off with the man who gave up Knapp's walk-off last season in Brock Duke. In nine 2012 appearances -- seven starts -- Duke is 2-1 with a 3.23 ERA. Beyond those two, the third starter has yet to be announced, after early-season struggles plagued sophomore Ben Mordini. In seven starts, Mordini -- originally the Sunday starter -- has gone 0-4 with a 9.67 ERA. The bullpen isn't much rosier. Getting past the starters and into a thin bullpen should be the order of the weekend for both squads.

"Yeah, you have to," Esquer said. "They'll go with their starters as long as possible, but I think the opposition would say the same thing about us, get into our bullpen, too."

Utah hurlers have uncorked 43 wild pitches, with Mordini, Josh Chapman (0-1, 3.86 in 12 relief appearances) and another former Sunday starter Tony Vocca accounting for 21 of those.

"You want to see really what the cause is. It might be the catcher," Esquer said. "That's one of the keys to catching, is that he's supposed to cut down on those wild pitches. It may be that they're that wild, but you want to make sure that their catcher is giving them every opportunity. We want to be extra-aggressive in the dirt."

Catcher and leading hitter Parker Morin has been one of the most-victimized backstops in the league, pacing the Pac-12 in stolen base attempts, stolen bases against and runners caught stealing. On the season, runners have swiped 37 bases on 59 attempts.

"We'll look for some opportunities, obviously, to put some guys in motion," Esquer said. "We're probably looking to take more chances at this time of year than maybe trust moving the guy up one, maybe a hybrid of our hybrid. That's kind of where we're going to be."


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