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April 20, 2012

Bunting goes yard twice in 9-4 win

BERKELEY -- Over the past several days, California senior outfielder Chad Bunting has focused on quieting down his hands in the batter's box. On Friday, he was anything but quiet, slugging two, two-run home runs and driving in five runs as the Bears won their fourth game in their past five, downing visiting Utah 9-4.

"I made a couple changes to my swing to get how I was feeling more in the summer and fall, and it ended up helping me a lot," Bunting said. "I'd been struggling this season, so I looked at some video the last couple days, just trying to get back to where I was feeling comfortable."

Last season, Bunting slugged seven longballs in 127 at-bats, and in his 132nd at-bat of 2012, he equalled that output, going 3-for-4 with two runs scored, to boot.

"He's been working hard at it," said head coach David Esquer. "He's been working hard to find an answer, putting a lot of personal time in to try and get right again, so I'm proud of him. It paid off."

Bunting was one of six Cal hitters to notch multi-hit days, as the Bears (21-15, 5-8 in Pac-12) collected 17 base-hits, including Bunting's two circuit shots and one four-bagger off the bat of sophomore right fielder Andrew Knapp, who led off the bottom of the third with a titanic blast over the Edwards Track Stadium grandstands, into the wind, for his third homer of the season.

"He got that one, and he's been working hard at it, too," Esquer said. "I'm proud of our guys. You would expect them to improve, with the time they've been putting in. It's good to see that today."

Knapp went 2-for-5 on the day with three runs scored, continuing last season's success against the Utes, and is now 4-for-9 in his career against Utah.

"I'm feeling a lot better in the box lately, especially these last couple games," said Knapp, who is now 7-for-20 in the two-hole, and hit his second homer in as many games. "I'm not trying to do anything else except hit the ball hard, and it's been working out."

The Cal offense battered Utah (10-26, 5-11) behind a shaky outing from sophomore lefty Michael Theofanopoulos, who surrendered three runs -- all earned -- on 10 hits and four walks, uncorking two wild pitches.

Blow by Blow
Theofanopoulos labored through a 14-minute, 23-pitch first inning, but in the bottom of the second, Bunting picked him right back up.

After a leadoff single from junior first baseman Mitch Delfino and a fly out from senior catcher Chadd Krist, Bunting annihilated a 1-1 fastball from starter Joe Pond off the wall of the RSF in left center, between murals of Jon Zuber and Matt Luke.

"He had a pretty average fastball," Bunting said of Pond. "He didn't have an off-speed pitch to really put you away. I'm a pretty aggressive hitter, and I just got aggressive again."

A bunt single from junior left fielder Darrell Matthews set the stage for true freshman shortstop Chris Paul, who sent a hard grounder past the glove of first baseman Ethan Leiter on a hit-and-run, bringing the speedy Matthews around to score and putting the Bears up, 3-0.

Theofanopoulos worked his way into a jam in the top of the third, walking leadoff man James Brooks before surrendering a two-out RBI double to third baseman Trey Nielsen to cut the lead to two. After allowing two straight singles to load the bases, Theofanopoulos got Leiter to pop out to shallow center to end the threat, but not after throwing his 55th pitch in three innings.

The Bears broke out for another three runs in the bottom of the third, thanks to Knapp's longball and Bunting's second two-run shot.

"It was just 2-1 and I was looking for a fastball," Knapp said. "The at-bat before, I got the same pitch and fouled it off, down the line. I was really upset with myself, because I know I should have hammered it. I stayed inside that one, though. That's probably the best ball I've ever hit. Even in BP, it's hard to hit one over, into the track stadium. That one had some oomph on it."

After Knapp went deep, Tony Renda came up with one of Cal's seven infield hits, but was cut down for just the second time in 11 attempts this season, trying to steal second. Delfino came up with an infield single of his own, and took second on an errant throw, setting the stage for Bunting's first-pitch blast.

"I was actually looking off-speed," Bunting said. "I timed up off-speed, but I got my foot down soon enough and he left a fastball out, over the plate, real meaty, and I was able to put a good swing on it."

Theofanopoulos finally found a groove with his change up in the fourth and fifth, needing just 19 pitches and striking out two.

"He competed for us and gave us a chance," Esquer said. "That's all we can ask of him, to give us a chance on a Friday. He's not your prototypical Friday guy, but a part of it is, you've got a six- or seven-run lead, you'd like to get six or seven innings out of your starter and let them swing their way to the end of the game."

With men at second and third in the bottom of the fourth, thanks to Krist's team-lead-tying 12th double of the season, Bunting toyed with the Utah defense.

"Eskie talks a lot about it, if you're one of those guys that's 4-for-4, can you be really greedy and get that fifth hit, not trying to do too much and throw away an at-bat? With two outs, that third baseman was way back, just telling me to bunt," said Bunting, who squared around on the first pitch he saw from reliever Tanner Tripp and sent a perfect bunt between the pitcher's mound and third, scoring Knapp -- on board with a leadoff single. "I'll take that RBI, that easy 1-for-1, instead of going up there and try to do the hardest thing in baseball."

"That was not a bad call, to be honest," smiled Esquer. "We weren't safe. That was every bit about trying to win the game. As we all saw, seven wasn't enough. It was unexpected, and I thought it was a good play."

Theofanopoulos was rattled hard in the top of the sixth, allowing three straight well-hit one-out singles before walking center fielder Tyler Relf to force in a run. As he did on Tuesday, sophomore righty Michael Lowden then entered the game with the bases loaded and one down, getting the dangerous Brooks to foul out to deep right to score a run and then getting some help from his defense, thanks to Paul. Catcher Parker Morin sent a soft 1-0 liner to the left side, but Paul -- playing close to the bag at second -- ranged to his right, snagged the ball on a hop, planted cleanly and fired to first to end the threat. Cal played an errorless ballgame for the second time in two games, and the Bears are now 7-0 when playing clean in the field.

Utah pulled to within three runs after a solo home run in the top of the seventh by left fielder Shaun Cooper, who had struck out twice and grounded into a double play earlier in the game. True freshman righty Keaton Siomkin served up the shot, before giving up a double to Nielsen, after which he was immediately pulled.

"They made a game of it," Esquer said. " It was every bit a ballgame at 7-4, with the bases loaded a couple innings. It was not an easy win, by any means."

Siomkin lasted just two hitters and six pitches before exiting.

"The hitter's telling you it's not the same," Esquer said. "I don't know if there's anything mechanical or physical, but the hitter's telling you it's not a mystery. He was just not effective at all."

As Utah began to creep back, Tripp hummed on the hill, retiring 10 straight Bears -- a single by Krist was erased by a double play.

"I don't know he was doing anything great as much as we lost our focus a little bit," Esquer said. "We were kind of a little loose, mentally. We weren't as keyed-in to doing what it takes to be offensive, maybe figuring the game was further in-hand than it really was. We probably figured we didn't need to try to do a little more. That's what it looked like to me."

In the bottom of the eighth, though, Tripp ran into trouble. Tripp issued a one-out walk to third baseman Derek Campbell, then surrendered a line-drive single to junior designated hitter Vince Bruno -- the only Cal player hitless to that point. Knapp grounded into a 6-4 fielder's choice, setting the table for Renda. On the second pitch he saw, Renda sent a line drive through the right side for a run-scoring single, and was followed by a groundball single up the middle by Delfino for the final tally.

Ousted closer Logan Scott returned to his early-season form on Friday, throwing a scoreless three innings with one strikeout, not allowing a single baserunner and using his trademark change up to great effect.

"Coach [Mike] Neu had been working with him, and started to feel confident that he'd kind of turned a corner before his last outing, and, before Santa Clara, he said, 'I want to see Logan,'" Esquer said. "He was way better, and has been. Again, there's someone who's trying to work his way out of a bad streak, and it's paying off."

Scott earned his team-high seventh save of the season. Theofanopoulos improved his record to 3-3.

Notebook
With his 2-for-5 day, Renda is now hitting .383 in Pac-12 play, and notched his team-high 16th multi-hit game. Renda -- who owns the longest hitting streak this season at 12 games -- is now on a seven-game run. Renda has now reached base safely in 20 straight games, the longest run on the team this year.

Knapp has now hit safely in three straight games, and over that span, is 5-for-13.

Delfino, with his 3-for-5 day at the dish, now has 13 multi-hit games this season.

Krist broke out for a 2-for-4 afternoon, and is now 6-for-12 in his past three games.

On Deck
The Bears and the Utes square off again on Saturday at 1 PM at Evans Diamond, right after the conclusion of the Cal football team's spring game at the adjacent Edwards Track Stadium. The Bears will throw ever-reliable right-handed senior Matt Flemer (5-2, 2.15 ERA) against Utah's junior righty Brock Duke (2-1, 3.23 ERA).

Scott will be unavailable on Saturday, but senior slider specialist Joey Donofrio will be ready to go if the game needs the door closed.

"He only threw 32 pitches, so maybe an inning or a hitter or so on Sunday, but not Saturday, for sure," Esquer said of Scott. "I think that Lowden's pitched a few good late-inning stints for us, so Lowden and Donofrio tomorrow, to win."


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