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April 22, 2012

Bears take three from Utah

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BERKELEY -- After the California baseball team's 5-2 win over Utah on Sunday, one scout asked, "Are they really rolling?"

Senior righty Matt Flemer -- who tossed a gem in a 9-0 shutout on Saturday -- answered, simply, "We're rolling."

The Bears (23-15, 7-8 in Pac-12) completed a three-game sweep of the cellar-dwelling Utes (10-28, 5-13), and, following a series win last weekend over Washington, have now won six of their last seven.

"It does a lot," said reigning conference player of the year Tony Renda. "It does a lot, man. We're going into next weekend playing a really good Oregon team, and to get three under our belt when we're going there and get some momentum, and get back to our winning ways is huge. Winning baseball and losing baseball are pretty different, when it comes to our team. I think we made one error this weekend, and we're going somewhere that has turf, which is pretty good. We know we make the plays and we pitch, we're going to win a lot of games, because we're a good hitting team. We did that this weekend, and it just showed us what it takes to win."

Cal has now shot up to fifth place in the conference at the midway point of league play.

"It's big," said head coach David Esquer. "We were in this position last week and didn't do anything with it, and that was an opportunity lost. To get today's win is a big win. We're 7-8 and this conference is just as bloody as it is, and quite frankly, if we mirror this first half, I think we've set ourselves up to be a playoff team. I think 14 [conference wins] will get a team in."

Cal continued its hot hitting, rattling off 11 hits, including center fielder Chad Bunting's third home run of the series.

"I just know I've got to keep doing what I've been doing, which is working hard in the cages, focusing on the keys that I've been honing in on, like getting ready early," Bunting said.

Bunting's eighth-inning blast was the sixth shot the Bears have put over the fences in the past three games against a pitching staff that had allowed just eight round trippers all season long.

"Today was the worst weather and obviously, not conducive to a lot of hitting, but I think our bats are coming around," Esquer said. "Chad's still going to work hard at it. There's still some things he can do better, but, obviously, with three home runs, he's been productive all year, regardless of what his average is. He's productive."

Junior lefty Justin Jones wasn't nearly as sharp as he'd been in his last two starts, but was just good enough to record his first win since March 3, going 7.0 innings, allowing one run on three hits and four walks while striking out five.

"That [curveball] was big," Esquer said. "That fastball command is still a bit of a mystery, but it is what it is. He's competing out there, trying to do the best with what he has, and like we've said all along, he's gaining on that 'A' game, but it hasn't arrived yet. He's pitched better the last two and wasn't rewarded for it. He deserved to win today."

Jones used his curveball to great effect for really the first time this season, spinning both his big 12-6 Uncle Charlie and his tighter power curve for strikes.

"It's been a long time," said Jones, who notched his 22nd career win. "I don't even remember March 3. I don't even remember yesterday. Just one day at a time. I kept working and I kept grinding through, and I finally got a win. I couldn't attribute it more to anybody but the team, really. I'm just one person, so the win is really a credit to the team."

Since an 8-5 loss to Santa Clara, the Cal offense has come alive. Cal is hitting .353 over the past seven games (84-for-238), fueled by a white-hot Tony Renda. Renda has hit safely now in nine straight games, and in 16 of his last 17, the only hitless day being an 0-for-1, three-walk performance against USC.

Over the past nine games, Renda is 16-for-33 (.485) at the plate, going 2-for-4 with a run on Sunday.

"You know he's going well when there's a hit to be taken, and he takes the hit and doesn't try to do too much," Esquer said. "Yesterday, with second and third and two outs, he ran a ball up the middle instead of trying to maybe get big on one and try to drive one up against the fence. When he's taking the hit like that, you know that he's just dialed in. The ball's big, and he can make the ball do whatever he wants."

Blow by Blow Renda helped Jones escape a jam in a stressful first inning, playing close to the bag on a grounder up the middle by left fielder Shaun Cooper and taking just a few steps to his left to field the would-be single, step on the bag and throw to first for an inning-ending double play, after Jones had thrown just five of 13 pitches for strikes, struggling with his fastball command.

"I'd say the fastball command all game was really not there," Jones said. "Luckily, I had my curveball for the first time all year, and my cutter was really good. I finally had my change up. I had three pitches, but you've got to build off your fastball, and that's something I didn't have."

The Bears struck early against freshman Utah starter Mitch Watrous in his second career start, getting a leadoff single from Vince Bruno, a two-out RBI double from Mitch Delfino -- his second in as many games - and a scorching double to left center off the bat of senior catcher Chadd Krist to take a 2-0 lead.

With that double, Krist now has 59 for his Cal career -- just two away from the program's all-time lead: Jon Zuber's 61.

Krist has now hit safely in eight of the past nine games, and is starting to get on a roll of his own.

"I know Chadd's changed a few things to help him be a little more quiet with his hands, and to help him have a more sound swing," Bunting said. "That obviously showed this week. He was crushing the ball. Even his outs into the outfield were well-driven balls. We've just been working hard, and I think that's just a tribute to the work we've been doing lately."

Jones re-discovered his knee-buckling curve in the second, fanning Josh Alexander looking at a bender on the outside corner and Biss Larsen losing his bat while swinging at the baffling breaker to finish off the frame.

"It's huge to have that pitch back," Jones said. "I worked at it all week with Mike [Neu], and it's really, really nice to know that it's back, and have confidence in it again. I haven't had any confidence in it all year, and I'm sure the coaching staff and my teammates haven't either."

The Bears added another pair in the bottom of the sixth - again, with two outs.

Renda led off with a sinking liner to right to keep his hitting streak alive, and Delfino sent a groundball single through the left side for his eighth hit in 14 at-bats in the series. After a visit to the mound, Watrous got ahead of Krist 0-2 before being removed for closer Tyler Wagner, who promptly surrendered a fly ball out to right, allowing Renda to advance to third.

Wagner -- continuing the Utes' control issues from Saturday, when Utah pitchers let fly with five wild pitches -- sent one past catcher Parker Morin, allowing Delfino to advance to second. Wagner then dealt three wide to Bunting to intentionally load the bases for Darrell Matthews.

The Bears have struggled with the bases juiced this season, hitting just .207 on the season (6-for-29), and Matthews didn't help matters, fanning on a breaking ball in the dirt.

True freshman Chris Paul -- hitting .429 over his previous six games (9-for-21) -- continued his hot hitting, yanking a 2-0 pitch into left for a two-run single and extending his own hitting streak to seven games. Paul finished the day 1-for-4.

After Jones issued his third straight leadoff walk to Alexander and allowed a first-pitch single to first baseman Ethan Leiter in the top of the seventh, second baseman Cory Hunt sent a slow chopper to third, where sophomore Derek Campbell made a sparkling play, charging and firing to first for the out, with both runners moving into scoring position. An RBI groundout to short by center fielder Tyler Relf brought the score to 4-1.

Senior Cal righty Joey Donofrio came on in relief of Jones to start the eighth, and promptly dealt a four-pitch walk to Morin, before striking out Cooper on his trademark slider. Third baseman Trey Nielsen laced the first pitch he saw into the gap in left center, driving home Morin to cut the lead to 4-2.

Renda again came up big on defense, adjusting to a hot shot up the middle by Jo Jo Sharrar off the tip of Donofrio's glove to finish off a 1-4-3 groundout, before Donofrio threw out Alexander on a weak groundout to the right of the mound.

The Bears got an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth when Bunting sent a 2-2 slider off the wall of the RSF fieldhouse in left center for his team-leading eighth home run of the season.

"The first two at-bats today, I wasn't getting ready early enough," Bunting said. "My hands were rushing, and that fastball got in on me early, and then I was drifting to that off-speed stuff because I was rushed. That last at-bat, I was able to calm myself down and get ready early. He left a good pitch over the plate. He's got good stuff, but, luckily, he left that slider over the plate, and I was able to put a good swing on it."

Bunting -- who leads the team with 32 RBI -- has now hit safely in six of the last seven games, going 8-for-24 (.333) with three home runs, seven RBI and three runs.

"Me, [Andrew] Knapp and Chadd, we've been out in the cages almost every day, making sure to get those extra reps in," Bunting said.

Donofrio gave up a two-out single to Relf before striking out the dangerous James Brooks with a slider to finish off his second save of the year in front of 705 fans at Evans Diamond.

Brooks -- who came into the game hitting .322 with eight home runs -- went just 1-for-10 with two walks and five strikeouts against the Bears.

"They're tough," Esquer said. "They're capable. They're aggressive with the bat, and they're dangerous -- that's what makes them dangerous -- similar to us. They're really similar to us. They swing a lot and swing early. Sometimes, it's your greatest strength, and sometimes, it's your greatest weakness. We know that, too. We can have a five-pitch inning with the best of them."

Arms Race
Every Cal starter this weekend went at least 5.1 innings, and Bears relievers only threw 6.2 innings, and, without a midweek game, that leaves the bullpen fresh for what figures to be one of the toughest stretches of the season.

"It's huge," Jones said. "It's huge, just to be able to have fresh arms going into a huge stretch, I mean, our season is going to be decided on this stretch, coming up, so to have those guys ready and pitching nails now, it's huge."

Next weekend, Cal travels to Eugene, Ore., to face the No. 6 Oregon for a three-game set at PK Park, and a week later, the Bears go back up north again to face a dangerous Washington State squad, which just took two of three from the Ducks, and sits at 19-16 overall and 6-7 in Pac-12 play.

"I was really pleased with Logan Scott and his progress over the last couple outings," Esquer said of his junior late-inning righty, who seems to have righted the ship in recent outings, allowing just one hit in his past 4.2 innings of work with two strikeouts, facing just one batter over the minimum.

Freshman All-American Kyle Porter was feeling froggy in the pregame, and his balky left shoulder seems to have turned a corner thanks to aggressive therapy.

"Every time you ask him to rate his arm, he gives as good an arm rating as he's had all year," Esquer said. "We're just going off of him, and if he feels that good, that's a real positive for us. Now, he's got to get out there, and he's got to pitch, and he's got to pitch with adrenaline and then come back after it, break down a little bit and see how the recovery time is. That's a whole different animal than just pitching on the side. When his velocity was getting back up in the bullpen, that's when we knew he was close to pitching in a game."

Porter hit 86 mph on the radar gun in his most recent bullpen session, and paired with his twisting breaking ball arsenal, he could play very big down the home stretch.

"Porter was available for us today, so we're going to get him out there as soon as possible, too, so we're starting to come around a little bit with some health," Esquer said. "With Justin pitching better each time out, that's going to help us out, as well."

The Bears committed their first error of the series on Sunday on a dubious bang-bang call at first on a throw from Paul, but the true freshman has become quite an anchor at shortstop, committing just six errors in 18 starts at the keystone spot.

"It's been better, as of late," Esquer said. "Yet, it needs to be consistently better. Otherwise, it's just inconsistent. Even though we played a couple good ballgames, we're looking for the long term to be better. I think we're starting to get a little bit better rhythm, defensively, and that's going to help us. We'll only go as far as our pitching and defense will take us ... [Paul] has steadied the ship for us, when we needed to have it, so I think that defense is coming around. I'm telling you, we need that."

Since taking over as the full-time third baseman, Campbell has found his comfort zone, making just four errors in eight games, and two in his past six.

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