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May 12, 2012

Bears drop second straight to Wildcats



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BERKELEY -- It is the nature of the game of baseball to be both generous and stingy. When the bats are cracking, the gloves can be full of holes. When both hitting and defense are holding up their end, pitching falters. That has been the story of this season for California, which dropped a 4-1 decision on Saturday to No. 10 Arizona, debuting a gold-on-gold-on-gold look.

"It's rough," said head coach David Esquer. "Two hits through eight innings won't do it to anybody. That being said, a year ago, there were plenty of games we had no business being in, too, because of how we played, and we found a way to come back. It's just not happening this year. We're just short ... Sometimes you come out of finals and you hit the ground running, and sometimes you come out of finals and it looks like you haven't swung the bat before."

The Bears (25-21, 9-14 in Pac-12) were the victims of a second straight complete game effort from a Wildcats starter, as sophomore righty Wade Konner went the distance, allowing one run on three hits with four walks and seven strikeouts.

Cal's only run off of Konner came courtesy of a solo home run by junior second baseman Tony Renda, who moved into sole possession of eighth place on the Bears' all-time career hits list with his 237th knock, moving out of a tie with Brian Horwitz (2001-04) and four behind seventh-place Jonathan Petke, who had 241 from 1992-96. Despite the meager offensive performance from the Cal lineup, the Bears threatened Arizona (32-15, 15-8) several times, but were unable to overcome an unusually nightmarish first inning from senior right-hander Matt Flemer.

Flemer surrendered a leadoff home run to Wildcats center fielder Joey Rickard, and then seemed to overthrow and press as he allowed three more hits, including a two-out, two-run flare single to shallow center off the bat of designated hitter Bobby Brown. The three runs were tied for the third-most that Flemer had given up in an entire game, much less an inning, all season.

"After the leadoff homer -- and leadoff homers beat nobody -- he may have overthrown a little bit," Esquer said. "He won two pitches. They jammed two base hits. The two-run base hit was a jam base hit and the ball to right field by [Robert] Refsnyder was a jam base hit, so he won the pitch, but they won the at-bat."

Flemer threw 30 pitches during the laborious frame, while Wade retired Cal in order on just nine pitches. Wade retired the first six hitters he faced before issuing a full-count walk to senior center fielder Chad Bunting in the bottom of the third. With Bunting taking off on a 2-0 pitch to third baseman Mike Reuvekamp, the sophomore swung and missed and the ball skipped away from catcher Riley Moore. Reuvekamp lost his balance and stumbled as Moore got off a wild throw, but home plate umpire Kelly Gonzales called batter's interference, ruling Reuvekamp out. Wade then struck out true freshman shortstop Brenden Farney and got left fielder Danny Oh to fly out to end the inning.

"It's not an automatic call," Esquer said. "The catcher has to actually get impeded, and I didn't think he was. I thought he got off a clean throw, just a bad throw. It's unfortunate."

Farney continued to flash the leather and make a case to be a part of next year's starting infield with several nifty plays at short as Cal played its fifth straight errorless game.

"He's playing very well, defensively," Esquer said. "He makes the routine play and is comfortable out there, so he's done a good job."

After two one-out singles in the top of the fourth, first baseman Joseph Maggi hit into the first of several key defensive plays by the Bears, sending a suicide squeeze attempt dribbling in front of home plate for Flemer, who charged and tossed to senior catcher Chadd Krist to cut down the run.

In the bottom of the fourth, Cal put pressure on Wade with a leadoff line-drive double just fair down the right field line by Knapp and a full-count walk to Renda, but Esquer then called for the hot-hitting Mitch Delfino to bunt. Delfino sent his first two attempts foul before fouling a 1-2 offering back into the screen for a strikeout. Delfino -- the Bears' leading hitter with a .381 average on the season -- had been on fire coming into the series, going 22-for-40 with four doubles and 10 RBI over the previous 10 games and was 23-for-47 with runners in scoring position (.489). However, against the Wildcats, Delfino is now 0-for-6 in the series.

"We had one hit," Esquer said. "It's not the best chance to look for two or three hits, so we get a bunt down, we just need to inch back into the game. I knew we had to score before they got to four. That was my thing: We've got to score before they get to four. Mitch ain't swinging the bat very well. In batting practice, he was terrible, so I was going with, 'Let's be able to score with an out right here,' because to hope for four or five hits in an inning the way we're swinging the bat, that's not smart baseball.

"He is the best [with runners in scoring position], but when you're down 3-0 and he's been not very good in batting practice, let's get us in a position we can score with outs, because up to that point, I think we'd made 15 outs and gotten one hit. We'd better give ourselves a chance to score."

With one out, designated hitter Vince Bruno flied out to left, and Krist chopped out to third to end the inning. Cal came up with more big defense in the top of the fifth, with an athletic sprinting grab from the catcher-by-trade Knapp for the second out in right and Krist erasing Johnny Field -- aboard with a leadoff single -- with a strong throw to second to cut down the would-be base stealer.

Renda accounted for the Bears' only run of the game with a two-out shot to left field in the bottom of the sixth, his fifth longball of the season. Delfino then worked a full-count walk to get aboard for Bruno, but the junior stung the first pitch he saw right at third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean -- the third time this series Bruno had been robbed of a hit.

After his rocky first inning, Flemer returned to form, scattering five hits over the next six innings, before being removed for senior righty Joey Donofrio, who allowed the second eighth-inning solo home run to right fielder Robert Refsnyder in two days.

"Matt pitched tough after the first," Esquer said. "It's unfortunate, because those are the games that are won. A guy has a rough first inning and he comes back and shuts him down the rest of the way and you find a way to get it back for him. We just couldn't get it back for him."

Junior righty Logan Scott tossed a 1-2-3 ninth, including a strikeout of Rickard to set up a last gasp in the bottom of the ninth from the heart of the Cal order.

After fly outs from Bruno and Krist, Bunting - who showed great patience and discipline at the plate all day, working into three full counts - sent a flare to right, dropping in between second baseman Trent Gilbert and Refsnyder for a single. Reuvekamp then took a ball to the leg for his second HBP of the day, bringin the tying run to the plate.

Instead of Farney, Esquer elected to send powerful sophomore Jacob Wark to the plate. Wark had recently re-tooled his swing to add a high leg kick, adding to the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder's already prodigious power.

Wade -- sitting on 135 pitches on the afternoon -- pitched cautiously to the Cal football tight end, throwing three straight outside of the zone, low and away. Wark took the 3-0 pitch for a strike at the knees, and then checked his swing on a ball that appeared to miss four inches off the plate away, but instead, saw Gonzales call strike two. Wark then swung and missed at a ball in the same location for strike three, ending the game.

"God, I didn't think it was a strike," Esquer said of the 3-1 offering. "He gives us a one-swing shot. Jake's come a long way. He's put himself in a position where you've got to think seriously about him. I was completely comfortable with him swinging the bat there."

On Deck
After dealing with in-season rehab starts for preseason All-American lefty Justin Jones following a nerve injury during the 2011 Super Regionals against Dallas Baptist, an injury to projected weekend starter Kyle Porter and a season-ending knee injury to projected junior starting first baseman Devon Rodriguez, along with a thin bullpen exacerbated by a recruiting effort hampered by last season's cancellation and then reinstatement of the program and multiple players playing out of position, the 2012 Bears are now in limbo.

30 wins or 14 conference wins in the ultra-competitive Pac-12 would likely mean a playoff berth for Cal, but with one game left against the Wildcats and two three-game sets against top-15 teams UCLA and Stanford, both of those goals seem quite lofty, indeed.

"You play for pride, more than anything," said a frustrated Esquer, who also didn't count on his team's defensive ineptitude for much of the season. "You've got to come out, and you've got to play desperate. They've got a chance to come out and just step on you, and they're going to want to do that."

Jones takes the mound on Sunday in a must-win 1 PM start against Arizona. Jones is 2-1 in his last three starts, and over his past five outings, has lowered his ERA from 5.45 to 3.79. During that stretch, Jones has allowed nine earned runs in 36.2 innings of work for a 2.21 ERA with 10 walks to 23 strikeouts with just five extra-base hits.

"Hopefully, he's building on the momentum of last week's win," Esquer said of Jones's complete-game shutout of Washington State, in which he struck out six, walked one and allowed just two hits. "We need that. We need him to be on automatic pilot and just kind of go."


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