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BERKELEY -- After an 8-5 loss to Santa Clara on April 11, the veteran leaders of the California baseball team called for a players-only meeting in their Haas Pavilion locker room. The Bears had lost four straight. Something had to change. A team largely unchanged from last year's College World Series squad was floundering under the weight of poor defense and thin pitching.
That night, a spark was ignited. Since that loss, Cal has won five of six, including their third straight errorless performance on Saturday against Utah, downing the Utes 9-0 behind a stellar outing from senior righty Matt Flemer.
"When you bring a team together like we did in there, and get on the same page and try to get our approach back to where it needs to be, we can do some pretty awesome things," said junior second baseman Tony Renda. "It's just one of those things where we were just out of our approach. Everybody was trying to individually do well, instead of just doing the job for the team. When you get a team together like we did in the locker room after we pretty much hit our low point of the season, when you get a team together like that and you all get on the same page, and you play for the same goal, I mean, it was like last year. We played for the same goal. I think everybody knows what that goal was. When you bring a team together like that, you can be dangerous."
For the ninth time in 10 starts, Flemer pitched past the seventh inning, fanning a career-high eight, while allowing five hits in 8.0 innings of work.
"He's just been incredible," said head coach David Esquer. "It's just pitching. It really is the art of pitching, when you watch him go out there, and so to see him do that, day-in and day-out, is pretty impressive."
Sophomore right fielder Andrew Knapp continued to torture the Utes, slamming his second home run in as many days and his third in his past three games, en route to a 1-for-3, 2-run day at the dish.
"It's always been there," Esquer said of Knapp, who is 3-for-8 in the series with five runs and two RBI. "It's his development. It was 'when,' not 'if,' and it's a part of a great hitter's development. Sometimes, you've got to make adjustments and you've got to overcome either a pitch that you're having trouble with, or a location that you're having trouble with, but once you close up that hole, then you open up the game."
Cal (22-15, 6-8 in Pac-12) took advantage of five wild pitches from the Utes (10-27, 5-12), including three in the bottom of the sixth, while Flemer was as precise as ever, allowing just one walk.
"Fastbal inside, same as last week, especially in the later innings," Flemer said. "I found my slider. My slider was really big. My curveball was hanging up a little bit. My change was OK today. But, my slider and my fastball, I kind of worked off of that in the later innings. My slider was really sharp, and that just opens up everything else."
Blow by Blow
The Bears had pulled ahead early thanks to senior catcher Chadd Krist's leadoff home run in the bottom of the second inning off of starter Brock Duke -- the same pitcher who surrendered Knapp's game-winning hit in the second game of the 2011 season-opening doubleheader. Krist's third homer of the year put Cal up 1-0, and was swiftly followed up by a one-out single up the middle by junior left fielder Darrell Matthews. Matthews took second on the first of five Utah wild pitches - three from Duke - and rode home on an RBI single to center from true freshman Chris Paul.
Paul went 3-for-4 on the day with two RBI, and has now hit safely in his past six games. Over that span, Paul is 9-for-21 (.429) with four RBI and two runs scored.
"He's doing a solid job for us. I was looking at it today, and he's got 17 games started at short and he's got five errors," Esquer said of Paul, who is now hitting .253. "He just plays that vanilla defense, and he's starting to make a little bit better plays, too, a little bit further and further out. Those are going to be big for us, and I'm really happy with his development. I think he's made some improvements, even in the last week, offensively. The coaches have been working with him to try to close up some holes in his swing, too, and he's got some aptitude to be able to make those changes right away."
The Bears added aother run in the bottom of the fifth, courtesy of a two-out RBI double to right off the bat of first baseman Mitch Delfino, who went 3-for-4 on the day.
Cal exploded for four runs in the bottom of the sixth, taking advantage of a fading Duke and shaky relief from Josh Chapman.
Third baseman Derek Campbell came up with the Bears' fifth two-out hit in six innings off of Duke, moving runners to first and second with designated hitter Vince Bruno at the plate. Bruno sent a 1-1 offering chopping towards the right side of the infield, where second baseman Cory Hunt booted the ball, allowing speedy Danny Oh to come around to slide into home just ahead of the tag.
After a walk to Knapp, Renda -- who came into the game hitting a robust .369 -- strode to the plate with the bases loaded. After Chapman missed low and away with a fastball, he sent a slider way off the plate away and past catcher Parker Morin, allowing a run to score to push the lead to 5-0.
Renda sent the next pitch up the middle and past diving shortstop James Brooks to score two runs.
"I liked seeing us be the beneficiaries of those, rather than to give that away," Esquer said. "We'll take it, for sure."
Cal's timing was impeccable. Following the end of the football team's spring game at the adjacent Edwards Track Stadium, an influx of fans flooded Evans Diamond, just in time for the four-run outburst. Tight end/first baseman Jacob Wark -- a member of the victorious Gold squad -- turned in his football jersey for his two-button baseball pullover and yanked on his baseball pants over his football hip pads, just to get in on the action, although he didn't even get an at-bat.
"We like fans," smirked Renda. "Wild pitches, stuff like that, we work on that in practice, reading the ball in the dirt. Catchers are kind of reluctant to throw the ball to second base after it's been in the dirt, and you get that extra 90 feet, it's big. We were fortunate today. The reliever they brought in, he had some good downward sink to his ball, and he was throwing it pretty good, and he was just a little bit wild, which is tough on the catcher. It was getting by him, and we were able to take advantage of it."
Senior center fielder Chad Bunting -- coming off a two-home run, five-RBI game the day before - golfed a single into left center to lead off the bottom of the second, and advanced to second after an attempt to double him off at first on an Oh line-out to short sailed into the stands. Paul sent a grounder under the glove of third baseman Trey Nielsen for an RBI single to make it 8-0, Bears.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Knapp sent a drive soaring off the ivy on the back of the Edwards grandstands for the final tally.
"I feel like I'm really comfortable in the box," Knapp said. "Obviously, it's a lot better swing than what it's been in the past, but I think I'm just getting really good pitches to hit, and I'm not missing them. Sometimes, you go through streaks where you're fouling a pitch off straight back instead of taking advantage of it, but I'm not missing them right now, so that's the only way to explain it."
In the past two years, Knapp is 5-for-12 against Utah.
"I don't know if it's as much Utah as it is the pitches that they're giving me," Knapp said. "I'm getting in good counts. I'm getting in 2-0, 2-1, 3-1. I'm forcing them to make a pitch. I think a big part of it is that I've been taking a lot more borderline pitches that are being called either balls or a borderline strike. That's allowing me to figure out what the zone's looking like."
Knapp leads the team in walks, with 17, and is sporting a .387 on-base percentage in his first season as a full-time starter.
"I'm giving up early strikes so that I can work deeper into counts," Knapp said. "Instead of rolling over a ball that could have been a borderline ball or popping up on a ball that's maybe a ball outside, I think it's just I'm maturing as a hitter. I'm definitely maturing, and it's just unfortunate for them."
Flemer -- sitting on 99 pitches -- pled his case to come out for the ninth, in order to go for his second straight complete game, but Esquer would have none of it.
"We're going to be cautious with him. It just wasn't smart to let him, and he could do it, obviously, but with his pitch count last week, the safe count was right around 100 today," Esquer said.
Esquer wanted to save Flemer for a tough stretch ahead, when Cal will go on the road for six games against Oregon and Washington State, before coming home to face Arizona for three at home. That's not to say that Flemer didn't make a strong case.
"It's one of those things where your mind kind of takes over your body a little bit, and you get into a flow where you kind of want to close it out," the former All-Pac-10 closer said. "It was alright. I threw a lot last week, and we've got a big weekend coming up this coming week."
Flemer effectively mixed his four pitches throughout the day, finding a groove with his slider and trademark paint-the-black fastball.
"He really did. He made more outs with his breaking ball, which is just better and better," Esquer said. "It was really just kind of a pitch, but now, he's getting outs on it, and again, maybe not his absolute sharpest with his best, best stuff, but again, the art of pitching says that you don't necessarily have to have your best stuff to win."
Senior righty Stephen Pistoresi threw a scoreless ninth, allowing just one walk.
"It's good to get Steve some innings, because he's going to be big for us," Flemer said. "It's good to get him in there ... It's all about winning, right now. Yeah, it's great to be able to go out and pitch with the success that I've had the last couple weeks, but the way I see it, it's just another win, and we need to get wins any way we can. If I go out there and go give up 10 runs and we find a way to win the game, I'm going to be just as happy as I am talking right now. It's just one of those things where we need to keep winning, keep winning, keep finding ways to win. Any way I can help us get a win is what I'm trying to do."
Finding the Groove
Since the loss to Santa Clara, the Bears have hit .356 as a team (73-for-205), never rattling off fewer than eight hits in a game.
"I think everyone's just putting aside their own personal whatever they've got going. I think it's more of a team effort, and I think a lot of it has to do with our BP and the way we're taking BP," Knapp said. "We're taking it a lot more, 'Work on your swing, get low and hard,' instead of, 'Let's see how many home runs we can hit.' We're really sticking with it and staying with what Arnie (Tony Arnerich) is telling us to do, and I think it's paying off a lot."
That being said, Cal is third in the Pac-12 in longballs, with 26 on the season. Five of those have come in the past six games. And, to think, all it took was a locker room pow-wow.
"It was just a bunch of guys saying stuff," Flemer said. "I think Vince Bruno said it best: We're the best when we have fun. You could tell that we weren't having fun. Obviously, having fun comes with winning, and that's a process to get wins, but baseball's fun. We get to come out here, every day, and do the thing we've been doing since we were four or five years old. He kind of reminded us of that.
"Mike Reuvekamp said a bunch of stuff, his experiences from DVC (Diablo Valley College) to here, about how last year, he said, we just looked so excited just to be at the ballpark, and we kind of lost sight of that. He was right. Everything that was said, was right. You can tell that we're changing the way we're performing on the field, and unfortunately, it took a little longer than we thought to get to this point, but we're here, and we're hot."
The Bears go for the sweep on Sunday at 1 PM at Evans Diamond with junior lefty Justin Jones likely facing off against freshman righty Mitch Watrous (2-1, 2.51 ERA).
"We need him to be Justin, really, and we can do a better job supporting him with some more runs, but hey, he's a guy who's capable -- with any amount of support -- of winning the ballgame, and so hopefully we can come out and score some runs for him and give him a little easier go of it," Esquer said.