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May 27, 2012
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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- With the chance to sweep No. 11 Stanford at Sunken Diamond for the first time in a decade, the California baseball team fell just two runs short, losing 5-3 on Sunday in what was more than likely the final game for many in blue and gold, including senior right-handed pitcher Matt Flemer.
"If this is it, this is the series I want to go out on," Flemer said. "That 18-inning game kind of defined the four years I've been here. This transition that's been made the last four years, that's a game that's going to stick in my mind forever.
"This is just kind of being a Cal guy, but knocking them out of getting a national seed is kind of nice. I guess they were up for it. If they had a good weekend, they were going to get it, but making sure that we dampened their attitude about the whole postseason a little bit, that feels good, but that 18-inning game is just going to be awesome to just remember, and the way we came out yesterday and really took it to them, they've taken it to us the last couple years. That really felt good, and it's just unfortunate that we couldn't get it today."
The graduating hurler -- who threw 109 pitches in 7.2 innings on Friday as part of a 5-4, 18-inning win for the Bears (29-25, 12-18 in Pac-12) -- threw two scoreless innings of relief on Sunday, wanting -- needing -- to go out on a high note.
"It has to motivate you," Esquer said. "We can identify two or three things that, if we clean this up, we're really going to put ourselves in position to plug up some of those holes that hurt us this year. Defensively, we've got to be better. We've got to be better at shortstop. If we play better in some spots, you can really give yourselves a chance. We're going to be awful young next year. We're going to have to play very young. That's what happens, so you're going to see a lot of young faces out there, mixed in with some of the guys that come back. It's taken us a while to get to be a perennial playoff team, and that's what we've been, even with a couple near misses prior to going three of the last four years. It hurts. It stings, because that becomes your expectation."
Flemer and the other departing players showed the bevy of youngsters just what is needed to lift the program back into the postseason.
"We played pretty well here in the last three or four ballgames, and that's a positive sign," said head coach David Esquer. "We got some unbelievable performances, with Flemer coming back, just begging to pitch so he could give us a chance to win, and [Joey] Donofrio, where he came from in our program, to Chadd KristDanny Oh, who is probably indicative of our whole program is the way Danny finished. He's really come from nowhere and just not given up on himself. I'm just really proud of all of those guys."
Though Flemer, Krist, Oh, senior outfielder Chad Bunting, junior infielder Tony Renda, junior southpaw Justin Jones, fourth-year junior Paul Toboni, junior corner infielder Mitch Delfino and senior relievers Joey Donofrio and Stephen Pistoresi are all gone after this season, they left a big mark on the program in the final two weeks, helping Cal to score three wins in four games against top-15 competition.
"It's the lessons of baseball, really," Esquer said, reflecting on the trials that those leaving have undergone during their stay in Berkeley. "You're going to face adversity in your lifetime, and it's just going to be how you deal with it and what your mindset is and just kind of dig yourself out of it. It's a game that can knock you down, but you can come out the other side. They've all proved they can do that, and that's what they'll take with them from college baseball."
Jones struggled through an abbreviated two-inning start in likely his last game for the Bears, surrendering three runs on three hits and two walks while striking out three. Needing a win on the final day of the regular season to at the very least give the NCAA selection committee something to think about, Esquer turned to sophomore lefty Kyle Porter, who was at times dominant and at other times erratic, giving up two runs on three hits and two walks in two innings of work, while striking out four.
When Porter -- who threw just 20.1 innings in what was supposed to be his coming-out season as a weekend starter -- was on, he was superb, mixing speeds, changing eye-level and working both sides of the plate. When he was off, he was hittable and struggled with command. Porter saw his development slowed this season by a bout of shoulder tendonitis and resultant complications, and, paired with the lack of pitching brought in via a frantic, last-minute recruiting effort and Jones's recovery from a nerve injury suffered at the end of 2011, was one of the biggest 'What if's' of the 2012 season.
Donofrio continued to make his case to be a late-round steal in next week's Major League, tossing a scoreless two innings with four strikeouts, three coming on his devastating slider.
"Our guys felt that we were really motivated, do-or-die," said Esquer. "We knew that if you win this one, you at least give them something to think about with how you finished and who you beat at the end there, so we were selling out to win. When you get a guy like Matt Flemer, who is walking up and saying, 'Hey, Coach, I want to pitch today,' and really is not taking 'No,' for an answer, and you've got to be smart for him, because he's got a future ahead of him, but when you get those types of things, it's what you coach for. He was more than willing. He was actually forcing his way in there."
Over the three previous games, Cal had hit .333 as a team, with eight extra-base hits. On Sunday, the Bears managed just five hits, with two of the four extra-base knocks -- three of them doubles -- coming from Krist, who went 2-for-3 with a pair of two-baggers.
"I think, for a couple games, they were kind of hitting it at us, and today, we hit the ball at them," Esquer said. "The kid [starter Stephen Piscotty] didn't get a whole bunch of strikeouts, but we hit a bunch of balls right at them and it was just one of those days. They weren't finding that seam that we found yesterday when we hit those consecutive hits."
Blow by Blow
Jones allowed two straight singles to lead off the bottom of the first before Cardinal first baseman Brian Ragira sent a rocket out to right center field. Bunting, in full gallop towards the wall, turned his back to the plate and leaped out to the warning track, finally flopping into the dust with Ragira's drive in his glove for the second out, saving at least a run, before Jones fanned powerful Austin Wilson on a curveball in the dirt.
Cal took a 1-0 lead on a titanic solo home run from Delfino -- his fifth of the season -- over the trees behind the left field wall. It was Delfino's first circuit shot in conference play this season, and his first since April 1 against Texas. Krist then pulled a slow grounder to the hole at short for a rare infield single, and was bunted over to second by his heir apparent behind the dish in sophomore Andrew Knapp. Junior center fielder Darrell Matthews, though, grounded out to first to end the threat.
"We came out hot with the home run, but a couple innings there kind of got us," Flemer said. "Some free bags, a couple errors, that's been the story of the year so far. It's just kind of boiled down to today. I thought we battled. This is the best we've battled all year."
Stanford (38-16, 18-12) -- which found out during the game that it would host one of 16 NCAA Regionals -- got back in a bit way in the bottom of the frame, drawing two one-out walks and parlaying those into a double steal. After Jones fanned Kenny Diekroeger on a cutter, he left a 1-1 curve hanging on the inside part of the plate for center fielder Jake Stewart, who promptly deposited it over the left field wall for a three-run home run.
The Bears answered in the top of the third, when designated hitter Derek Campbell -- who came into the game with eight hits in his last 13 at-bats -- sent a grounder over the head of third baseman Alex Blandino and into left. A throw from left fielder Tyler Gaffney to second trickled away into right, allowing Campbell to take third.
Oh -- who came into the game on fire, hitting .654 (17-for-26) over the previous six games, having reached reached base 25 times in 34 plate appearances for a .735 on-base percentage -- sent a deep fly ball to right, where Wilson snagged the ball on his way to his backside after catching a spike in the turf, allowing Campbell to score. Oh finished the day 1-for-3 with an RBI, and finished the season on an 18-for-29 tear (.621), reaching base 26 times in 37 plate appearances, as he made a strong case as well to be taken in the draft.
But, one of Cal's hottest hitters -- Mike Reuvekamp -- and another of their most dependable batsmen -- Renda -- grounded out to shortstop to again choke off the nascent rally.
Renda finished the series -- and his college career, as he's expected to be taken in the bottom half of the first round or the supplemental sandwich round between the first and second -- 1-for-16.
"That won't define him," Esquer said of Renda. "He's been too important to us. It's just baseball. He would tell you that he didn't really feel it with his swing, but it can happen. He's still one of the greatest hitters in the history of this program."
Stanford scored a run in the bottom of the third off of Porter on an RBI check-swing flare single to left by Brett Michael Doran over the outstretched glove of a leaping Renda at short to drive in Ragira, who reached on a leadoff walk.
The tete-a-tete continued in the top of the fourth, when a leadoff walk to Delfino and a first-pitch double off the left field wall by Krist -- the school-record-extending 65th of his career -- put men at second and third with no outs. Knapp, though, swung and missed on a 90 mph heater from Cardinal starter Stephen Piscotty. A groundout to second by Matthews plated Delfino, but a first-pitch slow chopper to third by Bunting ended the rally, as the Cardinal plated an insurance run in the bottom of the frame with a 1-0 solo homer by Gaffney.
Piscotty retired 12 of the next 13 hitters before being relieved by Sahil Bloom, who tossed 2.0 innings of one-hit shutout ball.
In the top of the eighth, sophomore second baseman Mike Reuvekamp -- who came in on a 7-for-15 hot streak over his last four games with seven runs scored and a .556 on-base percentage - appeared to get on base with a hit-by-pitch, but, after he pulled back a bunt and took a dose in the left shoulder, home plate umpire Tim Vessey ruled that Reuvekamp did not make an effort to get out of the way of the pitch, calling a strike. Instead of two men on and no outs thanks to a leadoff single by Oh, Reuvekamp grounded into a fielder's choice to erase Oh and put a man on first with one out, fundamentally altering the inning, which ended with a flyout from Renda and a pop out by Delfino after a wild pitch allowed Reuvekamp to reach second.
"I said, 'Hey, he's squaring to bunt, so the intention is not to [get hit],' but [Vessey] said he was over the plate, so that's pretty unusual. To be quite honest, all we were hoping was that Renda and Delfino got up with one runner on base to give us a chance to roll the inning even further. We almost hit into the worst-case scenario, which was a double play, but [Reuvekamp] beat it out. We kind of got what we wanted, which was Tony and Delfino with a runner on to see if we could maybe pop one or hit a double or do something to keep that inning going."
Krist made his best bid to make things interesting in the top of the ninth, hammering a 3-2 fastball deep to left and 50 feet over the wall, but the drive curved foul by just a few feet at the last minute, and Krist wound up striking out swinging at ball four. Knapp and Matthews then popped out to end the game and the season.
"That got our hearts in our throats a little bit," Esquer said. "You kind of wish that thing would have stayed fair, but it didn't."
Krist -- like Flemer -- came back for his senior season after being chosen in the 2011 draft. Krist was taken by the Chicago White Sox in the 13th round but returned for his final go, and finished the year hitting .294 with 29 runs, 19 doubles, four home runs and 36 RBI.
"That's what's the strength of our program, is that kids aren't in a hurry to leave our program," Esquer said. "They understand what they have here, and that they can improve themselves and get better. Also, it's hard for them to walk away from their brothers and not play with them anymore, and they know that when they walk into the world of professional baseball, it's a business. It's just different. He wasn't ready to do that. For me, I'm proud that we have the program that kids just don't run away from."
Hearkening back to his honorable mention All-Pac-10 season a year ago as a closer, Flemer threw the final two innings, allowing two hits and striking out one.
"I felt like it was coming out pretty good," said Flemer, who came out firing with his typical 87-89 mph fastball. "I knew it would take me an extra inning or so to start getting loose, so I went down in the sixth and started playing catch down there, and Mike [Neu] said I had the seventh. I felt good. You kind of can't worry about how you feel, because you need a win, and hopefully you get it to next week and then you worry about how you feel. I knew I was going to feel good, and I was going to be able to go in and hopefully get a couple outs."
Flemer addressed the youth who got plenty of experience this year and last, and who will have to step up next season in order to get the program back to the postseason.
"The growth of these guys in the last three games, we talked about it after the game on Friday: guys are starting to learn about what certain guys can do," Flemer said. "There's a lot of promise. There's a lot of promise for next year. We'll see. If this season's over today, I think they've got a good starting point for next year, as far as the pitching staff goes.
"Nobody thought we could win these games. If you look at the standings, if you look at who they had throwing, you look at our guys and how we'd been playing, we weren't supposed to win any games. To win two out of three here on the road, it speaks volumes about how good we're able to play."