Bears avoid sweep in comeback thriller

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Over the course of the three-game series, the Cal baseball team did not lead UCLA until the eighth inning of Sunday’s game. In the Bruins’ one inning of catch-up, UCLA nearly stole the Bears’ advantage right back.

After a four-run eighth inning, Cal (27-24, 10-17 in the Pac-12) found itself ahead of the Bruins for the first time that weekend, leading 6-4. Following two quick outs, UCLA (38-14, 17-10) rallied to get one run back on a two-out RBI single by Jeff Gelalich. With runners on the corners and two outs, the Bruins threatened to tie with pinch hitter Eric Filia-Snyder at the plate.

Senior reliever Joey Donofrio worked a full count and hurled a knee-high fastball on the payoff pitch. An emphatically called strike three by home plate umpire Jake Uhlenhopp secured the 6-5 win, giving the seven outgoing seniors one last win at Evans Diamond in the year’s final home game.

“To get that out in that situation, especially on a strikeout — that’s just a big pitch,” said junior designated hitter Vince Bruno.

Added coach David Esquer: “You live for that. That’s part of what makes the game fun.”

As dramatic a final frame as it was, Sunday’s bigger storyline was the resurrection of the Cal offense late in the game.

The Bears struggled mightily with runners in scoring position all series, even squandering an opportunity with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning of Sunday’s game.

Then something clicked in the eighth.

Senior catcher Chadd Krist, who hit a solo homer in the fourth inning, got aboard on a throwing error by third baseman Kevin Kramer. Andrew Knapp turned the stroke of luck into a threat with a double deep into the gap, putting Krist on third.

After freshman reliever David Berg issued a four-pitch walk, Bruin skipper John Savage  attempted to snuff out the comeback by bringing in much-feared closer Scott Griggs with the bases loaded.

Not even Griggs could quell the rally. Senior outfielder Chad Bunting dropped a ball into shallow center, scoring two to tie the game. But the Bears weren’t done: singles from Derek Campbell and Bruno each scored a run, putting Cal up, 6-4.

“We just had selfless at-bats,” Bruno said. “Once you start playing for the team and you start pulling for one another, it starts to happen.”

The offense got some help from the pitchers, who kept Cal in the game throughout the afternoon. In the first two games, the Bears trailed by huge deficits early after disastrous innings, making it difficult to recover.

A committee of pitchers — including starter Michael Theofanopolous — as well as relievers Logan Scott and Donofrio largely kept the Bruins at bay and gave the offense a fighting chance to make up the deficit.

Cal still lost the series but avoided its second consecutive home sweep and proved it could muster the comebacks that defined last year’s squad.

“When I look back at my career at Cal, I won’t think about the two games we lost to UCLA,” Bruno said. “I’ll think about the Senior Day that we came out here and hung with ‘em. We hit their best guy.

“That’s going to be a good memory for everybody.”