Bears welcome challenge from Sun Devils

Photo: Junior Erik Johnson has started nine games for the Bears this year. The right hander has posted a 2.05 ERA and  a 5-1 record this season.
Kevin Foote/File
Junior Erik Johnson has started nine games for the Bears this year. The right hander has posted a 2.05 ERA and a 5-1 record this season.

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Last December, the five-time national champion Arizona State baseball team was slammed with self-imposed sanctions so severe that its legendary coach Pat Murphy was forced to resign. Among their myriad of violations, the Sun Devils were found guilty of paying players for work they didn't perform, excessive phone calls and a host of other recruiting infractions. As a result, No. 9 ASU (25-9, 8-4 in the Pac-10) won't be appearing in the postseason this year, regardless of how good the squad is.

But when Cal's Tony Renda was asked about hosting the Sun Devils at Evans Diamond this week - the first tilt of the three-game series was moved up to today at 2:30 p.m. due to Easter Sunday - the normally serious second baseman wore a big grin on his face.

"I'm extremely excited," he said. "I'm excited to get them here on our home turf and take them on. I'm very confident going into this weekend."

Renda could be speaking for the entire team, which has been playing like a squad without a care in the world. The Bears (24-9, 9-3) are riding a five-game winning streak and their 24 wins are already six shy of overtaking their entire win total for last season, a year that saw Cal make a postseason appearance.

With the Bears well over halfway through the season, their College World Series qualifications are gaining more and more credence and attention. In the beginning of the season, Cal's offensive numbers jumped off the page. As the competition got tougher, its stingy pitching stood out. Now, with Cal's defense finally showing its stuff, the Bears are looking like one of the most complete teams in the Pac-10.

"I really think that our infielders are starting to get their confidence now," catcher Chadd Krist said. "You see Tony and (shortstop Marcus Semien) out there making great plays and really saving us. It's crucial they're producing up the middle."

A month ago, the Bears had the second-worst fielding percentage in the conference. Since then, they've risen to second-best.

The team with the best fielding percentage in the conference is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Arizona State. Sanctions aside, the Sun Devils have been their usual, successful selves. They're batting .317 as a team with a conference-best 19 home runs.

Johnny Ruettiger - who fans of the movie 'Rudy' may have guessed is the nephew of Notre Dame's scrappy defensive end Dan 'Rudy' Ruettiger - leads the team in advancing runners with a .588 success rate in that situation. He's also tough on the base paths. Ruettiger has 17 stolen bases on 27 attempts, a little over half as many attempts as the entire Cal team.

So while ASU comes into Berkeley this week with nothing to lose - no College World Series hopes are on the line - the Bears, sitting at second in the conference standings, have their eye on their first Pac-10 title since 1980.

Cal, however, is as cool as ever.

"I don't think they're any more dangerous than we are," Renda said.


Katie Dowd covers baseball.

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