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February 18, 2011BERKELEY -- "The home stretch" is one of those terms that sports writers use like a childhood blanket. You know, that one that sits, drool-stained in that back corner of the closet that the wife/girlfriend/significant other never checks. It can mean the end of the season, the end of a game, the end of a road trip, the end of a race (marathon, 400-meter dash, that last block before the next Chipotle), or, more accurately, the final 90-foot stretch between third base and home. For the Cal baseball team, this year is the home stretch of a 118-year tradition -- the final season. And boy, it could turn into something for the books.
"Quite frankly, we've got a good club this year," said head coach David Esquer. "We could challenge for the conference title. If what we stand for is the last team in Cal history, we could have a pretty good one. That's what we're going to stand for, as a club, and hopefully, make them look bad by having a great year."
At this point, supports have said, it is time to separate this team from the ongoing fight to save the program. And this is how BT will treat this season -- as two separate stories. So, without further ado, welcome to the most comprehensive season preview of the Cal baseball team's final season.
On Feb. 18, the Bears will kick off what could very well be a farewell tour at Evans Diamond, with a three-game series against would-be Pac-12 opponent Utah. Cal will square off with the Utes at 1:30 PM on Friday on its 119th Opening Day, followed by a 1 PM tilt on Saturday and a 1 PM game on Sunday, which will feature the San Francisco Giants' World Series trophy on display for all Northern California baseball fans to see and admire.
Throughout the season, Cal will face 13 teams who qualified for last year's 2010 NCAA Baseball Tournament, playing 29 games against postseason participants. Coastal Carolina participated in the Myrtle Beach (SC) Super Regional, while Arizona State, UCLA and Oklahoma played in the College World Series.
"It's not going to be easy, but you have to do that. We've been a victim of that RPI a couple times, and so you've got to schedule the best to make sure that you score high on that RPI scale, and that gives you a little margin for error," Esquer said. "And our league, if they score as well as they did last year when we got eight teams in (to the NCAA Tournament), that's where we want to be, year-in and year-out. We believe that we deserve to be that type of conference year-in and year-out-last year we were-but we don't want that to be a one-year thing. There's clubs in our conference, such as UCLA and Stanford and Arizona State and Arizona and ourselves and Oregon that expect to not drop off too much from the year before."
As in years past, Cal will participate in the Dante Benedetti Classic at the future home of the Bears football team, AT&T Park in San Francisco. Cal will also play in the four-game University of San Diego tourney in Southern California from March 3-6. Other notable home dates will be a three-game series against Ohio State from March 18-20 and single games against Bay Area stalwarts Santa Clara (March 8), San Francisco (March 16), Pacific (April 5) and UC Davis (April 19).
"We open up with Utah, who's going to be a Pac-10 opponent just a year out, and we've got our tournament down at AT&T, which we're really looking forward to, with Rice and Long Beach participating," Esquer said. "It's three games instead of just one game this year, so that's going to be a big part of our schedule, and we've got Ohio State coming in here, as well. Then, there are the usual suspects: the Pac-10 schools."
Eight of the conference's 10 teams participated in the postseason last year, including rival Stanford. The Bears will finish off the season with a three-game series against the Cardinal, a weekend sure to be full of emotion on both sides.
"I hope it just means a tune-up for the playoffs, I really do," Esquer said. "I hope it's two good ballclubs just looking to sharpen their skills for the next weekend of Regional play. What you don't want it to be is the last weekend of baseball played at the University of California. I'm hoping that's not the case. If it had to be the case, it'll be much more emotional and much more memorable than ever thought of before. I'm still holding out hope that that's not going to be the case."
Esquer's former coach at Stanford, Mark Marquess, lamented the loss of one of the conference's oldest programs at the Bay Area College Baseball Media Day in Palo Alto on Feb. 3, especially in the face of the overall health of the sport at the college level. Marquess launched as close to an invective as the reserved, veteran skipper ever has.
"I've done this a long time," said Marquess -- entering his 35th year at the Stanford helm. "I've seen college baseball, and been doing it for -- this is my 40th year -- and college baseball is as healthy and as strong as it's ever been. It's not even close. There are only two NCAA championships that make money, only two: basketball -- obviously -- and college men's baseball. The only two that come close to making money, and that's gate receipts, that's TV revenue, and the attendance at the College World Series and at the regionals is getting better and better.
"TV coverage, now you have the ACC, the Southeast Conference getting regular season games as part of the contract to be televised, and we all know that television is key to the exposure. It's kind of a secret, how successful college baseball is as a championship. You don't build a $125 million new stadium in Omaha unless you're successful, OK? You don't negotiate new TV contracts unless you're successful. College baseball is very successful. It's the future stars of Major League Baseball. In 2008, we're at the College World Series, and the starting catcher (for Florida State) and also a pitcher was Buster Posey. That was June of 2008. Where is he in June of 2010? Tim Lincecum from the University of Washington, a pretty good pitcher. Two years (after he's drafted), and where is he? Cy Young. Our product is great, but sometimes it's a big secret. It's not a secret to the college fans and it's not a secret to athletic directors who are spending millions of dollars to build new facilities. We're healthy.
"The sad part about that is -- and it's kind of ironic -- that the University of California, which has about 120 years of a rich baseball tradition, and I've done this long enough to remember George Wolfman and Jackie Jenson, and Bob Milano and David Esquer have carried on in that tradition, that's an elite baseball program with a lot -- a lot -- of tradition, not only academically with players graduating, but the success that they've had on the field. It's sad. It's sad that a program of that magnitude, that they will no longer sponsor baseball. It's a real shame. It's a slap in the face to our game of college baseball, especially at a time that we're very, very successful, and will continue to get successful, and California, with all their coaches and players, were a big part of that. That weighs heavily on all of us. We're obviously big rivals with Cal, but there's a lot of respect for the athletes and the coaches and the University. That's what college athletics is all about."
Coming into this weekend's opening series, the Bears are ranked No. 21 by Rivals.com and No. 17 by Baseball America, with a third postseason trip in four years certainly more than a remote possibility.
"The reality is that, whether it's Arizona State, Arizona, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Cal, Washington or Washington State, I don't know a slouch in the group," Esquer said. "I don't know one weekend where we're going to be able to go, 'Yeah, we're going to get our two out of three that weekend,' or, 'This is the weekend we're going to get healthy.' It proves to be as big a war in the Pac-10 as it's ever been, and we'd like to think that we're going to be right in the middle of it. If we can pitch and play defense to our capabilities, we're going to be right in the middle of it. We're going to return enough offensive pieces to at least be a little diverse offensively."
Cal returns nine hitters and all three weekend starters in Erik Johnson, quirky lefty Justin Jones and big Dixon Anderson, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior righty who chose to forgo a sixth-round MLB Draft selection by the Baltimore Orioles in order to return to Berkeley.
"We return our whole weekend rotation, with Erik Johnson on Fridays, Justin Jones -- a Freshman All-American -- on Saturdays and Dixon Anderson -- who was drafted in the sixth round and decided to come back and play his junior year -- he'll pitch on Sundays," Esquer said. "We return our closer, Matt Flemer and probably our most valuable pitcher over the last three years and our most versatile pitcher in Kevin Miller. He can give us long relief on the weekends and then starts on Tuesdays for us."
Johnson got the starting nod 13 times last season, posting a 4.09 ERA in 77 innings while striking out 73 and walking 34. As a junior, he'll be looking to lower his opponents' batting average from last season's .290 mark.
The quixotic Jones started 15 games on the hill last season as a freshman, posting a 4.22 ERA in 98 innings while striking out 73 and walking 29. Opposing hitters batted .272 against him.
Anderson -- though he was picked high in the draft by the Orioles -- has the most work to do. He had a 5.17 ERA in 76.2 innings, allowing a .287 opposing batting average.
"He's possibly one of the best Sunday starters in the Pac-10," said sophomore second baseman Tony Renda. "You're always confident going into Sunday that you can either take the series, sweep the series or get out of the series still alive. So, it's big getting him back. It also says something about our team, that we have a good enough team to want to come back to."
Also in the mix will be the young arm of freshman southpaw Kyle Porter -- who, Esquer has said, looks every bit as good as a weekend starter at times in practice.
"I think one of the things that we have to do to support that pitching -- if we're going to be the team we think we can be this year -- is that we have to play defense," Esquer said. "We've got to play defense behind that pitching. I'm a big fan of saying, 'Good pitching and bad defense is bad pitching.' We've got to play defense and defend behind them. We think we're in a position to do that a lot better than we did a year ago. Where inexperience caught us was on the defensive side -- making poor decisions or maybe just being on the field with the game moving a little too quickly for us. But, we've got kids coming back for us who we feel can be good defenders."
The infield will consist of Freshman All-American and first-team All-Pac-10 second baseman Renda, sophomore first baseman Devin Rodriguez, junior shortstop Marcus Semien and sophomore Mitch Delfino manning the hot corner.
"In our infield, we have four guys we feel very comfortable with, but we've got guys waiting in the wings," Esquer said. "We probably have the best defensive shortstop I've had in the last 13 years -- Derek Campbell out of Mater Dei High School. He's going to play some because he's so good defensively, and he's a way better offensive player - people thought he was all defense and no bat. Maybe it's because Coach (Tony) Arnerich can really coach hitting, but he's a way better hitter than people think he is. I'm telling you, this guy can really defend."
Renda -- a third baseman in high school -- moved over to second last season in order to keep his bat in the lineup despite some defensive struggles at third. He struggled with the speed of the game in posting a .875 fielding percentage. But, the other pieces around him are solid with the leather. Rodriguez saw spot duty at first behind departed star Mark Canha, posting a .968 fielding percentage, and Semien and Delfino each tallied .929 and .900 fielding marks.
In the outfield, the Bears return the versatile junior Danny Oh (.294 batting average, .354 on-base percentage, .389 slugging percentage, 30 RBI, 7 stolen bases) in left, sophomore athlete Darrel Matthews (.259/.330/.341, 11 RBI, 3 SB) in center and converted junior catcher Chad Bunting (.325/.360/.484, 4 HR, 29 RBI, 5 SB) in right.
"He's very athletic," Esquer said of Bunting. "Taking it a step further, the only reason he was in the program was that he said he was a catcher, only to catch bullpens. We needed someone to service the pitchers. He wasn't even thought of as a guy who maybe down the line could play. It was, 'If you want to be on the team, you have to catch in the bullpen. I don't care what position you played in high school; if you can catch in the pen and put the gear on, you're in.' A lot like (former bullpen catcher) Ben Liepman. He's a little bit of the heart and soul of this team because kids know how hard he had to work to get his opportunity."
There will be no shortage of competition for outfield spots, even with the three players returning who started parts of last season.
"At right field, it's going to be a very competitive spot because we have a very talented player by the name of Darrel Matthews out of Clayton Valley High School who was our Opening Day center fielder a year ago as a freshman," Esquer said. "It's not a sin to be a freshman and not take college baseball by storm, and Darrel played very well and was very solid, but he came out of the lineup at some point. He's poised to get back in the lineup this year -- whether it be in center field and we move Chad to right -- and there are a couple of other very talented players as well. Vince Bruno was a high school teammate of Darrel and is vying for time in the outfield. He's a very good player, a grinder, one of those guys who brings a lot of personality and grit to our lineup. We have a very talented freshman in two-way player Louie Lechich out of St. Mary's High School in Stockton. He's a left-handed pitcher and outfielder, a recruited football player as a wide receiver and plays with that type of athletic ability. He may be our best defender in the program. He's probably a little bit young offensively, but he's a guy that -- with talent -- is going to need some time to get better, and he may earn that time on the field."
Cal boasts a lot of depth all over the diamond, with freshman Derek Campbell pushing for time at shortstop, veteran infielder Austin Booker, versatile senior Dwight Tanaka and the wildcard: first baseman/designated hitter Jacob Wark, who was a freshman tight end for the football Bears before breaking his foot early in the season.
"It's unusual. We haven't had that kind of crossover player here, yet," Esquer said. "DeSean Jackson we recruited as a baseball player, but that never materialized. Jake is excited. He's a baseball player, and a big part of him not deciding to sign a professional baseball contract this summer was the ability to do both while he was here. Unfortunately he had a setback with football, but it doesn't affect his baseball. I know he was getting some playing time early on in the football season. He's a great young man and he's big. He's 6-5, 240, and he's strong."
The plight of the program, however, is hard to ignore. Because of the cutting of baseball after the 2011 season, Cal will have to contend with losing a young arm that would have helped significantly in the bullpen in freshman Eric Jaffe, who, after the initial announcement that the baseball team would get the axe, left to play for the Bruins.
"People ask all the time, they say, 'Well, coach you lost three of your players at the break,' and my response is, 'Well, we only lost three.' Eric represented a very big part of our future," Esquer said. "We were counting on him developing and taking on a role this year of maybe a seventh, eighth, ninth-inning hurler who can throw really hard and get us through an inning. We planned on him playing a bigger role in the future. It's just part of the shrapnel of the bomb exploding, and we've just got to deal."
Behind the dish, the Bears return All-Pac-10 catcher Chadd Krist, who hit .344 with 10 longballs and 44 RBI while slugging .609 with an on-base percentage of .422.
"He's getting better and better. As much improvement as he brought last year, he's getting better," Esquer said. "The part that I didn't mention, and one of the things which is our strength, really, beyond anything, Chadd is an All-Pac-10 catcher, and behind him is a guy named Andrew Knapp, who could surpass (Krist) before it's all said and done."
The team leader -- almost without question -- is Renda, who hit .373 as a true freshman in 2010 with three home runs, 37 RBI, a .427 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage.
"Tony's a game-changer," Esquer said. "He's maybe the best hitter I've ever coached, and I've had Conor Jackson and (the Cardinal's) David McCarty. He's got that edge, he's got that swagger to him offensively. I say he's got the cockiest swing I've ever coached."
Renda -- along with Jones -- was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team. They were the sixth and seventh Freshman All-Americans in the program's lengthy history. The two were also first-team All-Pac-10 last year and were named to the Norman (Okla.) Regional All-Tournament team for the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Renda was a unanimous selection as a first-team All-Pac-10 infielder.
"This team is extremely easy to lead," Renda said. "I feel guilty even calling myself a leader. It's a team filled with a lot of great guys, hard workers and just fun-to-be-around people. I don't have to do much to get them on board with anything. It's not really vocal or trying to do anything to get these guys to do more because they already do it. It's more just like running between drills, like, 'We just hit BP, and now we've got to go bunt, so let's jog to the bunting stations instead of walking.' It's stuff like that: leading by example. It's the same reason why you won Mr. Hustle awards as a kid."
After his breakout freshman campaign, the 5-foot-9 Renda won't be sneaking up on anybody any time soon, and he's more than prepared for the challenge.
"I'm guessing that I'm going to see a lot more curveballs and change ups in the dirt, sliders in the dirt," Renda said. "Just got to keep the front side solid and go the other way. Get your pitch and hit it, that's the main goal. Just get a good pitch to hit, because you may only get one, and you can't hit balls. You just can't do that. You can't hit balls. Vladdy (Vladimir Guerrero) can, but he's Dominican."
Renda hit 21 doubles and four triples last year with only three home runs, but hitting the longball isn't his game. Normally, calling a player a punch-and-Judy hitter is an insult, but not to Renda.
"Mechanically, I don't worry about my swing at all. Mechanically, I'm set, and I have been, thanks to having hit my whole life," he said. "Since I was 12 years old, I've hit with the same guy -- John Quintell out of Skyline College (in San Bruno, Calif.) - and up to this point, he's taught me how to fix my swing, how to maintain my swing, drills to do. He's the mechanic. I only do that when I'm home. In season, I'm not going to drive over to see him, but up to this point, he's taught me pretty much everything I've known about my swing. Mechanically, I don't worry about anything. I know, mechanically, I'm going to be set. It's just getting a good pitch to hit. I'm probably not going to see a first-pitch fastball all year, but I don't really care. They're going to bury a slider, they're going to try and overthrow their change up, leave it up, and I just have to hit it. You've just got to work the count to get a fastball."
One big hurdle that the pesky batsman won't have to clear will be the new NCAA bat regulations, which have already been implemented during the team's fall practices and for the spring tune-ups before the season goes into full swing, as it were.
Beginning on Jan. 1, 2011, the NCAA mandated that all bats in NCAA competition must be BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) certified, thanks to a rash of cringe-inducing injuries to pitchers and infielders due to the increased speed of balls being hit by bigger and stronger athletes than in years past, a phenomenon explored years ago by an enterprising young columnist at The Daily Californian.
So, what does that mean, specifically? BBCOR, instead of measuring the speed of the ball after it is batted, measures the "bounciness" of the ball and bat, or the vaunted "trampoline effect." Specifically, BBCOR measures the loss of energy at the point of collision between a bat and a ball. Hollow-core aluminum - and particularly composite - bats have thin walls that "give," allowing the ball to distort less (against wood, it can distort by as much as 1/3 of its diameter, losing energy) and retain more of its pitched energy, adding to the power of bat speed. Bats this year, in short, will be mandated to perform more like their wooden counterparts in Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball.
"The bats may play into it a little bit," Esquer said. "There may be teams that have to play a little bit smaller. 90 feet is going to be a lot more valuable this year than it ever has been, because you're not going to be able to sit at first base and wait for that double or home run as often as maybe you used to."
The Bears have never been much of a slugging team, save for the 2008 season which saw current New York Mets farmhand Josh Satin slug 18 over the wall and current Toronto Blue Jays Double-A first baseman David Cooper smash 19 bombs.
"I think we're prepared for that," Esquer said. "We can bunt a little bit, and I think we can run a little bit better than we have in the past."
But while the bats may not quite have the same pop as they used to, there is one player on the roster who could very well put more than a few over the wall and into Edwards Track Stadium: Wark, a 38th-round draftee of the Atlanta Braves in 2010.
"Each day he shakes more and more rust off. I didn't worry about it because he's been playing football, but each day, it's like night and day," Esquer said. "More and more rust comes off of him on a daily basis. The other day, he hit three of five balls into the track stadium in batting practice. He couldn't do that when we started, one week before that.
"He's a Hall-of-Fame kid. The other day, he had a base hit in an intra-squad scrimmage, and I asked that the ball be thrown out because that's the first base hit of any football player ever since I've been here. He'll hit a home run in batting practice, and I'll say, '(Shane) Vereen can't do that!' Or, he'll catch a ball or pick a ball out of the dirt and I'll say, 'Kevin Riley can't do that!'"
Wark's bat may prove a huge help given the fact that last year's starting first baseman Canha, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 MLB Draft by the Florida Marlins. Canha hit .333 over his three-year career for the Bears, popping 22 homers, knocking in 118 runs and cracking 30 doubles in 472 at-bats.
"It's replacing the most important player in the history of our program, in my mind," Esquer said. "For what I know what he meant to us, and just a personality. You dream to have those players, and I had one. I think that people realize that, and are willing to carry that torch."
But before Wark gets a chance to knock off the rust and prove himself worthy of the first sack, he'll have to get through the man who will start the season there -- Rodriguez -- who hit .289 in 97 at-bats last season.
"Devin was the starting DH for us by the end of the year," Esquer said. "He'll replace the departed Mark Canha. Mark Canha was an All-Pac-10 player for us. In my 13 years at Cal, Mark is probably the most important player for our program, in terms of what he did as far as attitude -- and, more importantly -- practice attitude. I've never had a better practice player than Mark Canha was for us. He did not give anybody the excuse not to put forth a good effort, to dog it in a drill, not to play a bunt defense drill at full speed, to work on first-and-thirds -- the most mundane baseball tasks. Mark Canha gave nobody the ability to slack off, and it really has rubbed off on our program."
If this is to be the program's swan song, Esquer is confident that this bunch will give fans something to remember.
"I'm excited about this team. Whether it means winning a game or where we're going to stand or going to the playoffs, I'm really proud of what these players have gone through, how they've responded. Many coaches get the chance to like their teams, but I love this team. I'm looking forward to coaching this team. We're hoping that this isn't the final year of Cal baseball."