Youth Movement Takes Hold
Season Preview Feature: Thunder Rolls for Rodriguez
BERKELEY -- The 2011 College World Series team is no more. This 2013 California baseball team has power, but not a lot of defense. For all the circuit shots that will come off the bats of Jacob Wark, Devon Rodriguez, Andrew Knapp and currently-injured Nick Halamandaris, simply fielding the ball cleanly may wind up making the difference when the game is on the line. During the Bears' penultimate scrimmage last Saturday, head coach David Esquer halted the game for 10 minutes while taking his defenders to task.
This team has pitching, but the arms are largely inexperienced. With three veteran starters taking the hill on the weekend, a potential front-line arm in the wings and two tested sophomore arms, the closing role might fall to Eric Walbridge -- who has missed a year and a half with elbow surgery.
This team is young, and almost all of the kids are going to have to contribute, starting at 1:30 p.m on Friday at Evans Diamond against Michigan, a team with a young, inspired head coach in Erik Bakich and a new way of doing business.
"There's no other way around it: This is a year where our sophomore class should be prominent, and maybe a couple juniors should be prominent, and they're not here," says Esquer.
Robb Woodcock -- a 2011 signee who labored under a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament -- is no longer at Cal. Senior Vince Bruno is taking a redshirt season after undergoing two offseason hip surgeries. Senior outfielder Darrel Matthews is, according to Esquer, not in school due to "family matters." Would-be two-way athlete Louie Lechich transferred to San Diego after the 2011 playoff run.
With last season's starting shortstop -- Derek Campbell -- taking up residence in center field, last season's starting second baseman Tony Renda soon to report to spring training for the Washington Nationals, last season's mound ace Matt Flemer doing the same for the Colorado Rockies and last year's starting third baseman Mitch Delfino doing the same for the San Francisco Giants, this team will look very different, and very young.
Starting on the mound, the Bears will have familiar faces in the weekend rotation in senior Justin Jones and juniors Kyle Porter and Michael Theofanopoulos -- all lefties. Behind them, though, there are concerns about inexperience and pitchability, although, if you ask the gem of the 2012 pitching class -- 6-foot-7 Ryan Mason -- there are no worries at all. Mason's personality can best be described using a Russell Brand line: "It only works with fame."
[COUNTDOWN TO FIRST PITCH VIDEO: Justin Jones]
Mason has just enough wild in him to work, and his unpredictability both on the mound and off is part of his charm. He may have the crazy eyes, but he's also got a fastball that he can effectively spot anywhere from 82-91 with heavy sink on both sides of the plate to both lefties and righties. His two points of pride: two hits allowed all fall and spring in scrimmages against Cal's top two sluggers: Rodriguez and Knapp, a first-team preseason All-American according to Baseball America.
"He's good. He's definitely in that line of front-line guys that we've had here that need development, but he's among those kids that we expect big things [from]," Esquer says of Mason. "Now, how big? You just never know, but any different expectations between him or Erik Johnson or Brandon Morrow or any of those other kids who end up stepping up to the forefront, probably not. He's capable."
Mason will likely be the frontrunner to start during midweek games, and on four-game weekends.
"He relies so much on that sink, that heavy sink, and if they hit it, they're probably going to pound them all into that dirt in front of home plate, which means we're going to have to play defense," says Esquer. "There's going to be a lot of contact, this year. I don't think we have a 10-strikeout evening, so we've kind of told ourselves, that we'd better be prepared to make 22 or 23 plays a game as a team, and that's our number. If we get four or five strikeouts, it's a good evening."
In the infield, there will be even more youth, but yet, still a sense of familiarity. Sophomore Chris Paul has fixed the hitch in his swing and is now one of the more consistent hitters on the team, and will provide a slick glove and a strong arm at shortstop, where the Bears were moribund last season.
[COUNTDOWN TO FIRST PITCH VIDEO: Chris Paul]
That lack of a consistent shortstop -- five different players filled in at the six -- was one of the main reasons Cal was dead last in the Pac-12 in defense in 2012.
"I think we're better. A lot probably could be contributed to Devon Rodriguez not being there. He's such a stabilizing force, even relaxing everyone down just to make throws. It's not something I'm proud of. I've had teams win national titles in defense, during my career. We finished in the top three early in my career here at Cal, defensively. In my years at Stanford, we finished in the top three at least two or three times, and at Pepperdine, we were top-three nationally, so I know I play good defense, but we just got into a bad cycle. Mitch Delfino had his most difficult year, defensively. At shortstop, we were a little bit of a mess. Five shortstops is not a good description of your season, and then the first baseman, revolving at first base. We were unsteady literally, and unsteady figuratively."
Replacing the venerable Tony Renda at second base will be his spiritual successor as the heart and soul of the infield, junior Mike Reuvekamp. Reuvekamp is not afraid to get his uniform dirty and can play all over the field, but his stabilizing influence will be most keenly felt at second, where Renda roamed for three seasons, including one as the conference's Player of the Year.
"We're going to have to play with a certain degree of fearlessness and some physical toughness to get every bit of performance out of our team this year," Esquer says. "It is something that's right at the top of our list. We need some guys who play that way, and he's kind of the ringleader of that."
Another roughneck -- Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley's Max Dutto -- will take over the hot corner from Delfino. While Reuvekamp is taking over Renda's old position, Dutto appears on a trajectory to take over as the new Renda, starting the season at third much as Renda did as a freshman, and wearing the second-round draft pick's old No. 14.
"I would say Dutto has a lot of Renda qualities," says Rodriguez, who has high hopes for the freshman class. "He's really in-your-face, very confident, knows who he is. Pitching-wise, Mason's like Flemer -- not the whole rah-rah, but the ‘I'm going to get you out. I don't care who you are.' We have a very diverse freshman class. You can't really compare them to anyone."
Dutto's older teammates marveled during fall practice that when they saw that old No. 14 step to the plate and rap a single up the middle, they had to pause a moment to remember that it wasn't Renda -- even though Dutto swings from the left side.
"Renda could have probably gone up there lefty with no problem anyway," one teammate remarked.
Dutto has some of the quicker hands in the lineup and swings a violent bat, but yet with a measure of control. He can probe a defense and find the creases quite easily, though he still needs the polish that a full college season will bring. He will likely wind up at shortstop or second base by the time his career is over, but right now, playing third is both his -- and the Bears' -- best bet.
"We moved him around and said, ‘Hey, where is he going to fit best?' because, he's got to play," says Esquer, who played Paul at third all fall before making the switch in mid-January to Dutto. "A lot of it was where we felt Max could come in and compete immediately. Offensively, I think he's ready, and he's shown to be ready in practice. Games are different, but it looks as thought third base is a position he could handle, and then, we're going to kind of mold it around where guys can fit."
One of the more intriguing bats aside from Dutto in the true freshman class is that of Mitchell Kranson. A product of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, Kranson said to Esquer the day he committed that the team was going to have to increase its batting glove budget, because he was going to be wearing through plenty due to nighttime batting practice and off-hour hitting. Despite his stature -- 5-foot-8, 203 pounds -- Kranson has plenty of pop, and is just a year in the weight room away from being a true power threat. As of now, he's good gap-to-gap, has OK speed for a player who's body type is more a fit for catcher than anything else and is a tremendous contact hitter. He has fast hands and a short, direct stroke from the left side. He's spent much of the spring at first in anticipation of Rodriguez not being able to take the field due to lingering shoulder soreness -- at least at the start of the season -- but it looks like Rodriguez will be well enough to go on Friday against Michigan, so that puts Kranson squarely in the DH role.
[COUNTDOWN TO FIRST PITCH VIDEO: Mitchell Kranson]
Esquer and pitching coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Neu say that Kranson's bat plays, a description that was bestowed upon World Series hero Allen Craig when he was searching for a position at Cal back from 2003-06.
Rounding out the youth movement – at least among the projected contributors – is outfielder Devin Pearson.
"Someone who's probably going to be pressed into action earlier than necessary, maybe, but we need to stay on top of a lot of these young kids and make sure that they're able to keep their composure, and maybe just have some vision of what this really is all about," Esquer says. "We're going to really have to usher these kids along with how to deal with really what they're doing. They're playing at the highest level of baseball, and it's not easy."
Pearson probably has the best bat control on the team, and can effectively place the ball wherever he wants when he squares to bunt. He's a threat to drop one down for a base hit, and is exacting when it comes to moving runners over. He has plus speed, and as a former quarterback and wide receiver for Carmel (Calif.) High School, he has superior athleticism and great instincts as an outfielder. He hasn't really been given a chance to test his arm fully, so it's tough to say whether he could wind up as a right fielder, but he certainly has the legs to go get it in center and left, as he's proven by stealing several would-be longballs over the course of spring and fall practice.
[COUNTDOWN TO FIRST PITCH VIDEO: Devin Pearson]
"He's going to be a spark plug for us," says Rodriguez.
The lightly-recruited Pearson just wound up falling into Cal's lap, and the Bears' outfield may very well be the better for it.
"We heard a little bit about him, but honestly, he was playing for an alumnus -- Noah Jackson -- and Noah just kept talking about how this kid is a good player, and he was drafted, and we listened to Noah, because he knows what he's talking about, and we were just happy that he put us in touch with him to come watch, and we liked what we saw," Esquer says. "The effort is just beyond what you could ever wish for, because guys like that just change the whole tempo of your practice."
Starting in left field will be redshirt freshman Brian Celsi. Celsi is a pesky, irritating, trash-talking slap hitter who has an affinity for fouling off pitches and extending at-bats. He is a prototypical top-of-the-order hitter and could very well start the season hitting first or second.
[COUNTDOWN TO FIRST PITCH VIDEO: Brian Celsi]
After redshirting last season, Celsi has seen his biggest jump come between the fall and spring, and in spring scrimmages, he's looked much more confident and has had a better batting eye than he did in the fall, and that's not even taking into account his reckless abandon in the outfield. Celsi has chalk-outlined himself twice on the outfield walls in recent scrimmages, and has the speed to track down just about any ball in the gap. He moves well to both sides and can turn and get deep with the best of them, enabling him to play all three outfield spots.
"He is a different player. He is a different player," Esquer said. "He's done very well."
Can the youngsters give Cal some juice in 2013? Only time will tell, but the talent is there. The question will be whether that talent can overcome a lack of experience.
But, for today, because, after all, it is Opening Day, you get to believe that this year is Next Year. You get to believe in Miracles. You get to believe in the Amazin'. You get to believe in the Improbable and the Impossible. You get to believe that curses can be lifted. You get to believe in the smell of New Jersey clay and freshly cut grass that still comes from your old mitt. You get to believe in the sweet spot and second chances. And you get to believe in storybook endings.
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