Riding a five-game winning streak, the California baseball team heads to Salt Lake City this weekend to open Pac-12 play with a three-game set against Utah, and the Bears (10-7) will do it with a re-jiggered starting rotation.
After a stellar, five-inning, seven-strikeout performance last Thursday against Fresno State, true freshman Ryan Mason will take the bump on Friday at 6 p.m. Mountain Time against the Utes (8-6), who have depended on a young core of four freshman regulars this season, led by Taylorsville (Utah) Juan Diego product Kody Davis.
Davis has only played in nine of Utah's 14 games, but leads the Utes in batting average (.333), while fellow first-year A.J. Young is hitting .333 in 12 games, with a team-leading .593 slugging percentage, boasting two home runs and one double with six RBI, five walks and a team-leading on-base percentage of .455.
Both of those two freshmen, though, have suffered through the same defensive woes that have plagued the rest of the Utes, with Young having committed five errors with a .955 fielding percentage, and Davis having committed three errors with a .925 fielding percentage.
On the whole, Utah is the worst-fielding team in the Pac-12 with a .956 fielding percentage, which could be exacerbated when the Utes open up their home schedule this weekend at Spring Mobile Ballpark, home of the Pacific Coast League's Salt Lake Bees -- Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
"The unknown is, it's their first home game, and we've never played there before," said Bears head coach David Esquer. "The elevation, the ball may carry a bit more, so we've never played there and I don't know. I don't know how offensive the yard's going to be. I know that we give ourselves the best chance by playing defense."
The fielding issues have been pricey, as Utah has allowed 22 unearned runs over 14 games, accounting for 31% of opponents' scoring. Enter: The Pest.
Redshirt freshman Brian Celsi -- who may see limited action depending on whether or not his finger, struck by a pitch on a bunt attempt in his final at-bat of a 3-1 win over Santa Clara on Tuesday, is healthy -- has been instrumental in three of the Bears' five walk-off wins, and provided the winning margin with a slicing two-run double down the left field line on Tuesday against the Broncos.
Celsi is hitting just .246, but his speed on the basepaths and his propensity to pump up pitch counts with lengthy at-bats at the bottom of the lineup adds stress to defenses and pitching staffs.
"In a positive way, I'm a pest, but I like it. I think pitchers take advantage of me being in the nine-hole, and I can punch them right in the face and get a single," Celsi said. "I am excited. I'm excited to start conference. I think I should be alright."
Coming home to a park with an elevation of more than 4,000 feet above sea level may help the Utes in the offense department. Over their first 14 games, they're hitting .233 as a team, 10th in the conference, outpacing only .224-hitting Oregon.
What Utah does bring to the table is speed. The Utes rank second in the conference behind reigning national champion Arizona with 26 stolen bases, with four regulars boasting at least three swipes.
Junior JuCo transfer Braden Anderson is third in the Pac-12 with seven stolen bases in 11 attempts, while freshman Dallas Carroll is 5-for-6 on the basepaths. Davis has chipped in six stolen bases in seven attempts.
Utah won't exactly have an easy time of picking the pockets of Cal pitchers, thanks to junior catcher Andrew Knapp. The preseason All-American has cut down six of 15 would-be base-stealers, ranking him second among all catchers in the league with a 40% caught-stealing mark, just behind with USC's Garrett Stubbs, who's thrown out six of 10.
"The reality is, we knew coming into the season that he's not a finished product, and there's probably a little pressure for people to want him to be a finished product from Day One, and he's not, and I think he has really improved in the game," Esquer said. "I think he's receiving better now than he did a week ago. I think he's throwing better now than he did a week ago, and we knew that had to happen, and he's doing it. It's not always comfortable. We have a few guys who have to improve and make adjustments while they're playing, and that's not always easy to do."
The Bears have also been far better on defense as of late, committing three errors in the past four games while catching five runners trying to steal and rolling two double plays in the past three games.
Shortstop Mike Reuvekamp leads the conference with 57 fielding assists, and 13 double plays turned. Part of Cal's improving defense has been the return of slugger Devon Rodriguez to first base, after a jammed shoulder suffered at the end of fall ball limited him to designated hitter for the first 15 games. Rodriguez's knee injury-turned-blood clot in 2012 cost him almost his entire junior campaign and threw the Bears' defense into disarray, as Cal placed last in the conference in defense.
"Just the calming effect of how he catches and receives the ball at first base, there's a calming effect to that, that we haven't had in a long time," Esquer said. "That's a big deal. That's not to be understated. I think that's a big deal for us."
That calmed defensive situation bears itself out in the stats: Of 74 runs allowed by Cal in 17 games, only four have been unearned.
"I think our infield has been playing pretty solidly as of late, and that's been helping our pitching staff do a better job," Esquer said. "We've got to come out with some starting pitching and we've got to play defense. We've got to keep the game close and then we've got to let the little things that we do well late in the game take over."
Senior lefty Justin Jones will take the mound for Cal on Saturday at 3 p.m. MT, followed by whoever is still available for Sunday's 1 p.m. MT tilt, which could wind up being sophomore righty Dylan Nelson, if he's not used at the back end of Saturday's game.
"I think we're going to go Mason, Jones and then the next best available, and we'll see where we fit," Esquer said. "Road games and road games in league are big, and we're probably going to sell out to win a road game whenever we've got one. If that means using Nelson or someone that has to pitch early just to give us that chance, we'll do that."
Bears Open Up Pac-12 Play in Salt Lake City
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