BERKELEY -- Yes, it's early in the season, and yes, only one weekend of Pac-12 games have been played, but, for the moment, the California baseball team is knotted in a three-way tie atop the conference with No. 3 Oregon State and this weekend's opponent: No. 11 UCLA.
While the Bears recently ran off an eight-game winning streak against Fresno State (4-15), Santa Clara (8-12) and Utah (9-9), the Bruins (15-3, 3-0 in the Pac-12) are a whole different ball of wax.
UCLA -- who hosts Cal (13-8, 3-0) for a three-game weekend set in Los Angeles starting tonight at 6 p.m. at Jackie Robinson Stadium -- is seventh in the nation in ERA with a 2.02 team mark, but are 183rd in team batting average, hitting .259.
"I don't know that they have a guy that is going to carry their lineup," said Bears pitching coach Mike Neu. "I think, top to bottom, they're solid. Top to bottom, they put the ball in play, they do the little things well, they have a high hit-by-pitch stat with all of their guys, they're able to hit and run, steal bases."
The Bruins' offense doesn't need to be good. UCLA pitchers lead the nation in walks plus hits per innings pitched (0.94), have allowed the sixth-fewest walks in the country (39) and are 12th in fielding percentage.
"It's one of the top pitching staffs in the country, so they don't have to do a ton offensively, besides put some pressure on you and play for one run, and that's been enough for them, lately, so we'll have to do a good job, offensively, to put a few across and then do what we do," Neu said.
During its eight-game run, Cal hit .302 (81-for-268), with first baseman Devon Rodriguez hitting .379 with two home runs, 11 RBI, two walks and a double with no strikeouts. On Wednesday, Rodriguez accounted for the Bears' only run of the day against San Jose State with his third home run in four games, as catcher Andrew Knapp -- who had a nine-game hitting streak halted on Sunday against the Utes -- went 1-for-3.
While Cal owns a solid .271 team batting average, the two big bats in the middle of the order may be getting some help sooner rather than later, as injured slugger Nick Halamandaris -- an eighth-round pick in the Major League First-Year Player Draft last summer by the Seattle Mariners who broke a finger on his right hand fielding ground balls during winter break -- was out taking fly balls in right field before Wednesday's game, and has been cleared to start playing.
"He's close," Neu said. "He's cleared to play. I think the biggest thing for him is that he's such a competitive guy and a hard-worker, we don't want to throw him into the mix too early and then he re-aggravates it, but he's definitely going to start to see some time here, and I think if we can ease him in, it's going to be good, and he's going to get his opportunities here, soon ... It'd be great if we got another bat. It's a tough blow. We had [Derek] Campbell starting to play really well, and then [Michael] Theofanopoulos is the DH and he's starting to swing the bat well, and it seems like every time we catch that little gear and we're feeling pretty good, we have an injury, so Halamandaris will be a guy we'll look to, to step up. It's a lot to ask of a freshman who's coming off an injury, but he's going to get some opportunities here pretty soon."
While the two true freshman in the lineup to start the season -- Max Dutto and Mitchell Kranson -- struggled from the get-go, the one true freshman who got to take things in for a bit before being pressed into service -- center fielder Devin Pearson -- has been a breath of fresh air at the top of the lineup, hitting .313 with 10 runs, five doubles, one home run, six walks and a .421 on-base percentage -- second only to Rodriguez among regulars.
On Friday, Cal will square off against junior right-handed ace Adam Plutko (2-0, 2.73 ERA), who owns 210 strikeouts in his three-year career in Los Angeles.
"It starts from Friday. He's going to come right at you, he's going to attack the hitters, and he doesn't let up, so it'll be a good test for our offense and for our young guys," Neu said. "For [Ryan] Mason, throwing on Friday, that'll be another good match-up for him. He got a chance to pitch on the road in Utah and start, and did a pretty good job. He's got another good road test at UCLA, so I think some of our young guys are gaining experience, but at the same time, we're trying to win games."
Opposing Plutko will be 6-foot-7 freshman righty Ryan Mason (3-0, 2.93), who stumbled for the first time this season last Friday in Salt Lake City, but has otherwise been the most dependable starting pitching option since entering the rotation against the Bulldogs on March 8.
Last Friday, Mason lasted 5.1 innings, allowing three runs – all earned – on six hits, while striking out three with no walks.
"I think, with him, we played at 4,700 feet elevation, and the sinker wasn't moving the same way, so there were some guys hitting him a little more square than he's been hit before, and he didn't quite have an answer for it, but at the same time, I thought he still pitched well," Neu said. "He battled and probably just became just a little one-dimensional, where usually he's got that big sink, that really good change up and slider mix, and he didn't quite have that in about the sixth inning, where he kind of fell short."
Mason's sinking fastball – his primary weapon – will be back in play on Friday, and he Bears – who were dead last in the conference in fielding last season – have been playing superior defense for the past nine games. During that stretch, Cal has committed just seven errors, and is fourth in the Pac-12 in fielding.
"They're going to be more of a pressure offense," Neu said. "I don't know that they necessarily have the big, physical bats that maybe some of the other teams do, but they're going to be a high-focus, high-pressure offense. We're going to have to do a good job throwing strikes, fielding our positions and making our pitches, and we should be OK. The biggest thing for them is their pitching."
Saturday's 2 p.m. match-up will be the most anticipated as far as the scouting community is concerned, with senior lefty Justin Jones going up against junior righty Nick Vander Tuig (3-2, 1.80).
Jones (1-1, 4.81) made a brief cameo appearance on Wednesday against the Spartans, throwing one shutout inning with one strikeout and allowing no hits or walks.
"I thought that was probably the best I'd seen him throw the ball," Neu said. "I thought his breaking ball was really good, and he was letting it go a little bit more. I think he's gaining confidence, and that's one of the reasons we're throwing him midweek is so we can maybe get a little more confidence and maybe get him in a groove, and I think he's done that a little bit more each time, so we've just got to stay with it, and maybe he can kind of catch his rhythm and get hot."
Over his past four outings, Jones has thrown 14.0 innings, allowing five earned runs for a 3.21 ERA, striking out nine and surrendering four walks, as he shows signs of returning to the form of his sophomore season, when he went 9-6 with a 2.93 ERA, leading Cal in wins, innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio (among starters) with a 2.61 mark.
Jones has thrown twice in the past two weeks in midweek contests in lieu of a bullpen, which has allowed him to get into a bit of a groove. As his career numbers show, the more innings Jones throws, the better he is down the stretch.
"I think that's what we're trying to accomplish," Neu said. "Instead of a bullpen, throw him in a game. His arm's pretty resilient, and we've kept his pitch count low, so he's able to do it, and if we can get him going, I think that's going to be a big deal for us."
On Sunday, Cal will throw whoever is left, whether it be Collin Monsour (1-0, 3.94), Dylan Nelson (0-0, 1.86) or a cadre of relievers.
Over the past nine games, the Bears bullpen has been nothing short of sensational. In 43.1 innings of work, Cal relievers have allowed just 10 earned runs (2.08 ERA) on 30 hits and 14 walks, while striking out 34 opposing hitters.
"Our bullpen's been so good that we feel pretty good about whoever we start, we've got some backup," Neu said. "I don't know if that's necessarily what we'd love to do, but we're in a situation where the bullpen's been so good that we can kind of rely on them a little bit more, and it's been OK so far."
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