BERKELEY -- While the eight new light standards will be taking center stage on Thursday at 7 p.m. when the California baseball team squares off with longtime Bears pitching coach and current USC head coach Dan Hubbs and his 9-15 Trojans, there will, of course, be a game to win.
"I think it's fitting," said Bears head coach David Esquer. "It's poetic justice. Someone who's important to me and my career as a coach, and I couldn't have had a better assistant coach than Dan Hubbs. To see him as a head coach now, and being able to have them at our first night game, he knows exactly what he means to us. He was there from Day One with me, and he knows what it takes to get some progress with our program and how long it's taken, so I think he'll appreciate the moment of having our first night game."
The Bears (15-10, 4-2 in the Pac-12) have won 10 of their past 13 games, and return home after a nine-game road swing to face Hubbs -- who was named the head coach of his alma mater after his predecessor Frank Cruz was dismissed on Feb. 13 for violating NCAA rules regarding limits on practice time and organized team activities -- and a pesky Trojans squad which has scored wins over Oklahoma and Oregon this season.
"They're capable," said Esquer, who had Hubbs as his right arm for 12 years in Berkeley. "They can beat anybody."
While Hubbs -- a former USC closer in the early 1990s -- specializes in pitching, his staff has taken its fair share of lumps so far this season, ranking dead last in the conference with a 4.67 team ERA and the highest batting average against in the league (.284).
USC has allowed the most walks and the most earned runs in the conference, but they do have a true No. 1 option on the mound in converted reliever Bob Wheatley.
Before this season, Wheatley had thrown 38.2 innings combined over his previous two campaigns with a 4.42 career ERA, but the 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior lefty will be just as imposing on the hill on Thursday night as freshman Cal starter Ryan Mason (4-0, 2.31 ERA).
Wheatley has been incredibly tough this season, posting a 1.86 ERA in a staff-high 38.2 innings with 22 strikeouts to 11 walks. However, he does allow a lot of hits, as opponents are batting .289 against him, with 44 hits -- again, most on the Trojans' staff.
The Bears offense -- which had been humming along at a .271 clip before last weekend's three-game set at UCLA -- hit just .229 in Los Angeles, and though they won, 5-1, on Friday night against ace Adam Plutko, the next two games were another matter.
The Cal bullpen -- which had posted a 2.08 ERA in 43.1 innings of work, allowing just 10 earned runs on 30 hits and 14 walks, while striking out 34 hitters before heading to Los Angeles -- imploded in the second two games against the Bruins, allowing 10 runs and 14 hits in 9.0 innings.
On Tuesday against San Francisco, though, the Bears relievers got a bit of bounce back, throwing 6.0 innings and allowing two runs -- one earned -- as Cal downed the Dons, 5-2.
"I think it was big for all those guys to get back on the mound and have some success. UCLA was rough for us. They didn't get helped by our defense," said Esquer, who's squad committed three errors over the final two games at Jackie Robinson Stadium. "There were a couple plays on defense that triggered some of those innings that got us in trouble, and then we didn't make some good pitches on Sunday. That's Pac-12."
Because the Bears used Dylan Nelson in relief on Tuesday, they'll rely on the old Spahn and Sain and pray for rain strategy of pitching, throwing Mason on Thursday, senior Justin Jones (1-2, 3.94) on Friday, and figuring out after that who to throw in the 12 p.m. series finale on Saturday.
While pitching may be a bit uncertain, Cal does have some firepower in the middle of the lineup now, with Jacob Wark heating up and Nick Halamandaris healing up a broken finger and getting into the action over the past four games to protect the duo of Devon Rodriguez and Andrew Knapp.
While Rodriguez remains one of the hottest hitters in the Pac-12 with a .351 batting average, three home runs, 21 RBI, five doubles and a .495 slugging percentage, he, Wark and Halamandaris are left-handed hitters, as are Brenden Farney and Brian Celsi, which means going up against Wheatley will require a bit of patience in order to get a win in the Bears' first night under the lights.
"We're young, and we hit young. We panic hit sometimes, going after the first thing available, and they're not as comfortable with two strikes as an older hitter would be," Esquer said. "We just don't have a lot of experience at the plate. I think they're getting there, and they're getting that, but along the way, finding out how to make their way with a two-strike count is a process, and it doesn't come to everyone quickly
"We're running basically eight guys out there with not full-time experience, so they're kind of taking their lumps, but I think they're battling pretty good. I think they're learning as they go."
PREVIEW: Hubbs Returns With USC in Tow
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