PREVIEW: Back Under the Lights

A veteran starter is removed from the rotation and a two-way player's season may be done, as we scout out just what the No. 9 Ducks bring to the table as they fly into Berkeley for a three-game series against the Bears, starting Friday at 6 p.m. with Ryan Mason on the hill.

California head coach David Esquer jokingly said during the 2011 season that the threefold responsibility of trying to dismantle a program, save a program and run a program finally got rid of the last vestiges of dark hair below his cap line.

"It's painful to say," Esquer said on Thursday morning. "It's not how we mapped it out. It's not how we anticipated it. But, it's not the race you train for, it's not the race you expect; it's the one you're in ... A lot of it is -- and we can try to hide it and cover it up as much as we want -- a lot of it is based on the fact that you lose two years of recruiting, you're going to feel it at some point, and you knew that this was the year where we were going to feel it. We didn't have any early signs coming into this class, and we didn't have a freshman class last year, so it basically is a lot of what you're going to feel when you shut business down for nine months. It is what it is, and you don't like going through it, but to be quite honest, you could have scripted it out and said that this is the year that it could happen. It's still going to take time to recover, but we'll get it back. We're definitely further ahead of the reconstruction job that I had to do when I first got here."

The 2013 season has been rough, to say the least, for the 14th-year Bears skipper, thanks to inconsistent pitching (just four quality starts on the season) and a recent seven-game disappearing act by slugging first baseman Devon Rodriguez which has seen the senior lefty go 4-for-31 with just 3 RBI, while stranding 13 runners.

Going into a three-game set with No. 9 Oregon (24-8, 9-3 in the Pac-12) starting on Friday at 6 p.m. at Evans Diamond, there is no doubt that Cal (16-16, 5-7) is reeling, with senior lefty Justin Jones becoming so infuriating that he's been pulled from the starting rotation.

For four straight starts, Jones has failed to go longer than 5.0 innings. During that stretch, he's surrendered 11 earned runs on 25 hits in just 14.2 innings of work, capped off by a one-inning start last Saturday in which he allowed four runs on six hits in the bottom of the first against Arizona.

"We can't keep throwing him out there," Esquer said of Jones, who was a Freshman All-American in 2010 and went 9-6 with a 2.93 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 119.2 innings during the 2011 College World Series season, and now sports a 1-4 record and a 5.66 ERA. "He's not going to start this weekend. I don't know how we're going to use him. It's a shame. You don't like to see that. It's a pretty far fall. We'll see what happens from here on out, but we may use him out of the pen a little bit to start with. That doesn't make us stronger. Sometimes, you have to bottom out before you recover, and I don't know if [the Arizona start] was the bottom. It's 180 degrees away from the Justin Jones we knew."

The Ducks come in playing with a purpose, ranking 32nd in the nation in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, 10th in sacrifice bunts, 43rd in WHIP and first in fielding percentage -- doing all the little things right -- after missing a shot at Omaha last season, getting within one out of eliminating Kent State in the Eugene Super Regional before an RBI flare single sent the Golden Flashes to the College World Series.

"If anything, you know that there are a lot of kids in that program that are focused this year, because of that one run," Esquer said. "A lot of programs come back with incredible focus after being that close and not getting there. I expect that that's their rallying cry, and that's what they're trying to do, is trying to turn that one last game around and get another opportunity to get there. They're a year older, and a year better and they can do that. That makes any program dangerous, when you get that close."

Friday's series opener -- the third game ever at Evans Diamond under the lights -- will feature the Bears' only sure starter in true freshman Ryan Mason (4-1, 3.96 ERA), and beyond the 6-foot-7 righty, not much is certain as far as pitching is concerned. Not having a midweek game has helped save some of the arms, and allowed the players to clear their heads a bit, but that won't erase Cal's all-too-apparent warts.

"I think it's OK. We've had some good practices, and we're still focused on getting better," Esquer said of the time off. "That's got to be the bottom line. We're painfully inexperienced and young and our flaws are tough flaws to handle: Starting pitching. We're pretty void of any starting pitching beyond Mason, so we're going to have to piece it together from here on out."

Mason will face Jake Reed (3-3, 3.75) on Friday night. The sophomore righty out of La Mesa (Calif.) Helix has fanned 38 hitters and walked 17 in 50.1 innings of work, allowing a .237 batting average against.

Saturday's tilt against the Ducks will also start at 6 p.m. at Evans Diamond, with Tommy Thorpe (4-3, 3.35) on the bump for Oregon. The sophomore lefty went 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA coming out of the bullpen for much of last year, and this season, has struck out a team-leading 39 batters, while also allowing a team-high 18 walks, with opposing teams hitting .256 against him with eight doubles, two triples and a home run.

Sunday's game scheduled for a 1 p.m. first pitch, with the Ducks sending true freshman lefty Cole Irvin to the hill. The first-year southpaw was drafted in the 29th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, and played under former Cal pitching coach Dave Lawn for three years at Anaheim (Calif.) Servite.

STARTING WOES
Cal's starters have allowed 80 earned runs in 125.0 innings of work this season (5.76 ERA), and have allowed a WHIP of 1.69, while striking out just 78 hitters and walking 45.

"We are going to have to piece games together," Esquer said. "The five guys with our best numbers, we're going to try to pitch them the most."

With junior lefty Kyle Porter relegated to the bullpen and Michael Theofanopoulos facing three-to-four more weeks in a cast after breaking his hand diving back to first against Utah ("That's his season," Esquer said), after Mason, the Bears will resort to a combination of sophomore righty Keaton Siomkin, (1-0, 2.45) sophomore lefty Chris Muse-Fisher (1-2, 7.63), fifth-year senior right-hander Logan Scott (2-1, 1.90, sophomore JuCo transfer Dylan Nelson (1-2, 2.67) and true freshman Collin Monsour (1-0, 3.38) this weekend against a Ducks offense that is just as pressure-based as the Wildcats.

"We're not in an enviable position with the Porters, Jones's and Theofanopoulos's of the world having rough goes of it," Esquer said. "That's not what we needed ... With [Derek] Campbell (broken leg), Theo, we've essentially not had Jones and we've essentially not had Porter."

Oregon does not have a robust hitting attack (.262), but the Ducks are fourth in the conference in walks, third in hit batsmen, first in sacrifice bunts and third in stolen bases, with 46.

"There's going to be no break from here on out," said Esquer. "It's going to keep coming. Everybody's good in our league. Everybody's tough to beat. It's going to be a really challenging weekend, because they're solid. They have good starting pitching, they defend, they make you play defense because they pressure your defense with the short game."

SCOUTING REPORT
Only one hitter in the Oregon lineup is hitting over .300 -- junior first baseman Ryon Healy, who's hitting .349 with five home runs and 31 RBI with a .566 slugging percentage and 13 doubles – but leadoff man Brett Thomas -- who went 4-for-9 with a .500 on-base percentage in last season's sweep at PK Park with three doubles and a triple – is pesky, indeed. Though he's hitting just .264 on the year, Thomas has a .385 OBP, is 5-for-8 in stolen base attempts and has two SAC flies and two SAC bunts, to go along with eight HBPs -- one off the team lead. Of the Ducks' 174 runs, 37 have been unearned, thanks to a relentless, stress-inducing small-ball attack.

"I don't know that it's one guy [...] the leadoff hitter -- whoever that is -- that's the guy that scares you," Esquer said. "Their whole offense is predicated on getting the leadoff hitter on. If you get the leadoff hitter out, you put yourself in pretty good position, because you can maybe negate and nullify a lot of the short game stuff and action that they may try to pose. Getting the leadoff hitter is going to be a big thing."

Making matters worse is the fact that Oregon is perhaps one of the best teams in the nation in situational hitting. The Ducks don't surrender outs easily, grounding into just 11 double plays on the season, which could prove troublesome for Mason, who relies primarily on his sinking fastball to get outs, with 2.27 groundouts for every fly-out he records.

Against Arizona, Mason allowed the most fly-outs he has all season (six), and surrendered eight earned runs on 12 hits in 6.0 innings of work.

"They kind of got us on the run, and they got us on our heels a little bit with the speed of the game at Arizona," Esquer said. "I had one guy who's ever played in any of the Arizona fields, on the field, and that's Devon. [Andrew] Knapp, you could say, but Knapp DH'd a lot. The speed of the game was pretty quick for our guys, and it took us that game to even adjust, really."

DISAPPEARING DEVON
Despite Jones's brief appearance and a 2.0-inning start from Siomkin -- who's one of the candidates to start on Saturday against the Ducks -- in the getaway day Sunday contest in Tucson, the Bears kept the next two games fairly close, falling 6-4 and 5-4 while stranding a total of 17 runners.

"We had a chance to be in the game, if not take the lead, obviously, in the last game," said Esquer, who saw Rodriguez ground into a bases-loaded double play with no outs in the top of the ninth.

Rodriguez went 1-for-14 on the weekend, with nine runners left on base. Had he been just a .250 hitter, Cal could very well have taken two of three from the Wildcats.

"Him and Knapp, when the middle of our order went 2-for-22 on the weekend, we just struggled in the wrong spots," Esquer said. "There's a lot of -- not pressure, but emphasis on their production, because they're our best players. When you're the best players on any team, that goes with the territory."

Oregon only outscores opponents by an average of 2.03 runs per game, so an extra hit here or there by the pair of big bats in the middle of the Cal lineup could very well mean all the difference against a Ducks staff which doesn't make many mistakes, holding opposing hitters to a .242 batting average while sporting a 1.24 WHIP.

"I think he understands what he means to our production," Esquer said of Rodriguez, who started the season on a 34-for-97 tear (.351), during which the Bears went 15-10. "He's trying to force it a little bit. I don't think [the pressure] is going to go away. I think he understands that. You just try to mentally get him to back away and relax a little bit, but it's pretty evident that as he goes, we go. It's been the same with Knapp."

BEHIND THE PLATE
While Knapp's offensive production has been relatively solid (he's hitting .342 on the season), his defense took a big step back in the desert. After leading the league in caught-stealing percentage going into the weekend, Knapp failed to catch a single runner stealing, allowing five stolen bases and two passed balls.

After missing the majority of Sunday's game following a midnight onset of a stomach virus, Knapp returned to practice on Wednesday and will start behind the dish this weekend against an Oregon team that owns a 72.6% success rate on the base paths.

"He is a work in progress, and it is part of his development," Esquer said. "We're not going to get to see the fruits of that development, because he won't be here next year (because he will likely be selected in the MLB Draft), but that's just how it is."

In Knapp's stead on Sunday, true freshman Mitchell Kranson got his first career start behind the plate, and performed well, making sure his pitchers didn't uncork a single wild pitch with solid blocking and not tallying a passed ball, though the Wildcats did take advantage of his youth by stealing four bases.

"I was pleased with his receiving skills," Esquer said. "We knew that his arm is a little short right now. I think, in the future, it will be playable and serviceable, but he did a nice job for his first time behind the plate."

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