To say that No. 13 Arizona State bludgeons its opponents over the head would be like saying William Perry will only have the salad tonight, thank you very much.
The Sun Devils (30-14-1, 12-9 in the Pac-12) pace the conference in slugging (.453), hits (472), doubles (98) and home runs (34), coming in second in runs (286), on-base percentage (.378) and triples (22). Those numbers can be attributed – in part – to playing in Tempe's Packard Stadium, as outside of its cozy home park, Arizona State is hitting just .269.
Still, the Sun Devils have managed just fine, posting a 12-6 road record, which they take into Berkeley this weekend for a three-game set against California, with Friday's game scheduled for 6 p.m., with pregame ceremonies to unveil a new video scoreboard, and Saturday and Sunday's games scheduled for 7 p.m. and noon, respectively.
"The last 10 have been tough," said Bears head coach David Esquer, who's team is in the midst of a of a 10-game stretch against teams ranked in the top 25, which began with a road sweep at the hands of Oregon State last weekend. "Oregon State is very good. It's the upper echelon of our league, and for our kids, it's the measuring stick. We've got to show progress against that level of our league."
Cal (21-26, 9-15) comes into the home stretch hobbled, to say the least. With spark plug Vince Bruno on the shelf since undergoing offseason hip surgery, Derek Campbell lost early in the year to a broken leg, Michael Theofanopoulos going down against Utah with a broken hand, Mike Reuvekamp going down with a broken finger just two weeks ago while in the midst of a hot streak, Max Dutto unable to field because of a shoulder injury and slugger Devon Rodriguez limping through a nagging shoulder injury that will require surgery right after finals, the Bears are depleted, to say the least, with a bench that – at this point – is limited to two players: freshmen John Soteropulos and Sean Peters.
"That's about it. Dutto has not been able to throw," said Esquer, who admitted that this season has been his toughest as an on-field manager. "I think it probably has been, because being forced to use players maybe ahead of time, it's an investment. We're hoping it's an investment in performance in the years to come, but it's at a price, and the price is, they're taking their lumps. They're getting worked pretty good."
With recruiting curtailed during the 2011 season when the team was cut and then reinstated after a run to the College World Series, the Bears have also had to deal with a dearth of pitching, with their one dependable starter – freshman righty Ryan Mason -- only lasting three innings last weekend against the Beavers.
"I think it's a case where he's got to become more routine against this level of competition, where he's able to face it," Esquer said. "He just didn't have great stuff, and in trying to keep the game still close without letting it get away from us completely, it was not one of his better outings, but he's got to be able to come back from that, too."
Beyond Mason on Friday night, Cal will send converted reliever Trevor Hildenberger to the hill on Saturday, with all hands on deck for Sunday's finale. The Bears bullpen should be relatively well-rested, with only six pitchers throwing last weekend no midweek game due to finals.
"You'd like to do that more often in a winning fashion, but we just didn't see the need to before Sunday, and then on Sunday, we went with Logan [Scott], who seemed to have the best mix to be able to handle them, and we kind of rode him out," Esquer said. "Again, giving up a couple runs late came back to bite us, because that was their margin of victory, and we had some guys on base."
Despite their lofty ranking, the Sun Devils do have a bit of a soft spot in that they aren't very pitching-rich, with a middling 3.94 team ERA.
"From what I understand, they're a little like us: They're a little TBA on Sunday," Esquer said. "They feel good about their 1-2, but they're trying to figure out who's left based on who they use to win games on Friday and Saturday. I think they're going to look for the best match, based on our lineup -- right-left -- to see who's the best guy to pitch on Sunday."
Because of Esquer's short bench, he's had to send five freshmen onto the field at the same time in recent weeks. While freshman Mitchell Kranson has hit safely in seven of his last 10 games (hitting .286 with four runs, five RBIs and four doubles) and first-year center fielder Devin Pearson has gone 15-for-45 over his past 11 games, with six RBIs, five stolen bases in six attempts and seven walks, youth has been more trying than refreshing, particularly because the youngsters don't go very deep into counts.
"You'd like to. Our offense has not shown the ability to do that," Esquer said. "That's one of the aspects of being young, where they're just not comfortable deep in the count, so they try to make it happen so early, and I don't know how often we're at two outs and four pitches, but a lot, and that's just youthful panic or youthful just not comfortable seeing some pitches."
On the other side of the diamond, Cal will face perhaps the best one-two punch in the conference in Trever Allen and Michael Benjamin. Allen is 11th in the conference in batting average, first in slugging, fourth in RBI, second in homers (9) and second in triples (5). Benjamin is fifth in slugging, third in runs scored, sixth in hits and second in doubles.
"It's tough. They make it tough on you. They're athletic and offensive," Esquer said. "We've got to play a solid game of baseball -- pitch well and play good defense -- and then come up big with runners in scoring position. The game is that simple for us. If we get them on there, pitchers obviously pitch tougher with runners in scoring position, and we've got to raise our level of game to where we can win those at-bats. We just haven't been able to do that consistently."
When the Bears open up Evans Diamond on Friday for a 6 p.m. start, there will be yet another new addition to the 80-year old facility out beyond the left center field wall: A state-of-the-art video scoreboard.
After the addition of eight, 90-foot light poles were erected around the field earlier this season, Friday night will see the debut of the 38-foot-wide, 31-foot-high scoreboard, which will offer scoring, game information, as well as fixed advertising and a full color video board measuring 24 feet wide by 14 feet high.
The project as a whole has a budget of $2.25 million will be funded by a combination of donations and increased ticket and sponsorship revenue as a result of the upgrade, and was designed by Brereton Architects of San Francisco and will be constructed under the direction of Overaa Construction of Richmond.
The new addition will also feature permanent tributes to former pitcher and fundraising leader Stu Gordon, as well as former coach George Wolfman -- who's name adorns the current scoreboard in right center field -- and a man who never played a single inning for the Bears: Frank Renda.
Frank Renda – the father of 2011 Pac-10 Player of the Year and current Washington Nationals farmhand Tony Renda -- passed away from cancer just two months before his son and the rest of the program were informed that there would no longer be baseball on the Cal campus.
"It was obviously tough. My dad, for me, in baseball, was a lot of motivation. He knew how to get me going in a way that, he didn't know the mechanics of the game, but he knew how to win," Renda said as a part of an interview for an upcoming book on the 2011 season. "He knew how to get the most out of me. So, it's tough to replace that, and it really can't be replaced, but it's one of those things where you know he's with you. You know he's there. You know he's watching. I know he's cussing me out when I go 0-for-4."
Renda's mother Larree was behind the first major advertisement at Evans Diamond last season, owing to her position as President and Executive Vice President of Safeway Health, Inc., among other titles. Esquer calls the 80th pick in the 2012 Major League Draft a "program changer," and much of that is due to his father, who built the family home with his own two hands.
"One of our program changers was Tony Renda. One of the reasons he was a program changer was that he was raised so well by his father, in a great family life, one that made no excuses and took responsibility and was accountable for performance," Esquer said. "Frank Renda had an impact in our program because of how he parented Tony. That's a program-changer for us. To have his name up on our scoreboard is a big deal for our program."
Every ounce of Renda's toughness came from his father. Superman isn't 5-foot-7. But Tony Renda is, and he's as close any Cal baseball player has come to being a Man of Steel. One look into his granite-jawed, icy visage tells you exactly what he wants you to think: He's bulletproof.
Frank Renda would never raise a quitter. You may lose. You may go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. But if you were Frank Renda's son, you'd be damned sure not to hang your head, and you wouldn't get to ride home with tender, caring Laree. No, Mom drove home alone. You had to ride with Dad.
Tony Renda has lost plenty of games. From Little League to college, losing has been a constant companion. That doesn't mean he ever had to like it. When he was just four years old, his Little League team lost. He threw a tantrum. Not because they lost, but because they still got snacks afterwards. He huffed and puffed and crossed his arms. They didn't deserve snacks. They lost. That was the attitude he brought to the Bears, and one that will now be memorialized on a scoreboard that will serve as a reminder of what the program went through just over two years ago.
"I use those few Frank Renda stories that I do have, that mean a lot to me, that really illustrate how he conducted himself and his family and the expectations he had for performance, and it was all accountability," Esquer said on the eve of the unveiling. "It wasn't based on how dumb your coaches are and how bad you're being managed and the crazy calls that they're making. It really is about you being accountable for your own performance and yourself and making it happen."
PREVIEW: Devils Come Up to Berkeley
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