Stanford has not been this weak at the end of a baseball season in quite some time. The Cardinal are reeling, having lost six straight and nine of their past 12. The only thing Mark Marquess's team has to play for, it seems, would be a single number: 363.
363 is the program's career strikeout record, and senior righty Mark Appel -- who eschewed a No. 8-overall selection in last year's Major League Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates to return for his final campaign -- is only 11 K's away.
It would seem fortunate, then, that the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder will be facing California (22-28, 10-17 in the Pac-12) on Friday night at 7 p.m., in the first of a three-game conference series at Evans Diamond. The Bears lead the Pac-12 in whiffs, fanning 329 times -- more than they did all of last season.
"They typically finish strong, and they needed to with playoff implications," said Cal head coach David Esquer, a former Cardinal himself. "I think those are probably tough for them at this point, but you've still got to finish strong at the end of the season."
Stanford (26-20, 11-13) is all but out of the race for a spot in a Regional, making this weekend all about one thing, aside from Appel's shot at the record: Good, old-fashioned spite.
"The rivalry itself, it just means more when you're playing Stanford," Esquer said. "Regardless of what either team is playing for – if one's going to the playoffs, or both, or neither – it's going to be Stanford-Cal baseball, and people will rise to the occasion. I'm looking forward to seeing our players in a Pac-12 series against Stanford. It's going to mean a little more. This is our playoff. This is our regional."
The Bears and the Cardinal squared off in a three-game season-ending series last season, with Cal taking two of three from then-playoff-bound Stanford, and though the Bears have fallen twice already this season to their arch rivals, the two games have been close, with Cal narrowly missing out on an upset win in a 4-3 loss on April 1 at Sunken Diamond.
Last weekend, the Bears dropped two of three to then-No. 13 Arizona State, losing two heartbreakers on Saturday and Sunday while getting outscored by a series total of just 21-19.
"We're still battling the same issues that we have," Esquer said. "We're not as deep as we used to be because of our injuries, and we just have to have a big-game performance. Guys have to come through in the big spot, and we're still running out six or seven freshmen out there, so that doesn't change. I think we grew up some last week, playing a quality opponent and being right there in the game, but we didn't finish it off, and that hurdle is still out there for us, to be able to make that big pitch and win that big spot and get that big hit when it counts and matters most."
Going up against Appel on Friday will be true freshman Ryan Mason, who has been the sole reliable starter for the Bears this season, going 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA, pacing Cal in wins, starts (10) and innings (65.1), while placing second on the squad with 43 strikeouts -- one behind Saturday's starter Trevor Hildenberger.
While the Bears are just about finished with a rough rebuilding season, there have been some bright spots during the home stretch. Junior designated hitter Devon Rodriguez has hit safely in five of his last six, going 9-for-26 (.346) with nine RBIs and two home runs.
Freshman third baseman Mitchell Kranson has also been on a tear, reaching base safely in each of his last nine games, going 13-for-33 (.394) with six RBIs, five runs, four doubles and three walks to four strikeouts.
Fellow freshman Devin Pearson is also well on his way to an all-conference freshman team nod, going 16-for-37 over the past 10 games (.432), with six runs scored, four stolen bases in six attempts, five RBIs and six walks to four strikeouts. On the season, Pearson is hitting .327 with a team-leading .426 on-base percentage. Pearson will remain at the top of the lineup, with Kranson now having demonstrated that he can effectively protect Rodriguez.
"That gives us the best flow," Esquer said. "Just trying to find the right guy to hit behind Rodriguez, but I think Kranson's stabilized enough where he can drop a few hits in there."
A third freshman -- former eighth-round draft pick Nick Halamandaris -- has hit safetly in each of his last four games and five of his past seven, going 7-for-23 (.304) with four RBIs, two doubles and one home run.
Leading the Cal offense -- as he's done all season -- is projected top-three-round draft pick Andrew Knapp. The preseason All-American catcher has gone 15-for-42 (.357) over his past 10 games, driving in eight while slugging one home run and five doubles.
"We're going to try and figure out which third outfielder we want to take a look at this weekend," said Esquer, who has inserted Grant Diede, Jacob Wark and Max Dutto to go along with Pearson and redshirt freshman Brian Celsi. "Wark, Diede and Dutto, we just haven't gotten any production out of that spot at all."
While Dutto has looked good defensively in left, for Esquer, it's about seeing the bat come around.
"It's about the bat; We'd like the bat to be more productive for any one of those guys," Esquer said.
Stanford has the second-most home runs (33) in the conference, but when the Cardinal come in to Evans Diamond, the Bears will once again have their old fence back, after playing much of the season with a temporary fence due to construction of lights and a new video scoreboard. The old fence is about 10-15 feet further than the temporary boundary Cal has played with for the bulk of the 2013 season.
"I don't know that it affected a whole lot. If there were 20 home runs hit, probably about five or six or four or five were hit between the fences," Esquer said. "Mostly they were going over the second fence, regardless. I don't think the new dimensions will have an effect."
Stanford is led at the dish by Justin Ringo and Brian Ragira -- the only two Cardinal regulars to hit over .300 so far this season. Two more Stanford hitters -- Austin Wilson and Brant Whiting -- are hitting .333 and .370, respectively, but neither has more than 100 at-bats.
Ragira and Ringo have put a total of 14 balls over the walls this season, with no other Stanford hitter slugging more than five homers, while the Bears have Rodriguez (7), Knapp (7) and Chris Paul (8) in the middle of the lineup. Beyond those three, though, only four other players have gone yard, with two each from Halamandaris and Pearson, and one apiece from injured Michael Theofanopoulos and Derek Campbell -- both of whom are unavailable.
Beyond Appel's 1.97 ERA, the Cardinal pitching staff is a bit patchwork, with a 3.92 ERA. Aside from Appel, only one other pitcher -- John Hochstatter -- has logged more than 10 starts, though freshman righty Bobby Zarubin has come on strong, going 3-2 with a 2.12 ERA in 13 appearances with eight starts, striking out 34 over 51.0 innings and walking 22.
"I think beyond Appel, they're very similar to us," Esquer said. "They're looking for someone to have a good outing and just kind of string some innings together. No one really is proven on either side, a go-to guy who can do it every time out like Appel has."
Where to Listen
The series will be broadcast on KNEW 960 AM and KALX 90.7 FM, with Friday's game starting at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Notes on 2014
With the San Francisco Giants expected to take 2013 signee John Riley with their second-round pick in the June draft, the coaching staff will face its toughest challenge in the past several years in trying to entice a player to come to college instead of going pro. Justin Jones was taken in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox in the 2009 draft and decided to come to Cal, and Halamandaris chose to come despite an eighth-round selection by the Seattle Mariners last June.
"That's going to be tough to battle. I wouldn't expect him if he got taken in the second round," Esquer said. "We just have to do what we do, and that's it ... We've been fortunate, the last five, six, seven years – we haven't lost a kid. We're going to fight."
Esquer also revealed that Cal will start the 2014 season with a three-game set against Texas, which hosted the Bears in 2012 at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Tex. Other 2014 dates being finalized are a tournament jaunt at Auburn and a round-robin event at AT&T Park, featuring Arkansas, Tulane and San Francisco, being run jointly by the Bears and Dons.
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