BSB: Bears Head Down South

After splitting a season-opening home series with No. 18 Texas, what will Cal baseball face when it heads down to Auburn, Ala., for three games in the Tiger Classic? We've got the in-depth preview right here.

After splitting its season-opening series with then-No. 18 Texas, the California baseball team will hit the road this weekend to kick off a season-long seven-game road trip this weekend with a trip down south for the Tiger Classic in Auburn, Ala.

The Bears (2-2) got votes in the National College Baseball Writers Association poll this week, knocking the Longhorns out of the Top 25 in one of the four major polls, and head into the Classic as the only team in the field with a win over a ranked team.

Cal will start off the weekend facing 2013 NCAA Regional participant East Tennessee State (2-2) at 12 p.m. (PT) on Friday. The Buccaneers were 36-24 last season, finishing 17-10 in the Atlantic Sun Conference and earning a bid to the Nashville Regional, where they went 0-2 against Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. The Yellowjackets and the Commodores wound up squaring off in the Regional final, where Vanderbilt came out on top, en route to getting swept by College World Series participant Louisville.

ETSU hit .288 as a team last season, and are hitting .284 in four games this season, led by 5-foot-8, 170-pound junior shortstop Chris Riopedre. Riopedre is one of five Buccaneers regulars hitting at least .333, including lefty slugger Jeremy Taylor, who has started the season 7-for-20 with a double, a triple, three RBIs and a team-high 10 total bases.

Cal figured to be more of an offensive team than one that relied on pitching coming into the 2014 season, but after four games, the bats have yet to come around. The Bears are hitting just .223, with middle-of-the-order lefty mashers Devon Rodriguez and Nick Halamandaris going a combined 5-for-30 over the opening weekend with just a single extra-base hit between them.

"We need a little more production out of the middle of that order," said head coach David Esquer. "We haven't necessarily had any. We'll need that."

Last weekend, the redshirt junior hit .313 (5-for-16) with three runs, three doubles and a team-high eight total bases, second in production only to senior Vince Bruno, who went 5-for-9 with one RBI.

"We're counting on those guys," Esquer said. "Those senior players have got to be able to play big for us, and [Bruno]'s certainly one of them, and Derek Campbell."

Esquer has been tinkering with the lineup, using four different ones in each of last weekend's contests. There is the possibility that last weekend's third-place hitter -- Devin Pearson -- could move up to the leadoff spot, and that Campbell could move down lower in the order between the two lefties Halamandaris and Rodriguez.

"Possibly," Esquer said. "We don't have anybody who I know is a Pac-12 No. 3 hitter on our roster. We're just going to get them at-bats and if somebody emerges where they can be a No. 3 Pac-12 hitter, we hope that happens. You let Devin do that, and hopefully he's an offensive player who can push and drag for base hits. Derek Campbell hasn't ever had an offensive year, yet. He's certainly capable of being a No. 3 guy, but he's got to do it."

The pitching side of the equation, though, has been better than expected, with the Bears sporting a 2.75 team ERA and 19 strikeouts to 12 walks – 10 of them coming in the final two games of the series against the Longhorns. Cal started the series in sparkling fashion on the mound, shutting out Texas for 17 of the first 18 innings, with four freshmen seeing significant innings.

"So far, we've seen these young guys have a chance to help us a lot," said pitching coach Mike Neu. "They're going to be good; we've just got some development. Hopefully we can do it on the fly and make the most out of this year."

The opener will pit reigning Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week Daulton Jefferies (1-0, 0.00 ERA) against senior lefty Clinton Freeman (0-1, 4.05). The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Jonesborough, Tenn., native dropped the opener to Longwood, allowing five runs – three earned – on nine hits and no walks while striking out five, but at the plate, Freeman has been one of the Buccaneers' best bats. In four games, Freeman is hitting .333 (5-for-15) with two doubles and five RBIs. Last season, Freeman led ETSU with a .335 batting average (80-for-239), starting all 60 games and racking up 10 home runs and 57 RBIs – both team-highs.

Freeman also socked 18 doubles and four triples, while sporting a .398 on-base percentage and slugging a team-best .569. On the hill, Freeman went 7-1 with a 3.04 ERA and eight saves as the Buccaneers closer, making 25 appearances, including three starts. In 56.1 innings of work, Freeman fanned 51 while allowing just 15 walks, though opposing hitters hit .286 off of him – the second-highest batting average against for ETSU pitchers with at least 22.1 innings.

At 4 p.m. (PT) on Saturday, the Bears will face host Auburn, which, like Cal, sports a 2-2 record. Last season, the Tigers went 33-23, finishing seventh in the SEC West and out of the playoffs for the third straight time since 2010.

Auburn, though, returns 24 letterwinners from 2013, and seven of nine position starters. The Tigers' biggest loss came via the MLB Draft, which saw the Milwaukee Brewers choose 6-foot-6, 229-pound senior power hitter Garrett Cooper in the sixth round. Last season, Cooper led Auburn in hitting (.354), total bases (102), slugging (.540), walks (37), home runs (7) and on-base percentage (.481), and his departure leaves a huge hole in the middle of a very freshman-heavy lineup. The Tigers have started at least five underclassmen in each of their first four games, with five freshmen getting the starting nod in each of their first two games.

Auburn lost four pitchers from last year's squad, including junior ace Conner Kendrick, who was taken by the New York Yankees in the ninth round of the 2013 MLB Draft. Last season, Kendrick went 5-3 with a 2.13 ERA in 80.1 innings of work, including nine starts in 19 appearances.

Redshirt sophomore Justin Camp, however, does return after going 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA in 18 appearances, holding opponents to a .248 average over 44.1 innings.

The Tigers' likely starter on Saturday, though, will be senior lefty Michael O'Neal. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder out of Chattahoochee Valley Community College led the Tigers with an 8-4 record in 2013, with a sparkling 2.73 ERA. His eight wins were tied for sixth in the SEC and were the most by an Auburn pitcher since Grant Dayton went 8-3 in 2010. His 89.0 innings led the staff and ranked eighth in the SEC, and his .223 batting average against was ninth in the conference.

O'Neal will face off with Cal senior lefty Kyle Porter, who toughed out a 5.0-inning start in Game One of last Saturday's doubleheader against Texas, allowing seven hits and no walks while striking out four.

"I thought Porter was close to pitching really well," Neu said of Porter's first outing. "He made some good pitches. He just wasn't as sharp as we needed him to be, but he made some big pitches. He gave us a chance to win, and we did win, but I thought he was close to being able to get through their lineup pretty well."

Porter will face a lineup that has hit a paltry .217 (26-for-120) over the first four games, with just two extra-base hits.

The weekend will conclude with an 8 a.m. (PT) tilt against 0-6 Arkansas Pine Bluff. The Lions kicked off the season with a four-game sweep at the hands of Tulane in which they were outscored 24-7 by the 4-0 Green Wave, which finished 30-28 last season and did not make a Regional. Following that road sweep, Arkansas Pine Bluff dropped two straight to No. 29 Oklahoma by the count of 27-6.

Redshirt junior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos will take the mound for the Bears in the finale, coming off of a so-so outing against Texas last Sunday, throwing 65 pitches over 5.0 innings, allowing two runs on three hits and two walks and taking the loss.

"I was looking forward to going deep," Theofanopoulos said of his start on Sunday. "I felt good. My velocity was up there, I felt good. The fastball was working really good, it was moving away a little. I think I can throw the change up better. They weren't biting on my curveball like I wanted them to. I need to throw that for more strikes, get more strikes on my off-speed."

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