This weekend's trip down to the Southland will be a trip back in time, of sorts, for the California baseball team. The Bears (5-2) will not only lead off the University of San Diego Tournament against Baylor (5-2) – the same team Devon Rodriguez eliminated en route to Cal's 2011 College World Series run – but they will also play two games against the powerful Toreros, and former Bears two-way player Louie Lechich, who's hitting .514 (18-for-35) with three home runs and 15 RBIs at the dish, while also going 2-0 in two starts with a sparkling 0.77 ERA.
Head coach David Esquer, for one, is not at all surprised with how Lechich is performing for San Diego.
"That was a significant loss for us," Esquer said this week. "We didn't want him to believe, because we knew what kind of player he was capable of becoming, and that San Diego was getting him and not us. Obviously, a bitter pill to swallow because we really didn't want to lose him. We liked having him here, and we knew that he would become a great player, and he's showing that now."
The brace of games against San Diego, though, won't come until the end of the weekend, but, Esquer said, his team isn't overlooking its first two opponents – Baylor and UNC Wilmington.
"Our schedule is set up that there really is no let-up, and the unknown keeps us on our toes," Esquer said. "We didn't know much about East Tennessee or Arkansas Pine Bluff, but the reality is, in this day and age, you can put a pitching machine out there and it can hold you down if you're not on your game."
Before that, the Bears square off with the Baylor Bears on Friday at 11 a.m. on Friday, with freshman righty Daulton Jefferies taking the mound for his third career start.
Jefferies has started off on fire for Cal, going 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 12 strikeouts to just 4 walks in 13.0 innings of work. He'll match up against 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior righty Dillon Newman, who was picked in the 16th round of the MLB Draft by the Houston Astros last summer following an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention season.
Newman is 1-0 in two starts with a 2.61 ERA in 10.1 innings pitched, allowing 10 hits and three walks while striking out 12. Last season, Newman earned his second win against the Bears, allowing just three hits and no walks in 7.0 innings of work while striking out eight on 97 pitches at Minute Maid Field in Houston.
The game will be the first of five contests in five days for the Bears, who aren't slowing down after a season-opening four-game split against then-No. 18 Texas. The Baylor Bears haven't been to the playoffs since 2011, going 27-28 last season.
"I thought last year they were pretty talented," Esquer said of Baylor. "I'm surprised that they didn't go [to the playoffs] last year. We saw them in Houston, and we faced the same pitcher we're going to face –Newman – who pitched a very good game against us last year. He's a senior pitcher for them, so he's got a lot of experience. It's always fun to play them, because they're obviously very good. It's like the rest of our schedule – you start putting the Baylors and Wilmington, Baseball America, I think Aaron Fitt had Wilmington as their sleeper team to go to Omaha. Between Wilmington and San Diego, we turn around and it's Tulane and Arkansas and USF, who beat Fullerton, it's a challenge. But, if we can develop our game, and I overuse the word, but it is a kind of a calibration, to calibrate our team to that level, that's what we're looking to do."
Senior lefty Kyle Porter will take the mound on Saturday at 3 p.m. against UNC Wilmington, which went 38-23 last season. The Seahawks are 4-4 this season and are hitting just .246 as a team, which bodes well for the pitching-rich Bears, though they do boast four regulars hitting over .300, led by junior Corey Dick. The 6-foot, 255-pound left-handed swinger is hitting a blistering .414 in eight games this season with one home run and a team-high 10 RBIs.
Porter's likely opponent will be junior righty Jordan Ramsey. The 6-foot-4, 213-pounder was a third-team All-CAA selection and made the CAA All-Tournament team, and became the first Wilmington pitcher to the conference in ERA (2.34), finishing fifth in the league with 83 strikeouts and opponents' batting average (.236).
This season, Ramsey is 0-1 with a 4.22 ERA, allowing 14 hits in 10.2 innings of work. Opponents are hitting Ramsey at a .311 clip, with three doubles and one home run.
Esquer said that, despite not knowing whether they'll draw Ramsey in Game Two, Cal's hitters are still confident.
"I like that about our guys – they just show up and whoever's put in front of us, they know they've got to compete against them," Esquer said.
Sunday's 3 p.m. tilt will pit freshman righty Alex Schick against the Toreros, who have started the season on an offensive rampage. San Diego (7-1) boasts a .372 team batting average in its brand new Fowler Park and Cunningham Field – a $13.8 million facility built in just 38 weeks.
The Toreros are coming off a series win against New Mexico, and have scored at least 12 runs in five of their last seven games.
"You can't take that away from them, because you could put a pitching machine out there and it could hold you down if you're just hitting balls right at people," Esquer said. "Maybe the park is offensive and plays hot. That may be it. That may be to our advantage. Or, at least, it'll equal it out a little bit for us. I'd be interested to see how that new park plays. I hear they have a beautiful stadium, and it can be pretty offensive. They're certainly taking advantage of it, because they've been putting up runs."
Cal, for its part, has started off rather slowly at the plate, hitting just .237 with nine extra-base hits in the first seven games. Senior left fielder Vince Bruno hasn't missed a beat after missing all of last season thanks to two hip surgeries, leading the Bears with a .471 batting average (8-for-17), with a team-high five runs scored and five RBIs. His .500 on-base percentage is also a team-best, which comes as no surprise, given that he led the 2011 Cal team in that category during the World Series run.
After a woeful start to the season against the Longhorns, Rodriguez has picked things up in a big way over the last three games. Rodriguez went 2-for-14 against Texas, leaving six men on base, but in the last three contests, he's gone 5-for-10 with a home run.
"That's where we've been void a little bit, is right in the middle of the lineup," Esquer said. "There's been no one to take the pressure off of everyone else. I think they're coming around, and I don't know that our schedule is set up to where we're going to put up these incredible numbers at this point. We're going to face pitching staffs with pitchers who can pitch, and we're going to roll right into league and face more of that. I don't know. We may have a modest batting average and really be doing a good job. We have yet to do that, but I think this was kind of set up to calibrate our game against the best, and it's probably not going to be as sparkly and as shiny as if we had played a lower-division team that maybe could let us puff up our numbers a little bit."
As well as San Diego has used its home park, the Toreros' pitchers haven't buckled under the conditions, sporting a nifty 2.31 team ERA with a .268 opponents' batting average.
Luckily for the Bears, pitching depth has not been an issue, thanks to a strong freshman class. On Sunday, though, it will be senior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos taking the mound on Monday at 3 p.m., after a strong performance last time out, when he gave up three runs – two earned – on two hits and two walks against Arkansas Pine Bluff, while striking out nine.
"I think he had moments of dominance, for sure, and kind of the key is that there are some peaks and valleys, and he's got to keep the valleys a little shallower, and that's the key for him; it's just managing his rough spots," Esquer said. "It can't get rough. Sunday starting is tough, because you've got the bullpen lined up, so you're not going to be as forgiving with that Sunday starter as you would with somebody else."
Backing Theofanopoulos will be a bullpen that, thanks to sophomore Ryan Mason needing to work back into starting form after missing a month of spring practice due to a knee injury, will be able to shorten the game in a big way on the back end.
"We only had three games last weekend, and that was like a vacation," Esquer said. "You didn't have to stretch. I like the four-game scenario. I think it's going to develop some guys for us, and we need to find one or two reliable people, and I think it forces us to try and find those guys. Right now, with Mason and Trevor Hildenberger on the back end, that's a luxury for us. I hope we can continue to keep it that way, but there's a chance that Mason may have to pop back to the front.
"You've got one, and hey, you've even got the luxury to use one early in the game, and still know you have one left for the back end of the game. The most important part of the game could be the sixth, and you could go ahead and use one of those guys and still have someone at the end."
That depth will serve the Bears well, as they will complete a five-games-in-five-days grind with a 6 p.m. tilt against rival Stanford back home at Evans Diamond on Tuesday, after which they'll host the Cal Baseball Classic the weekend of March 7, facing Tulane, San Francisco and then No. 22 Arkansas twice.
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