BSB: Bears Host Utes in Three-Game Set

We preview this weekend's three-game conference series against Utah with David Esquer and pitching coach Mike Neu, including key injury reports and opponent breakdowns.

BERKELEY -- Last weekend's 1-3 mark against No. 5 Cal Poly was far from a lost one for the California baseball team. The Bears (11-12, 0-3 in Pac-12) scored 21 runs – by far their best offensive output of the season – and got a stellar outing from senior lefty Kyle Porter, while sophomore slugger Nick Halamandaris emerged as a legitimate power threat, going 7-for-10 with six runs scored, three doubles and a home run.

"Nick Halamandaris probably was the best he's been, and for the first time, there's someone in our lineup that's just constant," said head coach David Esquer. "It was the first time this year where the pitchers were going, ‘We can't get this guy out.'"

Halamandaris is now hitting a robust .286 (up from a .224 mark before last weekend) with six doubles, one home run and seven walks, with eight RBIs.

Cal, though, went through a nightmare second inning on Monday, giving up 13 runs on nine hits after jumping out to an 8-2 lead, with freshman righty Alex Martinez taking the big blow, allowing eight runs on eight hits on getaway day.

This weekend, the Bears will try to bounce back against Pac-12 foe Utah (9-14, 0-6), and the Utes' 4.47 team ERA.

"We've got to build on it. To be quite honest, throughout the whole year, I knew that our season starts after Cal Poly. The meat of our season, the tell-tale, the definition of our season, is going to start after Cal Poly," Esquer said. "Obviously, we don't want to be 11-12, but I told our team, and I sincerely believe it – if we finish 10 games over .500, we're going to the playoffs. If we finish five games over .500, we're going to go to the playoffs. If we finish one game over, we've got the best chance of anyone in the country, with our RPI."

In fact, six of the Bears' 11 wins have come against ranked teams, as have six of their 12 losses – including a three-game sweep at the hands of No. 14 UCLA. Utah started conference play out on a similarly down note, getting swept at the hands of No. 6 Oregon State. No. 7 Oregon then swept the Utes on the road, but like Cal's first Pac-12 series against the Bruins, those three games were close, with Utah losing 1-0, 4-1 and 3-1.

"They're dangerous, obviously, and capable," Esquer said. "They've just lost games. They haven't been out-classed and out-matched. They just haven't won the game. That's the way the game is now. It doesn't matter, on paper, who has an advantage. It's who plays the better game of baseball that day."

Like the Bears, the Utes have struggled offensively, hitting .228 as a team, with not a single hitter batting over .300.

Cal won't come limping into the weekend, exactly, but the Bears are banged up. Shortstop Mike Reuvekamp will be out at least a month with a broken hamate bone, while right-handed reliever Keaton Siomkin is shelved with a forearm strain and senior outfielder Vince Bruno will likely not be available on Friday due to pain in his surgically-repaired hip.

"His hip's been a little bit sore. That's why he wasn't in there all the time this weekend. It wasn't a coaching decision; it was more he couldn't go," Esquer said. "He got some treatment and we're not sure about his status on Friday, but I know Saturday, we feel like he should be full-go."

With Reuvekamp out, that likely means that junior Derek Campbell will take the keystone position, allowing perhaps Aaron Knapp to continue in left field, or redshirt sophomore Brian Celsi.

Campbell's been one of the most powerful forces in a struggling lineup, with 11 RBIs and four home runs. The problem for the Bears – who are hitting just .229 as a team – hasn't so much been the lack of hitting, but the lack of timely hitting. The team leader in RBIs is second baseman Brenden Farney, with 12, hitting a team-leading .375.

"Our leading RBI number, we've played 23 games, it's Farney, with 12. In 23 games. That's it," Esquer said. "But, we haven't had our defining moment yet, and I don't know that the biggest surprise on our team has emerged yet. I'm anxious to see what that is. What does that do for us? Those moments are still out there for us. I'd like to be in a better position. I don't think anybody's played a tougher schedule than we have, and we did it on purpose. With the thought in mind is, this team has to calibrate its level of play to the highest level there is, out there. We don't need any creampuffs or confidence-building weekends. We could have had those, and I don't know that it would have done us any good. We've got to take advantage of what we've done already."

What Cal has done well has been pitching. Despite a 3.77 team ERA, Cal has seven pitchers with sub-3.50 ERAs in at least 10.0 innings pitched.

"If you look at the weekend, as a whole, I thought we pitched pretty well," said pitching coach Mike Neu. "We put up a lot of zeroes in that weekend, and there were some individual performances that were really, really good, but when you take that one inning out of it, it was alright. If you leave it in, it was a tough weekend, so I think you've just got to move on."

The inability of the starting pitchers to get deep into games, though, has placed a big strain on the bullpen, and it's showing up in the form of Siomkin's injury. With redshirt junior lefty Michael Theofanopoulos getting shelled in his last two outings – allowing five earned runs on 11 hits in just 3.2 innings of work – the Bears may very well turn to one of their most dependable relievers to take the mound on Sunday in sophomore righty Ryan Mason.

Mason came into Sunday's game with the Bears down, 4-3, and promptly surrendered three runs in the bottom of the sixth, and another in the bottom of the eighth in an 8-4 loss to the Mustangs, but Esquer and Neu wanted to make sure he was ready to take over for Theofanopoulos, should the need arise.

"We stretched him out last week on purpose," Esquer said.. Those innings that he pitched, once the score got 8-4, we could have easily relieved for him, but we made a conscious effort to let him throw pitches. He threw about 65. I think he can get us to 80, and I think he'll progress a little more each time out. We wanted him to get to 60 just to stretch his arm out, and if he can build a little more on that, 75 or so, and if he's pitching to contact, hopefully there are some quick outs, there."

Neu calls what happened to Mason on Sunday a "mental lapse," and looking at his history out of the bullpen, Sunday is indeed an aberration. This season, Mason – who spent much of last year as the Friday-night starter, but began the year as the closer – had sported a 0.96 ERA in his six appearances before Sunday, all out of the bullpen.

Martinez -- who bore the brunt of an attack that could hurt his grandchildren's ERA on Monday, allowing eight runs on eight hits against 12 batters in 1.0 inning of work – will likely be out of consideration for the starting gig on Sunday, but Neu is hoping that the freshman righty bounces back.

"He's got to put it behind him," Neu said. "His stuff is good enough to get these guys out, and he's got to grow and mature as a pitcher. We've got a lot of freshmen that we're putting in there in big situations. Part of their deal is, they have to grow and learn from these experiences to get better, because if we're going to get where we need to be, we're going to be counting on these guys in big games."

GAME ONE: FRIDAY, 7 p.m.
Before Cal gets to Sunday, though, the Bears have to get solid innings out of Porter and freshman righty Daulton Jefferies.

"Porter and Daulton threw the ball well this week, so hopefully we can build on that," Neu said. "That would be good for our ‘pen. Our pen has been working pretty hard. That takes a toll."

Jefferies (2-2, 3.77 ERA) – who will start on Friday against the Utes at 7 p.m. -- got into the sixth inning on Friday against Cal Poly, allowing six hits and two earned runs with four strikeouts in a 4-1 loss.

"He's got to build off his last outing," Neu said. "His last outing was good. He rebounded a little bit from his mediocre outings. I think he's still learning how to get guys out at this level and just to be consistent. If he can get better and build off of his last outing, hopefully we can keep moving forward. He's obviously really competitive. He has proven that he's got the foundation to be really good here, and now he's just got to be a little better with his secondary pitches and his command, and if he does that, he should give us a chance to win."

He will face veteran righty Mitch Watrous, who has an 0-1 record against Cal in his two career starts against the Bears. In those two starts, Watrous has tossed 11.2 innings, allowing 15 hits, 9 earned runs, two hit batsmen and one walk, while striking out five. This season, Watrous is the Friday-night man, but is just 1-4 with a 4.21 ERA in six starts.

"He's a Friday guy now, and he's got a slider and hey, you've got to beat him," Esquer said. "I think it's maybe taking advantage of something he can give you. Looking at his walks number, he may give you a little something, but you've got to earn it after that. The game is played once the guy touches second and third. You've got to be productive as a team and as an offensive player once somebody's touching second and third. That's the game. A lot of teams get them there. You've got to get them in, and we have not been doing that."

GAME TWO: SATURDAY, 7 p.m.
Porter's start last week was one of his best of the season, and he's only improved over the past several weeks. With a 3-1 record and a 2.35 ERA, Porter has been by far the most consistent starter in the Cal rotation, and he'll square off with senior righty Zach Adams (0-1, 2.05). Adams is starting just his second game, but in nine appearances, has tossed 22.0 innings and struck out 19 to just five walks.

"He was good. He had a perfect game through four innings," Neu said of Porter's last outing. "We worked on him out of the stretch and in the bullpen a little bit more. I think he was a little less comfortable once he got out of the stretch, so hopefully, we can build on that and get a little better there. He's been throwing the ball great. He's been probably our most consistent guy the last three weeks."

GAME THREE: SUNDAY, 1 p.m.
Sunday will feature likely Mason against sophomore right-hander Bret Helton, who's 2-2 with a 2.76 ERA in six appearances, four starts. In 32.2 innings of work, helton has struck out 26 and walked 13, allowing opposing hitters to bat a paltry .205 against him – the lowest BAA of Utah's regular starters.

With Mason on the mound, it's highly likely that freshman Lucas Erceg will move into Mason's bullpen roll.

"It's very possible Mason could return to the starting rotation, and maybe flip Erceg into his spot and use Erceg as a man-on-base reliever to try to bridge to [closer Trevor] Hildenberger," Esquer said. "Maybe a little different. I think Erceg has probably got a chance to come in with runners on base. Mason, being a pitch-to-contact guy, you usually want to start an inning with him. I think, if Mason does start and Erceg does become that bridge guy, I think he's capable of coming in with runners on base and get that big strikeout."

Last weekend, Erceg tossed 3.2 innings of one-hit ball against the Mustangs, with three walks and four strikeouts, though he did allow two earned runs. Erceg regularly hit 93 and 94 mph with his fastball, and flashed his knuckleball several times.

"He threw it twice. That's obviously a weapon, and he's up to 94 and really attacked a great lineup," Neu said. "Cal Poly has a good lineup, and he made them look pretty average with his stuff. I think him and Hildenberger probably threw the ball out of the bullpen really, really effectively. We'll have to figure out the best way to use him. It's tough with him being a two-way guy. We're trying to find a way to get him in the lineup, too, because his bat is potentially really good, and on the mound, that was as good as you can ask for. Hopefully we can use him in the right spot, and he can pick up the slack with Keaton being down, and if we do use Mason, then Erceg can step into that bullpen role and help us win a game. That would be huge."

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