BERKELEY -- It's time for a change for the California baseball team. After going 1-5 over the past two weekends of conference play, the Bears (15-17, 4-8 in Pac-12) will host the best – and hottest – team in the league in No. 6 Washington (25-7-1, 12-3), starting tonight at 7 p.m. at Evans Diamond, for a Thursday-Friday-Saturday series in advance of Easter Sunday.
"We're still waiting for that offense a little bit," said head coach David Esquer, who's team has hit just .220 in conference play, and scored just 12 runs over the past six games. "That's been frustrating. I thought we'd be better offensively than we have been."
That lack of offense has prompted a sea change for this weekend, with freshmen Lucas Erceg, Robbie Tenerowicz and Aaron Knapp getting a lot more time on the diamond, starting this weekend. Esquer said that Erceg will likely start at third for junior Chris Paul (.250, 2 RBI, 0 HR).
With right-handed reliever Keaon Siomkin out for the season now with Tommy John surgery (he will receive a medical redshirt), Erceg will also see more time on the mound, where he's posted a 1.93 ERA in 14.0 innings of work.
Sophomore center fielder Devin Pearson (hitting just .175) will be replaced by Pac-12 home run leader Derek Campbell (five dingers), who's spot at shortstop will be taken by sophomore Max Dutto.
"Pearson has been struggling throughout the year, and has not gotten going," Esquer said. "He needs to sit and watch a little bit, and maybe get a different perspective. I absolutely believe he is part of our future too, so I'm not giving up on him, but he's been struggling throughout the season."
It's unclear just where Knapp and Tenerowicz will fit in, but they will each see a lot of time against the Huskies.
"We're probably going to play some young kids now, see what they have, with Tenerowicz and Knapp and Erceg, who we think are, down the line, going to be our future," Esquer said. "Now that we're at this point in the season, I'm excited to see what these young kids are going to do, now. I think they've been around long enough to see how they respond to this opportunity. The first opportunity's always tough, because it's an adjustment, but they've been around college baseball for 25 games now, and so, now, Erceg has earned that opportunity, and Tenerowicz played pretty well the last two games at Arizona State, and Knapp, he has something we don't have, and that's speed and the ability to pressure the defense. He doesn't really have to hit it well to get hits."
Tenerowicz has hit just .167 in five conference games, but that's included his first career home run. On the season, he's hitting just .128 in 22 games.
"His quality of contact, recently, before he went out of the lineup, was much better than the numbers," Esquer said. "He squared up some balls pretty well. [Team batting leader Brenden] Farney had just kind of taken over because he was producing. Those young kids, Tenerowicz, Erceg and Knapp, they catch your attention when they hit. You're like, ‘Hey, what's going to happen here?' They're those type of offensive players. Has it been great, yet? Not yet, but you want to watch. [Tony] Renda had that. You wanted to watch."
While the Bears are scuffling, trying to find some kind of formula that equates to offensive production after a 10-5 start to the season, Washington is rolling, having won 15 of its last 17 games. The Huskies come in as the second-best hitting team in the Pac-12 (.297), with 204 runs scored and 24 stolen bases in 34 attempts. The Huskies also own a solid 3.25 team ERA, striking out 206 batters to just 87 walks – second-fewest in the conference behind UCLA.
Washington also boasts a 9-1 record away from brand new Husky Ballpark in Seattle.
"It's hard in college baseball to play as well as they're playing. They're old, and they've been on a mission for the last couple years," Esquer said. "They've been looking for this big breakthrough. They didn't get it last year, but they kind of touched on it a bit at the end of the season. They played better at the end of the year. They've been building for this year. They're fairly experienced in the field. I think they play fairly junior-senior on the field, in a lot of places that give them some experience."
The Huskies are led by fifth-year senior Brian Wolfe, who paces the conference with a .404 average (38-for-94) and a .617 slugging percentage, while placing fourth in on-base percentage (.477), ninth in RBIs (27) and second in home runs, with four.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder swings from the left side, and reminds Esquer of a former Cal star and current Cleveland Indians farmhand David Cooper.
"He's hitting about .380 in our league, and that's hard to do. He reminds me of David Cooper. He's got a lot of David Cooper in his approach – really calm and quiet and really puts a nice, simple swing on the pitch," Esquer said.
The Bears will send the same trio to the mound this weekend in freshman Daulton Jefferies (2-3, 3.10 ERA), senior lefty Kyle Porter (4-3, 2.68 ERA) and sophomore righty Ryan Mason (2-0, 2.60 ERA). The Cal pitching staff as a whole owns a 3.50 ERA on the season, but a sparkling 2.87 mark in conference play. Mason has been particularly effective, throwing 11.2 innings and allowing just two earned runs, and five walks to seven strikeouts.
Jefferies has overcome some rough patches in the second quarter of the season to post a 2.45 ERA in 25.2 innings of Pac-12 work, striking out 16 to just four walks.
Porter had a very strong outing last weekend, getting through the seventh allowing just two earned runs to dangerous Arizona State before giving up the ghost in the eighth. He finished with 7.1 innings of work, giving up four runs on six hits and three walks with six strikeouts, allowing a double, a triple and a home run while hitting six batters.
"He pitched well. It was just a 2-1 game, and he tried to gut out the eighth inning, and we kind of felt he was done after seven, but he really wanted the eighth. He got into a little trouble, and it got to four, but then we had the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the inning, too. We could have done something to help that out, too," Esquer said. "He really sold out to get out of the seventh inning. I know Mike challenged him to make it through the seventh, and he got through it, we felt like he could go another, and he really asked to go another one. Cooler heads maybe should have prevailed at that point."
Junior righty Jared Fisher will go for Washington tonight at Evans Diamond, and leads the team with 54.2 innings pitched and 42 strikeouts, which rank 11th in the conference. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound hurler doesn't throw as hard as his frame would suggest, but he pitched well against the Bears last year using a fastball-slider mix to go 9.0 innings, allowing just three hits and an unearned run while striking out five in a hard-luck no-decision, as Washington came up with a 3-2 win in 12 innings.
On Friday at 7 p.m., junior righty Tyler Davis -- arguably the Huskies' best arm – will face Porter, bringing in a 7-1 record and a 1.38 ERA. He boasts a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has opponents hitting just .225 against him.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., junior righty Jeff Brigham (4-1, 2.12 ERA) will take the bump, after allowing one run or less in six of his nine starts this season.
"Davis, their No. 2 guy, has pitched very well," Esquer said. "Their No. 3 guy is a top-notch arm coming off of Tommy John surgery, but I hear he throws it 94-95 miles an hour. A good arm. Their first guy pitches a little bit more. In combination with their offense, it's a good mix. It's not the Lincecum's of the past, at Washington, but they put it together."
PREVIEW: Bears Changing Things Up Against UW
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