Saturday, 2 p.m.: Daulton Jefferies (2-4, 3.00 ERA) vs. Cal Quantrill (3-4, 3.02)
Sunday, 2 p.m.: Kyle Porter (4-4, 2.97) vs. John Hochstatter (5-1, 2.18)
Monday, 6 p.m.: Ryan Mason (3-0, 2.32) vs. TBA
Neither California nor Stanford are having their best seasons. The Bears are 16-20 overall, and 5-10 in conference, while the Cardinal aren't much better, at 17-17, 6-9.
Cal is 10th or worse in the conference in batting average, runs, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, hits, RBI, doubles, triples and stolen bases. Stanford is ninth in batting average, ninth in on-base percentage, ninth in RBI, ninth in hits and ninth in runs. The two rivals' series down in Palo Alto, Calif., on Saturday, Sunday and Monday may come down to a trio of pitching duels, just by default.
"That's probably pretty rare," said Bears pitching coach Mike Neu, on the confluence of constipated offensive attacks. "It's not the norm."
The Bears are seventh in the conference with a 3.63 team ERA, while the Cardinal are just a bit better, with a 3.38 mark, headed up by Saturday's starter, the ironically-named Cal Quantrill, who brings a 3-4 record and a 3.02 ERA.
Quantrill doesn't have much offense backing him up, but he does have a hitter who's been a thorn in Cal's side for the past several years in junior third baseman Alex Blandino.
The right-handed swinging infielder owns a .344 career average against Cal, with seven runs scored and 11 RBIs in nine games.
"Obviously, Blandino is a threat," Neu said. "He's probably one of the better hitters in our conference. We're going to have to make sure that we are aware of the situations when he's up, and hopefully not let him be the one that's going to beat us."
The rest of the Cardinal are hitting just .243 as a team, and, as a matter of course, Stanford is not the biggest running team in the league. In fact, they're dead last, with 15 stolen bases.
"They have other threats, too, even though they've been inconsistent, that I think can be offensive guys, so we're going to have to pitch well, and we're going to have to play good defense," Neu said. "That field's a little hotter – the infield, especially – than ours, so our infield defense and our guys are going to have to make some plays for us, too. It's going to be a tough series."
After committing 23 errors in their first 18 games, the Bears have been better on defense as of late, committing 19 miscues over the last 18 games, and just three over the past six games.
"I think, lately, especially, our guys have played much better. Early on, we made some errors, made some critical errors in some big situations and weren't as good," Neu said of the Cal defense. "I think we're doing better. Guys are making plays. We're not a big strikeout pitching staff, so we need that. We need our defense to be pretty consistent and make some big plays at times. I think the toughest thing for us, is we've got to be better with two outs. We've got to make better two-out pitches. I think almost all the runs against Washington were two-out runs that we gave up, and we've done a good job keeping our team in the game, but we've got to make some better two-out pitches, or making some plays with two outs – one of the two – and then we've got to get some two-out hits, too. That was kind of what we've been looking at, as a staff, and it shows up in a game. If we could be a little more clutch, those one-run games can flip, maybe, and that's what we need."
Offensively, Cal's struggles are nothing new, but most concerning is that Bears pitchers have had to pitch from behind early in games, as Cal has been outscored 72-65 in the first four innings. In 16 games, the Bears have scored two or fewer runs, and have only scored six or more runs seven times.
"It's easier to pitch with a lead, because you can be a little more aggressive," Neu said. "You can be a little more aggressive, you can maybe take some more chances, you can pitch more. If we had a three-run lead early, we can lean on them a little bit, and we can be a bit more aggressive knowing, hey, we can give up a solo homer, we can give up one or two runs and still work a little easier to get to our bullpen, as long as we stay away from a big inning. But, when you're pitching in a tight game, you're tied, up one or down one, it's pressure pitching every inning, and that takes a toll, but I'll give credit to our guys, Daulton and Porter, especially, have done a really good job competing in that situation, every time they've pitched."
Jefferies and Porter have been remarkably consistent, particularly the senior lefty Porter, who has more than returned to his Freshman All-American form of 2011. He will square off with perhaps the best of Stanford's hurlers on Sunday in junior lefty John Hochstatter, a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder out of Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley, and a former teammate of sophomore infielder Max Dutto.
Hochstatter is one of very few experienced arms for the Cardinal, who have seen 78.7% of their innings tossed by underclassmen, and 61.6% by freshmen, including the odds-on favorite to start Monday's finale in freshman Brett Hanewich (1-3, 3.72 ERA), who, along with Saturday's freshman starter Quantrill, has started a staff-best 10 games. Sunday's starter Hochstatter has only started two games out of his eight appearances.
"They're playing a lot of young guys, too, inexperienced," Neu said. "I think it's tough to hit in this league, as a freshman. I think it's tougher to hit than it is to pitch, because the guys are able to make pitches. These guys are able to make pitches, they're able to throw off speed, behind in the count. It's an adjustment from high school for these guys."
While Bears freshman righty Daulton Jefferies has been as good as advertised thus far, his fellow freshmen have done quite well at the dish since being inserted into the lineup. Since Aaron Knapp, Lucas Erceg and Robbie Tenerowicz have taken their place among the starters, the trio have gone 13-for-44 (.295) with six runs, three doubles, two home runs and a .354 on-base percentage. Now, they – and the rest of the Cal offense – has 17 games left to get something going.
"I think the first thing is, we've got to get back to .500," Neu said. "That should be a goal for us: Let's fight and scratch to get back to .500 and then go from there. Our RPI is still in a spot where we've played a great schedule, and if we can get back to that .500 mark and compete, something good could happen. That's got to be the first goal, is for us to get there, and then find the right combination and then maybe get some of these younger guys some experience. They're some of our better guys anyway."
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