BSB: Those Dam Beavers

Devon Rodriguez has been on a roll of late, and so have the Bears, but will it be enough this weekend against the powerful pitching staff of Oregon State and the dangerous Michael Conforto?

MATCHUPS
Friday, May 2, 7 p.m.: RHP Daulton Jefferies (2-4, 3.27 ERA) vs. LHP Ben Wetzler (0.73, 7-1)
Saturday, May 3, 6 p.m.: LHP Kyle Porter (4-5, 3.19) vs. LHP Jace Fry (8-1, 1.76)
Sunday, May 4, 1 p.m.: RHP Ryan Mason (4-0, 2.77) vs. TBA

Over the past six games, California first baseman Devon Rodriguez has started to look like his old self again. Since returning to his home at first base from a season-long stint at designated hitter, the fifth-year senior has gone 6-for-16 (.375) with one home run, one double, three runs and five RBIs, with at least one base hit in his past four games. He could very well be gearing up for the same kind of tear he started on last season, when he began the campaign hitting .351.

"I think so," says head coach David Esquer, who's Bears will host No. 2 Oregon State this weekend, starting with a 7 p.m. tilt on Friday at Evans Diamond. "I'm actually excited to see what happens when he hits, because I think he's got a pretty good swing going, no different than the [Lucas] Erceg's and the [Aaron] Knapp's of the world. He comes up, and you think something good's going to happen, here. I can't wait to watch."

Rodriguez, for one, feels that returning to the field has helped his performance at the dish for a team that is still struggling offensively, ranking ninth or worse in batting average (.234), slugging percentage (.322), on-base percentage (.309), runs (147), hits (297), RBIs (127), doubles (51), triples (5), total bases (409), walks (102) and stolen bases (24).

"I'm starting to feel really comfortable, and I'm starting to feel back at home," Rodriguez says. "I feel good. I'm glad to be back on the field, helping the team. That's when I feel I'm at my best."

Cal (19-21, 7-11 in Pac-12) faces its sternest test yet in the Beavers (31-8, 14-4), who place third in the league in hitting (.282), third in slugging (.376), first in on-base percentage (.392), second in runs (244) and sixth in home runs with 13.

"They've got a spirit and energy on that team," Esquer says. "They've got that X-factor team thing going, which is really hard to match with. They're going to be extremely difficult to play. They've got a good club. I think they've got a club that's capable of winning the national championship, I really do. That doesn't mean they're invincible. Our league's good enough that anybody on any given weekend can win the weekend, so we've got to go out there and try to have our weekend against them. They are a definite national title contender, no doubt."

The moribund Bears attack won't get any relief this weekend, as Oregon State boasts one of the deepest pitching staff's in the pitching-rich Pac-12, pacing the circuit in batting average against (.216), fewest home runs allowed (2), fewest doubles allowed (38) and fewest runs allowed (108), 40 runs better than the next-best squad, which just so happens to hail from just up the road in Eugene.

Cal defeated San Francisco on Tuesday thanks to a Rodriguez long ball, but the Bears are going to have a tough time getting many extra bases against the Beavers' starting rotation, which features three out of four regulars with ERAs under 2.00.

"They're just solid," Esquer says. "They really are aggressive to the bottom half of the zone. They're good at it. They put pressure on you to chase in the dirt. They don't usually mess around too much up in the zone or off the plate. They just really aggressively attack the bottom half of the zone and then try to get you to chase below the zone."

On Friday, Oregon State will send Ben Wetzler to the hill against Bears freshman Daulton Jefferies (2-4, 3.27 ERA). After spending the first part of the season suspended due to violations stemming from Wetzler's flirtation with the Philadelphia Phillies – who picked him in the fifth round of last June's Major League Draft – the senior lefty has gone 7-1 in nine appearances (eight starts) with a dazzling 0.73 ERA in 61.1 innings pitched. He's allowed five – yes, five -- earned runs all season, and eight total runs, striking out 45 and walking 21, with an opponents' batting average of just .135.

"Wetzler has come back and has been unhittable," Esquer says, "and unstoppable."

Wetzler doesn't have dominating stuff, but he knows how to pitch, and has superior command. His fastball sits around 90 mph, but has good movement. He compliments that with a slider and a change up, and isn't afraid to attack hitters.

On Saturday at 6 p.m., Cal will send senior lefty Kyle Porter (4-5, 3.19) to the mound, and he will likely face 6-foot, 197-pound junior lefty Jace Fry, who has thrown 81.2 innings – the second-most in the Pac-12). Over those 81.2 innings, Fry has struck out 65 and walked 20, allowing just 10 extra-base hits.

Fry missed nearly all of last season with Tommy John surgery, but as a freshman, he was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, a Baseball America Freshman All-American, a Perfect Game USA Freshman All-American and an All-Pac-12 Honorable mention, going 5-3 with a 2.45 ERA in 13 starts and striking out 53 in 88.1 innings, with just seven of his 68 hits allowed going for extra bases.

"He's the X-factor," says Esquer. "To have a guy come back after Tommy John surgery and be as dominant as he's been, hey, we can only hope that Keaton Siomkin comes back like that."

While the Bears' best middle reliever is still on the shelf – and will be through a good part of next season – they did get Michael Theofanopoulos back on Wednesday, after spending several weeks away from the team, though it's unlikely he'll be available for the series.

"Probably not this weekend," says Esquer. "He's about a week or two away from even throwing, so it won't affect us this weekend. We'll just go with what we've got. We always planned on getting him back. He was tending to some family stuff, and he's fine."

Cal will be without sparkplug left fielder Brian Celsi, who's been the straw that stirs the drink in the bottom of the lineup for the Bears, because of shin splints. On Thursday, he was on crutches with a boot on his left foot.

"He's been having shin splints, and he had it looked at, and they told him to take a week off, just because they thought that he may be on a verge of a stress fracture, so he's got to take care of it for a week," says Esquer, who now has to fill that void in the lineup with senior Vince Bruno, sophomore Devin Pearson or senior Jacob Wark.

"That's lousy for us, because he's been doing pretty good for us," Esquer says. "The opportunity will be out there for somebody: Bruno, Pearson, Wark or somebody will have to fill in. [Derek] Campbell and Knapp will play, but the other position, I'm not sure where we'll go there."

That threesome has been seeing limited innings of late, because of Celsi's speed and defense. However, Bruno was the team leader in on-base percentage back during the College World Series run in 2011, and Pearson hit over .300 as a true freshman last season. Wark has shown flashes of ability during his limited opportunities, but last season led the conference in strikeouts.

"Sometimes it takes somebody stepping away to come back stronger," says Esquer. "But, we've been lacking production in those areas, and that's why we made so many changes. Our production, RBIs, runners in scoring position, on-base percentages, that's been a weakness of the guys who came out of the lineup."

Oregon State has no such issues, offensively, and though it's taken us this long to get to him, junior outfielder Michael Conforto is at the top of every scouting report when it comes to the Beavers' offense. The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder is a sure-fire first-round pick this June, and is absolutely dominant at the plate.

Conforto leads the league in hitting (.410), slugging (.604), on-base percentage (.557) and runs (40), and has socked four home runs, 10 doubles and two triples, driving in 44 runs (second in the Pac-12) while taking 38 walks (the most in the league) to 21 strikeouts.

"Maybe the best swing I've seen in 15 years of college baseball," says Esquer. "Right up there with the [Anthony] Rendon's of the world, the Tony Renda's of the world. That is a Major League swing, and you watch him on tape, and you're even more impressed. In the last 15 years, if it's not the best, it's among the best."

In the series finale on Sunday at 1 p.m., Cal will throw sophomore Ryan Mason, who gutted out 8.0-plus innings on Monday against Stanford in a series-clinching victory. Mason (4-0, 2.77) has gone at least 8.0 innings in each of his last two outings, and will face off against either sophomore righty Andrew Moore (4-3, 2.87, 10 appearances, 9 starts, 59.2 IP, 19 ER, 17 BB, 40 Ks) or senior righty Scott Schultz (4-2, 1.90, 17 appearances, 4 starts, 47.1 IP, 26 Ks to 10 BB).

"Moore was 10 or 11 and one as a freshman last year, and I don't think his win-loss is as good as it was last year, but he's still the same guy," says Esquer. "He still throws the same quality pitches."

Last season, Moore shut out the Bears, going the distance in a 5-0 win, throwing 9.0 innings and allowing two hits and one walk, with two strikeouts, facing just two batters over the minimum and throwing just 79 pitches.

Cal has won three of its last four, and four of its last six games, and it's no coincidence that it's been Rodriguez leading the charge. Though the Beavers swept the Bears out of Corvallis last season, the senior lefty thinks Cal has enough momentum in its corner to do some damage.

"It's not always going to be pretty. We've got a tough test this weekend, and it might not be pretty, but we've got to find a way to pull it out," Rodriguez says. "It's a good momentum-builder, winning two straight, two out of three at Stanford, we're feeling pretty good right now. I think we're going to surprise some people this weekend, hopefully."


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