LOS ANGELES -- California has nine games left. Nine games left to start preparing for next season, to show some sort of offensive pulse. The Bears have their worst team batting average since 1973 (.230), and facing USC – which boasts a 3.38 team ERA – this weekend at Dedeaux Field, starting on Friday at 6 p.m., isn't likely to help matters.
"When I look at our program, it was brought to my attention, we really only have two scholarship juniors in our program, and they don't play full-time," said head coach David Esquer, who will lose seniors Devon Rodriguez and Mike Reuvekamp to graduation after this season, among others. "[Brenden] Farney and [Chris] Paul are our only two scholarship juniors in the whole program, and we're really relying on developing these two younger classes. Thank goodness for the Devon Rodriguez's and the Derek Campbell's and Rev, who's here, and [senior left-hander Kyle] Porter, who came back. It's just something that we've had to live with. It's not that we want to make excuses; this year's freshman class, as you've seen over the last four weeks or so, we felt like we had to make that commitment to those three freshmen, because we feel like we would get a payoff on that investment."
Porter has been the most dependable pitching presence for the Bears (19-24, 7-14 in Pac-12) as a senior, after two seasons in the wilderness due to nagging injury and after effects thereof. His 4-5 record doesn't reflect his 2.93 ERA and .255 batting average against in a staff-high 73.2 innings pitched. If Cal can't get on the board with a win on Friday, it's a good bet that Porter will be able to be the stopper in Saturday's 2 p.m. tilt.
"Man, he came from baseball hell," Esquer said. "From where he started off his career, and not being – whether it was physically or a combination of physical and mental – and battling back from just not feeling right. He never had surgery. I don't think it was ever diagnosed that it was completely physical, but there is a physical component to it, and just kind of getting his confidence back. To see what he's done and the quality starts he's given us, I'm really impressed with him as kind of a lesson in perseverance, and really a lesson in just believing in yourself and not accepting that it was never going to come back."
Freshmen Aaron Knapp and Lucas Erceg have certainly made their marks offensively over the past 12 games, during which both have started, alongside fellow freshman Robbie Tenerowicz.
Knapp and Erceg have gone a combined 23-for-93 (.247), but came into last weekend's series against conference ERA-leading Oregon State hitting .281 since being inserted into the starting lineup.
Tenerowicz, on the other hand, has struggled, mightily. A botched inning-ending double play in one game and rolling into an inning-ending twin killing himself, with the winning run on third in the bottom of the ninth, made him the goat this past weekend against the Beavers, and he said that he's ready to put that behind him. His .103 batting average in 95 plate appearances, though, is tougher to get away from.
"I think Erceg and Knapp have had episodes where they've been good on both sides of the ball – offensively and defensively," Esquer said. "Robbie can play defense at this level. He's going to have to come along as a hitter, and that's a big question mark, as I'm sure everyone sees. He's had flashes of good at-bats. He hit a home run that [Michael] Conforto brought back in the yard, but he's got to play and be a legitimate player in the Pac-12. You've got to be able to do it night in and night out. You can't just do it once a weekend."
Tenerowicz and the rest of the Cal offense will face an uphill battle this weekend against the Trojans (25-20, 13-11 in Pac-12), who have their heads above water for the first time in a long time under head coach Dan Hubbs, Esquer's former hitting coach in Berkeley.
Esquer is the least surprised of anyone that USC is becoming a conference pitching power, in fifth place in the league and gunning for a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2005.
"He was a good pitching coach for us," Esquer said. "I have a lot of confidence in his ability. He's done it here, so I think it's not surprising at all."
Hubbs has perhaps one of the most reliable back ends of a bullpen in the league, thanks to relievers Kyle Davis (2-4, 1.36 ERA, 6 saves, 39.2 IP in 21 relief appearances) and James Guillen (3-0, 2.25 ERA in 22 appearances, 20.0 IP in relief), so whatever runs the Bears score will have to come early.
"I know he has a lot of confidence in Davis, and uses him a lot," Esquer said of his conversations with Hubbs, who was his right arm for 12 years at Cal. "I think his appearances are pretty high. That's his go-to guy, and at times, he's talked to me and feels like he uses him too much, but he's a guy."
Getting runs off of the Trojans starters won't be much easier. Friday starter Wyatt Strahan -- who will go up against freshman righty Daulton Jefferies (2-5, 3.48) – is a powerful 6-foot-3, 225 right-hander with plenty of pro potential.
Beyond him, USC will go with brothers Brent and Bob Wheatley, with sophomore righty Brent going on Saturday against Porter and senior lefty Bob going up against Ryan Mason (4-1, 3.06) on Sunday at 1 p.m.
"Strahan is going to be a top pick. He kind of reminds me a little of Tyson Ross, with his delivery – really upright. Then, they go with both Wheatleys on Saturday and Sunday," Esquer said. "Mostly pitch mix guys, those two. Strahan is the stuff guy. He's given them good starts on Friday night."
"They're going to be three pretty head-up games," Esquer continued. "Both teams are going to be relying on who's going to get the better starting pitching performance. I think both offenses have not been lights-out offenses. I think USC has had a few more streaks of good than we have, but I still think what it comes down to is who can support that starting pitching? Who's going to get a few guys in with runners in scoring position to kind of make it difficult on the other team's offense to come back? I don't know that both teams are great at coming back from deficits."
BSB: Porter, Bears Head into SoCal
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