SERIES AT A GLANCE
Friday, 7 p.m.: Daulton Jefferies, Soph., RHP (0-1, 7.71) vs. Elliot Surrey, Jr., LHP (0-0, 3.60)
Saturday, 2 p.m.: Ryan Mason, Jr., RHP (1-0, 3.00) vs. Matt Esparza, Jr., RHP (0-0, 3.00)
Saturday, 6 p.m.: Alex Schick, Soph., RHP (0-0, 12.00) vs. Evan Manarino, Sr., RHP (0-0, 0.00)
Sunday, 1 p.m.: Matt Ladrech, Fr., LHP (1-0, 0.00) vs. TBA
For the first time since 2002, UC Irvine is 0-3 to start the season, and with a loss in an exhibition against the Korean professional squad NC Dinos on Tuesday, the 2014 College World Series participants are having a rough go of things to start the 2015 season.
The Anteaters, though, come into Berkeley for a four-game set with California hitting .277 as a team, with six home runs, eight doubles and a Big West-best .535 slugging percentage, despite dropping three straight last weekend against Fresno State.
Cal is no stranger to offense so far this season, hitting .290 in four games with nine extra-base hits, led by senior first baseman Chris Paul. Paul – since moving to first from the left side of the infield – has hit .471 with one double, one triple and three RBIs, slugging .647 with an on-base percentage of .500, and has not made an error in the field, in fact saving two wild throws.
Paul will likely stay in the fifth slot behind freshman catcher Brett Cumberland, providing two power bats in the middle of the lineup, with speedsters Andrew Knapp and Devin Pearson at the top, as they were on Monday against Stanford.
“I think so. The way it turned around, it looked the best at this point,” Esquer said. “It’s been nice to have Chris Paul swinging the bat and driving in some runs, too. That helps, behind Cumberland.”
Irvine -- ranked No. 33 in preseason polls -- has plenty of pop in its lineup, as well, with redshirt junior Jonathan Munoz returning from a season where he hit .281, as well as freshman Keston Hiura, who’s hitting third in the lineup, and, though he went just 2-for-12 in the opening weekend, both of those hits were home runs.
“The two hitters – the freshman kid hitting third for them, if you’re a freshman hitting third for coach [Mike] Gillespie, you can hit,” said Cal head coach David Esquer. “That Keston Hiura, he hit two home runs, and the kid named Munoz I think hit three home runs. He’s big and physical, too. He’s a big-bodied guy, so he’s a guy you’ve got to keep in the yard. That’ll definitely help stymie their offense a little bit, and you’ve got to keep the leadoff guy off base. Their whole offense, if it’s not the home run, it’s getting the leadoff guy on, and offensing him around.”
That offense, though, was inconsistent on opening weekend, but no more inconsistent than the bullpen, including NCBWA Stopper of the Year Award watchlist member Sam Moore, who allowed one run on three hits and a hit batter in 0.2 innings of work.
The Bulldogs got ahead early on Friday against sophomore lefty Elliot Surrey, scoring three runs in a third inning keyed by a Surrey throwing error, but the Anteaters came back with two runs in the fifth and sixth to tie things up, before Moore imploded in a 20-pitch ninth, leading to a 5-4 Fresno State win.
The Bulldogs came from down 5-1 to win 7-5 thanks to a six-run seventh on Saturday, scoring five runs off the Irvine bullpen, and scored seven runs from the seventh inning on to come away with a 7-5 win on Sunday.
“I think Fresno just pulled out a couple games,” Esquer said. “I don’t think it was a series where one team just outmatched the other team in order to sweep them. I think the first game was tied into the ninth, and one, they came back on them twice. As everybody’s trying to figure out the pieces in the jigsaw of their bullpen, you’d better know if you have the right guys in the right spot early in the season, much like us.”
Esquer certainly isn’t overlooking Surrey, who returns after an 8-5, 2.32-ERA season in 2014, when he struck out 76 in 112.2 innings of work, with two complete games. Surrey only allowed two earned runs on eight hits and one walk while striking out six last Friday, and will oppose Bears sophomore righty Daulton Jefferies in a 7 p.m. tilt in Berkeley this Friday.
“Surrey, is as good a left-hander as I’ve seen,” said Esquer. “84-86 mph lefty who really knows how to pitch, and that’s indicative of their pitching coach, who was the Big West Pitcher of the Year two years, and was the MVP of the league as a left-handed pitcher who wasn’t a velocity guy.”
Esquer drew a comparison between former Cal lefty – and current Miami Marlins farmhand Kyle Porter -- and Surrey.
“Probably similar to Porter, but maybe even more pitchability than Porter,” Esquer said. “I think Porter threw harder.”
On Saturday, the Bears and Anteaters will play two, starting a doubleheader at 2 p.m., with junior righty Ryan Mason -- who notched 12 strikeouts in six innings last time out – likely going against big JuCo transfer righty Matt Esparza, who fanned eight in his first four innings last weekend, before giving up a solo home run in the fifth and a leadoff walk in the seventh, which came around to score after he was lifted.
“Right-hander who throws pretty firm. I think he’s 92-93, came out of the gates striking out some guys, so probably on both teams, it’s the second-line pitching in which the game will be decided, much like us, unless a guy can really run the table a little bit,” Esquer said.
The third game of the series – scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on Saturday, under the lights – will see another World Series arm – senior Evan Manarino -- square off against sophomore Alex Schick, who lasted just 3.0 innings against Duke during the opening weekend. Manarino returns after a 4-4, 2.66-ERA season for the Anteaters, and came into his own during the NCAA Tournament, holding opposing hitters to a .182 batting average in nine games with a 1.46 ERA. In his first start of this season, he tied a career high with nine strikeouts, and tossed six shutout innings, walking one and scattering six hits.
Freshman Matt Ladrech -- who fanned four in 7.0 shutout innings against Stanford in his college debut – will go on Sunday at 1 p.m. against an Irvine starter yet to be named. Though Ladrech is taking the No. 4 spot this weekend, it’s not out of the question that he could wind up taking the No. 3 spot from Schick if he continues to perform.
“We’re trying to figure that out. Early on, it’s a little tougher when you come back from a Monday game, to bring somebody back on a Saturday,” Esquer said. “We probably won’t do that. We’ll use Ladrech on Sunday, still, and just try to figure out what the best alignment of the pitching is, whether Alex fits best as a starter. His first innings every time out are really pretty good, pretty dominant, so maybe that one inning would be very useful in an eighth or a ninth.”
Esquer said that Lucas Erceg -- who, while strong at the plate with a .438 average and four runs scored, has not been the lights-out closer the Bears had hoped – may be supplanted by Schick, or freshman Jeff Bain, if his run of good pitching continues. Bain currently has a 0.00 ERA in 3.1 innings of relief work, with three strikeouts and no walks.
“I think Erceg isn’t in shape to pitch, but we had to run him out there, because we were running low on arms anyway. It may buy him a little time,” Esquer said. “Obviously, very pleased with how he’s pitched the first two times out. His composure has been very good. Time’s going to tell. We want to see more competition, more at-bats against him. The bigger question is when Mike starts to have a game plan, can he pitch to that game plan. Can he pitch to sequences that are necessary to get the better hitters out? He’s done that so far, but you’ve got to continue to do that as guys get better.”