SERIES AT A GLANCE
Saturday, 6 p.m.: Daulton Jefferies, Soph., RHP (1-1, 3.86 ERA) vs. Nate Griep, RSoph., RHP (1-0, 2.51 ERA)
Sunday, 1 p.m.: Ryan Mason, Jr., RHP (1-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. Colton Kalmus, RSoph., RHP (0-0, 0.90 ERA)
Monday, 10 a.m.: Jeff Bain, Fr., RHP (1-0, 1.00 ERA) OR Matt Ladrech, Fr., LHP (1-1, 3.18 ERA) vs. Corey Fischer, Jr., RHP (1-0, 1.54 ERA)
BERKELEY -- Two days after California learned that Arkansas – due to snow flurries and temperatures projected with a high of 33 in Fayetteville – would have to cancel this weekend’s four-game baseball series with the Golden Bears, the Cal coaching staff was able to secure a replacement. Instead of hitting the road, the Bears would stay home, and host another weather-displaced club – Kansas State.
“They told us that if we came out, we might not be able to play,” said Cal pitching coach Mike Neu. “We cancelled that, and we just tried to look for other games.”
Bears hitting coach Brad Sanfilipo set about finding any games possible, and the Wildcats were the first to give confirmation.
“We called a bunch of schools, but they said they could come,” Neu said. “It worked out. We got a power conference school, within 12 hours, and within a day [after that], we had them scheduled, and then, they were just trying to find travel.”
Cal (5-3) also courted Oklahoma State and St. Mary’s and Cal State Northridge, but will host the Wildcats (4-4) on Saturday at 6 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m., and Monday at 10 a.m., at Evans Diamond.
The Wildcats have had their second straight home-opening series cancelled due to inclement weather – a theme in the eastern half of the country at this time of year – and had already spent four games out west in the Pac-12/Big 12 Challenge. This weekend’s series will represent the ninth, 10th and 11th straight games that Kansas State has played on the road to start the season.
“I don’t think it matters,” Neu said. “I think, if anything, they’re a little bit road tested, and they’ve played in some familiar places and situations, so they’re probably pretty comfortable playing on the road, at this point.”
From Feb. 19-21, Kansas State squared off with Utah, (a 3-2 win), Oregon State (a 10-9 loss), Washington (a 6-5, 10-inning win) and Washington State (a 12-3 win) at spring training facilities in Surprise, Ariz., and Mesa, Ariz., so while the Bears have not seen the Wildcats on video, they do have scouting reports from common opponents.
“We’ve seen that they’ve split with the Pac-12,” Neu said. “They played all those teams pretty tough. We can get a pretty good feel from just knowing their opponents, and knowing what they can do, and, they played in Arizona. Usually, the fields play a little hotter there, and sometimes, those offensive numbers can be a little skewed, where our park isn’t going to fly quite as good in the air, but our field’s playing pretty hot right now, too. I think it’s a good match-up. It’s going to come down to just seeing how well we do our jobs. I think if we play catch on defense, and are able to just make the plays, we’re going to put ourselves in position to win every game.”
Not having much to go on, Neu praised Daulton Jefferies -- Cal’s starter for Saturday’s series opener – for his versatility. The sophomore righty is 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA so far, and is coming off of a career-best 10-strikeout performance against UC Irvine last weekend.
“That’s the good thing about having a Friday guy like Jefferies: You know he’s going to compete, you know he’s going to throw strikes, he’s got multiple weapons to be able to get guys out with, whether he has to throw in with the fastball, throw his breaking ball a little more, throw his change up,” Neu said. “He’ll give us a good feel, and we can make quick adjustments with him. Anybody you play, we’re not always going to have a great report, and even if we do have a report, you’re not going to know a lot until you get through their lineup once, and kind of see what they’re trying to do and what they do. That’s going to be the same with us, on their side. I don’t think it’s going to be anything too crazy. We’re just going to go play baseball.”
The Bears pitching staff has been prolific with the punchouts, fanning 82 hitters (second in the conference), with 28 strikeouts looking, with an opponent’s batting average (.217) that’s second in the Pac-12.
That staff will have a challenge this weekend, as, just like Cal, the Wildcats have a pair of infielders on a hot streak. Third baseman Carter Yagi went 8-for-16 in the Pac-12/Big 12 Challenge with 4 RBIs and 8 runs scored over four games, turning in multi-hit efforts in each of the last three games, while first baseman Shane Conlon -- who owns three multi-hit games and is on a six-game hitting streak (batting .346 with a double, a triple and 6 RBIs over that stretch).
“I think they’re pretty balanced,” said Neu. “They have a couple guys that can swing the bat really well and have some power, and they have some guys with some speed. They play some short game, so they try to put some pressure on you, but they can also swing the bat, so they have a pretty balanced offensive attack. It’ll be a good match-up for our guys, and we’ll have to kind of just play the game”
Defensively, Cal has posted a .970 fielding percentage, sixth in the Pac-12 and 85th out of 275 Division I teams, so even when the staff isn’t tallying strikeouts in bunches, they’re getting some good support behind them, particularly on the right side of the infield, where Chris Paul and Robbie Tenerowicz each boast 1.000 fielding percentages.
“I think our offense is playing pretty well right now,” Neu said. “I think our pitchers are going to compete. We just have to make sure we make the plays on defense and don’t give them anything, and if we don’t, I think we’ll have a chance to win every game.”
The aforementioned pair of Bears infielders is proving to be quite formidable, as well, led by third baseman Lucas Erceg. The true sophomore ranks second in the Pac-12 in batting average (.500), third in total bases (23), fourth in on-base percentage (.529) and hits (16) and fifth in slugging percentage (.719).
At first base, Paul is so far having what looks to be his best year in college. After two straight Northwoods League All-Star nods and two seasons hitting .264 or worse when he returned to the college diamond, Paul is hitting .406 over the first eight games of the season, with 13 hits, a double, a triple a home run and five RBIs with 19 total bases, a .594 slugging percentage and a .457 on-base percentage.
“Chris looks really confident, he’s acting really confident, he’s got a lot of energy on the field, and sometimes it takes guys longer to maybe mature and feel comfortable,” Sanfilipo said. “There are some subtle things that we’ve done from the fall until now, in terms of mechanically, with it. He’s really worked hard. He really has. He’s been open to making a few changes, and he’s been open to watching video and open to drilling. He’s the one that’s really pushed the work, and it’s all kind of been on him. I’m feeling really comfortable right now with him and his approach, and he’s using the whole field, and using it well.
“The look in his eyes is a confident one, and I think he’s ready to shoulder the load, offensively, that we kind of need him to.”
Paul and Erceg, though, aren’t the only Bears swinging hot sticks. The entire team is hitting .305, with freshman catcher Brett Cumberland batting .285 with a team-leading 10 RBIs, a team-leading three home runs and three doubles, and a team-leading .846 slugging percentage. Five regular starters are hitting over .286.
Kansas State struck out 26 batters over the four games against Pac-12 opponents, and the staff as a whole ranks second in the Big 12 with 61 Ks. Opponents are hitting just .257 against the Wildcats this season, and Saturday’s starter – righty Nate Griep -- ranks second in the Big 12 with 13 strikeouts, and sports a 2.51 ERA.
“The Saturday guy is 90-94, runs it to the mid-90s, but probably sits in the low-90s, with a slurvy breaking ball,” Sanfilipo said. “A lot of fastballs, but you just never know. You’re talking early in the season, off numbers that they pitched in one game, so how they pitched one game and one opponent doesn’t necessarily dictate how they’re going to pitch us, per se, based on what our numbers are. You just never know. We worry more about what our approach is, and how we approach it, moreso than what they’re going to do.”
Greip – a redshirt sophomore, standing 6-foot-2, 190 pounds – went 3-7 last season as a freshman, with a 4.66 ERA and 32 strikeouts to 25 walks in 15 appearances and 10 starts.
The Wildcats own a 3.52 team ERA, and have given up 16 extra-base hits in 71.2 innings over eight games. Sunday’s starter, right Colton Kaimus, has made two appearances and one start, going 10.0 innings and allowing just one earned run on six hits and two walks, with eight strikeouts.
“We were preparing for Arkansas, obviously,” said Sanfilipo. “We’d watched some games and some videos, and then we had to switch in midstream here, but we’ve talked to the teams that have played them, and I know that the guy that they’re throwing Saturday is a power, right-handed pitcher, and other than that, we have numbers, and we have the scouting report, but we haven’t actually seen what it looks like.”
Kaimus – also a redshirt sophomore – was 3-1 last season with a 4.30 ERA in 23.0 innings of work, with 14 strikeouts and 11 walks in 10 appearances, and five starts, opening the season as a reliever before being moved into the midweek starter role. As a reliever, he had a 9.95 ERA in five appearances, but when he moved into the rotation, he sported a 2.16 ERA – the best among all Wildcats starters.
While Jefferies will take the hill for the Bears on Saturday, and Ryan Mason on Sunday, Monday’s starter is a bit up in the air for Cal, and it could be either of a pair of freshmen, in lefty Matt Ladrech (1-1, 3.18 ERA) or righty Jeff Bain (1-0, 1.00 ERA).
“Most likely, it’ll be Bain,” Neu said of the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, who has nine strikeouts and no walks in 9.0 innings of work. “But, if we had to use Bain out of the bullpen, to win one of the first two days, we would use him for that.”
Bain’s explosive fastball and sharp curve have proven very effective in two relief appearances and one start, while 6-foot-7 righty Alex Schick -- who started the season in the weekend rotation – will be moved to the bullpen.
“I think Bain’s kind of earned that spot, and Ladrech, at least for now,” Neu said. “That could change down the road, but we’re hoping that we can develop Schick into a really, really good bullpen arm. I think he’s kind of shown that he’s thrown some really good innings with a lot of punchouts to start, and then hasn’t been built up enough to give us that five, six, seven innings that we need yet. We’ll see how that goes, but as of right now, we’re going to go with that. That’s one of the biggest things we need, is a little more back-end bullpen to go with Nelly [Dylan Nelson], even though Erik Martinez has shown really well early. He’s still a freshman. You’d like to bolster that short relief, because when we get to conference, last year, having Nelson and Trevor Hildenberger was a really good combo. We’ve got to find that combo a little bit more.”