Photo by Sue Tenerowicz

No. 12 California and head coach David Esquer visit former assistant Dan Hubbs and USC to start Pac-12 play

Cal head coach David Esquer and USC skipper Dan Hubbs talk two to three times per week during the season, but not this week. The pair have gone radio-silent as the No. 12 Bears face a stout weekend test in the Trojans, as both teams open Pac-12 play in Los Angeles.

Series at a Glance

Thursday 7 p.m.: RHP Daulton Jefferies (4-0, 1.04 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Davis (2-2, 3.86 ERA)
Friday 7 p.m.: RHP Ryan Mason (2-0, 2.13 ERA) vs. RHP Brad Wegman (1-0, 2.38 ERA)
Saturday 2 p.m.: TBD vs. TBD
Note: The first two games of the series (Thursday and Friday) will be broadcast live on Pac-12 Networks, with Roxy Bernstein and JT Snow on the call.

Frien-emies

Having won nine of their last 11, the No. 12 California (10-4) baseball team heads into the first of two straight Thursday-Friday-Saturday series, opening up Pac-12 play against USC (7-8) at Dedeaux Field tonight at 7 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks.

Cal comes into the meeting ranked in the top 15 in each of the three major polls: No. 12 in the D1Baseball.com Top 25, No. 13 in the NCBWA poll and No. 14 in the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll.

In what's now become an annual meeting of two old friends, Bears head coach David Esquer and his assistant for 12 years, Trojans head coach Dan Hubbs, don't speak for the week or so leading into the series between the Northern California and Southern California foes.

“We got a little silent. We go silent. It’s good that it’s happening early, so we can be normal the rest of the year," said Esquer, who talks to Hubbs -- who he called his "right arm" during their dozen years together in Berkeley -- two to three times per week the rest of the year. “We want to win bad, so we don’t talk.”

The Week That Was

After sweeping a four-game set against then-No. 23 Texas -- the first time the Longhorns had ever been swept in a four-game set -- Cal came home for what was scheduled to be another four-game series against Texas Tech -- the No. 67 scoring offense in the country. Instead of four games, the two teams wound up playing just two between the raindrops in Berkeley.

The Bears came out on top 9-2 on Friday behind 7.0 innings from Daulton Jefferies -- who struck out nine and scattered six hits -- and another big day from third baseman Mitchell Kranson, who went 4-for-5 with three runs scored, and a 1-for-3 night from Devin Pearson, who drove in Kranson with a two-out double in the third, one of his two RBIs on the night.

On Saturday morning, Cal fell behind early 5-0, but took an 8-5 lead with a seven-run fifth inning, but then, the Bears' stout defense took a vacation, resulting in a three-run rally in the seventh, capped off by a solo home run by DH Cory Raley off of starter Ryan Mason -- the first home run he's given up since May 4, 2014.

“I thought our team showed a toughness, and I thought this team proved to me that they’re tougher than I thought they were, because we went down 5-0 against a really good ballclub, and came back and took the lead 8-5," Esquer said. "I know they showed us something against Texas, but I think this opponent challenged us in a different way, because they’re probably a little more relentless, offensively, and I thought our guys stood up, pretty well, even though we ended up not being able to win the game because of our defense."

Esquer said that two muffed double play balls were the key to Cal's downfall on Saturday. How unusual is that? Cal came into the Texas Tech series with 18 double plays turned on the year -- 14th in the nation.

“We literally would have gotten out of the inning in the seventh with no runs, and then the next guy came up, and we would have gotten out of the inning, and we ended up not turning the double play, and the next guy hits a three-run homer," he said. "Then, were tied, and with two outs in the eighth, we get a ground ball to short and throw it up the line and three runs score. We made those mistakes, and we didn’t have to lose, but we certainly didn’t deserve to win, with how we played.”

The second game of a would-be Saturday doubleheader was rained out, as was Sunday's finale, bringing the Bears back onto the diamond a bit fresher against the Trojans, who have dropped five of six games, including two of three to No. 7 TCU this past weekend, and a 5-4 loss on Tuesday to UConn. 

Series Preview

Last season, USC, under Hubbs's guidance, notched a 3.65 team ERA, with freshman Mitch Hart flashing some big-time talent, earning Freshman All-American honors by going 7-3 with a 4.07 ERA in 86.1 innings. Hart has been down with an injury this year, and without the 6-foot-4, 200-pound righty, the Trojans have been a bit stretched. USC has a 4.33 ERA this season, eighth in the Pac-12. Cal, in contrast, has a 2.32 team ERA, and a 7-0 starting pitcher record.

The Trojans do, however, have a formidable ace, in Kyle Davis (2-2, 3.86 ERA). A year ago, Davis made 20 appearances and started five games, going 3-3 with a 4.05 ERA and earning a 29th-round draft selection by the Toronto Blue Jays.

“I think their Friday guy can keep them in a game with anyone in the country. He will match up very well with Daulton Jefferies," Esquer said of the 6-foot, 200-pound senior out of Garden Grove (Calif.) Pacifica. "He was tough on us, last year. I think Davis is a definite, solid, win-every-Friday type guy. I think they match up well. I think they have been a little frustrated. They’ve been dinged up a bit. Their freshman kid, [Mitch] Hart, who was an All-American last year, has not pitched this year. That’s put a little stress on all the other guys, I think, when you don’t have that guy.”

Last season, Davis held the Bears down for 8.0 innings, scattering eight hits and one walk, allowing three runs and striking out three on 110 pitches, as Jefferies struggled, allowing seven runs on seven hits in 5.0 innings, throwing 90 pitches in an 11-3 loss in the series opener in Berkeley.

USC's offense was potent in 2015, batting .296 with a league-best 614 hits and 377 runs scored, to go along with a .412 slugging percentage and 35 home runs -- third in the league behind Cal's 45 and Oregon State's 40. So far in 2016, the Trojans not quite as potent -- fifth in the league in hits, fifth in runs, sixth in RBIs, fifth in slugging and fifth in batting average -- but they can get on base. 

USC leads the league (along with Washington and Oregon) with nine home runs, is fourth in on-base percentage (.390), fourth in total bases, ninth in strikeouts and second in walks (75). The Trojans, though, are first in the league in grounding into double plays (12), and third in caught stealing (9 times).

USC boasts the top hitter in the conference in senior David Oppenheim. In 12 games, the JuCo transfer who went 4-for-11 last year against Cal is hitting .468 with a .545 on-base percentage. 

“He was there last year, a junior college transfer, and he’s just an extra piece, an extra guy that’s an experienced bat for them," Esquer said. "He DH’d a lot last year, is playing the outfield now, and I know he was out last weekend against TCU, and I know they expect him back, this week.”

With Oppenheim back, the Trojans' offense certainly gets a boost, as he slots in as the No. 2 hitter ahead of the dangerous twosome of Jeremy Martinez and Timmy Robinson, the latter of whom was a terror last year against the Bears, going 4-for-9 with five runs scored, three RBIs, a double and a home run.

“I know that they’ve been getting a lot of guys on base," Esquer said of the Trojans. "I think they’ve been a little frustrated at scoring the runners in scoring position, but they have a ton of guys on base, and I think the middle of the order is pretty experienced with Martinez, Ramirez and Robinson. That’s pretty potent, and if you’ve got to go through those guys, you’re going to have to make some good pitches.”

Martinez is one of the top hitters in the conference, with a .356 batting average in 15 games, scoring 12 runs with four doubles, one triple, two home runs and 10 RBIs. Kranson -- El Gaucho -- is a mirror of Martinez, hitting .356 with a home run, six doubles, 10 RBIs and 12 runs scored.

“As far as really, really stressing your staff, having to go through them over and over again, you may get them once or twice, but you’ve got to run through them three or four times to play a whole game," Esquer said of USC's lineup. "I think they’re as good as there is, in the league, to be honest with you.”

Of course, the Bears are plenty potent at the dish, as well. Along with Kranson, switch-hitting sophomore catcher Brett Cumberland has been on fire, reaching base successfully in each of the 13 games he's played. His .395 batting average is sixth in the league, while his .721 slugging percentage is third best, as is his .527 on-base percentage. Since moving out of the two-hole in favor of Kranson, senior designated hitter Devin Pearson is 12-for-38 at the plate (.315). Since the move to the two hole, Kranson is hitting .404 (19-for-47) with nine RBIs, after starting off 2-for-12. Against the Red Raiders, he went 6-for-10 with four runs scored.

Pitching Note

With No. 3 starter Matt Ladrech struggling -- posting a 1-0 record but a 4.97 ERA in three starts and 12.2 innings of work, with a .326 batting average against -- there's a large possibility that fellow Freshman All-American Jeff Bain will go on Saturday. Esquer said that Bain will be available in the bullpen over the first two days of the series, but if he has not pitched, he may get the start on Sunday. Bain has a 1.54 ERA and a 1-1 record in three games (11.2 IP), with one start.


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