Cal vs. Oregon State Series At a Glance:
Fri., 7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks: RHP Jared Horn (3-4, 3.77 ERA) vs. LHP Luke Heimlich (6-1, 0.78 ERA)
Sat., 1:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks: RHP Joey Matulovich (4-1, 4.89 ERA) vs. RHP Jake Thompson (9-0, 1.07 ERA)
Sun., 12 p.m., Pac-12 Networks: LHP Matt Ladrech (2-1, 2.83 ERA) vs. RHP Bryce Fehmel (4-2, 3.92 ERA)
The second series of conference play in 2016 saw eventual second-round draft pick Daulton Jefferies square off against projected first-rounder Drew Rasmussen on Thurs., March 24. In the midst of a five-run fourth inning for the Bears, Rasmussen exited following just 62 pitches. Six days later, it was revealed that the 6-foot-1, 226-pound ace of what was supposed to be a national title contender would undergo Tommy John surgery. Oregon State, despite winning 36 games, was left out of the postseason picture altogether.
After going 9.0 innings in the 6-2 win that night, Jefferies, on the heels of a calf strain brought on by conditioning, was diagnosed with a sub-scapular muscle strain and a minor SLAP tear. He wouldn't pitch for another two months. The Bears, armed with seven players who would be picked up in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, including Pac-12 Player of the Year Brett Cumberland, unraveled without Jefferies and projected closer Alex Schick. Cal, too, failed to make the playoffs.
Now, Jefferies -- who recently underwent Tommy John surgery -- is gone, as are six other drafted members of that 2016 Cal team that was tabbed a dark horse favorite to sneak into the College World Series. In their stead is a lineup dominated by seven underclassmen, and a pitching rotation with just one upperclassman. The Bears have surprised, in many respects, sitting at third place in the Pac-12 and pacing the league in home runs and stolen bases, but predictably struggling on the mound, with a 5.03 team ERA.
The Beavers (35-4, 18-3 in Pac-12), who host the Bears this weekend in a sold-out series at Goss Stadium in Corvallis, have hate-pummeled the rest of the college baseball world since their snub last season, and are ranked a unanimous No. 1 in the nation, hitting .287 as a team with a collective 1.89 team ERA, and outscoring opponents 208 to 87.
There isn't another way to say it: Cal will have to play perfectly this weekend in order to knock off the Beavers.
"You don't want to think that way, but you can't help but let that enter your mind," said head coach David Esquer. "You have to play as close you can to your best ballgame, and you don't want to go in there preaching that to your team, but we're going to have to play as good as we've played all season to beat them."
Only seven players on the current Cal team have ever been to Goss Stadium as opposing players -- third baseman Denis Karas, second baseman Preston GrandPre, designated hitter Matt Ruff, redshirt junior reliever Andrew Buckley, closer Erik Martinez, junior lefty Akaash Agarwal and junior lefty Matt Ladrech, who will start on Sunday against righty Bryce Fehmel (4-2, 3.92 ERA). An eighth, Kevin Flemer, transferred from Oregon State, sat out last season and has only thrown 0.1 inning this season.
GrandPre went 3-for-9 with a double, a run and an RBI in three games two years ago. Ladrech went 5.0 innings in a win, allowing two earned runs.
Only GrandPre and Ladrech have actually seen the field in Corvallis, where the crowd is hostile, gets personal and gives no quarter. During the 2011 season, the Beavers faithful got under the skin of then-freshman lefty Kyle Porter so much that he responded, verbally, and was chastised by then-pitching coach Dan Hubbs.
"That atmosphere is different than any we've played so far," Esquer said. "We touched it a little at Texas Tech, but not to this extent. When you're dealing with a team that's completely new, it's going to be different for them."
This season, the Beavers have drawn 49,022 over 17 home games, averaging 2,883 paying customers per game. That's just behind the pace of 2014, when Oregon State saw a record-setting 2,931 fans per game go through the turnstiles.
"In a good way, they're hostile," Esquer said. "It's a hostile environment, and it's an advantage for them. It's a good environment. You've got to be comfortable playing your game, with the surroundings different, and people reacting to every call that doesn't go Oregon State's way, and overreacting to every positive thing they do."
Then, there's the matter of Cal's road record. The Bears are 5-15 away from Evans Diamond this season, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Raiders.
"We've taken one on the road our last two trips, which is moving the needle a little bit," Esquer said. "Still, these last four weeks, nobody will be tested more in the country than we will."
After facing the Beavers, Cal will come home to face No. 14 Stanford for a three-game set, then will host preseason No. 1 TCU, which is currently a consensus top-10 team in the four major polls. After that, the Bears hit the road to face Arizona, which ranks between Nos. 17-20 in the four major polls. Esquer couldn't recall if Cal has ever faced a stretch this daunting under his stewardship. They have not in at least the last 12 years.
"I really don't, and maybe, the Pac-12 is tough, no matter who you play, but again, with a new cast of players that we're running out there, it's all new and different to them every time out," Esquer said. "It's how we handle that. I think they're a little older now, after 40 games, but I've committed to the fact that what we're looking for is the ability to play our best game, away from home, and two, to figure out what it's going to take to beat top-10 caliber teams in the country. Hey, we've got no choice in the last four weeks, because that's all we're seeing."
If the Bears, who are currently ranked No. 72 in RPI, can steal a game or two from the likes of TCU and Oregon State, and a game or two from Stanford and Arizona, their RPI will shoot up. Will it be enough to get them into the postseason? It's not a sure bet, by any means, but the fact remains that Cal is playing meaningful games down the stretch in a season where it wasn't expected to be very competitive.
Growth vs. Experience
Early this season, when Cal visited No. 6 Texas Tech, it saw an average crowd size of 4,062. That was 35 games ago, and until an 11-2 loss in the series finale in Lubbock, Cal played the Red Raiders very close, losing 4-2, 5-1 and 3-2 in the first three games of the series.
"I think we moved the needle a little bit, maybe not as much as we've liked, but we've grown some," Esquer said. "I think, even just in recent weeks, where we haven't let one mistake snowball into a bigger mess, it's been a sign of growth. I think our guys have held their own. Even though we've played better at home, we still have had to play well enough to beat Pac-12 teams, and that's saying something."
Oregon State leads the nation in staff ERA, with a microscopic 1.89. No other team in the nation has allowed fewer than 100 runs on the season. The Beavers have allowed just 87. One other team in the nation (Binghamton) has allowed fewer than 100 earned runs (99). The Beavers have allowed just 75. Oregon State is fielding at a .977 clip, with just three passed balls, 17 wild pitches (opponents have thrown 37 against them), 2 balks (7 by opponents) and 7 pickoffs -- fourth in the Pac-12. Simply put, the Beavers don't make mistakes very often.
The Bears have played young, to be sure, with 157 walks taken at the plate (8th in the Pac-12), 287 strikeouts (4th-most in the Pac-12) and a .969 fielding percentage -- third-lowest in the league behind Washington State, who Cal swept, and Arizona, which plays on the rock-hard Hi Corbett Field in Arizona.
Still, though, Cal (21-21, 12-9) has stayed near the top of the league, thanks in part to powerful freshman first baseman Andrew Vaughn, who leads the Pac-12 in home runs (12), places seventh in hitting (.355), second in slugging (.604), third in hits (60), third in RBIs (45) and is a likely candidate for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year (Vaughn leads Pac-12 freshmen in hitting, home runs, RBIs, slugging and hits), if not Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Both Vaughn and fellow freshman, shortstop Cameron Eden, have become key bulwarks against any defensive miscues, with Eden boasting a .980 fielding percentage since the start of Pac-12 play, and Vaughn fielding at a .995 clip on the season. Eden is also hitting .299 on the season, with 4 home runs and a .455 slugging percentage. He's also second on the team in sacrifice bunts, with 5, and has grounded into only 1 double play, while driving in 19 runs, and stealing 5 bases on 8 attempts. Since Esquer inserted Eden into the nine-hole, the Bears are 12-8, and Eden is 20-for-66 (.303) with 14 RBIs in 20 games.
"He's that guy that really turns that lineup over, who can create an inning, and set it up for the guys at the top to get a hit and have it really hurt," Esquer said. "That's a big deal. Whether it's by walk or a bunt or a base hit or an RBI, where you set up the base runner so it's an RBI situation when that lineup turns over, Cam has done great. The thing that I love most about him as a defender is that he's so drama-free. He's made a couple mistakes, but they don't stick out in your mind, because they're so few and far between."
The Bears lead the Pac-12 in home runs (34), are second in slugging (.422), second in hits (410), second in total bases (604) and, in an oddity for the program under Esquer, pace the circuit with 47 stolen bases. The best Cal has finished this decade in that category was fifth in 2010, with 69.
Cal has hit .293 (136-for-464) with 11 home runs, 33 doubles and three triples against left-handed pitchers this season. With Rasmussen coming out of the bullpen, the Beavers have leaned on junior southpaw Luke Heimlich, winner of two Pac-12 Player of the Week awards. The 6-foot, 190-pounder -- a midseason Golden Spikes Award candidate, along with teammate Nick Madrigal -- has two Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week awards under his belt, and is 6-1 with a 0.78 ERA in 11 starts. Over 80.1 innings of work, he's allowed 42 hits, 18 walks and just 6 extra-base hits (all doubles), while striking out 87 and holding opposing batters to a .153 batting average.
Heimlich, though, against right-handed heavy lineups, turns into more of a two-pitch pitcher. The change up, which naturally will fall away from right-handed hitters, is his third pitch, behind his fastball and slider. He will throw it to righties, but not nearly as much as his other two pitches. He threw fewer than 10 off speed pitches against UCLA.
"You like the fact that, a year ago, lefties were a little tougher on us, so I like the fact that we're hitting the left-handers much better," Esquer said. "This is going to be a test. Heimlich is no slouch, obviously. It's going to be a real test for our hitters, in a lot of different ways."
All three of Oregon State's top relievers -- 6-foot-3, 204-pound redshirt senior closer Max Engelbrekt (5 saves), freshman Jake Mulholland (5 saves) and 6-foot, 180-pound freshman Brandon Eisert (2 saves) -- come from the port side.
Engelbrekt has 22 saves in his career, with a 2.12 ERA, and is on pace to set career bests for WHIP (0.58), walks per nine innings (1.50, less than half his career 3.03 rate) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.00, compared to a career 2.60 mark).
Mulholland is one of four freshmen on the NCBWA's Stopper of the Year Midseason Watch List, boasting a 1.42 ERA in 38.0 innings out of the bullpen in 19 appearances. He's allowed 24 hits and 8 walks, striking out 35 while holding opposing hitters to a paltry .180 batting average.
Eisert, by Beavers standards, has a stratospheric 2.70 ERA, and has allowed 12 walks in 26.2 innings, striking out 35 and holding opposing hitters to a .194 batting average.
"The one thing that I saw they do really well on the pitching side -- it's every pitching coach's dream -- is that they command the fastball," said Cal pitching coach Thomas Eager, fresh off of his scout of the Beavers. "If you can command the fastball, it gives you a chance. It also makes everything look a little bit better. Maybe you have an average off-speed pitch, and now, it becomes above average, because you can command the fastball. That's something that that staff does, really, really well."
Jared Horn: Into the Fire
Cal's freshman righty, Jared Horn, has been a mixed back this season. He has a devastating 12-6 curve, a power curve, an explosive lot-to-mid-90s fastball and a developmental change. He will be the tip of the spear for the Bears over the next two years, as the immensely talented roster matures and gets to the point where it can -- and should be -- very dangerous in the postseason. Horn, like his underclassmen teammates, isn't quite there yet. His biggest issue has been fastball command.
"Jared's unique in the sense that he's blessed with a ton of talent," Eager said. "He's extremely gifted, extremely talented, but at the same time, he's an ultra, ultra competitor. He wants the ball. he's a big-time competitor. He's a great guy to coach, a fun guy to coach. If you really think about what he's doing, how he's pitched in his last few outings, he's done a hell of a job on Friday nights for us."
Since being moved to the front of the rotation, he's allowed 12 earned runs in 36.2 innings of work (2.94 ERA) as a starter (minus 1.0 inning of midweek relief against Stanford), while the Bears have gone 3-5. Horn's biggest issue -- the same as the last Friday-night ace to wear his No. 21, Brandon Morrow -- has been that he throws too many pitches, as he struggles to command that fastball. That's resulted in 35 walks in his 59.2 innings of work. He can fall behind in counts, and become a bit too predictable, and as such, he's given up 56 hits.
"The one thing I tell Jared, I'm like, 'Look, man, walks are one thing, hits are another, but if we're going to do something, and you're going to walk guys, you just can't give up hits. If you're going to give up a lot of hits, you can't walk guys,'" Eager said. "He's done a good job, and shoot, he did a good job against Washington, through 7.2 [innings]. He took a 2-2 tie against one of the best pitchers in the league, and he's just scratching the surface. He has a chance to be special. The one thing we talk about is command the fastball, command the off speed. When he understands that, and when he's able to do that, his future, the sky's the limit for him."
The big question for Horn, this weekend, will be how he does in one of the most hostile environments on the West Coast.
"If you embrace the learning part of it, that he's going to find out how he reacts to that, we won't know until he gets there -- Did he handle it correctly? Was he too amped up? Did he try to go too much the opposite direction? -- that's the learning process," Esquer said. "He's going to be in that situation a lot. I think guys like Jared, you really value his experience as a football player, where he's played different sports in different arenas, and he's one of those guys that is pretty tough-minded."
Oregon State's run differential may be stark, but in the grand scheme of things, the Beavers are not so relentless an offense. Oregon State is 71st in the nation in batting average (.287), 103rd in on-base percentage (.370), 272nd in home runs (14), 158th in slugging (.392) and 221st in scoring.
Still, leadoff man Nick Madrigal -- who took home Freshman All-American honors last season from Louisville Slugger, Baseball America, Perfect Game and D1Baseball.com, while being named a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year -- is an on-base machine.
The 5-foot-8, 160-pound middle infielder (who's started 14 games at second and 25 at short) was a preseason first-team All-American (Louisville Slugger, Baseball America, Perfect Game, D1Baseball.com). Madrigal ranks third in the Pac-12 in hitting (.373), eighth in slugging (.551), eighth in on-base percentage (.436), eighth in runs (35), fifth in hits (59), third in doubles (15), sixth in total bases (87) and third in stolen bases (10 of the Beavers' 39, which are second to Cal in the conference). He's walked 16 times to just 9 strikeouts.
Junior first baseman K.J. Harrison is hitting .329, with 4 home runs and 25 RBIs, while sophomore outfielder Steven Kwan is hitting .313 with a .393 on-base percentage. Sophomore infielder Cadyn Grenier has played in all 39 games, with 39 starts, with a .465 slugging percentage. He has 3 doubles, 4 triples and 4 home runs, tying him for the team lead with Harrison. Infielder Christian Donahue is hitting .260, but has 7 doubles and is a pesky left-handed hitter at 5-foot-7, 167 pounds.
"They do a good job. They have good at-bats. They make it really tough on you," Esquer said. "They pressure you, because when they do score, they make you feel like the game could be over, because they feel like they only need one or two. I think they've been really efficient. They make it tough on you. Those speed guys at the top -- Kwan and Madrigal, and Donahue. They really set the tone for them. They've got Grenier with a little power, KJ Harrison, who has shown power in our league before, and then Jack Anderson is kind of a [Tanner] Dodson-type hitter, kind of sprays the ball around the field, is looking to get a big hit with runners on base. They play a lot of guys. The kid [Michael] Gretler is a good, gritty player. I think he's going to hurt you, because he's just aggressive, and they need him to be a piece of it. They're not asking him to carry any of the load."