Baseball Preview: Cal

With the calendar turned to March, the baseball season starts to get a little more interesting. Over the next two weekends, Stanford travels on the road for a pair of series' against their two biggest in-conference rivals. The games may not count in the Pac-10 standings, but plenty is still on the line. Up first, it's a matchup starting on Friday afternoon against a veteran California club.

Perhaps the most deserving team left out of the NCAA Tournament last year, the California Golden Bears have something to prove in 2006.  The Bears went 34-23 last season while finishing the Pac-10 slate with an above .500 record (13-11).  Late-season series victories over the likes of Stanford and top-ten Arizona though weren't enough to get the Bears a berth into the NCAA's.  However, with nearly every player back from that club and a dominant ace pitcher, hopes are high that not only will Cal qualify for the tournament this year, but also make a little noise once June rolls around.

The preseason #25 team in the country according to Baseball America, the Golden Bears quickly fell out of the rankings after dropping two-of-three on the road to a UC Irvine club that should finish in the upper half of the Big West.  After dropping a midweek contest to USF a few days later and then falling in their series opener at home to Long Beach State, Cal found themselves staring at a 1-4 record.  But this veteran group of players quickly turned things around as they've won five out of their last six games to improve their overall mark to 6-5 heading into this weekend's non-conference series against the Cardinal.

Cal managed to win that series against the now-#16 Dirtbags holding Long Beach to just three runs in the final two games.  After their entire scheduled series at Baylor was washed out two weeks ago, the Bears returned home and swept UC Santa Barbara last weekend limiting the Gauchos to just two runs.  So in Cal's last five victories, their pitching staff has held the opposition to a paltry total of five runs scored.

Headlining the staff is probably the hardest thrower in the Pac-10 Conference: Brandon Morrow.  A junior right-hander, Morrow struggled in his first two years with the Golden Bears pitching primarily out of the bullpen.  Always a hard thrower, Morrow had plenty of difficulties locating all of his pitches and thus rarely saw time during the key moments in games.

The light went on though for Morrow last summer while playing in the Cape Cod League as the emerging star posted a 1.84 ERA while pitching in relief.  Over 14 innings, Morrow walked nine batters while striking out a whopping 24.  Morrow showed off a fastball that sat in the low-to-mid 90's and has topped out as high as 99 M.P.H.  Now he can complement the pitch with a devastating split-finger plus a cutter and a change-up.  That was all enough for Baseball America to name Morrow a Preseason All-American this year despite his lofty 9.36 ERA (in 25 innings) last season.

Apparently BA knew what they were doing.  Morrow has flat-out dealt in his first three starts this season racking up 22 strike outs compared to just nine walks over 17 1/3 innings.  He's proven nearly impossible to hit as evident by his .158 opposing batting average.  Overall, Morrow has allowed just two earned runs for a sparkling 1.04 ERA.  With his overpowering fastball, much-improved control, and solid off-speed pitches, Morrow is now a projected first round draft pick this June.

Rounding out the Cal starting rotation is junior right-hander Michael Cooper and freshman righty Tyson Ross.  Cooper is the lone returning starting pitcher for the Golden Bears as he made nine appearances in that role last season (primarily in the second half of the year).  An imposing presence on the mound at 6'6", 230 lbs., Cooper went 3-2 with a 3.47 ERA as a sophomore a year ago.  He's a solid #2 starter this year having compiled a 4.15 ERA over his first three starts.  Cooper won't beat himself with poor control (4 BB in 17 1/3 IP), but opponents are batting .317 against him.

While Morrow appears to have already reached star status, it may not take long before the freshman Ross joins him.  A teammate of Jeremy Bleich and Sean Ratliff on the US Junior National Team last summer, Ross immediately stepped into the Sunday starting spot for the Bears and has thrived (3.38 ERA in 16 innings).  A tall right-hander at 6'5", 215 lbs., this weekend should mark the first of many battles over the next few years between Ross and the Cardinal.

Ross has thrown especially well of late allowing just one earned run over 11 innings (0.82 ERA) spanning his last two starts.  During that time, the freshman has struck out 17 batters.  Bottom line, the Stanford bats should have their hands full this weekend with yet another talented, although somewhat inexperienced, starting rotation.

Offensively, the Bears returned seven regulars from last year's starting lineup.  While Morrow provides the star power to the pitching staff, junior outfielders Brennan Boesch and Chris Errecart can say the same with the hitters.  In fact, with Boesch, Errecart, and Morrow, this year's California team could potentially have three of their players selected in the first round of the upcoming draft.  That feat has only been accomplished by one school three times in draft history (the last being 2004 with the Rice starting pitching trio).

Both Boesch and Errecart are Preseason All-Americans with the duo batting fourth and fifth respectively in the California starting lineup.  Boesch really came into his own last year when he hit .355 with seven home runs to lead the Bears offense.  A center fielder, Boesch has an excellent pro body as he checks in at 6'5", 215 lbs.  In the preseason, Baseball America named Boesch as their pick to win Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2006.  Through 11 games, Boesch is hitting .275 with three home runs.

Errecart hit .298 last season with eight home runs while the hype grew around him after a banner summer in the Cape.  The rising junior hit .303 with the wood bat to go with six home runs (second in the league) in earning Cape Cod All-Star honors.  In addition to earning preseason All-American recognition, BA also tabbed Errecart has the "top pure hitter" in the Pac-10 Conference prior to the start of the season.  The starting left fielder, Errecart is hitting .297 in the early-going with a team-best four home runs.  Neither Boesch nor Errecart has gotten red-hot in 2006 (although they're both on pace for 15+ home run seasons), but there's no question the Cardinal pitching staff could have some problems with this duo.  When both are hot, they're fully capable of carrying this Cal offense to great heights (and not much is needed anyway with how this pitching staff is currently throwing).

The vast majority of this Cal starting lineup is filled with players who are difficult to strike out and can handle the bat well.  The Bears also play in a small home ballpark, so no lead is really ever safe with any player (on both sides) capable of putting one over the fence.  Overall, California is hitting .270 as a team while they're scoring just 4.5 runs per game (ahead of only UCLA in the Pac-10).  Like Stanford, the Bears are expecting much better production from their offense as the season progresses. 

A few other names to watch include senior shortstop Allen Craig.  A four-year starter, Craig bats leadoff in the order for the Golden Bears.  He's their leading hitter with a .333 batting average while also contributing three doubles, a home run, and just one strike out.  Craig is one of the most experienced players in the conference and is coming off a summer in which he earned Northwoods League MVP honors (.362 AVG, 12 HR, 40 RBI).

#3 hitter Josh Satin has moved over to third base after a freshman campaign in 2005 at second.  Satin was an All-Pac-10 and Freshman All-American performer last year after hitting .348 with five homers and 40 RBI.  Meanwhile, freshman right fielder Charlie Cutler figures to have an excellent collegiate career across the bay.  Cutler came to Cal as a catcher (rated the second best high school catching prospect in the country according to TeamOne Baseball), but is seeing most of his playing time right now in right field in an attempt to get his bat in the lineup (returning starter Garrett Bussiere does most of the catching).  Cutler, a San Francisco native, has a sweet left-handed stroke and is already making a contribution as evident by his .318 batting average (7-for-22), four RBI, and no strike outs.

This isn't a California offense that's going to hit a ton of home runs although, as mentioned above, Evans Diamond does have a tendency to inflate some power statistics.  This is an experienced group of hitters with Craig doing an excellent job of setting the table.  Satin is a solid middle-of-the-order hitter while Cutler could become the next great Cal bat.  And of course, with two potential first round draft picks right in the middle of the lineup, the Golden Bears are certainly poised to finish in the top part of the Pac-10 while making a run toward the NCAA's.

While the offense has struggled at times in the early-going (scored just nine runs in their sweep of UC Santa Barbara last weekend), the defensive effort has picked up the slack.  Cal has committed just six errors as a team over their first 11 games for a spectacular .985 fielding percentage.  If the Bears' starting pitchers are on their games this weekend, combined with the fact Cal rarely beats themselves with poor fielding, then it could be a tough series for the Cardinal.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Allen Craig, SS  (Sr., .333, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 SB)
2. Brett Munster, 2B  (Jr., .333, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Josh Satin, 3B  (So., .244, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB)
4. Brennan Boesch, CF  (Jr., .275, 3 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
5. Chris Errecart, LF  (Jr., .297, 4 HR, 9 RBI, 0 SB)
6. Mike Van Winden, 1B  (So., .278, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
7. Garrett Bussiere, C  (Jr., .267, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Charlie Cutler, RF  (Fr., .318, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
9. TBA, DH

Fri- Brandon Morrow, RHP  (Jr., 2-0, 1.04 ERA, 17.1 IP, 9 BB, 22 SO)
Sat- Michael Cooper, RHP  (Jr., 1-1, 4.15 ERA, 17.1 IP, 4 BB, 11 SO)
Sun- Tyson Ross, RHP  (Fr., 2-1, 3.38 ERA, 16.0 IP, 7 BB, 21 SO)

Craig hit .304 with eight home runs and 35 RBI as a junior last season ... Munster was a part-time player in his first two years posting just a .232 career batting average ... He's done a nice job setting the table of late from the #2 spot in the batting order ... Satin started every game at second base for California last season before moving over to third in '06 ... He's a redshirt sophomore this year after a shoulder injury limited him to just four at-bats in 2004 ... Bussiere has excellent power potential and was a 14th round draft pick out of high school ... Cal has used a number of players in the DH position this season.

The Cardinal, unranked in the preseason for the first time ever (BA poll dates back to 1981), bring a 9-4 record and the #19 national ranking into this weekend's non-conference series against their rival.  Stanford started their season-long ten-game road trip last week in Fresno taking two-of-three games from the WAC favorite Bulldogs.  After this series with the Golden Bears, the Cardinal will face San Jose State in a single game (Tuesday, March 7th) before heading down south for a three-game, non-conference set versus USC (Friday-Sunday, March 10th-12th). 

The Stanford offense has showed some signs of life over the past couple of weeks after a dismal start to the season.  In their first seven games, the Cardinal hit just .209 as a team (4.3 runs per game).  However, in their last six games, Stanford batters have hit at a much-improved .299 clip (6.2 runs per contest).  They'll face a tough test this weekend against one of the better pitching staffs in the conference, but at least a handful of hitters are swinging hot bats.

Leading the pack is sophomore right fielder Michael Taylor.  A Preseason All-American, Taylor paces the club with a .340 batting average thanks to a current seven-game hitting streak (.444 AVG, 12-for-27, 9 RBI).  Batting just in front of Taylor in the lineup is senior shortstop Chris Minaker with his .321 batting average (only two regulars over .300).  Minaker has hit safely in six straight games batting at a cool .462 (12-for-26, 9 RBI) during the streak.  He's also found his power stroke as evident by the team-leading three home runs.  Finally, Jim Rapoport has seen his average climb to .292 thanks to a modest five-game hitting streak (.368 AVG, 7-for-19, 5 RBI).

Without any question, the Cardinal have leaned heavily on their pitching staff to produce much of their early-season success.  Greg Reynolds struck out a career-best 11 last Friday night in Fresno to lead Stanford to a 3-2 victory.  Reynolds has a remarkable 14.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (2 BB, 29 SO) and a 2.39 ERA over his first four starts.  Saturday starter Matt Manship has thrown much better over his last two appearances as he's lowered his season ERA to 5.40.  Meanwhile, the Cardinal are officially "TBA" on Sunday.  Matt Leva hasn't been quite as effective the last two times out (9.95 ERA, 7 ER/6.1 IP) and it remains to be seen whether he'll be given another shot this weekend or if Coach Marquess will make a change - possibly to reigning Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week David Stringer (2-1, 1.46 ERA, 12.1 IP, 1 BB, 17 SO).

Out of the bullpen, Stanford continues to be led by freshman Jeremy Bleich.  The Louisiana native leads the Pac-10 with five saves to go with a stellar 0.77 ERA (1 ER/11.2 IP, 0 BB, 10 SO).  A number of other relievers have contributed to the Cardinal's outstanding 3.38 team ERA.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Joey August, LF  (Fr., .261, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
2. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., .292, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 1 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .321, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 2 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .340, 1 HR, 13 RBI, 1 SB)
5. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .225, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 SB)
6. John Hester, C  (Sr., .227, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 SB)
7. Brendan Domaracki, DH  (So., 2-for-7, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .182, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Austin Yount, 3B  (Fr., .200, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 0 SB)  or  Cord Phelps, 3B  (Fr., .231, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 1-1, 2.39 ERA, 26.1 IP, 2 BB, 29 SO)
Sat- Matt Manship, RHP  (Sr., 0-1, 5.40 ERA, 16.2 IP, 2 BB, 13 SO)
Sun- TBA

August has just one hit in his last 12 at-bats after a red-hot start ... Ryan Seawell (.263, 1 HR, 2 RBI) may get a chance to start more in left field after hitting a home run on Saturday and a double on Sunday ... Minaker hit just three home runs all of last season (his 25 doubles were the second-most in a single-season at Stanford) ... Hester hit his first home run of the season last Sunday at Fresno to break a 3-3, sixth-inning tie ... Domaracki has seen little playing time early this year, but did earn the "start" at DH last Sunday and came through with a 1-for-3 effort ... Lewis continues to slowly raise his average after a 4-for-14 (.286) weekend in Fresno.

* California head coach David Esquer played at Stanford under Marquess from 1984 through 1987.  A shortstop, Esquer was a key member of the '87 national championship club.  After a brief minor league career, Esquer returned to Stanford as an assistant coach from 1991 through 1996.  He's currently in his seventh year at the helm over in Berkeley.

* Morrow started his 2006 campaign with a bang.  In an opening night start at Irvine, the flame-thrower worked 6 1/3 no-hit innings with one walk and 12 strike outs.  He was named National Pitcher of the Week for his efforts.

* Cutler set the California High School RBI single-season record in 2004.  As a junior, the catcher drove home 71 runs.

* Bears closer Alex Trafton was an All-Alaska League selection last summer.  Trafton has a 1.29 ERA (1 ER/7 IP) and two saves over six relief appearances this season.

* California doesn't run often as they've stolen just three bases (in six attempts) through 11 games.  Craig has stolen two of those bases.

* Stanford and Cal split the six games played between the teams last year.  The Cardinal took two-of-three from the Bears in a non-conference set at Sunken Diamond in early-March.  Cal returned the favor with a pair of wins over Stanford at Evans Diamond last May.  The Cardinal won 18 straight games over the Golden Bears spanning 2002 through 2005.

* Marquess lost the season-series to Cal in each of his first two years as head coach (1977 and 1978).  Stanford hasn't lost the season-series to their cross-bay rivals since (the teams have tied, three games apiece, many times).

* The Cardinal will host the Bears in a three-game series at Sunken Diamond, Friday-Sunday, May 5-7.  That series will count in the Pac-10 standings.

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