Baseball Preview: Cal

Fresh off their sweep of Kansas, the Cardinal baseball team returns to the field this weekend. Stanford, winners of five in a row, will take on their cross bay rival in the California Golden Bears. The Bears are looking for a bounce back season after finishing at the bottom of the Pac-10 in 2006. The non-conference series begins Friday night and we've got a complete preview.

It's been a long time since Cal won a season-series from the Cardinal.  29 years, in fact.  It was 1978, Mark Marquess' second year as a head coach, when the Golden Bears last took a season-series from their rival.  Cal came close last season only to see Stanford win the sixth and final meeting between the two schools to even the series at 3-3.  This weekend, the teams will play the first of their two series' in 2007 as Cal takes on Stanford at Sunken Diamond in a non-conference matchup.

The Cardinal enter the weekend red-hot having won five games in a row to improve their record to 7-5.  This series marks the end of a season-long seven-game homestand for Stanford.

Meanwhile, the Bears were slumping having lost five games in a row before a two-game sweep of host UC Santa Barbara last Sunday and Monday.  The two wins over the Gauchos brought Cal back to the .500 mark as they currently sit at 7-7. 

A familiar face to Stanford fans continues to roam the dugout for the Golden Bears in David Esquer.  The starting shortstop on the 1987 national championship team and an assistant coach on the Farm throughout the early and mid 90's, Esquer is now in his eighth season at the helm in Berkeley.  And it's often been a bumpy ride for Esquer.  California has reached the NCAA Tournament just once (2001) in Esquer's tenure and have finished the year with a sub-.500 overall record in two of the last three seasons.  In 2006, Cal ended the year dead-last in the Pac-10 with a 9-15 mark while their overall record sat at 26-28.

A number of key pieces from 2006 are no longer with the Bears as their top four hitters, including high draft pick Brennan Boesch and ace pitcher Brandon Morrow, have moved on.  Morrow, who went 7-4 with a 2.05 ERA last year, was a first round draft pick.  Cal had a handful of solid pitchers outside of Morrow last year, but struggled mightily at the plate.  The Bears hit a dismal .260 last season while scoring just 4.7 runs per game.  In fact, their top returning hitter is shortstop Brett Munster with his pedestrian .268 average from a year ago.  The subpar hitting and the loss of Morrow led the Pac-10 coaches to pick California seventh in their preseason Pac-10 poll.

But in a surprise, the Bears have held their own offensively through 14 games.  Cal is batting an impressive .315 as a team although their runs per game figure of 5.9 is identical to Stanford's output.  This is despite the Bears owing a team average 35 points higher than the Cardinal (.280).  California is a team full of singles hitters and Esquer isn't afraid to play small ball.  The one exception is sophomore first baseman David Cooper.

Cooper spent his freshman year playing for Cal State Fullerton where he hit .305 with two homers and 37 RBI with the Titans.  Cooper was a key player for Fullerton during the College World Series with his sizzling .533 batting average (8-for-15) before batting over .300 during the summer in the high-profile Cape Cod League.  But Cooper decided to move on from Fullerton electing to continue his collegiate career in Berkeley.  The result is Stanford gets to face Cooper three more times this year as the slugger is quickly becoming one of the top hitters in the Pac-10.

The reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week, Cooper is batting an eye-catching .444 this year with team-best totals of five doubles, four home runs, and 17 RBI.  Cooper has also struck out just twice in 54 at-bats.  The Bears may be an offense built on stringing together singles, but Cooper is fully capable of changing the complexion of the game with one swing of the bat.  The Cardinal pitchers are going to have to be very careful with this sophomore.

All total, five Cal hitters are batting .340 or higher led by freshman Jeff Kobernus (.471 AVG, 24-for-51).  Kobernus has just three extra base hits (all doubles), but is doing an excellent job as their leadoff hitter.  Meanwhile, #2 hitter Josh Satin is trying to reclaim his stroke after earning All-Pac-10 honors as a freshman in 2005 when he hit .348.  Satin dropped all the way down to .222 last year and is perhaps the biggest key to Cal's offensive success.  He's hitting .271 with a home run and 15 RBI (second to Cooper) thus far in 2007.

The Cal offense will be facing a freshman pitcher on Friday night in the series opener as Jeff Inman will toe the rubber for Stanford.  Inman has moved up in the Cardinal starting rotation after an impressive start last weekend against Kansas when he allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings.  Inman lowered his ERA to 4.87 with that performance while his 19 strikeouts (in 20 1/3 innings) leads the club.  Inman has unlimited potential with his low-to-mid 90's fastball and solid off-speed pitches and is believed to be the first freshman in the #1 slot in the Cardinal weekend rotation since Kyle Peterson in 1995.

Inman will have to keep the Bears hitters in check Friday as opposing him on the mound will be super sophomore Tyson Ross.  Baseball America's preseason pick for Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year, Ross had an excellent freshman campaign in '05 when he made 15 starts and went 6-4 with a 3.19 ERA.  That's an ERA even lower than Stanford's 2006 ace - first rounder Greg Reynolds.  Ross dominated the Cardinal last May in his only game against the rival firing 7 1/3 innings with just one run allowed and eight strikeouts.

Ross has won just one of his first four starts this year, but does own a 2.28 ERA (7 ER/27.2 IP).  The Oakland native was a member of the US Junior National Team while in high school and could be a first round pick in 2008.  Friday night at Sunken Diamond should be fun with two of the best young arms in the Pac-10 dueling on the mound.

On Saturday, the Cardinal will start Jeremy Bleich - a teammate of Ross' on the US Junior National Team a few years ago.  Bleich struck out seven batters in six quality innings (2 ER) last weekend against Kansas to pick-up his first victory of the year.  California hasn't officially announced a starting pitcher on Saturday with most likely candidate being sophomore left-hander Craig Bennigson (1-2, 2.89 ERA, 18 2/3 IP).

On Sunday, it's Stanford who has yet to announce a starter.  Nolan Gallagher (1-2, 6.87 ERA) has been in the weekend rotation all year as the Friday starter, but has struggled, for the most part, thus far.  Gallagher did record a win, his first of the season, last Friday against Kansas allowing three runs in 5 1/3 innings. 

California will start junior right-hander Alex Rollin in the series finale.  Rollin, who has been in the Bears rotation all year, possesses a perfect 3-0 record and 3.98 ERA in five starts.  Rollin was a reliever for most of last season (0-1, 7.84 ERA) before joining the weekend rotation late in the year.  Rollin is coming off of an excellent start having tossed six shutout innings against UCSB last Sunday and should pose a tough test for the Cardinal bats.

Both teams also feature excellent closers with Stanford's David Stringer (2.25 ERA, 5 SV) having picked-up saves in the last four games.  Meanwhile, Cal's Matt Gorgen was an outstanding reliever in 2006 with his 2.50 ERA and two saves in 40 innings.  Gorgen, a sophomore, has two saves this year, but has allowed six runs on 14 hits in nine innings (6.00).  He has struck out 13. 

Cal's team ERA currently resides at 4.32 with that respectable figure due to the work of the starters - primarily Ross and Rollin.  The bullpen has had their share of difficulties and Stanford should be able to take advantage of that this weekend.  Four of Cal's seven losses have been by one run.

The Bears began the year with nine straight home games posting a 5-4 record versus the likes of UC Irvine (2-1), Portland (2-0), USF (0-1), and UNLV (1-2).  Cal has played their last five games away from Evans Diamond picking-up two victories : 0-1 at San Jose State, 0-2 at #19 Long Beach State, and 2-0 at UC Santa Barbara.

California Golden Bears (7-7)  at  Stanford Cardinal (7-5)

California Probable Starting Lineup
1. Jeff Kobernus, DH  (Fr., .471, 0 HR, 7 RBI)
2. Josh Satin, 2B  (Jr., .271, 1 HR, 15 RBI)
3. David Cooper, 1B  (So., .444, 4 HR, 17 RBI)
4. Ryan Hanlon, LF  (So., .340, 1 HR, 5 RBI)
5. Blake Smith, RF  (Fr., .362, 1 HR, 8 RBI)
6. Taylor Grigsby, CF  (Jr., .300, 0 HR, 2 RBI)
7. Brett Munster, SS  (Sr., .356, 0 HR, 8 RBI)
8. Charlie Cutler, C  (So., .121, 1 HR, 4 RBI)  or  Dylan Tonneson, C  (Fr., 3-for-13, 0 HR, 2 RBI)
9. Michael Brady, 3B  (So., .250, 0 HR, 3 RBI)  or  Stephen Carlson, 3B  (Sr., .375, 0 HR, 1 RBI)

Fri. - Tyson Ross, RHP  (So., 1-2, 2.28 ERA, 27.2 IP, 9 BB, 21 SO)
Sat. - TBA
Sun. - Alex Rollin, RHP  (Jr., 3-0, 3.98 ERA, 20.1 IP, 7 BB, 11 SO)

Stanford Probable Starting Lineup
1. Sean Ratliff, CF  (So., .280, 1 HR, 3 RBI)
2. Ryan Seawell, 3B  (Sr., .367, 2 HR, 4 RBI)
3. Michael Taylor, RF  (Jr., .229, 2 HR, 8 RBI)
4. Brent Milleville, 1B/DH  (So., .296, 0 HR, 6 RBI)
5. Jason Castro, DH/1B  (So., 2-for-16, 0 HR, 0 RBI)
6. Brian Juhl, C  (Jr., .351, 2 HR, 7 RBI)
7. Joey August, LF  (So., .294, 0 HR, 4 RBI)
8. Cord Phelps, 2B  (So., .300, 0 HR, 4 RBI)  or  Austin Yount, 2B  (So., .250, 0 HR, 4 RBI)
9. Adam Gaylord, SS  (Fr., .350, 0 HR, 5 RBI)

Fri. - Jeff Inman, RHP  (Fr., 1-1, 4.87 ERA, 20.1 IP, 9 BB, 19 SO)
Sat. - Jeremy Bleich, LHP  (So., 1-1, 5.82 ERA, 21.2 IP, 5 BB, 14 SO)
Sun. - TBA

The Cardinal are perfect at home this season as they bring a 6-0 record at Sunken Diamond into the series.  The pitching has steadily improved in recent weeks after a tough weekend at Cal State Fullerton to open the year.  Stanford's team ERA sits at 5.42 with two younger pitchers now leading the staff.  Out of the bullpen, again look for Stringer to pitch in the late innings if the games are close.

On the hitting side, Stanford will look for continued improvement from Taylor.  The right fielder is hitting .300 (6-for-20) in the last five games after just a .179 average in the first seven contests of the year.   Taylor, Seawell, and Juhl lead the team with two home runs apiece.  With Cal starting at least two right-handers this weekend, look for Castro to earn regular playing time while also moving up in the order.  The left-handed bats of August (LF) and Yount (2B) could also find their names in the starting lineup after little playing time versus Kansas, and their three left-handed starters, last weekend.

California at Stanford
FRIDAY: 5:00 P.M.
SUNDAY: 1:00 P.M.

The Cardinal head out on the road next Tuesday, but just barely, when they travel down the 101 to take on the Santa Clara Broncos.  Next weekend, Stanford hosts the USC Trojans (10-7 record) in a three-game, non-conference series.

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