March 2, 2012

Bears host Lehigh in three-game set

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Last weekend against Long Beach State, California head baseball coach David EsquerTony Renda out of the leadoff spot and into the three-hole in two of the three road games against the Dirtbags. With powerful first baseman Devon Rodriguez still unavailable until the middle of March because of a preseason MCL injury, there has been a hole in the middle of the order, which Esquer hoped Renda could fill. The experiment hasn't worked out as well as he'd hoped.

Since going 6-for-11 in the opening series against Pacific, Renda has gone 5-for-17 over the past four games -- good for just about any other collegiate hitter, but for Renda -- with a career average of .353 -- it's a step back.

After scoring 24 runs in three games against the Tigers using largely the same lineup each time out, the Bears (5-2) have scored just 12 runs over the past four games. Renda won't be moving around, at least, "for a little bit," Esquer said.

"Again, we're trying to cover our middle a little bit," he continued. "Until Devon comes back, we're really one guy short in the middle of the lineup, where Devon would be hitting fourth or fifth for us, right now."

When 2011 on-base percentage leader Vince Bruno is hitting in the two-spot behind Renda, Cal is 3-0. The Bears are 2-2 in games in which Bruno -- hitting .364 with six runs, one double, one triple, one RBI and three walks to two strikeouts -- starts anywhere but second in the order. In fact, second-place hitters apart from Bruno are hitting a combined 1-for-13 with three RBI, two walks and three strikeouts.

"We're a little worried that we don't have enough coverage for Tony right now," Esquer said. "Everything's going good enough, but when he's at the top of the lineup, we can let him run and we can let him do some things that we're less likely to do with him in the middle. If we're not going to hit, we're going to have to try to create some opportunities to score without a hit, and probably stealing some bases and moving some runners is the way to do it."

Cal takes the field this weekend in a three-game set against visiting Lehigh (2-2), which is coming out to the Golden State for the first time in program history, as part of an eight-day swing through California.

Preseason All-American Justin Jones (1-1, 5.62 ERA) will take the hill on Saturday at 2 PM at Evans Diamond against sophomore Nick Cassell, who went 6.0 innings, allowing three hits and no earned runs in the season-opener against Davidson. Jones's last outing was far from smooth. The junior southpaw went just 3.0 innings against the Dirtbags, allowing four runs on four hits and one walk, with three wild pitches and one hit batter.

Jones will contend with a lineup centered around senior shortstop Ryan Gajdos (.583, 3 RBI), junior first baseman Alex Jacquez (.429) and freshman center fielder Justin Pacchioli (.400, 2 RBI), but, as a team, the Mountain Hawks are hitting .268 with a .315 slugging percentage and a .371 on-base percentage.

While Lehigh doesn't boast the same high-pressure offense as Long Beach State, the Mountain Hawks are adept on the base paths, stealing seven bases in 11 attempts, led by Pacchiolo's four thefts in five tries.

Early on in the 2012 campaign, the Bears have seen a bit of a reversal of strengths. Coming into the season, Cal was looking at a thin set of front-line pitchers and a group of unproven relievers, but a high-powered, deep offense and reliable defense around the diamond. After seven games, the Bears are hitting .265 as a team with a .958 fielding percentage, while the pitching staff boasts a 2.47 ERA with 36 strikeouts to 14 walks, holding opposing hitters to a .225 batting average.

"Our pitching staff has been picking us up," Esquer said. "We felt like the defense and our offense would be something that allowed the pitching staff to settle in a little bit, and that hasn't been the case. Our defense hasn't been great, and our offense hasn't been clicking, so our pitching staff has really been a surprise, and really has kind of been carrying us."

That pitching staff could get at least a bit of a boost this coming weekend, with the possibility of a short performance from 2011 Freshman All-American Kyle Porter. The sophomore lefty has been shelved because of a bout of shoulder tendonitis during January practice, which slowed his progression from primarily a reliever last season into a weekend starter for this year. The tendonitis served as an impetus to alter Porter's delivery to take greater advantage of the 6-foot-2 southpaw's legs, resulting in a more fundamentally-sound motion with a slight uptick in velocity. He is still at least a week away from returning to the rotation full-time, though.

"I think [he's] pretty close," Esquer said. "I think there's a chance this weekend for maybe an inning and try to build his pitches up over the next two or three weeks."

Porter will not, however, have the opportunities afforded Jones during his seven-month rehab, of pitching in multiple intra-squad contests, which have gone by the wayside since real games began. His early outings will likely be limited to fewer than Jones's early pitch counts of between 70 and 80 pitches.

"Early on, he'll probably be a little shorter than that, to start with," Esquer said. "He's getting those intra-squad games that Justin would have had, he's getting them in a real game."

Cal will face the Mountain Hawks in a Sunday doubleheader to finish out the series, with senior righty Matt Flemer (1-0, 1.80 ERA) taking the 11 AM start and sophomore lefty Michael Theofanopoulos (0-1, 2.25 ERA) handling the back end. Those two will face sophomore right-hander Colin Gotzon (0-1, 0.00 ERA) and senior right-hander Luke Porter (0-1, 0.00 ERA), respectively.

"Our depth on the pitching mound is still a work-in-progress," Esquer said. "We've been going to the guys who perform the best in practice, and there is an opportunity for some guys who hadn't had a chance to get in there. We're still in need of one or two guys, especially in the absence of Porter. We're still one guy down. We're one guy thinner than we should be, but hopefully, we can find some answers and some guys we can turn to down the line."

One of the emergent arms belongs to senior Joey Donofrio. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound righty is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 6.0 innings over four appearances. He's allowed just one walk and four hits while striking out seven and holding opposing hitters to a .190 batting average.

In Tuesday's 5-3 win over San Francisco, Donofrio wriggled out of a sixth-inning jam, when he allowed a one-out double to Bradley Zimmer, an infield single to Aritz Garcia after getting ahead 1-2 and then a walk to designated hitter Brendan Hendricks to load the bases for Justin Maffei. Donofrio bore down and fanned Maffei on a slider low and away, before getting veteran second baseman Jason Mahood to pop out to Renda on the first pitch.

Lehigh has not faced a top-25 team since 2008, and Cal ranks No. 28 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers poll, No. 26 in NCAA Baseball RPI and No. 25 according to Collegiate Baseball.

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