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May 20, 2010

Former teammates face off in Oakland

OAKLAND-Today was an historic day for the Cal baseball program, and the Bears didn't even take the field. Well, not the undergrads, anyway.

11 miles away from Evans Diamond, in Oakland, for the first time, two former Cal teammates-a pitcher and a position player-faced one another as starters in a Major League contest. Yes, former Bears have sat in opposite big league dugouts before. Even fewer times were those players former college teammates. But, for two former Cal teammates to start against one another at the Major League level is unheard of. Until today, when the A's Tyson Ross faced the Detroit Tigers' Brennan Boesch.

"It was cool seeing someone I went to school with," said Ross, who was drafted by his hometown club in 2008. "Facing him was a good experience. It was fun, bringing it back to college. He's looking good up there, swinging well. It's a little different, knowing the guy in the box."

Today at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, native son Ross made his first major league start at home, and it came against 2006 Cal draftee Boesch's Tigers. One of the Bears' most dangerous hitters during his collegiate tenure, Boesch sat right in the middle of the Tigers' order, setting up an historic showdown against his onetime teammate.

"He's a good pitcher," Boesch said before the game. "It's just another battle up here in the big leagues. He's a big-league pitcher and he's got big-league stuff. It's just another opportunity to compete. I'm taking it like any other game, and I'm sure Tyson is, too."

Ross got the better of Boesch in the pair's first head-to-head match-up in the top of the second inning, after breezing through the first with two strikeouts, one walk, and no hits.

Ross started Boesch off with a 91-mph fastball just off the outside corner for a ball. Boesch fouled the next offering-a low-and-inside, 84-mph slider-off his hands, sending it bouncing to the far end of Detroit's first-base dugout.

Ross came back with some 93-mph heat across the letters, and Boesch was unable to catch up, making the count 1-2.

Ross then went back to the slider, trying to get Boesch to chase one out of the zone, but the disciplined, .372-hitting Boesch laid off an 85-mph slider up and away. With the count even at 2-2, Ross went back to the fastball to finish off his old mate, as Boesch swung and foul-tipped the heater into the glove of catcher Kurt Suzuki.

"I think I may have had the advantage just because he hadn't seen me in a few years," Ross said. "He had a bunch of fall ball at-bats against me because I was throwing a lot that year."
It was Ross's third strikeout of the day, but things went downhill from there. In the top of the third, Ross gave up four straight hits after retiring the first hitter he faced, and found himself down 2-0 with guess-who coming to the dish.

Boesch-who's short, left-handed stroke can generate quite a bit of power, as evidenced by his 14 extra-base hits in 78 at-bats coming into today-took the first pitch he saw from Ross for a ball, as the slider missed up and away.

The next pitch Boesch saw was a straight fastball, and he pounced on it, driving the pitch to deep center. Luckily for Ross, the speedy Rajai Davis was able to get a good jump on the drive and snagged it at the warning track. After getting picked up by his defense, Ross was able to retire Brandon Inge on a shallow fly ball to left to stop the bleeding.

"That was huge, with the big inning that kind of snowballed really quick," Ross said. "He hit it hard, I mean, it was a good hit, and getting that out was huge."

Ross was able to get through the fourth inning allowing just one run, thanks to a clutch 6-4-3 double play started by shortstop Cliff Pennington.

"I thought he threw the ball pretty well," said Oakland manager Bob Geren. "A few broken-bat hits and they scored a couple runs, but I thought he had pretty good life on his ball. He had a good sinker going, and we just didn't score enough runs for him."

Ross lasted four innings in his second major league start, throwing 78 pitches-47 for strikes-while giving up seven hits, three runs (all earned) and one walk. The lifelong starter has mostly been seeing work out of the bullpen, but getting back into the familiar groove of a starting hurler was a nice change of pace for the young righty.

"It's comfortable," Ross said. "I mean, I like starting. It's nice to know when you're going to throw and have your routine throughout the week, and you know what kind of work you've got to do. The last five days were pretty nice."

It was the first time that Ross had taken the hill at home as a starter, after a 3.2-inning emergency start in Anaheim last week.

"It really wasn't any big thing. My debut or the first game of the year, I was a little nervous, but today, it was just same old same old," Ross said. "With the notice, a couple of days ahead of time, a couple more people were texting me to say good luck and stuff like that. Same old thing.

"I felt good. My arm was feeling strong, and I had that number in the back of my head. I knew that there was a pitch count, and I was going to have to try and be as efficient as possible, and they made me work out there."

Ross struck out four and took the loss as the A's fell, 5-2.

"I was throwing the ball where I wanted to, but they just did a good job putting it in play and finding holes in the defense," a staid Ross said after the game. "Once they had guys in scoring position, they were just driving them in."

The determining factor on whether Ross remains in the A's rotation will be the health of Brett Anderson, who has been on the disabled list since April 25 with a forearm strain and could return soon.

"Right now, it's probably how Brett Anderson does," Geren said. "That's what we're looking for, is to get Brett back, and putting Tyson back in the bullpen is probably the first way we'd do it. If not, then we'll go from there, but he's doing a nice job. One inning, four, five innings, whatever he's been asked to do, he's done a great job."

After their duels were finished, Boesch continued on manning right field for the Tigers through the eighth inning. In the top of the fifth, the big lefty struck out swinging against reliever Vin Mazzaro, and then ended his day with a groundout to second to lead off the top of the eighth inning before being pulled for Casper Wells in the bottom of the frame.

Despite Boesch's sub-par day, the slugging outfielder has been a revelation for Detroit this season, since making his major league debut on April 23 against the Texas Rangers. That day, Boesch broke into the Majors in a big way, going 2-for-4 with a single and a double.

"I called my parents," Boesch said of when he found out he was making the jump to the majors. "We talked a little bit, but I was busy trying to get my stuff organized to get going. They met me in Texas, and it was really cool for them to see me."

He has since continued his hot hitting, and has been a cracker jack glove man, meriting several appearances on ESPN SportsCenter's Top Plays segment.

"I don't really watch, to be honest," said Boesch, "but it's fun for family and friends to see me on there."

Entering play today, Boesch had seen action in 21 games-17 of them starts-and had scored eight runs, clocked nine doubles, two triples and three round-trippers. He's racked up 19 RBI and 51 total bases in 78 at-bats, sporting a .383 on-base percentage and a .654 slugging percentage.

Last season at Triple-A Toledo, Boesch hit .279, but when he failed to break camp with the big club this year, he lit the International League on fire, going 22-for-58 (.379) with three doubles, a triple, three home runs and 17 RBI in 15 games.

"I think it's just the mental side of it. Not getting too up or too down, just staying right in the middle and keeping an even keel. It's been really helpful, and I've started to get better," Boesch said. "I figured that if somebody went down, I'd get my opportunity, and when (Carlos) Guillen went down, I got the call. I was starting to handle my business in Triple-A, so I'd be ready."

The two former Bears last took the same field back in 2006, when Cal finished a disappointing 26-28 overall and 9-15 in the Pac-10. As a freshman that season, Ross went 6-4 in 15 starts, allowing 74 hits and 41 walks in 84.2 innings, while striking out 85.

Boesch played in 54 games for Cal that season, and collected 67 hits in 217 at-bats (.313). He scored 35 runs, launched 10 homers and knocked in 42 RBI. He stole seven of 10 bases and walked 20 times to 23 strikeouts.

"He was a junior and a position player, and I was a freshman and a pitcher, so I didn't know him all that well, but he got a good amount of at-bats off of me in the fall," recalled Ross. "Just, overall, I have more control over all my pitches (now). I'm throwing that sinker a lot more now, and back when I was a freshman, I was just throwing four-seamers and sliders."

One was a fresh-faced kid, new to the pitching game. The other had been through some of the more trying seasons in the program's history, with the team floundering a year after being team to finish above .500 in the Pac-10 and not get a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Now, both are Major Leaguers, two of the three former Bears to have made their big league debuts this year. In fact, if you count the Toronto Blue Jays' Brandon Morrow, four members of that 2006 team have played in the majors this season.

A meeting was bound to happen sometime, and that sometime was today.

While facing Ross may have been historic, Boesch is even more psyched to face his former recruiting classmate and current Toronto Blue Jays starter, former No. 5-overall pick Brandon Morrow, which could happen as early as July 22, when the Blue Jays visit Comerica Park in Detroit.

"That'll be a lot of fun," Boesch said. "We talk a lot of trash back and forth about what'll happen, so it'll be good to finally see who walks the walk."

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