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BERKELEY -- It's a busy week in Cal athletics, and The Bear Republic is here to guide you through it. Between the California football team's Elite Juniors Day on Saturday, the Bears softball team's 4-0 start and the Cal baseball team ready to embark on its 2012 campaign, we bring you a two-part podcast this week, with premium recruiting info in our first hour, and a breakdown of the diamond sports in our second hour.
The Bears baseball team hits Evans Diamond on Friday at 1:30 PM for their opener against Pacific, with preseason All-American Justin Jones toeing the slab in his first action against an opposing team since a six-inning, one-hit, three-strikeout performance against Dallas Baptist in the Santa Clara Super Regional on June 11.
Following a long layoff due to a stretched nerve in his left biceps, Jones is slated to go four or five innings against the Tigers.
Behind him, Jones will have a lineup replete with talent, including junior second baseman Tony Renda, who has just been named to the Golden Spikes Award Watch List.
[Read BearTerritory.net's premium preseason feature on Jones HERE and our free preseason feature on Renda HERE]
"When you talk to Tony, he wasn't just happy to be there, last year," said NCBWA 2011 National Coach of the Year David Esquer of last season's trip to the College World Series. "That wasn't just the lifetime experience for him. He'd like to go back, and do better. It takes that attitude. It takes the guy on the bench who says, 'If we get back, I'm not going to be on the bench.' It takes the guy on the field saying, 'If we go back, we're going to win one more game.' It takes the guy who had a bad performance, saying, 'I need to get back so I can make it right.' It takes that mindset to do it again. It can't be, 'Man, that was the experience of a lifetime! Boy, that may never happen again!'"
The Bears' defense will be improved from last season, with the addition of sophomore shortstop Derek Campbell to the starting lineup - replacing the drafted Marcus Semien -- and the glove of junior Mitch Delfino, who is poised for a breakout season.
"I can go down the line, and our guys are better," Esquer said. "There's no one who hasn't gotten better. Tony's better. We're better, defensively. Delfino's better. [Vince] Bruno's better. [Danny] Oh's better. Darrell Matthews is better. They've improved. Now, it's got to show up in the game."
Eschewing a 13th-round selection in the Major League Draft by the Chicago White Sox, two-time All-Pac-10 catcher Chadd Krist returns behind the plate to handle a largely untested pitching staff, behind the three weekend starters in Jones, sophomore lefty Kyle Porter and right-handed senior Matt Flemer.
"We don't have a lot of room for injuries," said 2011 NCBWA National Coach of the Year David Esquer. "We're a big unknown. I feel like I'm slighting our guys by saying that we may not have the guys to do it, but we may have them. We just really don't know. Now, that may lend you to believe that you probably don't, because you don't know, but, you don't know."
With 2011 All-Pac-10 closer Flemer taking over the Sunday starter role, his spot in the back of the bullpen will be occupied by change-up artist Logan Scott. Getting to Scott, though, could be a bit of an adventure. Senior righty Joey Donofrio will step into the middle relief/set-up spot, but other than him, there is precious little experience.
"Joey Donofrio hasn't pitched in games that mattered yet," Esquer said. "He's pitched well enough to pitch some, but he hasn't pitched in games to win. He's going to have to do that, this year. Michael Theofanopoulos is great, 93 mph. We brought him in to be a pitcher, in our program. He's hit some, but we brought him in to pitch, and pitch well. Then, there's the others. The two freshmen (Chris Muse-Fisher and Keaton Siomkin) did well in the fall. Muse-Fisher is one to watch. He's just a junk-baller, but he's been effective against our lineup. When you're effective against our lineup, I kind of feel like maybe you can do it."
[Read practice updates and scouting reports for the 2012 team HERE]
Junior righty Ryan Wertenberger -- a former walk-on quarterback for the Cal football team -- could prove to be a big piece once he gets a few innings under his belt, and has already shown some life on his fastball and good location with all of his pitches during fall and spring practice.
"The quarterback -- Wertenberger -- he had a great fall," Esquer said. "Good velocity, a little bit of an out-pitch, created a lot of swing-and-miss -- more than most people in our program -- but he hasn't pitched in a long time. Is he going to go to Nebraska and be able to do it? Is he going to let a leadoff guy on at Texas, and then they're going to bunt and be able to get a big inning? Maybe. But, I don't know that. I know Justin Jones, if he's healthy, is going to be able to pitch anywhere in America. I know that Kyle Porter can pitch anywhere in America. I know Flemer. Logan Scott, different role, but still, if he's as good as he was down the stretch, that's good for us."
Other than the departure of Semien and now-graduated outfielder Austin Booker, Cal returns starters at every position. In the outfield, powerful Chad Bunting will man center, with speedy Matthews in left and either 2011 on-base percentage leader Bruno or strong-armed senior Oh in right. With the recent injury to starting first baseman Devon Rodriguez, sophomore Andrew Knapp will slide in, from designated hitter and occasional catcher.
"He can hit it," Esquer said of Knapp, who will rotate in with Krist behind the plate. "That's going to be a tough one for me. Chadd's a two-time returning All-Pac-10 catcher, and Andrew can take a pitch or two off, but that's not going to be the reason. Andrew's future is as a catcher. I think it can only be positive for him if, down the line, someone says, 'Can you play the outfield?' Yeah. 'Can you play first base?' Yeah. Let alone, I can tell you right now, he's going to be the catcher in a year. It's a good problem to have, but yet, I'm going to have him ready. He's going to be in the lineup as something every day, whether it's DH or outfield."
With Knapp in the field, the DH spot will open up for either Bruno or Oh, enabling the Bears to get as many of their projected top hitters into the lineup as possible.
"We're going to do it a little of two ways," Esquer said of the lineup. "I'm probably going to put a conventional No. 2 hitter, to start the season -- Bruno, Oh -- and if that's not working for Tony, then I'll move Krist up to two. Then, I'll hit Tony like he's hitting third and Krist fourth. Then, you just hit 1-2, 8-9. Let's get Tony the most at-bats. He could lead off for us, and he could hit third for us. So, if he's going to do that, I don't want to leave him naked by having an experiment behind him, who's not hitting, and then they walk him all the time.
"Last year, that's what we did. We put Booker in the World Series, we had Booker in one, because he was getting on, and we just eliminated the two spot and moved Tony and Chadd up, so Tony's hitting second and Chadd third. I may set the opening weekend with Oh or Bruno behind [Renda]. But, if we're not offensing enough, then Chadd is going to hit two, but, essentially, I'm just putting my three and four hitters up at the top."
With Rodriguez out and all the shuffling that has entailed in the last week, the development of tight end and first baseman Jacob Wark may prove crucial. A bit stiff with the leather, Wark has come out early to practice this spring for extra work, and will serve as the No. 2 first baseman behind Knapp, and a powerful option at designated hitter. With Knapp at first, top scholar and Navy ROTC cadet Alex Egber will back up Krist behind the dish.
"Jake has bettered himself," Esquer said. "He's swinging the bat. He's probably hit three of the hardest balls we've had hit in January. The kids love him. He's a great teammate. He's a cult hero. The kids love him. We've got a couple of those guys. Jake, his humility, and the fact that he'll do anything for this team, and he's not the revered football player that can just kind of coast because he's a football player. He won't do that, and they love that about him."
Another team favorite is newcomer Mike Reuvekamp, a transfer from Diablo Valley College.
"There's another kid -- Mike Reuvekamp -- who's just all energy in practice," Esquer said. "The guy makes a play, and our team just erupts."
Reuvekamp came in as a catcher, but can play all over the diamond, and is a scrappy, quick-handed fielder with a good handle who's not afraid to get dirty.
He will be one of two super-subs for the Bears, with the other being highly-touted freshman Chris Paul.
[Read an in-depth, premium analysis of last week's Blue-Gold Scrimmage HERE]
Cal will have 25 home games on the schedule this season, and with the program enjoying a new lease on life, there will be some changes at Evans Diamond this season. Expect more between-innings promotions and contests, lively public address and music selections, new baseball merchandise available at the souvenir stand and for the first time, season ticket packages. Esquer and the program's stewards are looking to create a more Minor League experience for fans, as they try to keep the momentum rolling from last season's College World Series run.
"When you think about what they've entrusted us to be, it's to somehow, find a way to make money," Esquer said. "That's what Minor League baseball teams do. That's why they exist. You're a success as a Minor League team if you make money. It isn't about how many games you win or if you win a championship, but it's, 'Did you make money?' They make money on fan experience and family experience. We've got to move in that direction. We have some limits, obviously, but we've got to move in that direction. We're only going to be able to succeed in what they've entrusted in us doing, if we move in that direction."
The Bears will actually play in a Minor League park for four games this season, traveling to face off against the Longhorns at the home of the Triple-A Round Rock Express. A four-game set in Lincoln, Neb., and three games from Feb. 24-26 at Long Beach State highlight the nonconference road schedule, while a three-game set at USC will follow right on the heels of the March 30-April 1 trip to the Lone Star State.
"Our on-field personality, I want it to be loud and communicative, because it's going to be good on the road," Esquer said. "We need to be good on the road. We need to create the same atmosphere on the road that we have here. We play, and we train, to be good on the road. If we go to another regional this year, it's going to be on the road. If we go to another Super Regional this year, it's going to be on the road. Even if we host it, it's going to be on the road. So, we're going to be on the road. And, we're going to have to beat the USC's and Texas's of the world to get to where we want to be, anyway. We might as well get comfortable doing it, because we're going to have to do it, eventually, anyway."