The Cal baseball team, still suffering the effects of nearly being eliminated, was not expected to do all that much this year. But the Bears, surprising everybody except possibly themselves, are 20-8 overall and even after Thursday night's home loss to Washington State, are just a game out of the Pac-12 lead at 7-3. Ignored in the rankings prior to the season, the Bears have climbed to 12th in one national poll.
“I knew we would be much improved,” said head coach David Esquer this week. “But I really didn't expect our freshmen to pitch and play beyond their years as they have. You can't really tell until the lights turn on and you start playing, but they've responded beyond our expectations.”
Junior pitcher Ryan Mason understands why the Bears might have been overlooked initially. “I can see where they (the forecasters) might get their assumptions from,” he said. “Based on the last couple of years why they think we might not be successful. But those guys who make the polls aren't around us 24/7. We knew what we had. ... Our freshmen have really been doing a great job and helping us out. … The older guys are doing the same things we've been doing the last three years and the freshmen are coming in and have made us successful.”
Mason, scheduled to start the second game of the WSU series Friday night, has certainly done his part with a 4-0 record and a 2.74 ERA in seven starts. “He is as good a competitor on the mound as I've ever coached,” said Esquer, in his 16th year at Cal. “He doesn't always have his best stuff, but we always seem to win when he's out there.”
The freshmen contributors include shortstop Preston Grand Pre, catcher Brett Cumberland and pitchers Jeff Bain (4-1, 1.88 ERA), Erik Martinez (1-1, 1.96) and Matt Ladrech (4-3, 2.06).
Esquer wasn't sure Grand Pre, who hails from Laguna Beach, could handle the task of being an everyday shortstop at such a young age. But he has done the job admirably.
“He is a good looking athlete,” Esquer said. “He's long and lean (6-3, 160), and he's got a good arm. Our assistant coaches have a done a great job kind of rushing his development, getting him ready for this level at this speed on a daily basis. But he has been our everyday shortstop from day one. We thought we'd have to bring him along slowly.”
Bain, 6-4, 215 from Pasadena, has filled in when top starter Daulton Jefferies was sidelined by tendonitis Although he took his first loss of the season Thursday, he did not give up an earned run in six innings. Besides his sparkling ERA, he has 23 strikeouts and just four walks.
“He's a contact pitcher,” Esquer told the Daily Californian last week. “What he's done to step in for Jefferies has been huge for us.”
Cumberland, 5-10, 185, out of Turlock, is the starting catcher and is second on the team in RBI with 24 and home runs with six. He had a monster day in a non-conference win over Stanford with a grand slam and a three-run homer, seven RBI in two swings.
Relying on freshmen is nothing new for the Bears. Last year Jefferies, third baseman Lucas Erceg, second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz and outfielder Aaron Knapp all were significant contributors as frosh. Now they are seasoned veterans.
“We committed to some kids last year and we were hoping to reap from that investment this year and I think we have,” Esquer said. “Knapp (.339) has been around .350 the whole year. Lucas Erceg (.366, 27 RBI, 8 home runs) has been great to start the season. Robbie has been injured (but returned last weekend). Those three freshmen played every day regardless of performances last year, and by end of last year we were winning two out of three on weekends. It can be a risk if they're not good enough. You put a freshman out there, and he fails it hurts his confidence. He doesn't believe that he can do it. I thought those three players were mentally tough enough to get through the other side and become really good players.”
Then there was Jefferies, who emerged as the Bears top starter. “He pitched way better than his record (2-8),” Esquer said. “We didn't help him much on offense against the other teams' top starter.”
To go along with the youngsters the Bears have a core of veterans who not only are performing on the field, but provide a steadying influence. It's a mix Esquer likes.
“The pulse of the team is good, you can tell it in the weight room and in the practice field,” Esquer said. “And in both of those we've had great leadership from some of our older players, (first baseman) Chris Paul, (outfielders) Devin Pearson and Ryan Mason of our team. They don't want to take no for answer.”
Paul is a particularly intriguing case. He was one of the few members of the 2012 recruiting class that Esquer was able to hang onto. Cal baseball was on the rise in the fall of 2010, when the University announced the team would be disbanded the following spring for financial reasons. As the team was mounting a season run that would end in a College World Series appearance in 2011, the program was saved by a fund-raising blitz.
However, most of the recruits Esquer had signed had chosen to go elsewhere thinking there would be no baseball at Berkeley. Paul was one of those to de-commit, although when the good news on the program came through, he re-upped at Cal.
He wasn't an instant success. Averaging just .239, .221 and .264 his first three years he was getting frustrated. “I've had good numbers in summer ball, but I haven't really produced at Cal,” he said. “It's good that it's finally coming together.”
Paul goes into Friday with a .333 batting average, six homers and 23 RBI. “I think I finally just relaxed and found my confidence and the routines that I needed,” he said. “I just need to continue with it.”
Esquer isn't surprised. “He had been such a great performer in the summers. It just takes some people time to get their ‘Pac-12 confidence', that they feel like they're the same player no matter who the competition is.
“We probably heaped a lot on him his first year. We didn't have a lot of depth. That was the first year of (after) the cut. A lot of guys transferred out. We let go of a complete recruiting class. Paul came back to us after the cut. We had to force him in the lineup. I don't know if that was fair to him, but we didn't have much else. … His perseverance is a good lesson for anyone.”
But the Bears do have depth now, much more so than even last year. The Bears finished 26-27, but Esquer said the injury to shortstop Mike Reuvekamp that took him out the lineup for six weeks, probably cost Cal a shot at the postseason.
“We were one win away from being in the conversation for the playoffs,” he said. “Our season resume was as good as anybody's, having beaten Texas twice, Arkansas twice, Baylor twice, Auburn at Auburn. We just didn't have the depth to overcome the injury.”
Esquer said the six weeks Reuvekamp was out represented, “the softest part of our schedule. Those one or two wins we were looking for were during those six weeks. He came back, we won again, the last five series won three of them on the road. We got close.”
This year the Bears have had injuries, not only to Jefferies and Tenerowicz, but Pearson and DH Nick Halmandaras. “I think that's a good sign that we are more than the starting nine right now,” Esquer said. “Our starters went down and we didn't drop off.”
Depth is not the only improvement from last year. “”There is a night and day difference between the clubhouse energy this year and last year,” said Mason. “Everyone's playing for each other. There is not a single guy wishing he should be playing ahead of another guy. Everybody is thinking, ‘What can I do to help this team.' That is something that plagued us last year, there was a little bit of discontent on the bench. But this year that doesn't exist.”
Paul agrees. “I think we've been through a lot of internal things, and I think we've come together. The idea of team is really important to us.”