Bears Return Home for Four Against Bulldogs

Justin Jones. (Joni Krist)

With a starting rotation in disarray after a 2-7 road trip, the Cal baseball team comes home for a four-game set against 3-8 Fresno State at Evans Diamond, starting on Thursday at 1:30 p.m., with Justin Jones on the hill.

When the 2013 campaign began, California head baseball coach David Esquer took a weary glance at the temporary fence set up on the warning track at Evans Diamond, constructed to make way for the equipment required to set up lights at the 80-year old facility, and said, in response to the assertion that he finally had lights, "No, I've got a fence."

Now, he still doesn't have lights, but he sure has a lot of cranes and backhoes, as construction crews work around the clock to meet the March 28 deadline.

While the facilities issue is no longer causing too many gray hairs to sprout beneath the 13th-year head coach's ball cap, the Bears' starting rotation is quite a different story, heading in to the first of four games against Fresno State at Evans, on Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

Since the Weekend of Walk-Offs against visiting Michigan, Cal (5-7) has been set reeling, going 2-7 on a season-long nine-game road swing that included seven games against teams ranked in the top 25.

"Just forecasting ahead, we knew this team would be challenged in a number of ways, just because of the timing of a lot of different things," said Esquer, who mentioned the loss of recruiting cycles during the cutting and then salvation of the program in 2011. "It was going to be unavoidable ... Missing two recruiting cycles with the early cycle on the 2014 class and then [...] we were recruiting three cycles at once when they got us. When they got us back, we needed players immediately, we should have had probably a couple in the bank two years ahead of time, so it may show up in different ways. It's our youth and inexperience. Those freshmen are playing right away."

Only once has a pitcher in the season's original weekend starting rotation gone at least 5.0 innings, and that was during the opening-weekend sweep of the Wolverines.

"Very disappointing. Very disappointing," Esquer said on Wednesday of his starting lefty trio of Justin Jones, Kyle Porter and Michael Theofanopoulos. "We've had to blow up our rotation, which, in turn, has blown up our bullpen, and that's too bad, because our bullpen was set up nicely. But, Jones, Porter and Theo, they just haven't performed yet to the level that we needed them to, so we've had to blow that up, and I don't know how that's going to fall now."

The fact that that triumvirate has a combined ERA of 7.43 and has averaged less than 4.0 innings per start has forced Esquer to not only blow up the rotation, but to blow up his bullpen, as well.

During last weekend's Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park, Esquer was without 6-foot-7 freshman righty Ryan Mason (2-0, 3.60 ERA), who was home sick, as well as Theofanopoulos and righty reliever Ryan Wertenberger (spent three days of the trip sick in his hotel room). After Jones threw 100 pitches in 4.0 innings in the opening 9-0 loss against Baylor, Esquer started freshman Jake Schulz against No. 1 North Carolina. Things were going well for the talented righty out of Carlsbad (Calif.) La Costa Canyon for the first three innings, but he then walked the first two batters in the fourth and allowed two singles and a triple to open the floodgates, as the Tar Heels put up an eight-spot to begin what would wind up as an 11-5 route.

Cal then came away with a 13-2 win over Houston on the back of a strong start from freshman Collin Monsour, who scattered five hits and one walk over 5.1 innings, with four strikeouts, but in the process, the Bears lost junior Derek Campbell for the season when first baseman Justin Montemayor slid hard into second on an inning-ending double play in the bottom of the sixth, breaking Campbell's lower leg.

"He was turning a double play, the guy slid and hit him in the leg. Clean slide, straight in, right straight on," said Esquer, who has now lost both Campbell and senior Vince Bruno (hip surgery, will take a medical redshirt) for the season. "Those are tough to take. We were pretty stretched with everyone in the lineup, let alone without guys."

All told, Bears relievers had to throw 15.1 innings over four games in Houston, though Cal did find a potential weekend starter in sophomore JuCo transfer Dylan Nelson, who tossed 6.0 scoreless innings in a 1-0 loss to Rice on Monday, which ended on a walk-off single by Ford Stainback with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

"To be honest, he didn't perform all that great in the fall, but we knew there was better there, than he performed," Esquer said. "As a matter of fact, we counted on him coming out of the fall, when his performance didn't dictate it, just because we knew it was better than he had showed."

Nelson will likely start in the third game of this weekend's set of four against Fresno State (3-8), with Jones going on Friday, Mason on Saturday and Monsour on Sunday.

"It's best-man-available," Esquer said. "We're trying to line it up. It's hard. We want to have something available for the back end of the game, and you just can't use all of your back-end to start and just to feel good that you're in the game for the first five innings, when, if you have a chance to win, [you throw] anybody who just doesn't have that put-away stuff ... It is a little bit of, when do you use Mason and when do you use Nelson? In a perfect world, they'd be pitching in the eighth and ninth."

With Campbell now out, true freshman Devin Pearson will start in center field and lead off, with Cal going more traditional at the No. 2 spot with second baseman Mike Reuvekamp, followed by big boppers Andrew Knapp and Devon Rodriguez, who, despite not being quite ready to resume his normal duties at first as he continues to recover from an offseason shoulder injury, has hit .356 in 12 games with three doubles and six RBI.

The rest of the lineup looks to be right fielder and tight end Jacob Wark hitting fifth with a solid .302 average, sophomore Chris Paul taking the place of struggling Max Dutto at third, freshman Mitchell Kranson at first, Brenden Farney at second and speedy slap-hitter Brian Celsi in left.

The freshman duo of Dutto and Kranson have struggled mightily in their first college action, hitting a combined .141 (9-for-64). Esquer had tried Farney at first and Paul at third (after starting the season at short) in order to spell Kranson and Dutto, but with Campbell's injury sustained while playing second base, Kranson will likely take first again on Thursday.

"If I had played Devon Rodriguez in game one, and then 56 games his freshman year, he would have struggled," Esquer said. "Marcus Semien couldn't play as a freshman. Chadd Krist hit under .200 when he got his first full time. We've had one Tony Renda. Mitch Delfino, again, offensively, it's a big adjustment. We don't have any other choice.

"The sad part is that Derek Campbell was playing a great center field. He played a great center field, and, believe me, we grudgingly brought him back into the infield. The fact was that Rev was playing the best of our infielders, and we had to move Rev to shortstop and Max Dutto, the game was just eating him alive, for now. But, again, Max Dutto is going to be a Devon story. He's going to be a Chadd Krist story. He's going to be a Marcus Semien story. He's going to be the Mitch Delfino story."

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