BSB: Last Dance for Seniors

BSB: Last Dance for Seniors

The Cal baseball team celebrates its seniors, including Vince Bruno, as the Bears look to get off the schnide against a down Arizona team that comes in having lost seven of its last nine conference games, but owns six straight victories over the blue and gold.

SERIES IN A NUTSHELL
Arizona (19-30, 8-19 Pac-12) vs. California (21-25, 9-15 Pac-12)
Game 1: Friday, 4 p.m., Pac-12 Networks: RHP Daulton Jefferies (2-6, 3.36 ERA) vs. RHP James Farris (4-6, 3.86)
Game 2: Saturday, 4 p.m., Pac-12 Networks: LHP Kyle Porter (5-5, 3.09) vs. RHP Cody Hamlin (5-4, 3.72)
Game 3: Sunday, 3 p.m., Pac-12 Networks: RHP Ryan Mason (5-1, 2.73) vs. RHP Tyger Talley (1-3, 3.43)

And, just like that, it's over. For the California baseball team's six seniors – not including fourth-year juniors Derek Campbell and Michael Theofanopoulos -- this weekend marks their last playing at Evans Diamond, starting with a Friday tilt at 4 p.m., against Arizona on the Pac-12 Networks.

"They've been with us since we were in Omaha, and during all of the events that happened to the program, so they've been through it and come out the other side," Esquer said of Devon Rodriguez, Kyle Porter, Vince Bruno, Trevor Hildenberger and Jacob Wark. "They've shown great loyalty to our program. Making decisions to come back and play, that, to me, is the thing I'm most proud of, that we had a program that they felt they could come back to. Trevor came back for a fifth year, Derek had an opportunity to sign last year and he came back. Devon Rodriguez made the decision that he was going to have his surgery last year, and come back and play his last year, so those are some of the things that I'm proud about."

While Mike Reuvekamp is also graduating, he wasn't yet a part of the program when the Bears went to the College World Series in 2011, but that hasn't meant he's been any less important to the program as a starting shortstop, and, lately, as a starting catcher. Esquer said that ‘Rev' is one of the guys that he and the rest of the staff wanted to get back to Omaha for, because he's been so integral.

He'll be back behind the plate this weekend, even with three right-handers on the mound for Arizona, the Bears are going to send out a fairly left-handed-heavy lineup.

"We're going to ride a little bit longer with Rev. We like his ability to control the running game a little bit. He's got a little bit better arm strength, right now, and I think we may stick with that just a little bit longer."

A left-handed lineup may also mean more time for senior outfielder Bruno, hitting .267 with 11 RBIs and two home runs.

"I hope so," Bruno said. "Coach does a really good job of getting us all into spots where the team can do well. He doesn't really set people up to fail. He doesn't set the team up to fail. If I play, that's great. If I don't, that's fine too, because I'll stay focused, no matter what."

Bruno, the on-base percentage leader for the 2011 College World Series team, won't be getting too emotional during Sunday's Senior Day festivities, but they will be nonetheless meaningful. Bruno was one of the players who gave an emotional boost to a sagging Cal locker room late in the 2011 season, and was at the center of the team's celebration after they defeated Dallas Baptist at Stephen Schott Stadium to advance to the College World Series.

"I don't know how much emotion there's going to be, outside the norm; I just know that it's going to be fun to see my parents on the field," Bruno said. "As an athlete, you're never really satisfied with what you've done, even if you've had a good year. You're never really satisfied. It's always the next thing, the next pitch, the next game or whatever. That might be cool, just to sit back and watch my parents really be happy for me. I'm never really satisfied with myself."

Like the other seniors, Bruno will walk in graduation exercises this weekend, having completed all of his units towards his American Studies degree.

"Everything's done. The seniors are all going to get together on Friday night with our parents, and we'll all have dinner together and then do the graduation the next day. It should be really, really fun," Bruno said.

Taking a weekend sweep out of the hides of the Wildcats would also be fun, particularly on a weekend where UCLA and Stanford are only one and two games ahead of the Bears in the Pac-12 standings. Cal will likely not make the playoffs thi season, but a sweep over Arizona would provide plenty of momentum heading into a match-up next weekend with No. 17 Oregon.

Stanford plays Washington State this weekend, while the Bruins match up with the Ducks.

"We're looking to win every game we can," Bruno said. "We're not really thinking anything different than we did last week or the weeks prior. We're a good team. We can hang with any team. The last couple weeks, we've showed that, but we're going to see three right-handed pitchers who know how to throw the baseball, and our backs are against the wall right now. Hopefully, that'll help us and not pressure us, too much."

Rodriguez, for one, hasn't been feeling the pressure. Over the past 10 games, Rodriguez has gone 13-for-43 (.302) with seven runs scored, 12 RBIs, three home runs and a double.

"Probably the author of, if not the most famous hit, among the most famous hits in Cal baseball history," Esquer said of Rodriguez, who, despite injuries over the last two years, is still drawing plenty of professional attention. "No one will ever forget that, and hey, again, unfortunate that the injuries he's sustained the two years after, because he was really building on the momentum of that World Series run, but he hurt his knee, and then the blood clot the year after and last year, had to play with a torn labrum the whole year. He's starting to hit his stride right now, and he's really looking like he's getting comfortable at the plate, really kind of feeling his age, where he feels like he's a senior and playing in this league."

The Bears have won two of their last three weekend series, and have gone 5-5 over their last 10 games, while the Wildcats have lost seven of their last nine games, and sit at second-to-last in the Pac-12.

"I think they're better than their record," Esquer said of the 2012 national champs. "I think they're like a lot of teams that have the ability to beat you on any given day."

Arizona is fourth in the conference in batting average (.281), fifth in on-base percentage (362) with five players posting marks of over .350, is third in the Pac-12 in hits (463), fifth in runs scored and first in triples (21), in large part thanks to the spacious Hi-Corbett Field that serves as the Wildcats' home.

"It's a totally different ballpark," said pitching coach Mike Neu. "There, it's fast and big and blows out. Our field is slower and tougher to hit home runs. It's tough to hit home runs there, too, but triples are everywhere. Triples are tough to come by here. It's a different environment. They're good players. They have an athletic team, they have a good offense, they haven't played as well as they've probably hoped to play, kind of like us, but I think they're a very competitive, tough lineup. We're going to play three day games, so it could play a little more offensive this weekend, and we're going to have to do a good job, like we'd have to do against any good team in the conference."

The Wildcats own two of the top six hitters in the league, headed by speedy center fielder Scott Kingery, who ranks third in the Pac-12 in hitting with a .359 batting average, going 17-for-21 in stolen base attempts atop the Arizona lineup.

Right fielder Zach Gibbons is hitting .328, and is 7-for-14 in stolen base attempts, though he has just five total extra-base hits on the season.

"Arizona's weather and field are really conducive to offense, so sometimes it's way different when you come here," Esquer said. "The game's a little slower, the wind blows in a little bit, the ball hangs a little bit longer. It's always interesting to see how that translates. They hit over there and they come over here and they hit just the same, or some teams, at sea level, it could be a little different."

The Wildcats really lean on their starting pitching, with two out of their three weekend starters having thrown at least 94 innings in Friday starter James Farris (95.2) and Saturday starter Cody Hamlin (94.1). Farris – the only senior on the Arizona roster -- is tied for the league lead with 86 batters struck out.

"I think they ride their starting pitching pretty hard, and coach [Andy] Lopez has even mentioned that in the past. They've had some injuries in the bullpen, so they're going to ride their starters," Esquer said. "Farris, if he's not leading the league in strikeouts, he has, up until recently, so he's a strikeout pitcher and he poses a lot of problems, there."

The Bears have lost their last six straight against the Wildcats, dating back to 2012, when a sweep in Berkeley helped propel Arizona to winning 18 of 20 down the stretch in their run to Omaha. Despite the Wildcats' reputation for offense, the Cal pitching staff has held conference opponents to a paltry .251 batting average.

Theofanopoulos should be available this weekend for the first time since early March, when he left the team to attend to a personal matter. "He'll be available. We'll see where that goes. Obviously, it would have to be the right situation," Neu said. "I would think it would be probably a one-inning role to start off. He threw today in the intra-squad, and did a great job. He looked good, the ball was coming out of his hand good, so we'll just have to see if the opportunity comes up."

This weekend will likely be his last at Evans Diamond, despite one more year of eligibility.

"I don't know, I know he's close to being able to graduate, may have some opportunities to sign, too," Neu said. "I know there's a lot of guys that still like him, so he'll have some options. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out, but it's good that he's healthy again."

Esquer was in agreement with his pitching coach.

"I think the scouts saw him early enough and liked what he did, and hey, a change of scenery may do him good," he said. "The physical ability is there, and he has to just get hot and get on a run and let his talents come through. I think the pros will see that, and we've heard quite a bit that there's some scouts that saw him early against Texas and Arkansas that really liked him."

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