Bears face Cardinal in must-win final series

Lefty Justin Jones will likely throw the second game in this weekend's series against the Cardinal.
Michael Gethers/File
Lefty Justin Jones will likely throw the second game in this weekend's series against the Cardinal.

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Balls were jumping off the bat of Devon Rodriguez in practice on Wednesday, several falling in places that would be sure-fire hits.

But Rodriguez won’t be taking the field against No. 14 Stanford at Sunken Diamond in Stanford, Calif., as the Cal baseball team opens the regular season’s final series on Friday at 5:30 p.m.

The power-hitting first baseman has been out with a knee injury for most of the season, appearing in just four games early in the year. Rodriguez was cleared to hit in practice this week, but he still isn’t ready for game action.

“Just makes you wonder what you missed by not having him all year,” said coach David Esquer after watching Rodriguez take some cuts.

A combination of costly injuries, an unsteady lineup and poor execution in pressure situations has put Cal’s back against the wall. With three games remaining, the Bears are three wins shy of the magical 30 projected to nab an at-large postseason bid.

During the Pac-12 slate, Cal (27-24, 10-17 in the Pac-12) has only swept bottom-feeder Utah while being swept three times. Now, Esquer’s club needs to sweep the Cardinal (37-14, 17-10), a team that has won eight straight and brutally battered the Bears, 19-6, six weeks ago.

Cal will need to execute to near perfection this weekend, including in the batter’s box in big spots. Luckily for Esquer, Rodriguez wasn’t the only hitter lighting it up in practice this week. The middle of the order was also raking off hitting coach Tony Arnerich as he tossed pitches.

In the last few rounds of batting practice, the team tries to hit as many balls off the screen that protects Arnerich. According to cleanup hitter Mitch Delfino, the heart of the lineup always wins the challenge.

“We’re working low and hard off the screens in the middle,” Delfino said. “Try to keep the ball low and to the middle of the diamond where most of the hits are.”

The Bears have struggled to drive home runners in scoring position, the eighth inning of last Sunday’s game a recent exception. To avoid the sweep, Cal scrapped together four runs to come from behind and top No. 9 UCLA, 6-5.

Esquer doesn’t want to change too much from that lineup that toppled the Bruins.

“We’re going to ride that a little bit,” Esquer said. “The other lineups haven’t beat anyone relevant, so we have to stay with that one.”

That means usual second baseman Tony Renda will stay at short, while Derek Campbell slides into Renda’s spot. After a stint at first due to shoulder soreness, Delfino will play at his natural position of third, while Andrew Knapp starts at first.

Esquer will also trot out his rearranged weekend rotation of senior Matt Flemer throwing on Friday, followed by Justin Jones and Michael Theofanopoulos.

The Cardinal counters with a robust pitching staff ranked second in the Pac-12 with a 3.10 team ERA. Flemer (7-5, 2.74) will do battle against righty Mark Appel, who boasts a stellar 9-1 record and leads the league with 108 strikeouts.

Stephen Piscotty is scheduled to get the start on Sunday, but will look to be a thorn in the Bears’ side all weekend. Piscotty is clearly the squad’s MVP, leading the Cardinal with a .335 batting average and 53 RBIs as a position player. Piscotty will also take a respectable 4-2 record and 2.25 ERA to the mound in Sunday’s finale.

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