Cal welcomes Utah, looks to gain ground in Pac-12 race

Kevin Foote/File
After struggling at shortstop, sophomore Derek Campbell has moved to third base.

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David Esquer has repeatedly stated that there are not any “cupcakes” in a very competitive Pac-12 conference.

While the head coach refused to acknowledge it, the Cal baseball team will welcome the closest thing to a “cupcake” to Evans Diamond this weekend when it squares off against Utah, the league’s weakest team, beginning on Friday at 2:30 p.m.

The Utes have been wholly overwhelmed in their inaugural Pac-12 season. They rank dead last in team pitching (5.29 ERA) and hitting (.243 batting average), as well as the conference standings. After winning its first league series at USC, Utah has lost four straight conference sets. The former Mountain West Conference squad has been routinely routed, losing 16-0 to UCLA, 11-2 to Arizona and 9-2 to Washington State.

Despite the embarrassing losses, the Utes (10-25, 5-10 in the Pac-12) have made opponents pay for mistakes, scrapping together a few upsets. On the heels of an 11-2 throttling, Utah stole a game from then-No. 4 Arizona with two unearned runs in the eighth inning. The Utes beat Oregon on a two-run home run from Parker Morin, but only after Ducks’ outfielder Aaron Jones bobbled the fly ball, which then bounced off his glove and over the fence.

“I know they’re capable,” Esquer said. “We know that anyone in our league on any given weekend at any given game can beat anybody. If we’re not prepared, we’re going to get a big surprise.”

The Bears (20-15, 4-8) cannot afford a surprise if they want to emerge from the bottom rungs of the Pac-12. Cal and Utah currently have the same league winning percentage, but the Bears stand one position ahead of the Utes in the standings with a far superior overall record. A sweep this weekend would put Cal one game below .500 in Pac-12 play, a buffer the Bears will need as they trudge into a challenging stretch in their schedule, including a dust-up at first-place Oregon next weekend.

Cal enters this weekend playing some of its best baseball of the season. The Bears have won three of their last four and notched their first Pac-12 series win last weekend over Washington.

The bullpen and the defense have consistently been sore spots for Cal, but both dazzled in Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Santa Clara. With no apparent midweek starter, Esquer started freshman reliever Chris Muse-Fisher, who pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings for his first win.

The defense stood solid behind the pitchers, not committing an error. Cal still leads the Pac-12 in errors with 68, more than twice as many as the conference’s top fielding team.

For the past six games, Esquer has reconfigured his defensive set-up. Due to an injury to everyday third baseman Mitch Delfino, Esquer moved him to first, putting first baseman Andrew Knapp in right field. Derek Campbell, who lost his starting job at shortstop after leading the team in errors, stepped into Delfino’s spot in third.

“There may be another move in there at some point,” Esquer said. “For a little while, we’re going to ride this one out a little bit, see if we can make this one work. The defense is key. We’ll make a move if it affects the defense.”