Cal baseball opens season at home against Michigan

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Evans Diamond is getting a facelift this season. The Cal baseball team is hoping for a similar rebirth this year after a disappointing season last spring.

The inexperienced and young Bears have a lot to change after last season, and it all begins with a three-game home series against Michigan this weekend.

The series starts today at Evans Diamond at 1:30 p.m. with Cal junior left-handed pitcher Michael Theofanopoulos (3-5, 5.04 ERA in 2012) starting against Michigan right-hander Ben Ballantine (2-3, 3.98 ERA). Cal will send two more lefties to the hill, with senior Justin Jones (4-9, 4.57 ERA) starting Saturday at 1 p.m. and junior Kyle Porter (2-1, 5.75) taking the ball on Sunday at 11 a.m.

Porter will try to rebound to his 2011 self, when he went 6-0 with a 1.89 ERA and had 57 strikeouts in 57 innings.

Cal head coach David Esquer, the 2011 NCBWA National Coach of the Year, knows that his team is facing an uphill battle this season, especially in terms of starting pitching.

“Jones had an off-year last year,” Esquer said, “Porter needs to have a better season. I threw Theofanopoulos into the middle of the fire to see what would happen.”

Two years ago, after the announcement that budget cuts would end the Cal baseball program, Esquer led his team to the 2011 College World Series — the sixth in school history.

But by the time a fundraising effort was able to get the program reinstated, the Bears missed out on a recruiting season, and many other players transferred to other programs.

“That recruiting class would be sophomores now,” Esquer said.  “That, along with graduation and guys leaving, leaves us very inexperienced.”

That inexperience is on display in the Bears’ starting lineup. Cal has no seniors and three freshmen in its starting lineup.

On offense, the Bears will have to rely on the limited experience of their juniors. Junior Andrew Knapp was named to Baseball America’s preseason All-American first team, indicating Knapp represents one of college baseball’s best catchers.

Redshirt junior Devon Rodriguez played in only four games last season because of a preseason knee injury. In 2011, as a sophomore, Rodriguez was named Most Outstanding Player at the Houston NCAA Regional and finished the season with a .279 batting average and five home runs.

The Wolverines are coming off of a 22-34 (8-16) campaign in 2012 in which they finished last in the Big Ten.

Michigan will be led on offense by junior outfielder Michael O’Neil (.327, six home runs, 31 RBI), senior outfielder Patrick Biondi (.303, two home runs, 31 RBI) and junior first baseman Brett Winger (.295, four home runs, 30 RBI).

The Bears are not underestimating the Wolverines, despite Michigan’s poor 2012 season.

“They are going to be out trying to prove something, and we are going to have to counter that with our energy,” Esquer said.

As the Bears take the field today to begin the season, they will be facing plenty of questions and uncertainty. Then again, Cal baseball is no stranger to overcoming adversity.

Warren Laufer covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].