Cal baseball clashes with UC Irvine in four-game series

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Small sample sizes do not faze Cal baseball coach David Esquer.

Despite kicking off the season with a 3-0 record after a sweep of Michigan, Esquer declined to renege on his preseason worries about the lack of consistent starting pitching hampering the Bears’ chances at lasting success.

“No, (my expectations) haven’t really changed, unfortunately,” Esquer said. “Our starting pitching was concerning. You can’t live on (short starts) from your starters and expect to make it through a lot of weekends.”

The pitchers Esquer was implicitly chastising — left-handers Justin Jones and Kyle Porter — are sure to be major X-factors in the Bears’ four-game series against UC Irvine this weekend.

Jones and Porter struggled last weekend, with neither pitching past the fourth inning. The poor outings did nothing to assuage Esquer’s fears that the 2012 seasons of the two promising southpaws were indicative of a troubling regressive trend.

After the 2011 season, in which both compiled sub-3.00 ERAs and near 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratios, the future of the Bears’ rotation glimmered with potential. But the duo hit major walls last year, with Jones finishing with a 4.57 ERA and Porter unable to complete a full season because of a lingering arm injury.

“A lot of their issues have to do with command,” Esquer said. “I’m not as concerned with velocity or arm health. With the pitchers they are, they have to put the ball where they want the majority of the time. Lately, they haven’t been able to do that.”

The starting rotation, presumably the most glaring of Cal’s weaknesses, represents the upcoming opponent’s greatest strength.

The Anteater pitching staff boasts both depth and experience, carrying a bevy of hurlers with a sustained record of success in the rotation. Leading the pack is junior Andrew Thurman, a standout at the summer college baseball all-star Cape Cod League.

Thurman turned in a stellar enough sophomore campaign, striking out 68 in 98 innings and compiling a 2.66 ERA. But the right-hander took drastic strides at the Cape behind a repertoire adjustment. After adding a cut-fastball to his arsenal, Thurman almost doubled his strikeout ratio from 6.3 K’s per nine innings to 11.3 from his sophomore season to summer ball.

“I think it is believable that he will be a third- or fourth-round draft pick,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillipsie said. “He’s one of the guys (all of the scouts) are all coming out to see.”

UC Irvine’s rotation depth was on display during its sweep of Baylor last weekend. Thurman started on opening day, dealing for 5.2 innings and allowing just a run. Lefty Matt Whitehouse was even more impressive on Saturday; Whitehouse tossed 6.1 innings, allowing just two hits and no runs.

Getting to the Anteater rotation will be essential for Cal to pull off a second-straight series victory and subsequently boost its national reputation. But strong offensive play will become irrelevant if Jones and Porter once again fail to shut down the opposition deep into the game.

“Our defense was a lot tighter — that’s a positive sign,” Esquer said. “And our bullpen (pitching well) was a positive sign.

“If we clean up that starting pitching, we can get a lot better.”

Michael Rosen covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].