These days, the excitement is palpable around Evans Diamond in Berkeley. No longer the sputtering, under-.500 squad of last season, the Cal baseball team (13-3) has emerged in 2015 with power at the bat, anchored behind a youthful lineup, strong pitching and solid defense.
The teams that the Bears have faced up to this point, however, are a hodgepodge of different talent levels — some are notable, and some have quality, yet mostly they’re programs such as Kansas and Chicago State that are simply not up to the level of the dominant Pac-12 conference.
And Pac-12 play has finally arrived in Berkeley. Cal will face its biggest test this season with a three-game series this weekend against No. 8 Oregon (13-4) beginning Friday night at 7 p.m. at Evans Diamond.
“If you look up and down the league, our league has been doing well kind of up and down the whole conference,” head coach David Esquer told Cal Athletics. “So it’s going to be a bloody and dirty league like it always is.”
Oregon will indeed be searching for blood this weekend as it attempts to redeem itself from a poor performance earlier this week against the University of San Francisco. Despite being one of the highest-ranked teams in the nation, the Ducks looked dismal as they failed to produce any sort of offense in their second straight loss to USF, a team considered inferior by most.
Unlike the laboring Ducks, the Bears will start off conference play in one of the best possible positions: third place in the Pac-12, with an eight-game win streak and 12 wins in their last 13 games. Cal has been dominant at the plate, led by sophomore third baseman Lucas Erceg (.450) who has four doubles, three home runs and 15 RBIs. Junior outfielder Brian Celsi was named National Player of the Week by both the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and the NCAA after a dominating series against Chicago State, where he went 8 for 11 with nine RBIs and a .727 average.
But Oregon is no Chicago State, and the Bears will have to rely on more than just hitting to defeat the Ducks this weekend. Starting on the mound Friday night will be the Bears’ sophomore ace, Daulton Jefferies (3-1). Jefferies has blossomed in his second year, earning 29 strikeouts in 25.2 innings pitched. Right behind him in the rotation is right-hander junior Ryan Mason (2-0), who will take the mound Saturday with 16 strikeouts under his belt. To close out the weekend, freshman pitcher Matt Ladrech (3-1) will make his Pac-12 debut as the third starter Sunday. Esquer has tinkered with the third slot in the rotation early this season, but Ladrech seemed to finally secure the spot with an impressive last few games in which he boasted a 2.05 ERA and went 8.0 innings against Chicago State.
“The two things that have really stood out has been our pitching and our defense,” Esquer told Cal Athletics. “That’s kind of showed up to the park every day, and you know, hitting is hitting, and good pitching can stop good hitting. So we’ve got to be prepared to win those games when you face a real good pitcher and the game could be tight.”
Christine Menchaca covers baseball. Contact her at [email protected].