Division I Weekend Preview
Cal visiting Oregon State headlines weekend actoin
Second chances don’t come around very often, and the California baseball team is looking to take full advantage of the one it got on April 8.
After the 118-year program was cut by the university last September due to budget trimming, alumni and supporters put together huge fundraising effort to get financial commitments totaling almost $10 million in order to save the program that has been in existence since 1892. Because the financial pledges should support the program for the long term, the university decided to retain the sport of baseball last month.
Cal coaches and players have experienced a full gamut of emotions over the last several months, but have remained consistent on the field despite an uncertain future.
“Our focus as a coaching staff has been the players and we knew the best thing for them was to have the best year possible, and secondly, we put all our recruiting efforts into making sure they felt good as far as their futures were concerned,” head coach David Esquer said.
While most players remained with the program for the 2011 season despite the news in September, they had to think about transferring at the same time they were trying to win games as a part of the Bears’ squad.
“It’s unusual to have your current players taking recruiting trips in the fall or one of them ask to take a recruiting trip on a Monday after a weekend series,” Esquer said. “That’s unusual. My assistant coaches did a great job in handling that. Sometimes, I didn’t want to know. I thought of it as setting my wife up on dates … I didn’t want to know what was going on.”
Esquer compartmentalized the off-the-field issues, and made sure his team was concentrating on having the best year possible. Although it has been a tough process, the squad has ultimately focused on baseball, posting a 27-14 record this season while currently being tied for third place in the Pac-10 standings.
“We have a lot of really good leaders on the team,” junior pitcher Matt Flemer said. “I think it helped that we knew we had a good team coming into this year. We knew we could perform well on the field. When we first heard we were cut, it was a big setback for us … more emotionally than anything else. Where were people going to go next year? How were we going to have to change our lives? That was the most challenging part.”
The team heard the news of reinstatement on April 8, just before the Bears were about to start a series at Arizona.
“It was a huge weight off our shoulders,” Flemer said. “It was a big sigh of relief for everybody and we could just focus on baseball.”
However, after using the axing of the program as a rallying cry for the majority of the season, the Bears have been careful about not allowing the reinstatement to cause a letdown.
“I think one of the biggest things is staying motivated, because we were motivated after being cut,” Flemer said. “Hearing we didn’t have anything to worry about as far as next year is concerned, we had to find a new motivation for things.”
The Bears should not have to look far for an inspiration to win. The Pac-10 currently has four teams ranked in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25, including No. 25 Cal. Only two-and-a-half games separate the Bears and first-place Oregon State in the Pac-10 standings.
“Our league is so outstanding,” Esquer said. “There’s no weekend off. It’s unpredictable as far as who is going to win a series. You don’t see anyone breaking away too far from the pack.”
The Bears will visit the Beavers for a three-game series beginning May 6 as they look to bolster their place in standings and compete for a chance at an NCAA Regional bid for the second consecutive season.
“We’re starting to pick it up here,” Flemer said. “We’re trying to send a message that we’re back and so is the program, and we are trying to finish out the season with a bang.”
No. 25 California at No. 7 Oregon State
The first-place Beavers will host the Bears as two of the top four teams in the Pac-10 tangle for position in the league standings. The match-up features two of the top pitching staffs in the nation as OSU owns a 2.82 ERA, and Cal follows closely at a 2.97 clip. OSU right-hander Sam Gaviglio (8-1, 2.00 ERA) is Friday’s probable starter, while Erik Johnson (5-1, 1.94 ERA) will most likely take the mound for the Bears. Oregon State’s probably Saturday starter junior left-hander Josh Osich tossed a no-hitter in a 2-0 win over UCLA on April 30. Tony Renda leads the Bears offensively with a .330 batting average and 32 RBI.
Schedule: May 6 at 5:35 p.m. PT; May 7 at 2:05 p.m. PT; May 8 at 1:05 p.m. PT.
No. 4 Florida at No. 18 Arkansas
The Gators have swept their last two Southeastern Conference series against Alabama and Mississippi and are riding a seven-game winning streak into the weekend. Florida is currently tied for first place with South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the SEC East Division, while Arkansas is tied for first place in the West with Alabama despite a 10-11 league record. Florida ranks second in the SEC in both hitting (.318) and ERA (2.51). Thursday night’s pitching match-up should be a good one as UF right-hander Hudson Randall (8-1, 1.75 ERA) faces Arkansas RHP DJ Baxendale (6-1, 1.50 ERA). Baxendale and Randell rank third and fourth in the SEC, respectively, in ERA. Dominic Ficociello paces Arkansas with a .346 batting average and 38 RBI, while Florida’s Mike Zunino ranks second in the league with a .390 average, and tops the conference in runs scored (49) and RBI (46), after posting a career-high seven RBI against Bethune-Cookman on May 3.
Schedule: May 5 at 6:30 p.m. CT (ESPNU); May 6 at 6:35 p.m. CT; May 7 at 7 p.m. CT (ESPNU).
No. 10 TCU at No. 21 Oklahoma State
The Horned Frogs visit Stillwater this weekend for a non-conference series between two Top 25 opponents. OSU currently is in third place in the Big 12 standings, while TCU sits at the top of the Mountain West Conference. The Cowboys rank second in the Big 12 with a .302 batting average, but the Frogs will counter with a pitching staff that owns a 2.82 ERA and is striking out 8.0 batters per nine innings. Junior right-hander Kyle Winkler (8-1, 1.25 ERA) will start for the Frogs on Friday, matching up with left-hander Mike Strong (4-1, 3.42 ERA). OSU leads the all-time series 12-6. The two squads will meet for the first time since 2008.
Schedule: May 6 at 6:30 p.m. CT; May 7 at 2 p.m. CT; May 8 at 1 p.m. CT (Fox College Sports).
Purdue at Michigan State
The top two teams in the Big Ten Conference will clash in East Lansing this weekend as the battle for first place. The Boilermakers (30-13, 10-5) have reached the 30-win mark for the sixth time in program history, and second straight year following a sweep of Indiana last weekend. The Spartans (27-13, 10-5) are 6-0 in Big Ten play at home but have lost two-of-three in two of their first three road series (at Ohio State and at Illinois) of the conference season. Purdue (.318) and Michigan State (.316) enter the weekend as the top two hitting teams in the league. MSU’s Ryan Jones is riding a 30-game school-record hitting streak.
Schedule: May 6 at 3 p.m. ET; May 7 at 1 p.m. ET; May 8 at 1 p.m. ET.
Miami (Ohio) at Kent State
The top two teams in the Mid-American Conference meet in an East Division showdown that could possibly decide the league’s regular season championship. Kent State earned a No. 28 ranking in the Collegiate Baseball Poll after winning seven straight games and 22 of its’ last 26 contests. The Golden Flashes currently sit in first place in the MAC East Division with a 15-3 mark. The Redhawks follow closely with a 13-5 league record, and have won eight straight contests entering the weekend. It is Miami’s longest winning streak since 2007. Junior RHP Ryan Mace (4-1, 1.67 ERA) will take the mound on Friday against Miami RHP Mac Thoreson (4-2, 1.49 ERA).
Schedule: May 6 at 3 p.m. ET; May 7 at 1 p.m. ET; May 8 at 1 p.m. ET.