Cal’s baseball team, which stumbled a bit in its Pac-12 opening series last weekend, faces its toughest test to date when it hosts perennial conference power Oregon State in a three-game series starting Thursday night.
The Bears (11-6, 1-2 Pac-12) have been ranked as high as 12th nationally this season, but have been beset by fielding woes. They committed seven errors in the three games against USC last weekend in Los Angeles. They overcame four miscues to win the opener behind ace Daulton Jefferies, but were horrid in the middle game (three errors, six unearned runs) as they lost 18-5. They were a little better in the finale, but still went down, 5-4.
“I thought we would play better defense and we really need to,” said Esquer, in his 17th year as Cal’s head coach. “One of the reasons people had (preseason) respect for us is that our weekend rotation is coming back and we have a lot of older players. But we just can’t rely on hitting our way through errors. … We have to shore that up and when we do that we will pitch better and be even tougher to beat.”
Speaking of tougher to beat, the Beavers (16-2, 3-0) are their usual talented selves. “This is a good measure of where we’re at,” Esquer said. “Teams like UCLA and Oregon State demand that you play defense. We need to become that team that plays good defense.”
OSU head coach Pat Casey, in his 22nd year in Corvallis, has led the Beavers to ten post-season appearances in the last 11 seasons, including two national titles. “Whenever I hear people praise Pat Casey, I say he is still underrated,” Esquer said. “Even then.”
Casey has his usual talented pitching staff, led by sophomore Drew Rasmussen (4-0, 2.94 ERA). He will be matched up with Jefferies on Thursday night in a battle of pitchers who were both All Pac-12 a year ago.
“That is as premier a matchup as you are going to find in college baseball,” Esquer said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Rasmussen 6-2, 225 out of Spokane, has eight walks and 37 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings while holding opponents to a .188 batting average. A year ago he threw as complete game shutout against the Bears.
Jefferies is having a banner junior year, probably his last at Berkeley, with a 5-0 record and 1.09 ERA after going 2-8, 3.45 and 6-5 2.92 his first two seasons.
“He is better in every facet,” Esquer said. “His fastball is better, his changeup is even better which gives him a lot more to attack left-handed hitters. His breaking pitch is better, he’s getting more swings and misses. That’s been huge for us.
“His strikeout numbers (43 in 33 innings) are better, which means we don’t have to play that much defense behind him, that’s why he’s been a little more successful than the other guys.”
Jefferies 6-0, 180, said attributes his improvement to his developing a slider under first year pitching coach Thomas Eager.
“It has worked pretty well, I can use it in clutch situations, get strikeouts get ahead of guys, I think it looks more like a fastball,” Jefferies said. “I can build on fastballs in, sliders away.”
It was at its devastating best last weekend when he went seven innings against USC, striking out ten and walking just one.
“That’s as good a lineup as we’ve faced all year and he was really good,” Esquer said. “And we found out the next two days that they don’t look like that all the time. He was able to neutralize them.”
Oregon State will not be easy to neutralize. The Beavers have a team batting average of .331, led by catcher Logan Ice, who is hitting .434 with four home runs and 20 RBI in 53 at-bats.
“I don’t really know that much about them,” Jefferies said. “I know that they are Oregon State, and that makes them a really good ball club. I know they are aggressive, they know I throw a lot of strikes and that I’m going to be around the zone so they might try to take advantage of that, being aggressive, swinging early.
“If I can keep the ball down, I can get some early outs and keep my pitch count down.”
Besides Ice, Esquer pointed to first baseman K.J. Harrison (.314, 1 HR, 14 RBI) as “a real offensive force.”
“And Trevor Morrison (.348, 1, 11) the shortstop who was injured at the end of last year, he’s a quality player.”
The Bears leading hitter is catcher Brett Cumberland, who has a .412 batting average to go with six homers and 17 RBI. “Cumberland has been good, (Mitchell) Kranson’s (,382, 2, 11) been good, Devin Pearson (.295, 1,7) has been solid. We have spread it around.” Esquer said. “ …There are a couple of pieces we need to come along and get better.”
Jefferies was an all-star shortstop in high school and he still misses playing the field and swinging the bat.
“If I could have it right now, I still would like to play short,” he said. “I like to hit in the cages, and take groundballs. I think it (strictly pitching) started the fall of my freshman year. They took my bat away as a more precautionary move. I wound up being a lot better at pitching than I was at hitting I guess.”
Esquer said that was not an easy decision. “We wanted him to do both,” Esquer said. “His first year he looked more like a shortstop than anything we had out there. But it was taxing. At this level he had a little fatigue in his arm and we didn’t want to tax his arm like that.”
But the Bears have taken advantage of Jefferies’ athleticism, specifically his ability to run fast. “I’ve been used a pinch runner a couple of times,” he said. “I scored the winning run against Texas (March 4) and the tying run against Stanford (last year).”
Next year Jefferies will probably be doing his pitching and whatever running as a professional. He was drafted in the 39th round by the Marlins out of high school, but they did not actively pursue trying to sign him.
“Everybody knew I was going to college,” Jefferies said. “I was really undersized, 30 pounds lighter than I am now. I needed to grow up physically, grow mentally.”
And he has done that, with a fastball that can hit 95 miles an hour on the radar gun. He expects to get drafted fairly high this June.
“Daulton is one of the premier college pitching prospects in the country,” said one major league scout. “He has three above average pitches and a feel for how to use them.”