Feb. 11, 2009
BERKELEY, CALIF. - Last year the California baseball program got a taste of NCAA Regional competition. Now the Golden Bears are looking to take an even bigger bite.
David Esquer's 2009 squad has several key components returning from his 2008 postseason team and these players are determined to vie for another regional appearance and exceed last year's results. Among Cal's top performers will be multi-talented Blake Smith, a Louisville Slugger second-team preseason All-American utility player who was the USA National Team's leading hitter last summer. Center fielder Brett Jackson, a talented left-handed hitter, named the eighth-best prospect out of the Cape Cod League by Baseball America. Right-hander Kevin Miller, a 2008 Freshman All-American and honorable mention All-Pac-10 pick. Jeff Kobernus, a solid all-around player and a 2007 Freshman All-American, and Dylan Tonneson, who developed into the Bears' everyday catcher last year and was instrumental in Cal's 2008 regional run.
"This year's team has picked up on the positives of last year's team," said Esquer, who led the 2008 Bears to a 33-21-2 mark and the school's 10th NCAA regional appearance. "Now that we have kicked open the postseason door we are looking to maintain our momentum. We want to develop a baseline level of high performance that will enable us to get into a regional year in and year out. We are going to have to play well this season after losing some key players, but we are confident we have an experienced group of athletes who can do that."
Sure to be a leader for the Bears is preseason All-American Smith, one of the nation's most versatile players with his combination of hitting and pitching. Smith, selected to the Wallace Award Watch List as a player of the year candidate, was the USA National (Collegiate) Team's leading hitter last summer, batting .327 with five doubles, a triple, three home runs and 13 RBI in 20 games. He was also 1-0 with two saves, not giving up an earned run while striking out 11 batters in 9.0 innings for Team USA.
Last spring at Cal, the left-handed hitting Smith batted .296 with 11 doubles, two triples, 12 home runs and 43 RBI, while also throwing two runners out at the plate from right field. On the mound, he was 3-0 with a 3.80 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 21.1 innings. Smith was impressive in the NCAA Long Beach Regional as well, hitting a two-run homer to deep center field against Long Beach State.
Jackson will be another showcase player for the Bears after a fine 2008 campaign. An honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection last year, he batted .307 with seven doubles, four triples (fourth in the Pac-10), four home runs and 40 RBI, while also leading the team with 12 stolen bases (eighth in the Pac-10). Besides being picked the eighth best prospect out of the Cape Cod League, Jackson has been selected the nation's 13th best player entering this season by The College Baseball Blog.
In 2008, Miller had one of the finest freshman campaigns in Cal history as he became the school's fifth Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American, as well as an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection. The crafty right-hander, who along with Smith is on the Wallace Award Watch List as a potential player of the year candidate, started his college career by not giving up a run in his first 44.0 innings of action. Utilized as both a starter and a reliever, Miller went on to finish 6-1 with 68 strikeouts in 71.1 innings and was second in the conference with 2.90 ERA and a .196 opponent batting average.
Along with Smith and Jackson, Kobernus is another one of the Bears' experienced juniors. He was a Freshman All-American in 2007 as an outfielder, but last season helped shore up Cal's infield as a third baseman and went on to hit .303 with 13 doubles, two triples, three home runs, 27 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Kobernus played well this past summer for Cotuit in the Cape Cod League and enters the upcoming season with a .315 career average for the Bears.
Junior catcher Tonneson was a key element for Cal last year when he replaced an injured Charlie Cutler behind the plate at the beginning of the season and never relinquished his starting spot. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Tonneson ended up batting .306 in 55 games with 12 doubles, six home runs and 33 RBI as a sophomore, providing the Bears with a consistent power hitter in the middle of the lineup.
Several other players will be counted on by Esquer for successful 2009 campaigns. The Bears feature starting shortstop Michael Brady, steady designated hitter/infielder Rich Gorman, dominant right-hander Daniel Wolford, outfielders Mark Canha and Ryan Hanlon, left-handers Chris Petrini and Todd Fitzgerald, right-hander Stephen Pistoresi and talented infielder Brian Guinn, among others.
Senior Brady has been Cal's starting shortstop since his sophomore season and has shown flashes of brilliance in his three years, including a career-high 11-game hitting streak and three triples last season. Junior Gorman is a switch hitting infielder with 43 starts last season, mostly at designated hitter, and finished with 12 doubles, four home runs and 20 RBI. Wolford started out last season almost unhittable in his first few outings and ended the year 2-1 with a save and had 43 strikeouts in 38.0 innings.
Sophomore Canha and senior Hanlon will be battling for spots in the Bears' outfield. Canha batted .270 after seeing action in 35 games, including hitting a clutch double against UCLA in the regular season final. Hanlon was slowed by an injured left thumb last year, but has had stellar games in the past, including hitting .265 with eight doubles, three home runs and 19 RBI as a sophomore in 2007.
Junior left-hander Petrini is in line to be one of Cal's starters after going 3-3 last season with eight starts and 29 strikeouts in 37.0 innings, while junior lefty Fitzgerald should be a mainstay out of the Bears' bullpen after providing some strong innings after transferring from San Jose City College. Sophomore right-hander Pistoresi should also be one of the Bears' top relievers after sporting a 3.86 ERA in 25.2 innings as a true freshman, and talented switch hitting Guinn is in contention for starting duties in the infield after batting .316 in spot duties as a true freshman.
Added to this group of returners is an impressive class of newcomers who should provide Esquer the nucleus for another top-notched team. The Cal coaching staff is looking forward to seeing how Marcus Semien, Matt Flemer, Danny Oh, Erik Johnson and Eddie Hsieh will fit into the mix. Infielder Semien and right-handed pitcher/first baseman Flemer are from St. Mary's High School in Berkeley, Oh is a left-handed outfielder from Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Wash., Johnson is a right-hander from Los Altos High School and Hsieh is a junior college catcher from San Jose City College.
"Really, what it will take for us to make another regional is the continue improvement of our returners and the development of our newcomers," said Esquer. "What we need is for our experienced players to spread the production around and be better than they were last year. Our newcomers will help us, but we need our veterans to play well and be team leaders until our younger players adjust to the college game."
Cal By Positions
Cal has its least amount of experience returning on the mound after Tyson Ross, Matt Gorgen and Craig Bennigson were drafted and signed, and starter Alex Rollin graduated. Still, the Bears return some talented players who in some cases might be adjusting their roles from relievers to starters.
Sophomore Kevin Miller should step in and be Cal's No. 1 starter after his fine freshman campaign in which he picked up six victories and was named a freshman All-American and honorable mention All-Pac-10 in both a starter and relief role. Another strong weekend starter candidate is freshman right-hander Erik Johnson, a 6-3, 210-pounder from Los Altos High School. Johnson throws in the low 90s and was a three-time all-state selection, going 9-3 with 113 strikeouts as a senior.
Other starters could include Blake Smith, Chris Petrini, Daniel Wolford and Matt Flemer. If Smith is not needed to close games, he has the talent to be a Sunday starter as a power pitcher with a fastball in the 90s and a sharp breaking curveball. Petrini has shown the ability to be a starter as the crafty left-hander pitched 5.2 innings and defeated eventual national champion Fresno State and had a nine strikeout performance against Loyola Marymount.
Wolford could develop into an effective starter as well with a fastball in the 90s and a sharp breaking curveball. He was stellar this past summer in the Cape Cod League where he was 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA and two saves. Freshman right-hander Flemer could also be in the mix as one of the Bears' starters. The 6-2, 205-pounder throws in the upper 80s with a curveball, slider and change-up, and was 29-5 during his high school career at St. Mary's High School in Berkeley.
A key to Cal's success this season could be the performance of the bullpen. Junior left-hander Todd Fitzgerald, who transferred from San Jose City College last season, has shown the ability to contribute after striking out 84 batters in 74.0 innings as a junior college freshman and then throwing four innings of scoreless ball in a start against eventual national champion Fresno State as a sophomore for the Bears.
Other top relievers should be sophomore right-handers Stephen Pistoresi and Brian Diemer, and junior left-handers Michael Bugary and Mike Cassady. Pistoresi lettered last year as a true freshman and had an outstanding game against San Francisco at AT&T Park when he threw 5.0 innings of relief with no runs and four strikeouts. Diemer, a 6-5, 240-pound right-hander, throws in the high 80s and has the skills to be effective out of the bullpen. Bugary is another player with the talent to be an effective reliever, and despite battling injuries during his career, performed well in the fall and will be counted on for increased production. Cassady is a side arm throwing lefty who will be utilized as a spot reliever against left-handed hitters.
Sophomore Yasser Clor could also be a contributor. The hard-throwing right-hander Clor redshirted in 2007 after originally signing with UNLV and did not pitch last season. He was a 15th-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox out of Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, going 7-0 with a 0.58 ERA as a senior, striking out 95 batters in 60.0 innings. Sean Barber, Joey Donofrio and Dixon Anderson are all freshmen right-handers who redshirted last season and will be looking to establish their roles on the pitching staff as well. Freshman right-hander Logan Scott, who was 10-0 with a 0.82 ERA at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, will also provide the Bears with depth out of the bullpen.
Along with Tonneson, the Bears catching corps will be bolstered by the addition of junior college All-American Eddie Hsieh from San Jose City College. The 6-2, 220-pound Hsieh played well in the fall and comes to Cal after hitting 14 home runs with 53 RBI in junior college, earning first-team All-America honors. Chad Bunting and Chadd Krist will provide the Bears with depth behind the plate after stellar high school careers. Bunting is a redshirt freshman who batted .413 as a high school senior in Ukiah, while Krist had a .359 career average with 73 RBI at Petaluma High School.
The Bears return the starting left side of their infield with senior Michael Brady at shortstop and junior Jeff Kobernus at third base, but the Cal coaching staff has several options as how to align the infield.
At first base, the Bears might convert outfielders Blake Smith, Mark Canha or freshman lefty Danny Oh to that position. Freshman pitcher Matt Flemer is yet another option at first base after hitting .396 in high school. Smith, who has an outstanding arm from right field, could see action at first base to rest his arm before pitching, while Canha might move to the infield to get an additional strong bat into the lineup. Oh is an impressive hitter out of the Seattle area where he batted .514 as a senior.
The rest of the infield is also up for grabs as the Bears feature three talented infielders whose fathers are former Cal athletes - sophomore switch hitter Brian Guinn, sophomore left-handed hitter Austin Booker and true freshman Marcus Semien. Plus, junior Rich Gorman is a viable candidate at second base after making spot starts at that position the past two years.
Guinn, whose father, Brian, Sr., is a former Cal standout (1981-83) and professional ballplayer, is in strong contention for a starting spot somewhere in the middle infield after hitting .316 in 38 at-bats with a double and triple last year. He was drafted in the 10th round by the Chicago White Sox out of high school after batting .428 with 17 stolen bases as a senior at Berkeley High School.
Booker, a 5-10, 165-pound left-handed hitting infielder, is the son of former Cal 1980 All-American and major league shortstop Rod Booker. The younger Booker played well in 16 games last season as a redshirt freshman, taking advantage of his opportunities by batting .333 with four RBI in 12 at-bats.
Semien is a 6-0, 175-pounder whose father, Damien, was a wide receiver on the Cal football team from 1990-93. One of the Bears' leading incoming freshmen, Semien played well in fall practice after excelling at St. Mary's High School in Berkeley where he was a three-time all-league selection, hitting .371 with five home runs, 27 RBI and 14 stolen bases as a senior.
Additional young infield candidates include 5-8, 170-pound sophomore Dwight Tanaka, who could also see action in the outfield after competing in eight games for the Bears last year, and Paul Toboni, a 6-2, 185-pound true freshman from St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco who batted .431 with 18 stolen bases as a senior.
Competition will be fierce for playing time in the Bears' outfield, especially in left field with senior Ryan Hanlon, sophomore Mark Canha and freshman Danny Oh battling for starting duties. Cal does feature returning starters Brett Jackson in center field and Blake Smith in right field, but could adjust outfield spots to maximize the number of talented hitters into the line-up.
Other candidates looking to break into the outfield playing rotation are Dwight Tanaka, Maris Moore and Cameron Hart. As mentioned above, Tanaka competed in eight games for Cal, mostly as a pinch runner and got a hit in five at-bats. He has the speed and ability to be a viable back up to Jackson in center field.
Moore is a 6-3, 200-pound redshirt freshman who sat out last season after recovering from left shoulder surgery. He excelled at California High School in San Ramon, where he was teammates with Cal catcher Tonneson, and as a junior he batted .368. Moore should vie for playing time in right field for the Bears when Smith either pitches or plays first base.
An additional outfield candidate is true freshman Hart, a 5-9, 185-pounder from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. Hart was a member of a championship RBI World Series team in Los Angeles this past summer, and was an MVP and first-team all-league selection in high school.