Feb. 13, 2008
Berkeley, Calif. - There is no doubt that the Golden Bears are hungry...hungry to show the college baseball world they are worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. This talented 2008 California squad, ranked 23rd in Perfect Game's preseason poll, feels it has all the makings to be a force, not only in the Pac-10, but on the national stage as well.
David Esquer's troops fully realize they are competing in what is arguably the toughest conference in the nation with UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State all garnering top spots in the preseason polls, and two-time defending national champion Oregon State additionally in the fold. Yet the Bears are undaunted and not shy about touting their abilities, featuring at least six postseason honor candidates in junior right-hander Tyson Ross, junior first baseman David Cooper, junior right-hander Matt Gorgen, sophomore infielder/outfielder Jeff Kobernus, junior left-hander Craig Bennigson and sophomore outfielder/right-hander Blake Smith.
Cal showcases additional standouts/returning starters in junior catcher Charlie Cutler, senior second baseman Josh Satin, junior shortstop Michael Brady, senior right-hander Alex Rollin and sophomore center fielder Brett Jackson. The Bears also have a host of other players who are sure to be an integral part of the team's success.
"We feel confident in the talent level and the experience we have this season," said Esquer, who enters his ninth season with the most depth in his tenure. "We return our top three starters on the mound (Ross, Rollin and Bennigson) and our best closer (Gorgen). We return the right side of our infield (Cooper and Satin) and our starting shortstop (Brady), plus our three young outfielders (Kobernus, Jackson and Smith) who were all starters at the end of last season as true freshmen.
"But we know that the Pac-10 could be the best, from top to bottom, since the Northern Division and Southern Division merged in 1999. As many as seven teams from the conference are worthy of making the NCAAs, with any one of those teams capable of winning a regional. Certainly we know we were in position to be an NCAA regional team in 2005 and 2007, and we don't want to be left out for any reason we can control."
The Bears were the first team from the Pac-10 to not make a regional with a 13-11 conference record in 2005, and the first Pac-10 team not to make a regional after a top-four league finish in 2007 - both times being leaped-frog by teams finishing below them in the Pac-10 standings (Stanford in 2005, Oregon State in 2007). Cal certainly does not want to be involved any more of those "firsts" in 2008.
Cal comes into this season with a list of accolades that includes three preseason All-Americans, three Wallace Award national players of the year candidates, two returning first-team All-Pac-10 selections, a member of the USA National Team, a returning freshman All-American and four players who were honorable mention All-Pac-10.
Junior team captain and 6-6 right-hander Ross is certainly a person to start with in talking about Cal's prospects. A 2008 preseason All-American by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball and Rivals.com, and a Wallace Award candidate, Ross is coming off an outstanding 2007 summer season with the USA National Team. In eight appearances for Team USA, he finished 4-1 and had a 0.82 ERA, striking out 39 batters with only seven walks in 43.2 innings. Ross picked up two victories against The Netherlands, a victory over the Dominican Republic at the PanAm Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and a victory over Japan.
A first-team All-Pac-10 selection last spring for the Bears, Ross finished with a 6-6 mark and was second in the league with a 2.49 ERA and third in the conference with 120 strikeouts in 115.2 innings. His 120 strikeouts were second on the Cal all-time single-season strikeout list and he threw at least 6.0 innings in 15 of his 17 starts, and 7.0 innings or more 11 times, including a complete game at Stanford. Ross was also named a semifinalist for the Golden Spike Award as the nation's top collegiate baseball player, and on Mar. 25, 2007, he was picked as the National Player of the Week by Collegiate Baseball after striking out 16 batters (three away from the school record of 19 set by Larry Colton in 1963) with only one walk in 7.0 innings against Oral Roberts. Ross was noted for fielding as well, winning the Rawlings Gold Glove award as the nation's best fielding pitcher. For his career, Ross now has 205 strikeouts (ninth on Cal's career list) in 200.1 innings with a 2.79 ERA.
Cal's top newcomer in 2007 was left-handed first baseman Cooper, a transfer from Cal State Fullerton, where he was a member of the 2006 College World Series All-Tournament team. An All-Pac-10 selection and team MVP in 2007 for the Bears, Cooper batted a team-leading .382 with a team-best 14 doubles, 12 home runs and 55 RBI. He also paced Cal with a .627 slugging percentage, 30 walks and had a .450 on-base percentage. Cooper was third in the Pac-10 in batting average, fifth in the league in slugging and on-base percentage and seventh in the conference in home runs. His highlights included two, two-run homers versus Kent State Mar. 9, and two solo home runs at UC Santa Barbara Feb. 26. He was named the Feb. 26 Pac-10 Player of the Week after going 10-for-27 with two doubles, three home runs and eight RBI in road games at San Jose State, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara. Cooper is a Baseball America preseason All-American and a 2008 Wallace Award candidate as well.
The Bears' other Louisville Slugger and Rivals.com preseason All-American, and third Wallace Award candidate, is hard-throwing junior closer Gorgen. An honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection last season, Gorgen was one of 40 players on the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Midseason Watch List, having struck out 75 batters in 61.0 innings with a 2.51 ERA (third in the Pac-10). He also led the Pac-10 with 31 appearances, was sixth in the league with nine saves (second on the Cal all-time single season list), and 38 of his 75 strikeouts were called looking (second in the Pac-10). In 60 career appearances, Gorgen now has 109 strikeouts in 100.2 innings, and is eighth on Cal's career save list (11 saves).
Junior left-hander Bennigson and sophomore outfielders Kobernus and Smith are also returning honorable mention All-Pac-10 honorees. Bennigson, fresh from a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, developed into one of the Bears' best pitchers at the end of last season, finishing 5-3 with a 3.34 ERA and notching Pac-10 wins versus USC and UCLA. Kobernus, who is switching to third base from left fielder to start the 2008 campaign, led the team with 13 stolen bases and was second on the squad behind Cooper with a .331 average. He was named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American - only the fourth Cal player in school history to receive that honor. The left-handed hitting Smith finished his frosh season batting .320 with six home runs and 30 RBI, while striking out 23 batters in 21.1 innings as a right-handed reliever on the mound. He also threw two runners out at the plate from right field.
Having an experienced catcher behind the plate is a key for any ball club and the Bears return talented left-handed hitter Cutler. Last year's recipient of the George Wolfman Award as the squad's most improved player and this season's team captain, Cutler batted .310 and ended the season on a 10-game hitting streak. He was a Cape Cod League All-Star this past summer for the Brewster Whitecaps. Another returning Cape Cod League All-Star is senior second baseman Satin, who is primed for an outstanding final campaign. An All-Pac-10 selection and a freshman All-American in 2005 when he batted .348, Satin has now twice been named a Cape Cod League All-Star and enters his last season with a .290 career average with 31 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs and 101 RBI.
Junior Brady established himself as the Bears' regular shortstop last season, playing some of his best ball at the end of the year, including a two-home run, five-RBI game against Arizona State, and a game-winning homer against USC. Another notable achievement for Cal last season was the improved pitching of right-hander Rollin, who was 10th in the Pac-10 with eight wins, including his stellar effort in shutting out Oregon State, only allowing four hits in six innings. The senior right-hander will again be counted on to be one of the team's conference starters.
The Bears are also looking for the continued improvement of talented center fielder Jackson. After starting on a regular basis toward the end of last season, the left-handed hitting Jackson went on to excel in the summer Northwoods League, batting .343 with nine stolen bases.
"We are confident we can make it to a regional, and if we do, we are confident Tyson Ross can get us that first victory," said Esquer. "From there, we'll make sure we find a way to win those additional games."
Cal By Positions
Pitching Cal returns all of its major contributors on the mound from last season, including above-mentioned starters Ross, Rollin and Bennigson. With the NCAA deciding to start the season a month later and teams having to play up to four games in a weekend, it is even more important to have additional starter types on the pitching staff. That is where sophomore left-handers Chris Petrini and Todd Fitzgerald, and freshman Kevin Miller step in. Petrini, who only pitched in one game last year before having Tommy John surgery, showed the ability to be a regular starter toward the end of his freshman season in 2006, finishing 3-2 with a 4.54 ERA and striking out 27 batters in 39.2 innings. He started his last two outings as a freshman, including a career-high 6.2 innings with eight strikeouts and only two walks at Arizona State.
Fitzgerald, a transfer from San Jose City College, also sat out last season after having elbow surgery, but is ready to contribute to the Bears after striking out 84 batters in 74.0 innings as a freshman. He was drafted in the 38th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2006 draft.
Another top newcomer in the pitching ranks is Miller, a hard-throwing right-hander from San Jose's Valley Christian High School. He threw two no-hitters as a senior, finishing the year 13-1 with 102 strikeouts in 82.0 innings, earning first-team all-state.
Cal returns its top closer in preseason All-American Gorgen, but also brings in talented closer/set-up man Daniel Wolford, a sophomore right-hander who transferred from Long Beach State. As a freshman for the 49ers, Wolford finished 1-1 with a 3.55 ERA in 14 appearances, striking out 15 batters in 12.2 innings. An additional closer/set-up type is the Bears' starting right fielder, Smith, who as mentioned above was effective as a freshman pitcher, and also struck out 18 batters in 13.2 innings this summer for the Alexandria Beetles of the Northwoods League.
Cal has a long list of other pitchers who could fill various roles. Senior Nick Nunez and juniors Dane Ferguson and Travis Erickson have the most experience as middle relievers. Nunez saw action in 22 games last season after transferring from Cosumnes River College, finishing 3-3, including a win in a start against Oral Roberts, and a win in relief over Stanford. Ferguson pitched in 21 games, finishing 1-1 with a 5.31 ERA, including a win in relief over World Series participant UC Irvine. Erickson had 14 appearances and also picked up a win, striking out 19 batters in 21.1 innings with a 4.29 ERA.
Newcomers Yasser Clor, Stephen Pistoresi and Brian Diemer could also be immediate contributors. Hard-throwing right-hander Clor redshirted last season after originally signing with UNLV. 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. Pistoresi, a right-hander out of San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, was also impressive as a high school senior, going 10-1 with a 2.18 ERA and striking out 78 batters in 67.0 innings. Diemer, a 6-5, 240-pound right-hander, redshirted at Cal last season after having shoulder surgery, but is now healthy, throwing in the high 80s and looking the regain the form that helped make him a three-time all-league pitcher at Acalanes High School.
Sophomore left-handers Michael Bugary and Mike Cassady are also in the mix. Bugary returns after redshirting last season to recover from shoulder tendonitis and knee surgery, but has shown signs of regaining his prior form. Cassady saw action in 10 games last season as a true freshman, striking out eight batters in 10.2 innings. Senior right-hander Nick Tess and junior right-handed submariner Kurt De La Rosa provide additional depth out of the bullpen with a chance to see increased action, while Sean Barber, Joey Donofrio and Dixon Anderson are true freshmen right-handers looking to establish their roles on the pitching staff as well.
The 6-3, 220-pound Tonneson is an impressive athlete out of California High School in San Ramon, where as a senior he batted .395 with nine home runs and 36 RBI. In 18 games as a true freshman at Cal, he had five starts behind the plate, batting .290 with a double and five RBI.
Thomas, who transferred from Diablo Valley College last year and saw action in nine games with starts against UC Santa Barbara, Stanford and UC Davis, returns after a successful summer playing for the Okotoks (Alberta, Canada) Dawgs of the Western Major Baseball League.
Bunting is a freshman catcher from Ukiah High School who will also provide the Bears with depth behind the plate after a stellar high school career.
Infield Even though the Cal infield returns every starter from the 2007 season (Cooper at first base, Satin at second base, Brady at shortstop) with the exception of third base, there will still be plenty of competition.
The Bears return sophomore infielder Rich Gorman, who has continued to impress the Cal coaches with his bat. The 5-10 switch hitter is vying for starting duties at second base, or as Cal's top designated hitter. He batted .302 with four doubles in 30 games and 10 starts last season as a redshirt freshman, and was an All-Star in the Central Illinois Collegiate league this past summer.
Another middle infield candidate is true freshman Brian Guinn, a switch hitter from Berkeley High School whose father, Brian, Sr., is a former Cal standout (1981-83) and professional ballplayer. Guinn was drafted in the 10th round by the Chicago White Sox after batting .428 with 17 stolen bases as a senior.
The Bears have another son of a former Cal star battling for an infield spot in Austin Booker, a 5-10, 165-pound left-handed hitting redshirt freshman from Robinson High School in Fairfax, Va., who is the son of former Cal 1980 All-American and major league shortstop Rod Booker.
An additional young infield candidate is 5-8, 170-pound true freshman Dwight Tanaka, who could also see action in the outfield. Tanaka batted .473 with seven home runs this past summer for the San Jose Pal Blaze, after a stellar high school career at Campolindo and De Anza High Schools.
Outfield Competition will again be fierce for starting duties in the Bears' outfield, especially in left field with the Cal coaching staff deciding to move freshman All-American Kobernus to third base. Besides returning starters Jackson (center field) and Smith (right field), juniors Ryan Hanlon and Michael Capbarat, and true freshman Mark Canha, are all capable outfielders. Redshirt freshman Scott Schauer and junior Tyler Waddell are looking to break into the playing rotation as well.
Hanlon has started 45 games in his Cal career and shown flashes of brilliance. He started out last season on a seven-game hitting streak, and was instrumental in the Bears winning two-of-three over World Series participant UC Irvine. Capbarat, elected a 2008 team captain by his teammates, also seems on the verge of showcasing his skills on a regular basis. He started 11 games in either center or left field last season, and hit .297 with two home runs, 14 RBI and 16 stolen bases for the Moses Lake (Wash.) Pirates of the West Coast Collegiate League this past summer. Newcomer Canha has impressed the Cal coaches with his skills and comes to the Bears after hitting .440 with 11 home runs as a senior at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose.
Schauer redshirted last season in order to recover from shoulder surgery. He is now healthy and ready to showcase the skills that landed him on the 2005 USA Junior National Team, where he was teammates with Tyson Ross. Schauer was a standout at Servite High School in Anaheim, hitting .453 and earning All-CIF Southern Section as a senior. Waddell is also working toward playing time in the Cal outfield after hitting .459 with seven home runs and 32 RBI as a senior at Peninsula High School in Palos Verdes.
Senior Jordan Karnofsky is another notable player for the Bears. The 6-3, 230-pound left-handed hitter is a prime candidate to be Cal's top left-handed designated hitter, owning a .291 career average with 15 doubles, three home runs and 30 RBI. In the summer of 2006, Karnofsky hit .302 with 12 doubles, five home runs and 24 RBI for the Front Royal (Va.) Cardinals of the Shenandoah Valley League, and was listed as the Valley Leagues' ninth-best professional prospect by Baseball America. He has been plagued by injuries during his Cal career, but has all the tools to be a top power hitter in the Pac-10.