As California head coach Bob Milano enters his 20th year at the helm of Golden Bear baseball, he will be ushering in one of the youngest teams in his coaching tenure with five seniors, five juniors, eight sophomores and 18 freshmen. On paper, the Bears prospects might look ominous, but the veteran coach is excited about the 1997 campaign. The Bears, ranked 25th in Baseball America and 30th in Collegiate Baseball in the preseason polls, might be young, but they are talented as Milano has a mix of returnees who are proven Pac-10 performers and a large class of physically gifted freshmen.
"I'm very excited about this season because I think people are going to see dramatic improvement from our first day of practice to when we play Clemson at the end of the year," said Milano, who will be guiding the USA National Team after the 1997 college season. "This team has a chance to sneak up on some people. We are going to get better because not only do we have several young players who have played a lot, but our newcomers are talented and will be thrown into the action right away. We will be looking for someone to surface and lead the team. In order for us to be successful, we are going to have to be scrappy."
Sophomore Brian Oliver, a third team preseason All-American in Collegiate Baseball, definitely will be a key cog in the Bears attack. The slick-fielding shortstop became the first freshman in Cal baseball history to earn Freshman All-America honors. Oliver, who was the Bears starting second baseman in 1996, was a Freshman All-American in both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball and was one of the nation's 66 players selected to try out for the USA Baseball National Trials in Tampa, FL. He was second on the team in hitting last season, batting .335 with 14 doubles, two triples, five home runs and 32 RBI. Oliver was also 21-for-27 in stolen bases, which was fourth in the Pac-10, and earned honorable mention all-conference honors.
A large part of Cal's fortunes will ride on the health of sophomore Ryan Drese, a first team preseason All-American in Baseball America. Drese is ready to return to the form that saw him develop into one of the nation's top amateur pitchers in 1995, leading Team USA with a 10 strikeout-effort in an upset victory over Cuba. Last season, the Bears hard-throwing right-hander threw a near no-hitter (8.0 innings with no hits, no earned runs, five walks, four strikeouts) against Long Beach State before hurting his arm two weeks later against Fresno State. Drese is now healthy and should be ready to be a dominant pitcher by the early part of the season.
Senior Drew Fischer enters his final collegiate season as one of the school's top relief pitchers as he has 15 career saves, third on Cal's all-time save list. Fischer is coming off a spectacular summer in the Cape Cod League where he broke the league record for saves with 13 and was named to the league's all-star team. He will be utilized as a starter for the Bears this season, featuring his outstanding split-finger fastball.
Speedster Ivan Lewis will be another leader for Cal as the senior star is one of the nation's most versatile players and leading basestealers. Lewis, who is a two-time Pac-10 honorable mention selection and has batted over .300 the past two seasons, has led the conference in stolen bases the last two years and has 96 career stolen bases, the fifth-best all-time Cal mark. He has also shown a remarkable ability to excel defensively at several positions, having started at third base as a freshman, second base as a sophomore and center field as a junior. Lewis will probably move back to second base for the 1997 season to help shore up the Bears infield.
The Cal coaching staff is expecting big things from sophomore catcher Jason Hill in 1997. Hill has impressed the Bear coaches with his hard work during the off-season and should be ready to showcase his talents. He missed the first half of the '96 season when he broke his thumb prior to the first game, but in the second half of the year he gave people a glimpse of his capabilities. In Hill's first collegiate game, he went 4-for-6 with a double and an RBI Mar. 17 at Arizona, and on Apr. 26 versus Arizona, he was 2-for-4 with two home runs and knocked in the game-winning RBI with a sacrifice fly in the ninth inning. Hill, who also excels defensively with a strong and accurate arm, joined Oliver as one of the nation's 66 players selected to try out for the USA Baseball National Trials.
The Bears might have found a secret weapon in sophomore right-hander Tyler Walker. Last season, Walker converted from catcher to one of the league's up-and-coming relief pitchers. He finished the '96 season 2-1 with a save and a 3.58 ERA, but more importantly, for a power pitcher who throws in the low 90's, he had an impressive 28 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 37.7 innings. This past summer he continued his development as a closer, going 2-1 with three saves and 3.41 ERA for the Santa Barbara Foresters, and was named the Top Professional Prospect at the National Baseball Congress World Series. Walker is the highest rated collegiate baseball player by the Major League Scouting Bureau.
Junior right-hander Jim Vorhis will no doubt be an integral part of the Cal pitching staff as he has been one of the Pac-10's most consistent pitchers the last two seasons. Vorhis has the unique ability to thrive as either a starter or a long reliever and could, once again, play that role for the Bears. He is not an overpowering pitcher, but he throws strikes, leading the Pac-10 in fewest walks per nine innings in 1995, and has a deceptive curveball and change up.
Seniors John Furstenthal and Jim Schmidt are two more returnees who will be counted on for production in '97. The left-handed hitting Furstenthal is the top candidate for the first base spot and should be ready for an outstanding senior campaign. He has the potential to be one of the team's leading average hitters with an excellent eye at the plate. Schmidt has the inside track to start at third base for the Bears, but is also a talented fielding second baseman. He has the potential to be a key player for Cal at the plate with a short, compact left-handed stroke. Schmidt has played well in the last two fall seasons and showed signs of being a top Division I player last spring.
Six members of Cal's freshman class could have an immediate impact on the Bears fortunes--pitchers Jon Cuccias, Jon Shirley and Cory Frey, and position players Juan Hernandez, Curtis Johnson and Kevin Johnson.
Cuccias is a right-handed submariner who could be the team's set-up man for closer Tyler Walker. Shirley, a right-hander with an outstanding curveball, impressed the Cal coaching staff in the fall and might be a potential starter in the early season. Frey is a left-hander who could step in and help the Bears as a middle reliever.
Hernandez is the leading candidate to be Cal's right fielder after an impressive fall season. He has a great throwing arm, is one of the fastest players on the team and hit a home run in his first at bat in the fall Blue-Gold World Series. Twin brothers Curtis and Kevin Johnson are excellent athletes as well. Curtis, who was drafted in the 38th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, is competing for the center field spot with his outstanding arm and speed on the basepaths. Kevin, who was drafted in the 19th round by the Diamondbacks, has enormous potential and will be battling for playing time in the Bears infield.
Cal By Position
The Bears again feature one of the top starting pitchers in the nation in sophomore Ryan Drese. Drese is an aggressive, hard-throwing right-hander who can intimidate hitters with his fastball, sharp-breaking slider and curveball. He developed into one of the best pitchers on Team USA in the summer of 1995, going 5-1 and defeating Cuba with a 8.0 inning, four-hit, one-walk and 10-strikeout performance. Last season, Drese was on pace to match his Team USA exploits, throwing a near no-hitter versus Long Beach State before hurting his arm against Fresno State.
Senior right-hander Drew Fischer, who has been the Bears ace in the bullpen for the past two years and one of the Pac-10's best relief pitchers, will be utilized as a starter this season for Cal. His split-finger fastball has been extremely effective, helping him tie a school-record with nine saves in 1995 and setting a Cape Cod save record with 13 saves last summer.
A potentially huge impact player for the Bears pitching staff this season will be sophomore right-hander Tyler Walker. Walker is the ideal closer, throwing in the 90's with an off-speed pitch to go along with his fastball. He was selected the nation's top rated professional pitching prospect by the Major League Scouting Bureau.
Freshmen right-handers Jason Ball and Brad Steele are two more potential starters for Cal. Ball is the Bears top blue-chip pitching recruit out of Los Alamitos High School and was drafted in the 19th round by the Toronto Blue Jays. He came to Cal with an injured right shoulder and had surgery in September. Ball began throwing at the end of fall practice and should be ready by the first half of the spring. Steele is an outstanding athlete who was a redshirt quarterback on the football team this fall. The Cal coaching staff feels as soon as he is in baseball shape, Steele could step in and help the Bears with his strong arm.
Another viable candidate to be a weekend starter is junior right-hander Jim Vorhis. Vorhis has been a model of consistency for the Bears the past two seasons, and can be utilized as either a starter or a long reliever. He could be extremely valuable to Cal with his ability to fit into any role in the pitching rotation.
What could really help the Bears starting pitching staff become dominant is a healthy Drew Pearce, Reed Goemann and Mark Gardner. Pearce, a hard-throwing senior with an excellent curveball and change-up, was the Bears top starter in 1994 before suffering a season-ending arm injury. Goemann is a sophomore who has endured health problems the past two seasons with a sore elbow and an injured back, but if healthy has the type of skills to be effective in the Six-Pac. Gardner was Cal's top left-handed junior college transfer a year ago, but developed tendinitis in his left shoulder and had a disappointing junior campaign. If healthy, Gardner could also be utilized as a left-handed closer.
Freshman right-hander Jon Shirley and junior right-hander Ryland Sumner could also step in and be starters for the Bears. Shirley had a solid fall season and Sumner continues to develop and played well for the Hawaiian Island Movers this past summer. Sumner could also prove to be valuable as a middle reliever.
Other potential middle to long relievers for Cal include true freshman left-hander Cory Frey, junior right-hander Doug Nickle and redshirt freshmen Andy Jensen and Matt Friend. Frey did a solid job in fall practice and could be a key middle reliever or a possible set-up man for Walker. Nickle has continued to improve and should get a chance as a middle reliever after performing well in the last two fall Blue-Gold World Series. Both Jensen and Friend have shown they could help the Bears as well. Jensen is a hard-thrower who converted from the outfield to a pitcher last season. Friend has developed as a submarine pitcher and could be extremely effective against right-handed batters.
Freshman right-hander Jon Cuccias is another Cal submarine pitcher and has an excellent chance of playing a key role as a first-year player. With an excellent slider, Cuccias is projected to be the Bears leading candidate to be the set-up man for Walker.
Other pitchers who could help the Bears include junior Andrew Miller and true-freshman Mike Bennett. Miller will be utilized as left-handed spot reliever and Bennett, who underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, is an excellent athlete with a good fastball, slider and change-up and should be ready by the second half of the season.
Top freshman football player Pete Destefano will be battling with redshirt-freshman Todd Johnson as Hill's back-up. Destefano, a safety on the Cal football team who competed against Navy in the Aloha Bowl, was an outstanding switch-hitting catcher at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose. He was able to practice a few days with the baseball team during the fall and impressed the coaches with power at the plate and his strong throwing arm.
Johnson gained experience last year as a freshman and should have the opportunity to see a considerable amount of playing time this season. He is an excellent receiver and has the potential to help the Bears at the plate as well.
Redshirt freshman Mike Robertson will provide depth at catcher for Cal, but will see most of his action as a bullpen catcher this season.
Oliver obviously will be a key to the Bears success with both his bat and glove. He will be moving full-time to shortstop after excelling at second base last season and teaming-up with Dan Cey for a strong double-play combo. Lewis, a two-time Pac-10 stolen base leader, will move back to second base after playing well at center field last season. In 1995, he was Cal's starting second baseman and helped turn 63 double plays. Lewis has also seen action at shortstop and third base for the Bears.
First base will be held down by senior John Furstenthal, a talented left-handed hitter who started 36 games last year and has improved defensively. Left-handed freshman Barry Schell could also help out at first base, or in the outfield, after showing some power at the plate in fall practice. Redshirt-freshman Sam Petke is another candidate to see action at first base.
Besides Oliver and Lewis, other possibilities for the Cal infield include senior Jim Schmidt, sophomores Dan Garfin and Ryan Robertson, and freshman Kevin Johnson. The left-handed hitting Schmidt is ready for a strong senior year after starting 44 games at third base last season. He is also excellent at turning the double play at second base. Garfin is an impressive fielding third baseman who is improving at the plate. He could prove to be valuable either as a starter, or a late-inning pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. Robertson, a second baseman, is a junior college transfer from Diablo Valley College who has impressed the Cal coaches with his hitting.
Johnson has a chance to help the Bears right away at either third base, or possibly as a shortstop down the road. An outstanding athlete who can also play the outfield, Johnson has great speed and a strong throwing arm, and with improvement at the plate, will be hard to keep out of the Cal line-up.
In left field, junior Aaron Gordnier returns and has the inside track for the starting spot. Gordnier is Cal's most fundamentally sound defensive outfielder and this past summer hit .364 for the Santa Barbara Foresters semi-pro team. Freshman David Yengoyan could also see action in left field. Yengoyan is a talented left-handed hitter who can play right field as well, and could be a valuable designated hitter. Redshirt-freshman Adam Petke is another athlete who can be utilized in either left or right field, or as a designated hitter.
Freshman Curtis Johnson was impressive in center field in fall practice and is a leading candidate to start. Johnson has a strong throwing arm and is considered by the Cal coaches to be one of the team's best baserunners. Sophomore switch-hitter Preston Sharp, who has moved from the infield to the outfield, will provide competition for Johnson at center field. Sharp has played well in the past three fall practices, has an above average throwing arm and is the best bunter on the team. If need be, senior Ivan Lewis could also move back from the infield and play center field after starting 41 games at that position last season.
In right field, the Bear coaches are excited about the prospects of true freshman Juan Hernandez. Hernandez was impressive in fall practice, is the fastest player on the team, and possesses a great throwing arm and outstanding bat speed at the plate. Freshman Barry Schell could also provide depth in right field for Cal.