Dec. 29, 1997
All Pieces in Place for 1998 Season
If coaching a baseball team is like building a puzzle, then California head coach Bob Milano is extremely close to having all the pieces in place entering the 1998 season.
The Golden Bears are intent on improving last year's 21-38 record and Milano's crew not only has the talent to improve on the '97 season, but the personnel to be an NCAA Regional team. Cal features two players-shortstop Brian Oliver and catcher Jason Hill-who were members of the 1997 USA National Team and two more players-sophomore reliever Jon Cuccias and freshman second baseman Xavier Nady-who were invited to the National Team tryouts in November. The Bears also have five returning starters in the field and eight returning pitchers, plus one of the largest and most talented freshman classes in Milano's 21-year tenure.
"There is no question the talent is there, but my concern is our youthfulness and if our pitching going to be consistent and remain healthy," said Milano. "Still, I'm excited about this season. We have a solid core of players returning and for the first time in three years were didn't lose any of our recruits to the professional draft."
There is no doubt Cal will be led by their team captain, junior shortstop Oliver, who according to Milano is the best middle infielder he has ever coached. The Bears leading hitter and team MVP last season, Oliver is primed for an outstanding junior season. Last season, he was a first team All-Pac-10 selection, batting .364 with 15 doubles, three triples, four home runs and 36 RBI. Oliver also finished third in the conference in stolen bases (24-for-26). This past summer, he shined playing for Milano on the USA National Team, batting .333 with six doubles, a home run and 10 RBI in 25 starts.
Junior catcher Hill also benefited from his experience playing for the USA National Team. After struggling at the plate in '97, he showed his ability by playing well for Team USA, starting 17 games and batting .281 with three doubles, two home runs and 19 RBI.
Cuccias, a right-handed submarine pitcher who emerged as the Bears top reliever last season, is sure to be key performer this season. As a freshman, he finished the year 2-0 with three saves and had a team-leading 3.38 ERA. At the USA Baseball trials, he was 2-0 with a save in 3.7 innings of action.
Nady was a fourth-round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals out of high school, but opted to come to Cal and has already made his mark. In the Blue-Gold intrasquad, Nady went 4-for-7 with a double, a triple, two home runs in one game and had eight RBI. At the USA Baseball trials, he went 2-for-6 with a double and a home run.
Although the '97 season was tough, returners Aaron Gordnier, Jon Shirley, Juan Hernandez and Jim Vorhis all gained valuable experience that will help them in '98.
Senior captain Gordnier had a breakthrough junior campaign. He was one of the Bears most consistent players while leading the team in home runs (7) and RBI (41), while batting .299. Gordnier continued his fine play into the summer season as he was the California Coastal Collegiate League MVP and league batting champ (.398), helping the Santa Barbara Foresters to a fifth-place finish at the National Baseball Congress World Series.
Sophomore right-hander Shirley was impressive as a true freshman, and although his record was only 2-7 with a 5.47 ERA and a save, he led the Bears in strikeouts (54) and innings pitched (82.3), and had five no decisions. Shirley developed into Cal's No. 1 starter early in the year and showed tremendous poise.
Sophomore right fielder Hernandez also showed signs of brilliance during his frosh campaign. He started 57 of the team's 59 games in right field, batting .285 with 12 doubles, three home runs and 18 RBI. In addition, Hernandez was tied with Oliver for the team lead in stolen bases (24-for-26).
Vorhis enters the '98 season as the veteran of the pitching staff. For his career, he has seen action in 67 games, pitched 236.0 innings and has earned 12 victories for Cal.
An intriguing returner for the Bears will be junior Ryan Drese, who has sat out the majority of the past two seasons with strained ligaments in his right elbow. Drese had develop into one of the nation's top amateur pitchers in the summer of 1995, leading the USA National Team with a 10 strikeout-effort in an upset victory over Cuba.
What the Cal coaches are hoping will make the '98 Bears complete is the emergence of a talented freshmen class. Along with Nady, Cal's top frosh include pitcher/first baseman Jason Dennis, third baseman/catcher Mike Tonis, pitcher Ryan Atkinson and first baseman/catcher David Sark.
"With the addition of this freshman class, we continue to have good speed, but we will now have better power," said Milano. "We needed to upgrade the consistency of our offense. We now have more options and are no longer forced to manufacture runs as much."
The Cal baseball season gets underway later this month, as the Bears open at home on Monday, Jan. 26 against USF in a 2:00 p.m. game at Evans Diamond on the Cal campus.