To say the least, the Cal Bears had a rough 2009 season. After qualifying for a Regional in 2008, only to be...well screwed over (there's really no other way to put it) by the NCAA with their Regional placement, many expected the Bears to reach the postseason again in 2009. As the entire Pac-10 underachieved, so did Cal to the tune of 24-29 and a 9-18 conference record, only better than first-year program Oregon. The Bears struggle from horrid support by the athletic department, which has outfitted them with the Pac-10's worst facility, but even with such obstacles, last year's disappointment has put head coach Dave Esquer on the hot seat in the eyes of many.
The Bears lost a ton of offense from a 2009 offense that was only mediocre and well short of extraordinary. Blake Smith, Brett Jackson, Dylan Tonneson and Jeff Jobernus, who combined for 34 home runs and three of whom made up Cal's second, third and fourth best hitters have all moved on. Luckily for the Golden Bears, their top hitter and possibly the conference's top hitter, junior Mark Canha. The first baseball hit .366 last year with 12 home runs and 43 RBI. He cam around to score 44 times and accrued a .444 on-base percentage. You could show up at the ballpark just to watch Canha.
What Cal does offensively outside of Canha is the big question. Sophomore Danny Oh can hit it a bit, putting together a .303 batting average with seven home runs as a freshman and sitting in the two slot, should be very effective, Junior Brian Guinn hit .315 with 10 stolen bases and will bat leadoff to give the Bears a solid top two in the lineup. Cal has only two other projected starters with college experience and neither will light the world in fire. Sophomores Chadd Krist and Marcus Semien, who slot in at catcher and shortstop respectively, each hit just .197 in 2009. That puts an incredible amount of pressure on the four freshmen who are being asked to step in and start.
The good thing for the Bears is that Esquer brought in a quality recruiting class so the freshmen who will be so heavily leaned upon are talented. Tony Renda, who will start at third and bat third is the class of the freshman class. A 42nd round pick by the Dodgers, Renda hit .420 as a senior in high school. After that, Renda went to the Northwoods Leagu, which is a top-flight collegiate summer league, and hit .289. Devin Rodriguez will step into the DH spot and provide some power, while Jimmy Bosco will bring a good bat (he hit over .500 as a junior in high school) and outfield glove. The final freshman in the Cal lineup is Darrel Matthews who has solid gap power and good speed, which will serve him well on the bases and in center field.
Cal took an interesting approach to their pitching staff last year as nobody made more than 10 starts and 11 different pitchers made a start. While it may have hampered the team in 2009, it gives the Bears a definite advantage this year as seven of their 10 most-used pitchers are back and full of experience. Sophomore Erik Johnson is the class of the Cal staff and will be the ace of the staff, throwing on Friday nights a year after splitting his time between the starting rotation and closer's role. Johnson went 3-6 last year with four saves and a 4.41 ERA then spent the summer in the Northwoods League where he went 4-2 with a 2.61 ERA. Johnson may take some lumps throwing on Fridays for the first time, but he has the pure stuff and makeup to develop into a legitimate ace.
Keeping with the theme of the Golden Bears in 2010, Esquer will turn to a freshman on Saturdays. Justin Jones, a seventh round pick of the White Sox, is a tall, lanky lefthander who had an absolutely dominating high school career. His 0.42 ERA in his senior season was actually a step down from his 0.40 ERA as a junior thanks to a fastball that touches 90 mph and a curveball and changeup, both of which are developing and could be plus pitches by the end of the season.
Redshirt sophomore Dixon Anderson will pitch the series finales for the Bears after a very good freshman season out of the bullpen. Anderson pitched 43 innings in 20 appearances last season and struck out nearly eight batters per nine innings with a 3.98 ERA. The highlight of Anderson's year came in early May when he earned Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week honors. The best showing he had all year came that week when he went 6.2 innings versus UCLA, struck out seven and allowed just one run to pick up the win in relief.
When Esquer put together his 2010 schedule, he certainly did not shy away from tough teams. After two easier weekends to open the season versus Southern Utah and at the Cal St. Bakersfield Tournament, the Bears will host Arkansas, play at Rice and then at Cal Poly. Arkansas is regarded by many as a top 15 team, while Rice is a top five team according to some and Cal Poly is considered a darkhorse in the always good Big West. Those three weekends will close out conference play and take Cal into their opening Pac-10 series at Arizona St. Few teams in the country will play a four-week stretch as that one that takes the Bears from March 11 through the end of the month.
The pressure is on Esquer and he has the talent to rack up some wins. Can you really expect a postseason berth with so many freshmen being asked to play such major roles though? Probably not, which is why the conference coaches picked the Bears to finish seventh in the Pac-10. With a definite gap between the Pac-10's top four and the rest though, if Cal's young player can mature quickly, a fifth place finish is not out of the question, which would put them in the Regional conversation thanks to a weak Big XII that has some postseason spots up for grabs.