Cal Baseball Season Preview Part 3: Pitchers

In our last installment of CGB’s Cal baseball preview we looked at the starting lineup, which has so many returning starters and young talents that there might end up being more than nine players deserving of regular at bats – a very good problem for a coach to have.

Now we turn our focus to the pitching staff, which isn’t nearly as settled. If Cal is going to meet or exceed their own goals and expectations the Bears will probably have to get unexpected contributions from younger, inexperienced players. But we fans saw enough of that type of talent last season to have optimism towards the situation on the mound.

The challenge: replacing 276.1 innings of departed talent, which is almost exactly half of all innings pitched by the Bears last season. Coach Esquer had the luxury of four starters and three relievers that he fully trusted, and as a result rarely had to turn to less proven players. Cal has no choice but to give innings to younger players this year to replace the production that was lost.

Starting pitchers

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Justin Jones is Cal’s undisputed ace and the Bears will lean heavily on him throughout the season to pitch deep into games and earn wins. Last year Jones finished the campaign with 119 2/3 innings and a 3.01 ERA If he’s healthy and effective I wouldn’t be surprised to see his innings total go up a tick after throwing the 5th most innings in the conference in 2011.

Of course, some fans might have a lingering concern over the arm injury that prematurely ended Justin’s season in the Super Regionals last year. Jones recently returned to facing live hitters and might see his innings limited to start the year. But when he gets up to full strength Bay Area Cal fans need to make it out to Evans Diamond on Friday nights afternoons to watch him pitch.

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Matt Flemer’s transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation will be a key factor this season. With a thin bullpen and questionable starting pitching depth, Flemer will perhaps be expected to pitch deep into games as well, and it’s tough to anticipate how a pitcher used to shorter outings will adapt. It’s not a question of stuff, however. Only three pitchers in conference with at least 30 innings thrown had lower ERAs than Flemer in 2011, and he struck out five times as many as he walked. Will that stuff translate to success over 7 innings? It’s up to new pitching coach Mike Neu to prepare Flemer for his new role.

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The other expected weekend starter is freshman All-American and playoff hero Kyle Porter. The lefty baffled Baylor in a dominating elimination game performance before holding down Texas A&M in Cal’s only World Series win. He spent most of the season as a reliever but excelled in his limited opportunities to start and has the role full time this year. His breaking stuff is spectacular and he’s got the fastball to keep hitters honest – it’s a combination that could lead to special things for him as a Bear.

After Jones, Flemer and Porter? Things get a little dicey. Only one other returning player on the roster got a start last year, and Logan Scott will be closing out of the bullpen. That means that for mid-week games or four game series someone unexpected will step forward or Cal will have some games that include multiple pitchers going a few innings each.

Relief Pitchers

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Logan Scott and Joey Donofrio

Well, you’ve got Logan Scott and Joey Donofrio and . . . Cal had nine pitchers throw more than 10 innings last year, but four of them are gone and three are starters, which doesn’t leave much in terms of experience out of the pen.

To their credit, Scott and Donofrio were both solid when given the ball and will hopefully excel when given more innings this year. After those two I really have no idea which players will be given the opportunity to pitch. Ryan Gorcey covers the team closely and has his take on who you might see on the mound. There are 12 hurlers listed on the roster that either didn’t get into a game last year or are true freshmen. Hopefully as many as possible are ready for action. The opportunity is there to step up.

There will probably be some growing pains to this year, particularly considering how challenging Cal’s schedule sets ups. But a talented, experienced lineup should protect the pitching staff, and the excitement of seeing what kind of talent the new Bears bring to the mound will add intrigue to the season. It’s one day until the return of Cal baseball – Go Bears!

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