Between the two of us, BA intern Peter Wardell and I caught most of the UCLA-Oregon and Southern California-California series this weekend. I won't see the Ducks and Golden Bears again this regular season, so I wanted to pass on some of our notes on those two clubs.
I wrote a little about the Ducks in yesterday's Three Strikes column, focusing on ace Alex Keudell. The next two members of Oregon's weekend rotation, freshman Jake Reed and sophomore Brando Tessar, are cut from the same cloth as Keudell—they are pitchability righties who lack overpowering fastballs.
Reed, who ranked among our Top 200 prospects for last year's draft, has the best stuff of the three, and he worked primarily in the 86-88 mph range with late arm-side movement on Friday, dialing his fastball up to 91 on occasion but with less movement. He showed a promising changeup at 77-79 with deception, though he struggled to locate it at times. His 78-81 slider had tight break. Oregon coach George Horton said he was very pleased with Reed's poise and presence after the Bruins got to him for a run in the first.
Tessar didn't have his best command in Saturday's loss. His three-pitch mix included an 86-89 fastball, a 76-79 slurve and a 79-81 changeup.
Oregon closer Jimmie Sherfy has been a dynamo this spring, but he was battling the flu this weekend, and the Ducks hoped to get through the weekend without using him. He wound up throwing an inning Saturday, allowing one run but escaping a bases loaded jam with a pair of flyouts. Sherfy worked in the 87-91 range (below his normal velocity) but still flashed a devastating power curveball with three-quarters break at 78-81.
"He gave us everything he could," Horton said. "What I didn't like about Sherfy was his body language. It's something that all prideful athletes have to work on, the disappointment thing. You have to take that like a man and get to the next pitch. That's a deal with Jimmie. Sometimes when things aren't going well he shows that, and I don't like that part of it."
One thing that really jumped out about Oregon was its middle infield. J.J. Altobelli has made a seamless transition from standout third baseman to standout shortstop, and he demonstrated a strong arm, smooth transfer and quick release. He impressed Peter with his ability to field a couple of slow choppers in the hole and make strong throws to first for the out on Thursday.
"J.J. Altobelli was spectacular defensively, as he always is," Horton said. "There was a time even with (former shortstop) K.C. (Serna) here, that we thought J.J. might be our best guy there. But he was so darn good at third and K.C. couldn't play third as effectively. When the day came that we moved J.J. over there, we knew we'd have a good shortstop. That's what we recruited him to be. He was a spectacular third baseman, and he's a spectacular shortstop."
His double-play partner, sophomore Aaron Payne, had a couple of singles Saturday and seemed to be one of the few Ducks playing with energy on a day the team came out flat. I thought the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Payne looked like a classic George Horton-type grinder, and Horton later said that Payne was a bat boy at Cal State Fullerton in 2004. No wonder.
"He was my sidekick when I hit fungoes coaching the offense, he'd be my guy," Horton said. "We've had many bat boys over the years. I can usually tell—genetics helps them, athleticism. You can tell when they're 11 or 12 whether they're going to be ballplayers or not. Aaron was one of those guys—like (Vinnie) Pestano, like Ben Francisco, like Red Turner—that just caught my attention because of his attention to detail. He grew—he's still not real big, but he was tiny back then, and he was real quiet, he wouldn't say two words. Then he got good, and we heard he was having a heck of a year at San Clemente (High in southern Orange County). We went after him pretty hard, and he's a ballplayer, you can see."
The Golden Bears have struggled to replicate the success of their 2011 Omaha team, but they still play hard. They won on Tony Renda's RBI single in the ninth Thursday, then lost the next two games in walk-off fashion. Renda, the first-team preseason All-America second baseman, didn't have a great day when I saw him Friday, striking out twice on Andrew Triggs curveballs. But he made a savvy adjustment in his next at-bat, laying down a perfect drag bunt down the third-base line for an infield hit.
Cal has a talented young shortstop playing alongside Renda in freshman Chris Paul. His offensive game is still a work in progress (he struck out three times on Triggs curveballs Saturday), but he has an athletic, projectable frame and he connected for a game-tying home run to left-center on Saturday. Defensively, Paul showed solid instincts, smooth actions and a decent arm at short.
Senior righthander Matt Flemer has thrived in the weekend rotation after converting from the closer role, and he threw 7 2/3 shutout innings in a no-decision Friday. Flemer pitched off his 85-88 mph fastball almost exclusively for the first four innings—which were perfect. Because of his short arm circle and over-the-top angle, Flemer's fastball has deception and seems harder than it is. He broke out a short 76-78 slider and a 71-72 curveball in the middle innings.
"He's so competitive, he's got command of all his pitches, he can really spot that fastball," Cal coach David Esquer said. "And he's mature and old, so that goes a long way . . . He's been great—we can't ask for any more."
As we have documented repeatedly this spring, Cal is short on pitching depth, and sophomore lefthander Kyle Porter's bout with tendinitis hasn't helped. Fellow touch-and-feel lefty Justin Jones had struggled in recent weeks, but Esquer said there was nothing physically wrong with him. On Friday, Esquer said he wasn't sure if he would throw Jones on Saturday or not.
It turned out, Jones took the mound and pitched much like his old self, allowing just two runs on five hits over seven innings. He walked two and struck out four. Peter was there and reported his fastball sat in the 86-88 range, but he really stood out with his pair of breaking balls: a sharp slider at 78-81 and a big-breaking curveball at 73-76. He mostly threw the curveball for strikes, but he used the slider as an out pitch.
Jones' outing was very encouraging for Cal, as his struggles this year were a major cause for concern. But Cal's lack of pitching depth was exposed again Monday, when the Golden Bears were pounded by Stanford, 19-6. At No. 73 in the WarrenNolan.com RPI, and with a 4-9 record against the top 50, Cal looks like a real long shot to get back to a regional. But its next two series—home against Washington and Utah—are winnable, and Cal has the experience and offensive talent to make a run in the second half if its top guns on the mound continue to pitch like they did this weekend.
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