Cal baseball was on an emotional roller coaster in 2011, nearing the lowest of lows when the entire program was slotted for cancellation, then coming close to the highest of highs by earning a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
An influx of $10 million in donations saved the team in 2011, and this year, the only direction they plan on going is up.
“From everyone, we’re hoping for improvement,” said coach David Esquer, who was named national Coach of the Year in 2011. “If they have the exact same years they had a year ago, that’s a loss for us because that means we haven’t bettered them.”
Cal’s offense will once again revolve around reigning conference Player of the Year Tony Renda, who Esquer called “one of the best players ever in the history of the University of California.” The infielder, who played his high school ball at Serra High School, returns for his junior year after hitting .332 with 44 RBIs last year.
Expectations are also high for first baseman Andrew Knapp, a sophomore who hit just .212 a year ago, but had some big hits for the Golden Bears down the stretch, raising the expectation for his play this year.
“Andrew Knapp obviously is going to play a dominant role this year,” catcher Chadd Krist said. “We need him to have some production. We’re going to need everyone to play a more significant role, myself included.”
Krist almost wasn’t included in that effort, as he was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 13th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Ultimately, Krist decided there was plenty of motivation to come back and play his senior season.
“We had a lot of critics and people saying we didn’t deserve to be [in the NCAA Tournament], that it was all luck,” he said. “And maybe so, but with success comes a lot of luck, so we’re looking forward to getting back there again and show people that it wasn’t just a fluke.”
The real question is who will step up for a pitching staff that has been thinned out between seasons. Esquer said he will rely heavily upon four key returners from last year in Justin Jones, Kyle Porter, Matt Flemer and Logan Scott.
Flemer also was drafted during the offseason, in the 19th round by the Kansas City Royals, but wanted to return to finish what he started at Cal. A closer last season, he will move to the starting rotation.
“I think the pitching staff as a whole needs to step up,” he said. “We lost a few horses last year in the draft and we don’t have a whole lot of experience, so we need a lot of guys to step up.”
COACH: David Esquer (13th season)
LAST SEASON: 38-23 overall, 13-13 conference; Lost in the College World Series
SEASON OPENER: Today, vs. Pacific, 1:30 p.m.
PAC-12 OPENER: March 16, vs. Oregon State, 2:30 p.m.
KEY PLAYERS: Second baseman Tony Renda, catcher Chadd Krist, first baseman Andrew Knapp, right-hander Matt Flemer, left-hander Justin Jones