Young Hitters Lead 14-0 Romp on Opening Day

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One game down, and it looks like there's a foundation beneath Cal baseball coach David Esquer's faith in his young team after all. The kids are all right.

As promised, Esquer started three freshmen in the field and one as his designated hitter for Friday's season opener against Southern Utah. Darrel Matthews patrolled center field for the first half of the game. Tony Renda and Devin Rodriguez protected slugger Mark Canha in the lineup.

Protected him so well, in fact, that Canha didn't even need to contribute a hit to the Bears' 14-0 win at Evans Diamond. This coming a day after Esquer admitted -- offseason losses considered -- that he wasn't sure where his offense would come from in 2010.

For one game, at least, it was from the players making their collegiate debuts. Matthews, Renda, Rodriguez, Jimmy Bosco and backup third baseman Mitch Delfino hit a combined 9-for-15 and drove in 10 runs.

"I wasn't surprised we came out and played well," Esquer said. "We're not going to be able to do that all of the time. It's baseball -- you just don't beat teams like that over and over. But I wasn't surprised today."

Any offense would have been enough with the Thunderbirds (0-1) managing nothing more than scattered hits against Cal starter Erik Johnson. But nobody really knew what to expect from this Bears lineup and for that reason alone, there was confidence to be had from the day.

"I knew we could hit," Johnson said. "But I like this."

Rodriguez drew scattered cheers when he singled in the second inning for his first collegiate hit, then blew the game open with his first collegiate grand slam an inning later. A slicing fly ball from the left-hander that just cleared the left-field fence, Rodriguez's homer keyed an eight-run inning that gave Cal (1-0) a 10-0 lead after three.

Esquer decided to go with Rodriguez, an 18-year-old from Newhall, Calif., as his designated hitter because the freshman is "fearless" at the plate. He didn't look timid -- although he admitted to nerves before his first at-bat -- doubling in the fourth inning and finishing 3-for-4 with five RBI.

"I knew (Esquer) had me there for a reason, so I just wanted to go and do my job in whatever situation came up," Rodriguez said.

"I'm glad I was able to make a little bit of an impact on the game."

The slam all but ended it. Johnson (1-0) was dominant for the first three innings, looked a little rusty after having to sit and watch his offense run the lead to 10, then righted himself to go seven strong on 93 pitches.

After a full 2009 season of playing Musical Friday Starter, having Johnson as the clear-cut Friday arm gives the pitching staff some much-needed stability. Johnson stepped into the role late last season and appeared to pick up where he left off -- he threw a complete game against USC in his final outing of 2009.

"I feel like, last year, I earned myself the Friday role at the end of the year," Johnson said. "I feel like I just need to set the tone for the rest of the pitching staff."

Esquer agreed, but said that Johnson still needs to "grow into that role" before the start of conference play.

"Friday night in the Pac-10 is a big deal," Esquer said. "We're going to need him to be better for us, and I think today was a sign he's going to do some things better and be big for us."


-- The threat of rain on Sunday has caused a change in the weekend schedule. Rather than playing games on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., Cal and Southern Utah will play a doubleheader starting Saturday at 11 a.m. The second game will being approximately 30 minutes after the end of the first.

-- Esquer said that he was happy with the lineup that he sent out Friday, and that he'll still probably change it for today's games. One thing that he likes about this team is that the line between starters and backups isn't as defined as it has been in previous years. As with Dwight Tanaka in the outfield and Austin Booker at second base, there are several players (non-starters on Friday) who Esquer believes are good enough to play on an everyday basis if it shakes out that way.

"The reason so many guys played today is because there's that many guys capable of playing," Esquer said. "There were no bones thrown out to say, 'Hey, let's give a guy an at-bat because he might not play again."

-- Shortstop Marcus Semien and second baseman Brian Guinn played the entire game so that they could continue to improve their "game rhythm." Guinn started most of last season at shortstop, but has moved over this year to make room for Semien.

-- Freshman left-hander Justin Jones will make his collegiate debut on the mound in the Saturday morning game. Esquer says Jones is "special" and one of the best left-handed pitchers that he has coached at Cal. Dixon Anderson will start the afternoon game.


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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