Improved Cal Staff Looks To Stifle USC On the Road

Photo: Sophomore Erik Johnson threw a complete game the last time he faced USC in 2009. Johnson leads all Bears' starters with a 2.70 ERA.
Catherine Shyu/File
Sophomore Erik Johnson threw a complete game the last time he faced USC in 2009. Johnson leads all Bears' starters with a 2.70 ERA.

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Last season, the Cal baseball team's pitching staff was cobbled together at best. Eleven different players made at least one start. The entire staff had a Pac-10-worst 5.74 ERA. This year, for the first time in what seems like a long time, the Bears have a real, honest-to-goodness pitching rotation.

Sophomore Erik Johnson, freshman Justin Jones and sophomore Dixon Anderson have earned unchallenged starting roles in the weekend rotation. The trio make up a picture-perfect lineup-two hard-throwing right-handers bookending a crafty lefty.

That's the lineup that USC (15-14, 2-4 in the Pac-10) should see this weekend as Cal (17-10, 3-3) travels to Dedeaux Field in Los Angeles. First pitch is at 6:30 p.m., tonight with Johnson likely getting the starting nod for the Bears.

"Erik Johnson is kind of a true No. 1 type of guy with a power arm," coach David Esquer said. "He had some tightness earlier in the year and he's had to come back from that. His last outing was his best outing, and we like to see that. He's just gotten better and better."

On Sunday, there's Anderson, a prospect who garnered significant attention from scouts early in the season. He has given up just 16 earned runs in 42 2/3 innings.

Much of Johnson and Anderson's progress from last season to this season can be attributed to stints in the Northwoods League last summer. Johnson finished his season as a starter for the Alexandria Beetles with a 2.61 ERA. Anderson brought home a handful of accolades: ace of the Green Bay Bullfrog rotation, Baseball America's second-best prospect in the Northwoods and league All-Star.

"We've had good success sending kids out to the Northwoods League," Esquer said. "They've come back better, so we keep sending them out there."

Finally, there's Justin Jones, the seventh round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox, who opted for college after taking a summer school course at Cal. He liked it so much that he decided to hone his skills for at least a few more years in Berkeley. The relationship is mutual-Jones has provided the Bears with a quality starter who routinely goes six or more innings and has an ERA barely over three.

"He's been outstanding for us," Esquer said. "I don't think we have a Friday guy. We have two guys who could pitch on Friday."

The Trojans probably don't have the firepower to beat the Bears' starting pitching; they're batting just .287 as a team (Cal is hitting .327). But the series should still be highly competitive. Except for senior Kevin Couture, the USC rotation is limiting opposing hitters to a .251 average or worse.

"Their starting pitching is the strength of their club, too," Esquer said. "Their starting pitching is good enough to establish the tempo of a game and put their team in position to win. So we really feel it's going to be a battle of starting pitching."


Contact Katie Dowd at [email protected]

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