Wed Feb 15 12:44am EST
BERKELEY -- With the 2012 college baseball opener coming up ever so quickly for California, it appears as though the Bears will be hitting the diamond against Pacific on Friday without junior first baseman Devon Rodriguez.
'The Big Cat,' as he's affectionately called by his teammates, did not practice on Tuesday, standing on the side with his knee wrapped and braced after an unspecified injury suffered while diving for a ball on Friday.
In his place at first were tight end Jacob Wark and sophomore Andrew Knapp.
Knapp -- a catcher by trade, an outfielder in a pinch and now a first baseman by necessity -- looked quite nimble manning first, and while he does not have Wark's raw power, is a versatile bat with superior gap power.
Knapp was set to see most of his time as the designated hitter this season, while regularly spelling two-time All-Pac-10 backstop Chadd Krist behind the dish to prepare for a starting role behind the plate in 2013, but now, with Rodriguez down, he'll move over to first, opening up the DH spot for senior Danny Oh, who has come on strong through fall and spring practice.
Oh taking over the DH spot eases the outfield logjam a bit, but by no means solves it. Granted, it is a good problem for head coach David Esquer to have, given the talented bats available. Junior Vince Bruno -- who posted a team-leading .392 on-base percentage and two outfield assists in 2011 -- will likely take his strong arm to right field, with projected right fielder Oh as the DH, with athletic senior Chad Bunting manning center and junior speedster and bunter extraordinaire Darrell Matthews in left.
During live infield drills, Knapp acquitted himself well with the leather, picking several tough throws in the dirt and showing great athleticism and flexibility in stretching for throws off the bag. During relay drills, Knapp showed good instincts on the cut off, despite not being a natural first baseman. With Knapp manning first, sophomore Alex Egber has moved to the No. 2 catcher behind Krist. Egber is also a member of the campus Navy ROTC, and is a well-build backstop. His arm won't open eyes, but he handles pitchers well.
Though, at 6-foot-1, Knapp does not possess Wark's 6-foot-3 altitude, he more than makes up for it with leaping ability, showing good body control and awareness to come down on the bag.
Knapp didn't have to take flight too much, though. Infield defense looks to be one of this team's strengths, with a stable of strong, accurate arms and, as a group, far-above-average range.
Notable throughout spring practice has been sophomore shortstop Derek Campbell. Campbell can make just about every throw on the diamond, ranging to his left up the middle, and to his right in the hole. Campbell is almost always on the money with his strong delivery, and when he has to spin around on a tough grounder behind the bag, he locates his target and fires very quickly. Campbell is a defensive upgrade at the shortstop position over Chicago White Sox draftee Marcus Semien, and he'll save more than his fair share of runs as he learns how to hit consistently at the college level. With the other bats in the lineup, any production over .250 from Campbell in the nine-hole will be an added bonus.
During live infield with hitters at the plate, Campbell barehanded a ball between the pitcher's mound and the second base bag and made a strong throw to first, just barely beat out by the speedy Matthews.
Third baseman Mitch Delfino has continued his improvement with the leather at third. On one play during live infield, the powerful junior ranged to his left, gloved a grounder, spun and delivered a perfect throw to first. He then ranged right, up the third base line, to glove a scorcher by do-everything sophomore Mike Reuvekamp. He then set his feet and fired across his body to nail Reuvekamp at first.
Reuvekamp may turn out to be one of the more valuable reserves on the infield, in his own right, playing third, short and second. The former catcher out of Diablo Valley College has a very quick exchange and is a scrappy fielder, extending his range with dives and slides. He's definitely not afraid to get dirty.
Another newcomer to watch will be freshman Chris Paul. Paul made a sliding stop to his left while playing short and turned to make a strong throw to nail the runner at third during live infield.
At the dish, Paul impressed with gap-to-gap power, and the ball really jumps off of his bat.
Starting pitcher Matt Flemer threw a lengthy bullpen session with pitching coach Mike Neu, and showed consistent arm action between his fastball and off-speed stuff. His curve and change were particularly sharp, and his fastball showed good life.
In recruiting news, the Bears have secured a commitment from Granite Bay (Calif.) athlete Aaron Knapp, the younger brother of Andrew and the son of former Cal standout backstop Mike Knapp, who starred for the Bears in 1985 and 1986. Like his older brother, Aaron hits from both sides of the plate. Aaron plays outfield, catcher and second base for the Grizzly Bears, but will come in as a center fielder for the 2013 class. As a sophomore, Knapp hit .267 in 27 games, with six RBI, two doubles and a team-best 25 runs. He worked 21 walks and boasted an OBP of .411.