BERKELEY — At the end of fall, University of Michigan baseball players voted for the team’s leadership council.
Ben Ballantine was one of the top vote-getters and, as a senior starting pitcher, is a member of the Wolverines’ council for the 2013 season.
“We expect him to lead the pitching staff and be a very solid weekend starter for us, a guy that goes out there and sets the tone early in a weekend and leads by example and shows the rest of the pitching staff what to do and puts us in a position to win every series,” coach Erik Bakich said. “We’re certainly going to count on him every weekend in the future.”
Friday was a homecoming game for Ballantine, a Napa High School graduate, who got the start in Michigan’s season opener against UC Berkeley at historic Evans Diamond.
Ballantine, who took the fall off to rest his arm due to fatigue and some shoulder soreness, pitched 21⁄3 innings, leaving the game in the bottom of the third inning.
Cal won the game in the 11th inning, 5-4, on Andrew Knapp’s bases-loaded single to center field.
“I remember when coach sent me a text earlier in the year that we were going to open at Cal. My heart stopped beating,” said Ballantine, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound right-hander. “It’s a dream come true. I grew up watching these games. I grew up coming to this campus all the time.
“To be able to strap it on for the University of Michigan and play against these guys was a total dream come true.”
Facing 12 batters, Ballantine gave up two runs (both earned) on five hits, struck out one and didn’t walk anyone. He threw 38 pitches in a no-decision.
He was taken out of the game in the third inning, with Michigan leading 2-1. He left with a 2-0 count to Chris Paul. The Bears scored two runs on four hits in the third inning.
“My arm’s been feeling good,” he said. “I definitely was very excited to be able to get the ball in my home area against the Golden Bears.”
Ballantine was recently named to the Ben Ten Conference’s Players to Watch List. He made 15 starts for the Wolverines in 2012, going 2-3, striking out 41 batters and sporting a 3.98 earned-run average in 742⁄3 innings. Going into 2013, he has an opponent’s batting average of .280, five career wins and 100 career strikeouts.
“He’s got the most experience of anyone on our pitching staff,” said Bakich. “He didn’t have his best stuff today, but he’s experienced enough to know that you’re not always going to have your ‘A’ game. The good thing about Ben and his leadership, is he knows how to compete even when he doesn’t have the ’A’ game or he isn’t 100 percent.
“Mentally, he’s a good leader. He’s a guy that has a good way with his teammates. He’s been very impressive with his work ethic and his determination. When he’s pitching down in the zone, he’s very effective. When he’s on, we’re on. When he’s clicking, he’s as good as anybody.”
Ballantine challenged Cal hitters with his fastball, slider and split changeup. Pitching in unusually warm conditions for February, he gave up one hit in the first inning and another hit in the second inning.
“The fastball was kind of my bread and butter when I was going out there,” said Ballantine, a three-sport athlete at Napa High who earned seven varsity letters. “But it would have been nice to have the other ones going a little bit better. I grinded with what I have.
“It’s disappointing to come out early in a start. But we’ve got enough guys on our staff who can get the job done and keep us in the game, which is what they did.“
Ballantine said he is working to try and increase his endurance and to command the zone, to work at the knees of hitters.
“I’ve got to be down in the zone, so I don’t give up those hits and I can have quicker innings.”
Ballantine made 18 appearances for the Wolverines as a sophomore with three starts and appeared in 11 games his freshman year, all in relief.
Neu on Cal coaching staff
Former Vintage High standout Mike Neu, who pitched for the Oakland Athletics during the 2003 season, is entering his second season as the pitching coach for Cal.
Neu had been the head coach at Diablo Valley College-Pleasant Hill before joining the Bears. He was DVC’s coach from 2009-11, leading the Vikings to an 87-41 mark with two Big 8 Conference titles in three years. Neu’s 2011 team was ranked No. 1 in Northern California for four weeks and the Vikings’ pitching staff led all California community colleges with a 2.13 earned run average.
“It’s a lot of fun,“ said Neu, who is from Napa. “It’s a jump up from the JC. It’s a great program with a lot of history and tradition. We’ve got some good things going on here.
“It’s definitely a challenge with the conference we play in and the schedule that we play every year. You’re obviously going against a lot of the best players in the country. It’s always exciting. We’ve got a good opportunity to build this program in the next couple of years to get back to the College World Series.
“It’s a chance to be at one of the premier colleges, academically and athletically, in California, really in the whole country. It’s a pretty special place to be. It’s a fun job. We’ve got some great kids. There’s a lot of people here that have a passion for what they do. It’s a great environment and it’s a lot of fun to work here. There’s some great things going on, not only with the baseball program, but the whole athletic department.”
Neu has an extensive background in baseball.
He has been an associate scout for two organizations, the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves, and was DVC’s pitching coach in 2007 and ’08.
He set Monticello Empire League records for career wins (21) and strikeouts (196) at Vintage. As a senior, he was first-team All-State and the MEL Player of the Year with a 10-1 record.
At Sacramento City College, he was the Northern California and Bay Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year and a junior college All-American after going 15-0 with a 1.44 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 108 innings. He was also named the California State Championship Final Four MVP.
Neu then transferred to the University of Miami, helping the Hurricanes win the 1999 College World Series title. In going 3-1 with a 2.94 ERA with 110 strikeouts in 67 innings, he was named to Collegiate Baseball’s All-America team. He was chosen to the All-CWS team with three saves and appearances in all four of Miami’s games.
He pitched in the Cincinnati, Florida and Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league systems. He posted a 3.64 ERA in 32 relief appearances in the one season for the A’s.
Surgeries in 2006 for a rotator cuff tear and labrum tear ended his pitching career.
“I was never able to recover in time to get back,” said Neu, who played Napa Valley Joe DiMaggio League Baseball. “I had some opportunities to go play again, but I didn’t feel like I was capable of doing what I wanted to do at that time.”
Neu also serves as Cal’s recruiting coordinator, traveling to see high school and summer games.
“My goal is to really hammer Northern California and get some of the best guys here. I think we’ve done a good job of that,” he said.
“I get a chance to watch a lot of baseball in California and see a lot of guys play and just kind of evaluate and get a chance to network and talk to a lot of different people.”
Evans Diamond, which has served as the home of Cal baseball since 1933, will receive a major upgrade with the installation of a new lighting system and scoreboard scheduled for later this spring.
The first-ever night game at Evans Diamond is slated for the Bears’ Pac-12 opener on March 28 at 7 p.m. against USC.
Cal was 29-25 overall last year.
“I think we have a chance to have a great year,“ said Neu. “But we have a different blend. We have a lot of inexperienced guys playing for us. With that being said, I think we have pretty good foundation of guys, that play the game the right way and they play hard.
“We do have a few veteran guys that have had success in the past. I don’t think there’s a lot of people that are going to give us a chance to do really well this year with all that we’ve lost. But I think that we have a chance to probably be better than we look on paper, just based on our personnel.”