BERKELEY -- Cal freshman Tony Renda has one of the most unassuming statures on the diamond. Listed at 5-foot-9, he is one of the smallest players on the Bears' roster.
According to Renda, he is even shorter than that, closer to 5-foot-8.
Well, he may look like Tanner Boyle -- the shortstop from the movie, "The Bad News Bears" -- but when he steps onto the field he performs more like "The Bad News Bears" stud Kelly Leak.
In four years at Serra, Renda set the school's all-time hits record, and was named the 2009 West Catholic Athletic League Most Valuable Player. He's picking up right where he left off as a true college freshman at Cal.
"He started the year hitting third for us, and deserved every bit," Cal manager Dave Esquer said. "When he hits like Tony Renda, he'll hit third in the Pac-10 all the time."
Off to a 9-5 start, the Bears are starting to turn some heads, as is Renda. Having started all 14 games at third base thus far, he is hitting .358 (19 for 53) as a versatile component through the middle of the batting order. Hitting in the three-spot through Cal's first six games, he has since alternated between the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup.
In a four-game series at Rice over the weekend, Renda hit the first two home runs of his collegiate career. Not bad, considering he hit just three homers throughout his entire senior year at Serra. In Cal's 8-6 win last Thursday, Renda hit his first home run of the year, a three-run bomb with two outs in the sixth inning. In a marathon 26-11 loss Saturday, he hit a solo shot in the seventh. What's more, Cal split the four-game set with No. 9-ranked Rice (10-7), and in doing so, handed the Owls consecutive losses for the first time since Stanford swept them in three games to start the year.
Don't call the Bears wins an upset. Renda doesn't. He's intent on turning heads, and he is intent on doing so this year.
"That's what we hope to do," Renda said. "I know we finished pretty close to last in the predicted [2010 Pac-10 standings] ... but in my eyes, I think we're going to finish far ahead of that, and I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."
That might seem like mere rhetoric coming from a lot of guys this time of year. Renda believes it though, and that attitude is a big reason for his consistent playing time in the collegiate equivalent of his rookie season.
"He's got 'it'," Esquer said. "Whatever 'it' is. He's got a confidence. It's a quiet confidence. ... There isn't a pitcher good enough to get him out, in his mind."
The 'it' factor is being recognized by the larger baseball world as well. Over the summer, Renda played for the St. Cloud River Bats of the wood-bat Northwoods League, which, outside of the Cape Cod League, is the most prestigious collegiate summer league in North America.
After joining the River Bats approximately two weeks into their 68-game schedule, Renda played in 45 games, hitting .283 while playing both second base and third. Renda was the only player on the team -- and one of just a handful of players throughout the entire league -- to come right out of high school, not having at least one year of college experience to his credit.
"I've never heard of a lot of high school kids going to play in such a prestigious league," River Bats manager Marcus Clapp said.
Renda didn't seem to have any hang-ups transitioning to wood bats, a valuable skill considering he is likely to go pro in 2012 after he, again, becomes draft eligible as a Division I junior. He was drafted in the 42nd round in 2009 by the Dodgers, but opted for the athletic scholarship and the college experience. Renda is committed to return to the Northwoods League next summer, after which he is intent on playing in the Cape Cod League in 2011, as he continues to refine his revered bat speed and hand strength.
"I'll tell you what, I haven't seen a kid with as strong a hands as Tony has in a long time," Clapp said.
These were the tools that caught Cal's attention. Inside a minute of Esquer talking about Renda's talents, he offered an emphatic Dustin Pedroia comparison.
"[He's got] very little movement in his stance or his stride, and he's just got lightning-fast hands," Esquer said. "Sure, people think he's over-swinging. He's not. That's his natural swing."
At Serra, Renda had many notable baseball mentors. He quickly points to Skyline College hitting coach John Quintell as a key to his success, with whom Renda studied since Little League during summer instructional camps.
"John Quintell, for me, he's completely changed my game and completely changed my approach," Renda said. "I recommend him to anyone if you want to learn how to hit."
Renda's biggest inspiration is his older brother Tommy Renda, a senior left-handed pitcher at University of Portland. According to Tony, his brother is the reason he got serious and remained diligent about baseball.
Recalls Tony: "The story is, my brother came home from grade school and said, 'I want to play baseball.' So [my parents] went out and got him a glove and bat.... He's definitely been my biggest inspiration in the game. If he hadn't have played baseball, I wouldn't be playing baseball."
It may very well be that Tony Renda is going to be playing competitive baseball for many, many years to come.
What's on tap
In upcoming Division I baseball action, Cal hosts University of Houston (8-6) in a one-game matchup today. This weekend, Cal travels to Cal Poly (6-9) for a three-game set.
Stanford is home over the weekend hosting a three-game series with Pepperdine (6-9), with Friday set for a 6:30 first pitch, Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. Santa Clara University travels to San Diego State (6-10) for a weekend four-game series. University of San Francisco, who defeated Houston 3-2 yesterday, travels to UC Riverside (7-5) for a three-game weekend series.