San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle

Former Cal baseball player keeps draft dreams alive

Minutes later, the Oaks’ closer and third baseman jogged out to the mound. The scouts readied their cameras and radar guns. Seven months removed from the Pac-12, Erceg was beginning a relief appearance for an NAIA team that plays at an Atherton park with the seating capacity of a high-school field.

If not for low grades, Erceg would be a key contributor on a Cal team that was expected to contend for the 2016 College World Series after being eliminated in the regionals last season. Instead he is leading the Oaks (33-20, 16-14) to the Golden State Athletic Conference tournament Monday.

Even on a smaller stage, Erceg is a promising major-league prospect.

“As long as he has the tools to play at the upper division and people recognize who the gentleman is, then there’s probably little or no difference” where he plays, said a National League scout who spoke anonymously because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly on players.

Erceg learned in September that he would not be returning to Cal when he got his grades from summer school. In a class he had to pass with at least a B-minus to maintain academic eligibility, he said, he received a C-plus.

“It was rough,” Erceg said. “I couldn’t believe it because I tried my hardest, did whatever I could, and you know, it ended up not being good enough. And in life sometimes that happens, so you’ve just got to keep moving forward. But definitely it was heartbreaking.”

Keep moving forward. That seems to be Erceg’s mantra. Menlo coach Jake McKinley said it’s evident in the way Erceg plays. He has hit 17 home runs this season, but big swings also mean big misses.

“When he gets embarrassed or when he fails,” McKinley said, “he gets upset, but at the same time he bounces back really quick.”

Erceg had a smooth transition to Menlo. He batted .311 in the regular season, compared to his .303 average at Cal last year. Erceg leads the conference in total bases (132) and is tied with teammate Garrett Gemgnani for the home run lead. The Oaks clinched a GSAC tournament spot in their final regular-season game May 1.

Just 20 minutes north of Erceg’s hometown of Campbell, Atherton is close enough for his parents to make some games. At third, he’s playing next to former Cal teammate Max Dutto. In the three hole, Erceg is batting in front of Gemgnani.

“I’ve never met somebody that wants to win more than him,” Gemgnani said. “That rubs off on people. So, great guy all around: teammate, player, friend.”

It’s taken a lot of time and effort, but Erceg said he has improved in the classroom, too.

“I got a 2.9 GPA in the fall, which is the best I’ve ever done,” Erceg said. “That was probably the biggest thing for me moving forward, being able to pick myself up after I fell.”

If all goes to plan, this is the last year Erceg will have to worry about grades.

McKinley estimates the number of scouts has increased from five per game last year to about 15 now. At Menlo’s March 30 doubleheader against Lewis-Clark State, there were roughly 25.

During the second game that day, a hard-hit comebacker smacked off the heel of Erceg’s glove and he doubled over, clutching his hand. A few scouts shook their heads and mumbled. The trainer ran out to examine him.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Erceg said. “Once I could move it around I was just like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”

Soon he was throwing fastballs to the next batter.

“He’s a fighter,” McKinley said. “He’s just a champion of a human being.”

Maddie Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mlee@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @maddie_m_lee

[via SF Gate]