Redemption: the act of making something better or more acceptable.
Redemption is something no one wishes to need and is never easily attained. And yet, seeking redemption is exactly where the blue and gold find themselves. After a jubilant 3-1 start to the season, Cal baseball has been on a gradual decline as each game passes.
After splitting another weekend 2-2, the Bears are looking to improve their record this weekend against Pac-12 competitor Washington.
The two appear to be on equal footing heading into this weekend’s competition as they boast near identical records thus far. The Huskies match the Bears’ 5-7 conference record but are 14-13 overall, which trumps the Bears’ record of 13-15.
Fortunately for Cal, Washington comes into this weekend off a 0-3 series loss to No. 11 Arizona — a side that Cal picked up a 9-8 win over last month.
Tuesday’s 9-3 win over Cal Poly, which Cal lost to two weeks prior, is sure to be a confidence boost. The question is if the Bears can ride that confidence to a series sweep, something they have yet to do this season. Notably, the last time the blue and gold swept a series was last year against Washington.
If history isn’t enough to carry the team to some wins, perhaps the strong opponents they faced will have adequately prepared them. The Bears’ RPI of 82, a ranking that takes into account strength of schedule, is far superior to the Huskies’ meager 102.
Following the weekend series against Washington, the Bears will travel down to Moraga to face Saint Mary’s for the second time this season. Last time the two faced off, the Bears were on home territory but had no advantage to show for it. The Gaels trampled Cal in a 10-5 victory at the Stu.
Since the two last faced off, Saint Mary’s has added to its success by picking up three wins while dropping only one game — its latest win being an 8-1 victory over Pac-12 foe Stanford, which sits four spots ahead of Cal in the conference standings.
At the forefront of the Gaels’ offense are four key players: designated hitter Nathan Chong, shortstop Christopher Campos, first baseman Christian Almanza and infielder Chris Santiago. Together these four boast a batting average of .338; an average that bests every Cal player except Keshawn Ogans, who maintains a .357.
Shutting down those four will be the key to Cal’s success Tuesday, as they were unable to do so last time, with the four scoring six of Saint Mary’s 10 runs that night.
On the flip side, Cal fans will continue to look to outfielder Dylan Beavers to put the team on his shoulders. The Pac-12 home run leader and team RBI leader has begun to find his form as of late and will need to show up this weekend if the Bears hope to be successful.
Catcher Caleb Lomavita and Ogans will also be essential to the blue and gold overcoming the mountain in front of them. Lomavita falls second only to Beavers in many categories, and has a knack for stealing bases that has him tied for third in the Pac-12 with nine bases stolen. Ogans is the consistency that the Bears have been lacking elsewhere. His team-high batting average coupled with his strong slugging percentage makes any Cal win next to impossible without him.
“We’ve been playing some good baseball outside of some blowup innings,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu.
Those so called blowup innings have cost Cal several games in which it appeared to have a win safely within reach. In the off chances where those innings didn’t cost them the game, the Bears clawed back to narrowly win, often in walk-off fashion. Though still able to get some much needed wins, giving up runs and narrowly escaping defeat is simply not acceptable.
“At the end of the day, we just have to play well,” Neu said.
Playing well seems to be Cal’s Mount Everest this season as it struggles to consistently do so. With more than half the season played already, the blue and gold have an uphill climb if they wish to escape last year’s fate.
Spring has only just begun in Berkeley, but Cal baseball already passed the halfway mark of its 2022 season last weekend with a three-game road series against Arizona State.
This middle stretch of the schedule has been anything but kind to the Bears. Over the course of the eight games entering Tuesday’s home game against Cal Poly, Cal gave up an average of nearly 11 runs per game, including 16 runs in Sunday’s rubber match against the Sun Devils in Phoenix. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bears dropped to 12-15 over that stretch, accruing six losses.
Tuesday night’s 9-3 win over Cal Poly came down to one thing.
“We just pitched a lot better,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “That 2-6 stretch, we played better than our record indicates but we’ve had some tough innings where we’ve given up some big numbers and that’s really hurt us … Our pitching staff did a really good job. They held them to three runs and put up zeros in the last four innings.”
Finding solid pitchers to take the mound on Joseph King’s off days has been the ultimate challenge for Neu this year. Case in point, the junior right-hander pitched a peach of a game on Saturday in the Bears’ 14-7 win against ASU, which evened the series at one a piece. King allowed just five hits and two runs through seven innings pitched before the bullpen allowed five runs in the bottom of the ninth.
Hitting, on the other hand, hasn’t been much of an issue at all this year for Cal. The Bears’ 1-4 hitters combined for 14 hits in Sunday’s 9-16 loss and Cal held a seven-run lead heading into the sixth inning. The opening game of last weekend’s series was a notable exception, as the Bears managed to score just three runs after starting junior pitcher Josh White allowed eight runs through five and a third innings.
To put it mildly, in-game pitching changes have been too little and come too late in recent games. So, Neu decided to switch things up before the first pitch, opting to start sophomore pitcher Aaron Roberts for the first time this season.
“He’s (Roberts) just had some arm problems. So we’re just trying to give him a lot of time to warm up and get him going,” Neu said. “Hopefully we can get him to be really healthy and that’s one way to do it where you don’t have to come out of the pen. It’s a Tuesday game. We knew we weren’t going to throw someone a complete game. He can throw that first inning against their best guys and get us off, hopefully, to a good start, which he did.”
Roberts pitched a shutout inning before being pulled for freshman right-handed pitcher Tucker Bougie in the second. Bougie didn’t allow a run in the second, but gave up back-to-back home runs to the Mustangs in the third as Cal Poly quickly cut Cal’s lead to two.
Senior right-hander Sam Stoutenborough then entered the game and saw it through, earning his first win of the season after allowing six hits and one run through five innings.
Cal eked out two runs in what could have been a huge bottom of the seventh inning to expand its lead to 7-3. The inning was extended after an easy force out at home went awry for the Mustangs. The home plate umpire ruled that Cal Poly catcher Collin Villegas had pulled off home plate while catching an easy toss from pitcher Jason Franks and that Cal first baseman Nathan Martorella was safe at home. Mustangs head coach Larry Lee was then thrown out of the game for an offhand comment he made from the dugout and, rather calmly, retired to the clubhouse.
A two-run laser home run into right-center field from Cal’s junior right fielder Dylan Beavers in the top of the eighth was the final nail in the coffin for Cal Poly. The air horns and Zombie Nation playing over the stadium speakers topped off a moment of relief for a Cal team that likely wanted this win badly — both for its playoff hopes and midseason morale.