If you love college baseball, Cal can't help but be one of your favorite programs. Don't misunderstand, we hope Texas goes out West and snags a four-game sweep this weekend (starting at 9 PM Central tonight). But the story of California baseball over the last few years is nothing short of remarkable, and deserves a quick retelling here.
In September 2010, the Cal athletic department announced it would remove varsity status from five sports as a cost-saving measure. Among those sports were both baseball and Cal's storied rugby program--the only one of its kind in the nation. Just five months later, in February 2011, the university announced it would save three of the five sports set to be cut--rugby, women's lacrosse, and women's gymnastics. Baseball and men's gymnastics remained on the chopping block.
So 2011 was slated to be the baseball program's last season ever, but a fundraising campaign started in earnest. Meanwhile, Cal put together a surprising regular season and rose steadily through the rankings,. By the time Cal was ranked number 15 in the nation, they gathered in the visitors' locker room in Tucson for what the team was told would be a scouting meeting. There, coach Dave Esquer informed the squad that over $9 million had been raised on their behalf, and the 118-year-old Cal baseball program was saved. The players were jubilant, and had earned their joy by taking an active role in the fundraising themselves.
Which would be a pretty cool story in its own right. But it didn't stop there. Cal slipped a bit after hearing the news that the program was resuscitated, but still earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament and were placed at the Rice regional. There, they lost their first game to Baylor before storming back through the losers' bracket, eliminating the hosts and then sweeping a pair from Baylor including a thrilling 9-8 win to advance to the super regional round. In a stroke of luck, Dallas Baptist ended up winning the TCU regional, meaning Cal got to host DBU in the super regional. The Bears swept that weekend and made the trip to Omaha for the College World Series, putting one hell of a cherry on top of a historic, program-saving season. Texas fans will recall that the Longhorns were also present in Omaha that year, albeit only for a cup of coffee as they went two and out. But Cal did provide Texas with a shade of misery-loves-company assistance, as the Golden Bears knocked out Texas A&M to force the Aggies to also go one-two-barbecue in the CWS.
Alas, the Golden Bears have missed the NCAA Tournament the past two years, meaning Texas and Cal have that in common--2011 College World Series followed by two straight failures to make the postseason. Cal is unranked again heading into this season, and the Bears have resettled into their position as probably the fifth most prestigious program in its state behind USC, Stanford, Cal State Fullerton, and defending national champion UCLA. It may even be behind UC Irvine at this point.
What to Watch For
This weekend brings a four-game series, including a double-header beginning tomorrow at 3 PM Central and a Sunday finale at 3 PM. Going to Cal is a good opening test for the Horns as they'll still get the challenge of playing on the road without starting the season with a traditionally dominant club like Stanford.
The Golden Bears were 23-31 overall and 10-20 in a difficult Pac-12 a year ago. That record came against one of the toughest schedules in the country, with Boyds World ranking their strength of schedule 4th. Cal played five games against Stanford (0-5), three conference games each against Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA (1-11), a four game series against UC Irvine (1-3), and single games against North Carolina, Baylor and Rice (0-3).
That's just a brutal schedule and accounted for 22 of Cal's 31 losses. The Golden Bears were a respectable 21-9 against all other non-elite opponents.
Offensively, Cal has lost its top hitter from 2013 in catcher Andrew Knapp, who was a second round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies. The loss of Knapp will sting but it is somewhat mitigated by the return of the other 6 of Cal's top 7 hitters from a year ago, including sophomore outfielder Devin Pearson (.302 average, .777 OPS, team-leading 7 steals in 2013).
Much like Texas, Cal had a steep drop-off in production after its top few hitters in 2013. The other five hitters who saw action in 20+ games produced batting averages of .228, .221, .206, .200 and .172. Cal as a team hit .268 which put them at 170th nationally.
The pitching was even more scattered than hitting for the Golden Bears last year, with Cal finishing 180th nationally with a 4.61 team ERA. Eleven players started a game for Cal a year ago, highlighting the problems of inconsistency on the mound. For comparison's sake, Texas only had 7 players start a game last year as pitching was the team's only real strength.
Current sophomore Ryan Mason led the way in 2013 for Cal, ranking third on the team in ERA (3.76), second in strikeouts (43), and first in starts (11), wins (5), and innings pitched (69.1). Mason didn't have a ton of help. In 23 games, Cal ran out a starting pitcher sporting an ERA above 5.00.
Cal's bullpen was inconsistent as well with five pitchers recording saves and nobody recording more than three. Senior Kyle Porter and sophomore Collin Monsour are the two best returning relievers in 2014 as both posted respectable numbers a year ago.
So the Horns get to kick off their season on the road against a Cal team that struggled with youth and a brutal schedule in 2013. It will be a respectable challenge, but a conquerable one.
According to The Daily Texan, as of Wednesday the batting order will be:
1) B. Marlow - 2B
2) Payton - CF
3) Hinojosa - SS
4) Barrera - C
5) McGuire - 3B
6) Montalbano - DH
7) Clemens - 1B
8) Johnson - RF
9) Gurwitz - LF
On the mound it'll be French on Friday, Peters and Schiraldi in the double header on Saturday and Thornhill on Sunday.
Game One - Friday 9 PM
Game Two - Saturday 3 PM
Game Three - Saturday 6:45 PM
Game Four - Sunday 3 PM
No TV for the weekend :-(
This is your open thread. Hook 'em.