Cal sputters into postseason, takes on Baylor to open NCAA tournament

Houston regional features a familiar foe in Rice

Cal's batters will have their hands full against Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 pick this year's MLB Draft.
Eugene W. Lau/File
Cal's batters will have their hands full against Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 pick this year's MLB Draft.

The Cal baseball team slumped its way to the end of the year, finishing its regular season by being swept at home by Stanford.

Offensive troubles, pitching stumbles and defensive missteps plagued the Bears in turn — and sometimes simultaneously — as they fell to sixth in the year-end conference standings. But, thanks to Monday’s invitation to the NCAA tournament, Cal can rewrite a whole new ending to its roller coaster of a year.

The Bears kick off their postseason Friday at noon PT at the Houston Regional, hosted by eight-seed Rice. Cal plays Baylor first, followed by either Alcorn State or the Owls. The four teams in the region will play round robin-style until all but one team has two losses. The winner advances to the Super Regionals.

It will be the Bears’ third postseason appearance in four years, a school record. More meaningful to the players and coaches, however, is the fact they qualified at all in the midst of a season that saw their program cut, in limbo and ultimately saved.

“I can’t begin to describe how proud I am of our guys,” coach David Esquer said. “To be able to qualify for a regional under the circumstances the team was under speaks highly of the character of these players.”

Over the last few weeks, Cal (31-20) was projected to land in Vanderbilt’s region, a tough task for any team. The Bears caught a break, though, when it was announced they would travel to Rice’s regional instead. The Owls are, of course, no slouch, but Cal can come in with confidence knowing they’ve had Rice’s number before.

The Bears and the Owls last played on March 12. On that chilly night at AT&T Park, the two squads went 15 long innings. As the clock crept closer and closer to midnight, the Bears opted for some bold  play calling. With second baseman Tony Renda dancing off third base, freshman Derek Campbell laid down a bunt. Renda charged in to score, giving the Bears a 7-6 walkoff victory.

The Owls haven’t been caught sleeping too often since then. In spite of playing the 10th hardest schedule in Division I baseball, Rice won 41 games. They’re anchored offensively by designated hitter Anthony Rendon, who many predict will be this year’s No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft.

Unless Cal beats Baylor first, though, it may never play Rice at all. The Baylor Bears have a 13-14 record in conference play, the same record that Cal likely would have had if not for rain washing out a 7-1 beating at the hands of Stanford. On the mound, Baylor (29-26) boasts righty Logan Verrett and his 2.81 ERA and two first-team selections at the plate in Max Muncy and Brooks Pinckard.

Cal counters with three of its own first team all-conference players, including Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda. And, as Baylor well knows, they bring something else, something a little more intangible, to the postseason.

“They’ve got to be really, really excited to go from the brink of extinction to being in the NCAA tournament,” Baylor coach Steve Smith said. “I think that’ll be one of the big stories of this regional and beyond.”

Katie Dowd covers baseball.