Cal baseball’s strong season last for players affected by 2011 program cuts

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Patrick Chong/File

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Out of all the positives that the Cal baseball team can take away from the 2015 season, one of them stands above the rest.

Yes, it was impressive that the team had the second-most wins in program history since 1991 with 36 wins. Yes, it was impressive that the team tied for third in the brutal Pac-12 conference. Yes, it was impressive that the Bears started the season, 20-6, their best start since 2000. And yes, it was impressive that Cal came within two outs of advancing to a Super Regional in the NCAA tournament.

But the most important takeaway from the 2015 campaign was that it was the final one for the last class directly affected by the 2011 program cut. While the effects of this brief dark period may continue to linger for years in the form of a damaged reputation, the 2015 seniors were part of the class that was thrown together at the last second back in 2011.

Now, every class going forward is free of the 2011 burden, and the future is bright.

The Bears (36-21, 18-12 in Pac-12) lose only three seniors this year, and one of those players is First Team All-Pac-12 selection Chris Paul. The senior was a major part of the team’s defense this year, transitioning to first base and providing some stability in the infield, grabbing almost any ball thrown in his direction.

While the senior did earn a Pac-12 All-Defensive team selection as well, his real impact was felt at the plate. Paul finished ninth in the conference in batting average (.325), second in slugging percentage (.562), sixth in RBIs (45), second in triples (5), fourth in home runs (9) and eighth in total bases (114).

While the numbers speak volumes to the first baseman’s offensive prowess, they fail to capture one crucial thing: his timely hitting in close games, which made him one of the most clutch hitters in the country. For his body of work, the Cal alumnus was selected in the sixth round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Minnesota Twins and was also announced second team All-Region by the American Baseball Coaches Association.

The departure of Paul, who almost went to UC Santa Barbara after Cal’s program was cut in 2011, creates a big hole that must be filled next season. But the Bears have the young talent to do just that.

Two of the best hitters for Cal this season were then-sophomores Lucas Erceg and Aaron Knapp. Knapp, a center fielder known for his speed, registered a .310 average and scored 45 times — good enough for ninth in the conference.

Erceg, who began the season hitting at a blistering pace, cooled down in the later half but still finished with a .303 average and 11 home runs, good for second in the conference. The deep ball prowess of Paul and Erceg contributed to one of the defining statistics of the 2015 season for Cal: The team ranked at the top of the conference in home runs.

The Bears were a team that looked to the long ball to break open some games while also depending heavily on some solid pitching. The Bears return all three of their weekend starters next season: ace Daulton Jefferies (6-5, 2.92 ERA), Ryan Mason (6-3, 2.98 ERA) and Matt Ladrech (7-4, 2.67 ERA). The squad also has a solid midweek starter in Jeff Bain (6-2, 2.52 ERA).

The pitching staff will be bolstered only by the development of now-sophomore catcher Brett Cumberland, an important cog in the Cal offense and a big reason the staff ranked in the top half of the conference in most pitching categories. And if Cumberland has any struggles, Cal can also turn to the services of NCAA regional hero Mitchell Kranson, a catcher and left fielder.

Kranson — or El Gaucho, as the baseball world came to know him — had a stellar performance in College Station, Texas, including a walk-off home run in the 14th inning of a game against Texas A&M. Despite El Gaucho’s best efforts, the Bears would eventually be eliminated by A&M in the regional final game, thus ending the 2015 chapter of the Cal baseball team — the team’s best chapter since 2011.

Austin Crochetiere covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].