May is college baseball’s equivalent of the MLB’s September pennant race. For a team clawing for a chance to be part of the race, the season hangs in the balance with, quite literally, every single game.
Stakes are as high as ever for Cal baseball, which will host a three-game set against a confident Arizona squad this weekend.
After losing five in a row in late April in conference play, the Wildcats have bounced back with great energy. They’ve added to their resume with a six-game winning streak since, which includes a timely sweep of the then-No. 7 Bruins last weekend.
Outside of the incredible pitching talents of Stanford and UCLA, Arizona holds the third-lowest team ERA in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats’ arms were on display last weekend, when they held the Bruins to just four runs over the weekend series.
Game one of that series was a marquee matchup between two pitchers in the top four in ERA in the conference: Wildcats junior starter Cody Deason and Bruins star senior Jake Bird.
Both hurled complete games, but it was Deason who came out victorious, pitching his first career shutout on a season-high 139 pitches.
The rest of the Wildcats’ starters followed up their ace’s performance with excellent starts of their own in games two and three. Junior Michael Flynn and senior Juan Aguilera both worked into the seventh innings of their respective games and allowed fewer than two runs each.
On the other hand, the Bears are coming off a disappointing series loss to the Trojans. After dropping the first game, 11-4, thanks to two big USC innings, Cal gave USC a taste of its own medicine in the second game, putting up a seven-spot in the fourth.
With an 8-0 lead in the sixth, the pitching unraveled. Sophomore starter Jared Horn faced three batters in the sixth, who all came in to score on USC sophomore Tyler Pritchard’s three-run shot.
What was left of the lead evaporated two innings later, when the Trojans batted around in a five-run frame. The Bears would lose a heartbreaking marathon in 14 innings, courtesy of a walk-off walk.
“That was a tough one,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “We felt like we really had a great opportunity to win that series. That would’ve kept us in solid position.”
While Cal was able to salvage the final game of the series thanks to another complete game effort from junior Aaron Shortridge (3-2), its postseason hopes were dealt a big dash.
The good news for the Bears is that their last push for the playoffs will begin at Evans Diamond, where they have sported a sparkling 18-8 record this season.
After hitting from the three-hole most of the season, sophomore slugger Andrew Vaughn was bumped up to the two-hole last weekend against USC, swapping spots with junior Tanner Dodson.
“We wanted to move Vaughn up a slot, get him an extra (at-bat), and allow us to have Dodson, who’s got great speed, be able to run a little bit more,” Neu said.
Vaughn responded with a pair of home runs to up his season total to 21. Dodson put up four hits in the middle game and stole a pair of bases as well.
While Cal would like to be firing on all cylinders, its success lies with the men on the mound, especially if the Bears’ bats can’t get going against a tough Wildcat rotation.
“We’re going to have to be pretty disciplined at the plate. We have to be able to jump on some good velocity,” Neu said.
Maybe fighting for survival can help the Bears get an extra hop in their step as they enter the home stretch.
“They’re in a similar position where these games are very big, and it should be a very good series, a series that is a must win for us, no doubt,” Neu said.