Cal must reinstate fire in postseason play

A friend of mine said a while back that the worst thing that ever happened to the Cal baseball team was getting reinstated.

Calm down — it’s a joke. A program as storied as the Bears’ is a cornerstone of the athletic department, and its revival in early April was one of the best college sports stories of the year. It was a moment when, in spite of incredible circumstances, the community banded together to save something important.

But fresh off of two (nearly three) embarrassing losses to Stanford to end the regular season, it’s clear that Cal also lost something the day it was brought back. On April 8, the Bears were 19-8. Since then, they’ve gone 12-13.

It’s too easy to say that reinstatement doused the fire that drove the Bears for the first two months of the 2011 season. As an explanation for their struggles, it’s neither fair nor nuanced enough. There are plenty of other reasons why Cal stumbled down the home stretch.

For one, Cal had the misfortune of a very back-heavy schedule. Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State all came in the second half of the season. They went 2-7 against those squads. Bad, yes, but also understandable. All three teams were selected on Sunday to host NCAA regionals. At least one, maybe two, will make the super regionals.

There’s also the matter of luck. Baseball is a fickle lover. When she’s good, she’s batting .300. When she’s bad, she’s striking out twice a game. The hot bats Cal possessed at the beginning of the year, from the top of the lineup on down, have cooled significantly over the past several weeks. The pitching staff, once one of the best in the country, is now floundering in mediocrity. And everyone on the team seems powerless to explain why.

“If it was something that I could put my finger on, it would be something we would focus on all preseason the next year to make sure that didn’t happen,” coach David Esquer said.

I’ve covered this team for three years and followed it for many more. It’s happened year after year. Cal always seems to leap out to spectacular start, only to sleep its way through the final stretch, ending ultimately in a brief and disappointing stint in the postseason. It’s what I’ve come to expect.

This year was different. I had never seen the team so motivated, so determined. Their five comeback wins said it all — this Bear didn’t quit and it didn’t die. For a brief moment, I even entertained the notion of flying to Omaha come June. But then lethargy settled over Cal.

Every time I ask the players what they had to do to win, the answer was almost always, “Play with more energy.” It’s been two months, and the energy still isn’t back, the way it once was when every game was a game closer to the last.

They probably won’t make it out of the regional stage. But maybe somebody up there still believes. In the weeks leading up the regional announcement, Cal was projected to land in the region hosted by third-ranked Vanderbilt. Instead, they’re in the Houston Regional, hosted by Rice, a team they beat 7-6 in 15 innings earlier this season.

It looks like even the baseball gods want the Bears to rediscover the inspiration they once had.

“We’re gonna come out with some fire in this regional,” second baseman Tony Renda said. “I’m sure of it.”

If they do find that fire again, whether through retrograde amnesia or a mental reevaluation, then maybe I’ll find myself on a red eye to Nebraska, after all.