Cal to face biggest test of season against revived Oregon program

Michael Gethers/File
Lefty Justin Jones will likely throw the second game in this weekend's series against the Cardinal.

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For 27 years, Oregon was a school without a baseball team.

In 1981, the 75-year-old program was felled by the same sword that Cal’s storied squad narrowly avoided last year: budget cuts. Three years ago, Oregon’s program was revived from the dead, and the team has quickly become one of the nation’s elite.

When Cal travels to Eugene, Ore. to take on the No. 10 Ducks (27-13, 11-7 in the Pac-12), the Bears will face the best Oregon squad in three decades, if not the program’s entire history. And the test will be the toughest the Bears have faced all season.

“We’ve got to win, and steal any win we can get,” Cal coach David Esquer said. “At this point it’s just about notching as many wins as possible towards the end.”

Since losing four straight earlier this month, Cal (23-15, 7-8 in the Pac-12) has responded with a vengeance. In taking six of their last seven, including series wins against Pac-12 bottom-dwellers Washington State and Utah, the Bears have reasserted their position in the conference.

But Cal has struggled to defeat highly-ranked opponents. Whereas Oregon has a 10-3 record against top 25 teams, the Bears have struggled, going just 3-7 against college baseball’s best.

And Oregon certainly qualifies as one of college baseball’s best.

After an unranked squad lost to Hawaii on Opening Day, the Ducks won their next 10 in a row and quickly shot into national prominence. Oregon vaulted as high as No. 8 in the country after taking 12 of 14 earlier this month, but a recent three-game skid leaves the Ducks vulnerable.

Though the squad’s .261 average is the second worst in the conference, Oregon largely relies on its pitching to keep games close, its 3.08 team ERA the best in the conference. Oregon is led by starters Alex Keudell and Jake Reed, who have combined for a 2.10 ERA in 141 1/3 innings pitched.

The Ducks also play some of the best defense in the Pac-12. Oregon has committed just 35 errors on the year, almost half as many as Cal’s conference-worst 69.

“They pitch extremely well,” said Esquer. “Extremely stingy pitching and defense.”

Both will be critical on the PK Park FieldTurf, especially against an Oregon squad that has used the field to its advantage. As the Bears’ defense goes, so do the Bears. Cal has made just one error in its last four wins. It’s made 11 in its last five losses.

“When we play better defense, we’ll pitch better,” said Esquer. “So that kind of goes hand in hand. I thought we played a little bit better defensively (against Utah), which is positive.”

Cal’s second half of conference play will be considerably more difficult than the first. After the Bears travel to Washington State for a three-game set next weekend, the squad will close the season with three-game sets against Arizona, UCLA and Stanford — currently ranked Nos. 11, 12 and 13, respectively. Esquer says the team will need seven or eight more Pac-12 wins to be assured of its third straight NCAA appearance.

“If we win our games, we put ourselves in position to be a playoff team at the end of the season,” said Esquer. “We’ve got to play some very good opponents to do that.”