Bears hunt for much-needed wins against Washington State

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Following a sweep at the hands of No. 10 Oregon last weekend, the Cal baseball team stressed the need for timely hitting.

“We need to win the big spot, I think, offensively,” outfielder Chad Bunting said. “We need to get the big hit with runners in scoring position. We left way too many runners in scoring position (against Oregon), and that’s what hurt us.”

Coach David Esquer’s squad as a whole is in a big spot as it heads north to face Washington State. The question now is whether the Bears will be able to come through.

By Esquer’s estimation, Cal (23-18, 7-11 in the Pac-12) finds itself needing to win at least seven of its final 13 regular season games to make the NCAA Tournament. Cal will get a chance to notch the first of those victories on Friday at 7 p.m. at Bailey-Brayton Field in Pullman, Wash.

Wins are only going to be harder to come by after this weekend for the Bears, who currently sit 10th in the tightly-packed 11-team conference. The seventh-place Cougars (22-18, 8-9) are the weakest team left on Cal’s slate, as the Bears have subsequent showdowns with No. 11 Arizona, No. 14 UCLA and No. 12 Stanford remaining.

“We definitely need to win the series both as a momentum-builder and trying to reach that goal of that 30-win mark,” Bunting said. “Two wins is probably a really good mark to aim for, but coming out of there with a sweep would be awesome.”

Washington State may be the Bears’ best bet to pick up some wins, but the Cougars still present a formidable challenge, especially at home where they have a 12-6 record.

Coach Donnie Marbut’s club took two of three from the Ducks on the road two weeks ago, and are coming off a 7-6 walkoff win over Arizona last Sunday. The key to Washington State’s success has been its bats; the squad ranks third in the Pac-12 with a .294 overall average.

Led by Saturday starter Matt Flemer and his stellar 1.98 ERA, the Bears have the starting rotation to contain the Cougars. Whether the Cal bats can provide enough run support is another question.

“If we get leads early in the game, our pitching will be able to handle it from there,” said outfielder Andrew Knapp.

The turf field at the Cougars’ home park certainly will not help the Bears. Cal played on turf in Eugene, Ore., to its detriment offensively. By Bunting’s estimation, the slow turf took four or five key hits away from the Bears.

“(The ball) just slows down on that turf and infielders are able to get to it and make a good throw,” Bunting said. “It’s a slow turf, not a lot of infield base hits. The ball’s not going to get through the infield as quickly as they do on the grass and dirt.”

Esquer hopes the offense will reignite this weekend, but he’s prepared a back-up plan. In practice this week he emphasized the “smaller things” he says can translate to runs, like taking an extra base or getting solid contact with runners aboard.

This weekend – and for the rest of the season – the team needs to prove itself, he said.

“We’ve got to earn our way (to the postseason), and what that means is winning games,” Esquer said. “We’re going to have to grow up pretty quick.”