Coming off a 10-4 loss at Washington State last Friday, the Cal baseball team found itself in dire straights. Four straight losses had sent the Bears to the bottom of the Pac-12. Cal’s hopes of a postseason run — let alone another appearance in the College World Series — grew dimmer with every loss.
But the Bears (25-19, 9-12 in the Pac-12) pulled out the final two games of the series, including an 8-0 shutout Sunday that featured a two-hit masterpiece from lefty Justin Jones.
A persistent Cal squad battles on, optimistic and unfazed by the talented No. 14 Arizona squad they’ll take on this weekend at Evans Diamond.
“I think the last couple weeks have had a sense of urgency,” said senior pitcher Matt Flemer. “I don’t think there was a bigger game on the season so far as much as last Sunday’s game against Washington State.”
The Bears will need that urgency, because their final stretch of the season is their most brutal of the year.
Nine of Cal’s final ten regular season games come against top-20 teams. The Bears have won eight of their last ten against non-ranked opponents, but haven’t defeated a ranked opponent in over a month, when they took two of three from then-No. 18 Texas.
Cal’s pitching will need to come up big against an Arizona squad (30-15, 13-8) that leads the Pac-12 in several major offensive categories. Seven Arizona regulars are hitting at least .328 on the season. Utah Valley and Hofstra are the only two teams in the country that outpace Arizona’s .333 team batting average.
But stats are an imperfect measure predictor of success. The Wildcats have lost four of their last six against ranked opponents, falling twice to an Oregon squad that now ranks No. 6 in the nation.
“We need to win the series,” Flemer said. “We’d like to put ourselves in position where we can be loose and relaxed for the final three games and put ourselves in a good position for the postseason.”
Cal’s starters will be instrumental in countering Arizona’s offensive attack. Flemer, who starts Saturday, has been Cal’s most consistent starter all season long. The senior earned his seventh win of the season last Saturday, and his 2.45 ERA ranks seventh in the conference.
Jones will be key to Cal’s success in this series and beyond. The junior struggled early on, but he now appears to have regained the form for which he was named a preseason All-American. After Sunday’s complete game shutout win over Washington State, his ERA is down to 3.79, including a meager conference rate of 2.77.
“You can tell he’s got a little pep in his step this week,” Flemer said.
Though the Bears are currently ninth in a crowded Pac-12, the next three series will be crucial if they are to earn their third straight postseason berth.
And once you’re in the postseason, anything can happen.
“This team’s been trying to find itself all year,” said second baseman Tony Renda. “I think we definitely caught a glimpse in Washington.”
“Hopefully we can keep that going and kind of roll with it.”