It’s desperation time for the Cal baseball team.
The Bears have six games remaining in the season, and need to get four wins to hit the 30-mark, which they think should give them a strong case to make the postseason. To get those wins, Cal (26-22, 9-15 in the Pac-12) will have to beat the likes of national powerhouses No. 11 UCLA and No. 17 Stanford.
“It’s almost not manageable when you put yourself this far up against the wall,” said coach David Esquer. “Our job is to win one game as often as we can, and if we can roll it into three, four, or five, then we obviously do ourselves a favor.”
The Bears will look to get that first win on Friday at 2:30 p.m. against the Bruins (36-13, 15-9) in Cal’s final homestand of the year.
With everything on the line, Esquer is switching the order of his weekend rotation. Rather than throw sophomore Michael Theofanopoulos on Friday, Esquer is moving ace Matt Flemer up a day to kick off the series. Flemer has been the rock of the rotation, with a 7-4 record and a 2.37 ERA, good enough for 10th in the Pac-12.
Lefty Justin Jones, who has settled into the role of the Sunday starter, will pitch in Flemer’s slot on Saturday. Esquer has not yet announced a starter for Sunday’s tilt, but indicated it will likely be Theofanopoulos.
“We’ve taken some calculated risks these past few weeks by not pitching (Flemer) on Friday,” Esquer said. “It’s just time to put our best foot forward right from the start, and let him match up with their best guy and see what we got.”
UCLA’s best guy is sophomore right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko, who enters the contest with a 3.09 ERA and a 7-3 record. Plutko rides into Evans Diamond on a wave of momentum built over the last two weeks, in which he allowed only one run on seven hits in 15.1 innings of work.
Bruin head coach John Savage produced the first and third overall picks in last year’s Major League Baseball draft in pitchers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. That left the pitching staff somewhat depleted from previous years – but it’s still pretty strong. As a staff, UCLA is ranked fourth in team pitching in the conference.
Statistically, however, pitching is the Bruins’ weakness, with their hitting and fielding ranking in the top three in the Pac-12. Right fielder Jeff Gelalich leads the team with a .388 average and 73 hits, while fellow outfielder Beau Amaral leads the league in runs scored.
“They can hit, that’s definitely the biggest aspect of their game,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to capitalize on their pitching that’s down from the last two years and score some runs.”
The Cal offense struggled mightily against No. 14 Arizona last weekend, being held to a total of six runs in the three-game sweep. The Bears’ bats reignited in Monday’s matinee against Washington State, tallying 13 runs on 17 hits. Whether Cal can do it against top-tier pitching is a question the squad will have to answer this weekend.
Another key for the Bears will be keeping the Bruins off the scoreboard early. Last weekend, Flemer and Jones each gave up three runs in the first inning, and the offense never recovered.
“Getting behind early – everybody tries to do a little too much,” Flemer said. “We have to find a way to win those pressure moments.”