A little under a year ago, the Cal baseball team advanced to Omaha, a season of unprecedented adversity redeemed by one of the most historic postseason runs in Cal history.
One year after their inspiring run to the College World Series, the Bears (28-25) are resigned to watching the postseason at home as a mediocre season came to a disappointing end without a repeat postseason berth.
Despite Matt Flemer’s wildly successful conversion from the bullpen to the rotation and an assortment of solid offensive seasons from upperclassmen like Tony Renda and Mitch Delfino, the Bears never proved their mettle in a competitive Pac-12 landscape.
Cal began the season with high hopes, ranked No. 23 in the country at the start of the season. The Bears won ten of their first 12 games to start the season, including an exciting 11-inning win over Nebraska on March 9.
But it was downhill from there. The Bears showed a consistent ability to defeat lesser teams and an inability to defeat the teams ranked higher. Though Cal took two of three from then-No. 18 Texas in late March, they didn’t manage a single series win against a ranked opponent until May. The Bears finished 6-16 against ranked opponents, and 22-9 against everyone else.
The squad avoided long losing streaks, but never found a way to cobble a winning streak of more than four games. Every momentum-building stretch was countered with a deflating losing streak, and vice versa.
After losing four in a row in early April, the Bears found themselves in last place in a competitive Pac-12 — a conference that would send five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Backs against the wall, Cal won six of their next seven, including series wins over Pac-12 doormats Utah and Washington that solidified Cal’s spot in the middle of the conference.
But the Bears were never able to convey their success against weaker teams into success against the Pac-12’s best. With a challenging second half of the schedule looming, Cal lost all momentum after being swept by a top-10 Oregon squad at the end of April. Dropped into a desperate scramble to reach 30 wins — a mark that head coach David Esquer thought would be sufficient to warrant postseason attention — the Bears never reached that mark.
Defensive issues riddled Cal throughout the season, as the Bears finished dead last in the conference in errors with 97. Though the squad’s defense improved over the course of the season as Esquer tinkered with the lineup, Cal still allowed a whopping 62 unearned runs.
Not until the final series of the season — the Big Series against Stanford — did Esquer’s squad finally display the urgency they could have used weeks before.
It took 18 innings, but a Renda single in the final frame gave Cal a victory over the No. 14 Cardinal. The next day’s 15-5 victory gave the squad its first victory over a ranked Pac-12 opponent of the season — the type of marquee series win they’d been lacking all season. But it wasn’t enough.
“We’ve been a perennial playoff team,” said Esquer after the Stanford series. “It hurts and it stings because that becomes your expectation.”