With tough part of schedule remaining, Cal baseball faces uphill climb

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Time is running out for the Cal baseball team.

The Bears (16-16, 5-7) have hobbled through a season that could be described as mediocre at best. Cal swept Utah on the road to begin conference play, but the Bears have won just two of nine conference games since the Utah series.

And the most troubling fact for the Bears is that they still have the toughest part of their schedule left.

Cal still has five conference series remaining, three of which are against top-20 opponents. The first series starts on Friday night as the Bears begin a three-game series against No. 16 Oregon at Evans Diamond at 6 p.m.

In the midst of an eight-game road trip, the Ducks (24-8, 9-3) head into the series as one of the dominant forces in the Pac-12. Even in a series loss to Arizona State last weekend in Tempe, the Ducks outscored the Sun Devils 30-23. Of Oregon’s eight season losses, only two have come against unranked opponents.

The story for the Ducks this season has been consistency. Oregon pitchers allowed more than five runs only three times in the first 32 games. Ducks’ hitters, on the other hand, scored five or more runs in 22 of those games.

The Bears have been the antithesis of consistency this season. In their first game against then-No. 11 UCLA earlier this season, the Bears scored five runs off of Bruins’ ace Adam Plutko.

With a 2.98 ERA in 51.1 innings so far this season, Plutko is one of the best pitchers in college baseball and is projected as a first-round draft pick.

In the same game and in his first college start, Cal freshman pitcher Ryan Mason gave up one run in eight innings against one of the most potent offenses in the nation. In that game, the Bears looked like a top team — maybe even a national championship contender. Cal promptly dropped the next two games as the Bruins outscored the Bears 18-5.

Consistency has plagued the offense as well, as the Bears have scored three or fewer runs in 14 games this season.

The Bears will rely on Mason (4-1, 3.96 ERA) to open the series against Oregon left-hander Tommy Thorpe (4-3, 3.35). Neither team has announced starters for Saturday or Sunday. Senior Justin Jones (1-4, 5.66) got the Saturday start last weekend against Arizona, but the lefty gave up four runs in just one inning of work.

The Bears have shown glimpses of championship-level play throughout the season. They have the talent and the experience to make a run in the second half of the season.

But Cal’s remaining schedule does not offer any easy wins. A turnaround for the Bears will require that they to do it against some of the country’s best teams.

There is not much time, either, so if the Bears want to compete for a postseason spot, it needs to start with this weekend’s series.

Warren Laufer covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].