Earlier this season, the Cal softball team was riding high, putting together 22-game win streak.
As the regular season comes to an end, the Bears find themselves sitting fourth in the Pac-12, barely holding on to its .500 conference record.
It’s amazing how much of a difference one player makes.
Cal just hasn’t looked the same since the team’s perennial All-American pitcher, Jolene Henderson, suffered a knee injury more than a week and a half ago. Henderson is still day-to-day and will most likely not play in the upcoming series against Bay Area rivals Stanford (32-16 overall, 9-9 in the Pac-12) this weekend.
“I definitely don’t think (the injury) is season-ending,” Henderson said. “I expect to be out on the field before postseason.”
No. 13 Cal (35-12 overall, 9-9 in the Pac-12) has been 0-3 without Henderson so far and will face the Cardinal in a three-game series at home in Levine-Fricke stadium starting Friday afternoon.
As of now, though, the Bears are effectively out of the running for the Pac-12 title and on the verge of losing their ranked seed for the Women’s College World Series.
Without Henderson, the rest of Cal’s regular season looks bleak.
Reserve pitchers freshman Nisa Ontiveros and sophomore Nikki Owens have ERAs of 4.10 and 5.73, respectively, in their 10 combined starts. Compared to Henderson’s 1.21 ERA, it’s obvious how much of a factor Henderson is in defense.
Without Henderson, the Bears gave up 26 runs against Arizona State last weekend. To put that number into perspective, Cal had only given up 34 runs in losses during the entire regular season before the series against the Sun Devils.
Ontiveros and Owens will need to shut down the Cardinal’s collection of impressive batters, led by freshman standout Kayla Bonstrom and sophomore infielder Hanna Winter, who are leading Stanford in both hits and batting average. Judging by the way Cal’s pitchers miserably handled Arizona State’s star-studded offense, Ontiveros and Owens will need help from the Bears’ offense to keep the series from getting out of hand.
Stanford pitchers Teagan Gerhart and Kelsey Stevens, whose ERAs are both less than 3.00, will make it difficult for the Bears’ offense to get going. Cal will need to get its bats moving early on — otherwise the Bears will find themselves being shut out or run-ruled like they did in the Arizona State series.
If Cal takes the series, they can pull away from Stanford in the Pac-12 rankings and even overtake Washington for third. Right now, the Bears just need to focus on improving their seed for the WCWS to put Henderson in the best possible position to hopefully make a return trip to the championship series.
“Any team in postseason needs to peak at the right time, and I still think we have yet to reach our potential and we have yet to peak at our top performance,” said catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt. “I’m excited to see everything come together in the next few weeks going into postseason.”