Despite the cautious preseason predictions from coach David Esquer, it was impossible to witness the promising signs emerging from the early slate of contests and dismiss them as meaningless. There was a sweep over a quality Big-10 opponent to kick off the 2013 campaign. There was an eight-game winning streak within the first month of the season. There were wins over top-25 opponents and hot starts from unexpected sources. Heading into the tumultuous Pac-12 slate, hope was as abundant as sunny days in the springtime.
But against the initial slate of highly ranked conference opponents, the Cal baseball team’s momentum started to slow to a stuttering halt. The Bears dropped two out of three to No. 11 UCLA. They dropped two out of three to USC. With postseason aspirations hanging in the balance of the next stretch run of games, the Bears reeled off an eight-game losing streak to shift the season permanently into a phase of development instead one of competition.
In Cal’s 7-3 loss to Stanford on Sunday, one saw the signs of the positive changes stemming from the Bears’ emphasis on development in the latter half of the season. Save for catcher Andrew Knapp, who is likely to depart for the MLB draft, everyone in the starting lineup from the Cardinal contest will return to Evans Diamond next year.
Perhaps the most promising discovery of the 2013 season was freshman center fielder Devon Pearson. Pearson, hailing from Carmel, Calif., was also a standout athlete in both football and basketball at Carmel High School. He chose to follow baseball to Cal, and the decision paid off after a surprisingly successful freshman campaign. Pearson finished second on the club with a .305 average and tacked on 19 walks and seven stolen bases for good measure. His defense in center field stood among the best in the conference, combining elite speed with a powerful throwing arm to aid Cal pitchers all year.
Encouraging steps forward from veterans Chris Paul, Brendan Farney and Devon Rodriguez on the offensive side of the game also served to bolster optimism for future seasons.
Paul tied Knapp for the team lead in home runs with eight and finished second on the squad with a .399 slugging percentage. Farney bounced back from a dismal freshman season by posting a .288 average and contributing stellar defense at a middle infield position. Rodriguez got off to a blistering start to the season, sporting higher than a .350 average for a portion of the nonconference schedule. But a lingering elbow injury derailed his strong start, and Rodriguez’s average dipped to .272 by season’s end. Rodriguez should bounce back strong and sit in the middle of the Bears’ lineup for the entirety of 2014.
And a strong effort from starting pitcher Dylan Nelson on Sunday showed that Cal’s greatest weakness this season — a weak starting rotation — could easily transition into a strength when next spring rolls around.
After a season full of ups and downs, Esquer and the Bears will likely leave the season content with what remains on their plate for next year.