Third baseman Lucas Erceg slowly rose to his feet, dazed and bloodied. The sophomore had just gotten up from the spot along the fence where he had smashed his face trying to catch a foul ball Tuesday night against Fresno State.
But, amazingly, Erceg had caught the ball, trying to preserve a precarious 3-0 lead for Cal baseball in the top of the sixth inning.
This defensive effort, which was lacking a few weeks ago when the Bears (27-14, 13-8 Pac-12) lost three consecutive Pac-12 series, indicated a shift in the No. 13 Bears’ mindset. For a team close to making it over the hump, its defense had been holding it back. In fact, the Bears ranked second worst in errors and third worst in fielding percentage in the conference going into the contest.
But now, the team plans to change their fielding around, and the Bears will have a tough test against the high-powered Arizona State (28-13, 13-5 Pac-12) in this weekend’s series in Berkeley.
This series is crucial in Cal’s quest for its first Pac-12 title since 1980. Currently, the Bears sit in third place in the conference, three games behind No. 2 UCLA in first place. Right ahead of Cal sits No. 6 ASU, making this meeting of the two teams a battle to sit in second place and therefore critical to the run down the stretch.
The Sun Devils sport one of the most prolific offenses in the Pac-12. Maybe it’s the dry Arizona heat, maybe its the Phoenix Municipal Stadium — which has bred offensive stars such as Dustin Pedroia and Barry Bonds — but when the ASU offense gets hot, it is hard to stop.
The Sun Devils would lead the conference in most offensive categories if it weren’t for Arizona scoring at a record pace. Instead, Arizona State ranks second in batting average, second in slugging percentage, third in hits and third in on base percentage.
Furthemore, the squad has four hitters in the top-12 in the conference, all with a batting average above .330. David Greer paces the team at third base, hitting at a .370 average.
But the ASU offense is far from unstoppable. The squad ranks surprisingly low in some important statistical categories, especially runs, which indicates a team that makes good contact but has trouble batting runners home.
Additionally, the Sun Devils are playing into one of Cal’s strengths — pitching. The Bears’ starting rotation of Daulton Jefferies (5-2, 1.55 ERA), Ryan Mason (5-2, 3.12 ERA) and Matt Ladrech (6-4, 2.16 ERA) has been lights out this season. In fact, the team boasts the second best staff ERA in the conference at 2.75, only trailing the Bruins, who are widely considered to have the best rotation in the country.
The Cal staff is also no stranger to prolific offenses. Just this past weekend, the Bears held Arizona to just four runs in three games, which included one shutout.
With the defense finally coming into form and the return of Jefferies after missing time due to tendinitis in his throwing arm, the Bears are in the best position possible to cancel out the Sun Devils’ potent offense. If Cal can manage that feat, they can rely on their power hitting to squeak out a few crucial victories. The Bears currently lead the Pac-12 in home runs at 34, six ahead of the next team.
But, slowing down ASU is easier said than done. It may require more bloodied faces and dirtied uniforms.
Austin Crochetiere covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].