Sometimes, a baseball team’s schedule can be brutal, such as when Cal (29-15, 15-9 in Pac-12) had to play UCLA and Arizona in consecutive away series earlier this season, with a road game against Stanford wedged in the middle. Sometimes, the schedule is a cakewalk, such as when the Bears began the season only playing two away games in their first 19 contests.
But sometimes, a schedule can be straight weird. That’s the case this weekend, when No. 9 Cal travels across the country to face Campbell, from the Big South conference, in a three-game series.
Yes, Campbell made the 2014 NCAA tourney after a spectacular 40-19 year. And yes, junior Cole Hallum is one of the finest hitters on the East Coast.
But Campbell is in its first year under head coach Justin Haire, and the team has struggled to a 27-20 record that is underwhelming given last year’s success. Yet it’s the Bears who have to travel to Buies Creek, North Carolina, during the stretch run of Pac-12 play. The series against the Fighting Camels comes one week before a massive series against USC and two weeks before a series against No. 19 Oregon State.
So whether or not Cal can maintain its focus in this seemingly out-of-place away series is the headline of the weekend, especially given the postseason implications of the next few weeks.
The Bears are coming off what is possibly the largest series victory of their 2015 campaign, in which they took two of three against Arizona State, the team in second place in the Pac-12.
The 8-6 comeback victory Sunday motivated the young and gun Bears, who now have dreams of Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series. The emotional high from the win over the Sun Devils, however, must be tempered on the long plane flight to the East Coast if Cal is to prevent a letdown.
The Bears open the weekend set at 3 p.m. Friday. Whether or not head coach David Esquer will elect to go with his usual rotation is yet to be seen. Sophomore ace Daulton Jefferies has been lights out, compiling the second-best ERA in the Pac-12 among starters at 1.89.
But Campbell may not have to worry about Jefferies. While the USC series will begin a full week after the last game of the Campbell series, Esquer may decide to rest his normal rotation.
The three-game set against the Fighting Camels concludes with a doubleheader Saturday, only the second back-to-back of the season for the Bears and their first since Feb. 21 against UC Irvine. Not only will the quick turnaround be a learning opportunity for the Bears, the series will represent the farthest the team has traveled this year by far, another important experience for the team with the postseason looming.
While in North Carolina, the Bears’ pitchers will be aware at all times of when Hallum is coming up in the order. The left fielder has been dangerous at the plate this year, leading Campbell in home runs and RBIs, with 12 and 40, respectively. In fact, Cole has been one of the only sources of power on a team with good hitters but no slugging. Second on the team’s home runs list are Brian Taylor and Kyle Leady, who only have three apiece — nine behind Hallum.
Preventing the big swing from Hallum will be one of the keys to victory for Cal this weekend. The other key will be not getting caught looking ahead to the rest of Pac-12 play. It’s a strange trip to take, but Cal cannot overlook it one bit.
Austin Crochetiere covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].