Only one more series is left in the regular season for Cal baseball as the team gets set to travel to Corvallis, Oregon, to take on Oregon State. With the NCAA Regionals coming up next weekend, this will be the last chance for the Bears to pad their resume, put themselves in strong position to qualify for the regional tournament and keep their College World Series hopes alive.
For both teams, No. 35 Oregon State and No. 41 Cal will each be entering the series with a lot of incentive to dominate and sweep the other side. This weekend, much of the Bears’ (33-17, 17-10 Pac-12) success hinges on the performance of starting pitchers Ryan Mason, Matt Ladrech and Daulton Jefferies. If Cal wants to have a chance at winning all three games, it is essential that the starting pitchers quiet the Beavers’ (36-15-1, 17-9-1) bats.
Although Cal’s overall pitching this season has been above average — the Bears have a team ERA of 3.03 and have allowed a batting average of just .246 — the team has allowed an alarming number of free passes via bases on balls and hit by pitches.
The Bears have given up 181 free trips to first base, including 132 total walks and 49 HBPs, in 443 total innings pitched. That means about 41 percent of every Cal inning results in a free baserunner. Even though this may not be a very sexy statistic, the pitchers — for the most part — have performed well in the stretch: Runners that reach first base usually haven’t been able to cross home this season.
Oregon State, however, is going to be better than most of the teams the Bears have seen this season. For an offense as potent as the Beavers’, Cal has to focus on attacking the strike zone and making sure Oregon State earns every base it gets.
If the Bears struggle with throwing strikes, like they have during stretches this season, they could be in serious trouble. The top half of Oregon State’s lineup is built on taking advantage of pitchers with command issues by being patient at the plate and accumulating high batting averages and on-base percentages. With its first four hitters averaging OBPs of more than .350 in conference play — highlighted by Jeff Hendrix’s video-game-like OBP of .451 — the Beavers’ offense thrives on scoring runs, one base at a time.
Oregon State’s ability to constantly get on base results in a multitude of things that will be bad for Cal. Obviously, it will give the Beavers many more opportunities to score runs. But it will also increase the Cal starters’ pitch counts. If Oregon State has its way, the Bears’ starters will be knocked out early, and Cal will be forced to go to its bullpen early. At that point, the Beavers can be more and more aggressive, while the Bears will be more and more vulnerable as the game goes on.
To prevent this from happening, Mason, Ladrech and Jefferies will need to get a feel of their release and groove early in the game, preferably in the first and second innings. Each pitcher has three primary pitches: some sort of fastball (Mason throws a sinker), a changeup and a breaking ball.
In order for all three of these players to be effective, they will need to establish fastball command. One of the most important things this weekend will be whether the Cal pitchers can throw strikes when they need to. Although the Beavers’ lineup is stacked with solid hitters, Oregon State is most vulnerable when its hitters are forced to take the bat off its shoulders and put the ball in play.
The Bears’ offense will have to find a way to give its pitching run support by putting up runs against Oregon State’s pitchers, which have a team ERA of 3.11. But the large causal effect determining whether Cal’s runs will result in a win will fall heavily on Mason, Ladrech and Jefferies being aggressive, attacking the strike-zone and establishing the tone of each game early on.
Richard Lee covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].