With the regular season over with and tournament play starting, Cal baseball will be entering the NCAA championships as a heavy underdog in a region filled with powerhouses. To start the regionals, the No. 3 seed Bears will take on No. 2 Coastal Carolina on Friday morning in College Station, Texas.
If Cal wins, the team will take on the winner of No. 1 Texas A&M and No. 4 Texas Southern. But even if the Bears lose their first matchup, they are not automatically booted from the tournament. If Cal loses its game Friday morning, the Bears will play the loser of the matchup between Texas A&M and Texas Southern in the “Losers Bracket.”
But the “Losers Bracket” does not mean the same thing as a third-place game. The regional round is played in a double-elimination format, meaning that each of the four teams’ goal will be to avoid two losses so it can play the final game of the regionals to advance to the next round. In other words, the team that loses one game or no games will advance to “Super Regional” play.
In a situation where the Bears lose game one but win the “Losers Bracket” game, they would then play the winner of the “Winners Bracket,” whom Cal would need to beat twice to move on to the next round.
With Cal forced to play against new teams every day, keying in and focusing on one specific opponent will be very difficult. In addition, the Bears will be playing against teams from stronger conferences that have higher rankings than those of the Bears.
Still, Cal found success this year when the team enjoyed strong pitching performances from its starters. The teams the Bears will see are loaded with heavy hitters who can take control of a game with just one at-bat.
Cal’s offense has been consistent this year, and the hitters in the lineup have proven to be reliable run-producers, but they’ll be in trouble if the games this weekend turn into slugfests. The Bears will be seeing stronger pitching, and they will be most vulnerable if they find themselves trying to out-hit the other team.
The key this weekend is for Cal to out-pitch its opposition. Usually in baseball, the offense will look to produce run support in order to lower pressure on the starting pitchers. In the regionals, however, the pressure will be on the offense.
At the very least, two pitchers from the Bears’ starting rotation will have a shot to get wins this weekend. If Cal wins at least one of its first two games, it will mean that Ryan Mason, Daulton Jefferies and Matt Ladrech will all have a chance to start. And it will be their jobs to try to contain the other teams’ offenses, keep the score low and give the Cal offense time to string together hits that can result in runs.
It’s easy to write off Cal and simply dismiss it as a team that is out of its league and not a threat to go deep into the tournament: The Bears are expected to lose, and a win would be a surprising upset. But if Cal can catch these teams on a slow batting day, Mason, Jefferies and Ladrech can capitalize on the other teams’ struggles and prevent a high-scoring game from happening.
Cal’s offense probably won’t be putting up many crooked numbers on the board in this tournament, but if the pitching shows up and the other teams don’t, the Bears might not need to do too much offensively to advance in the tournament and to keep their College World Series hopes alive.
Ritchie Lee covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].