Cal baseball to usher in new era with old face at helm

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For head coach Mike Neu, his return to Cal baseball isn’t just a homecoming — it’s an opportunity to handle some unfinished business.

Neu, the Bears’ pitching coach from 2012 to 2015, returns to Berkeley with plenty of familiar faces in his dugout after a two-year stint as head coach at the University of the Pacific.

The former big league pitcher’s fingerprints are all over this current roster. In his first season back as a Bear, Neu will have the opportunity to command a group of youngsters he helped recruit.

“We start a little bit ahead of the curve, opposed to your typical coaching change,” said senior pitcher Matt Ladrech. “We were able to come in day one and know the road map of how we’re going to achieve our goals and whatnot. It was a pretty seamless transition.”

For Neu, the foundation of a potentially great team is already in place. Aside from Denis Karas and Preston Grand Pre, who were selected in this past year’s MLB Draft, Cal will return most of its starting lineup and core pitching staff.

“It’s great that we have a pretty solid base coming back,” Ladrech said. “To be able to have the familiarity, it’s going to be a big advantage for us.”

Of the eight players who had at least 100 at-bats last season, seven of them will lace up for the Bears this season.

Headlining the returners is sophomore Andrew Vaughn, the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, who may be in contention for Pac-12 Player of the Year this time around.

Vaughn decimated the hopes and dreams of opposing pitchers hoping to keep their ERA low by terrorizing those who dare give him pitches to hit.

The sophomore’s laundry list of accomplishments from last season merely begins with the fact that he led Cal in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, total bases, RBIs and home runs.

Among freshman in the Pac-12, Vaughn was at the top of the leaderboards in batting average, slugging percentage, hits, total bases and RBIs. In the home run department, Vaughn, along with Karas, led the conference with 12 total.

Vaughn was a cog in one of the conference’s most potent offensive machines, an offense that ended last season in a tie with Utah for third-highest collective batting average.

Last season, in addition to Vaughn, juniors Jeffrey Mitchell Jr. and Tyrus Greene and sophomore Cameron Eden all eclipsed the .300-mark in batting average while junior Tanner Dodson barely missed the cut with a total of .299.

Dodson wasn’t solely limited to getting at-bats, as he pitched 52 innings last season. But for the junior, he was on both the giving and receiving end of offensive fireworks — while Cal’s offense was one of the best units in the Pac-12 last season, its pitching staff was among the worst.

As a collective, the Bears were in the bottom five of Pac-12 opponents in ERA, opponent batting average and walks while ranking dead last in strikeouts. In 203 combined innings, Cal’s three main starters, sophomore Jared Horn, junior Joey Matulovich and Ladrech, had a combined ERA of 4.66.

Senior Erik Martinez and junior Aaron Shortridge brought some much-needed stability out of the bullpen, ending last season with a combined ERA of 2.70 over 60.1 innings of relief.

Martinez, who has a career ERA of 2.63 over 109.2 innings, was one of four relievers in the Pac-12 named to 2018 Stopper of the Year watchlist by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

With a pitcher’s coach at the helm, Neu, who helped lead the 2015 pitching staff to one of its best collective ERAs in recent memory, Cal has the tools to help bring this pitching staff back to its former glory.

Neu has tasted success at Cal before, and in his second go-around, the precedent for excellent is firmly in place.

“Expectations are high,” Ladrech said. “We have some pretty lofty goals this year and some high expectations that we’ve set for ourselves and we’re looking forward to going out there and achieving them.”

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510