Cal baseball to debut in Angels College Classic with high hopes for young talent

Pitcher throws the ball.
Zichen Zhao /File

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Days after half of MLB’s pitchers and catchers reported to the Phoenix metro area for Cactus League spring training, the Cal baseball team will make a debut of its own in the desert Friday. The Bears open their 2019 season at the Angels College Classic, facing CSU Bakersfield, Pepperdine, Northwestern and BYU over four games.

Cal won’t face Pac-12 caliber teams right off the bat, but the Angels Classic serves as an important early season test for an inexperienced squad with postseason goals. Cal head coach Mike Neu recognized the challenge that comes with cultivating a young group: “We have nine freshmen pitchers. We’re gonna be asking a lot of those guys without a lot of experience to be able to step up and give us opportunities to win the game,” Neu said. “There’s a lot of holes to fill, but we do have some really solid options and feel good about the guys we have even though our experience is not there.”

Cal opens the Classic against Bakersfield on Friday — a team the Bears handled easily last season. Ignited by a first inning, two-run homer from then-sophomore Andrew Vaughn, the Bears went on to outscore the Roadrunners 58-13 in a four-game sweep. This game will be Bakersfield’s second of the day after dueling with Pepperdine on Friday morning.

Cal will see its most formidable opponent of the Angels Classic in Pepperdine on Saturday, but the Waves face a gauntlet of a schedule, facing Cal, Wichita State and No. 7 Stanford in two days.

Pepperdine finished 31-24 overall in 2018 but was ousted in the West Coast Conference, or WCC, Championship game, ending its hopes at an NCAA Tournament berth. That said, the Waves return with several experienced upperclassmen and young talent to boot. The Bears will likely face WCC’s 2018 Freshman of the Year, Cooper Chandler, or the conference’s Pitcher of the Year in junior Jonathan Pendergast.

Back at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Northwestern will be Cal’s third opponent of the weekend. Although this will be the first major conference foe the Bears matchup against, the Wildcats only managed an unimpressive 17-32 record in the weakest conference of the Power Five in 2018. Northwestern, however, is a veteran squad with two of the most consistent hitters in the Big Ten. Senior Jack Dunn carries a 26-game reached-base streak into the season.

Cal ends the Angels Classic on Monday with BYU. Despite a 22-28 overall record last season, the Cougars promise to make noise in the WCC in 2019. Head coach Mike Littlewood noted that, if nothing else, this team will be aggressive in the batter’s’ box and on the basepaths, using the team’s experienced core and athleticism — a strategy that could prove challenging for the Bears’ rotation and bullpen. Cal leads the all-time series against BYU, 11-8.

It’s still early in the season, but this weekend’s Angels College Classic may be an important mechanism of growth for this inexperienced Bears team. Cal’s collective performance against inferior teams should illuminate some strengths but also reveal areas that need more time to develop.

Max Mennemeier covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].