Mary Nutter tournament proves harder than Cal expected

A softball player hits the ball with the ball.
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Déjà vu is an unsettling feeling, especially when you can’t quite put your finger on what feels familiar.

The Mary Nutter Classic Collegiate, however, followed a narrative all too familiar for Cal softball, as the team once again struggled against ranked opposition thanks to a few too many errors and not enough runs. The Bears dropped two games out of five, with one of their losses at the hands of No. 17 Kentucky, and Cal is now 1-6 against teams in Softball America’s top 25.

Cal’s three wins from the weekend came by narrow margins, and the Bears compiled twice as many errors as the number of games they played. But the offense was by no means quiet — Cal scored 20 runs this weekend, and if you count the 13 the team scored in its midweek matchup against St. Mary’s, that’s an average of 5 ½ runs per game.

That doesn’t quite align with the stat sheets from the weekend, though. True to its name, game one of the tournament saw only one run scored in seven innings and also marked the first matchup in history between Cal and Duke. Bears Senior pitcher Kamalani Dung threw a nearly airtight game, fanning 12 batters and allowing only two hits to deliver the Bears a 1-0 victory over the Blue Devils.

But victory’s sweet taste was quickly soured by two losses during Saturday’s doubleheader against No. 17 Kentucky and New Mexico State. Destiny Blueford was certainly having vivid déjà vu — the junior transferred from New Mexico State after playing two seasons with the Aggies and also happened to earn her season-high two hits and two RBIs against Kentucky in 2018. Blueford combined for only two hits against the Wildcats and the Aggies this go-around as Cal stumbled its way through the middle of the tournament.

In the first game of the day against Kentucky, a three-run second inning for the Wildcats broke it open too far for the Bears to bounce back. Zoe Conley struck out five to Kentucky’s one, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the 5-0 shutout that befell Cal.

“When you start playing these ranked teams, every pitch counts, every hit counts and every opportunity counts,” said head coach Diane Ninemire.

The matchup against New Mexico State was a far more heartbreaking loss, as the Bears crawled out of a 4-1 hole in the seventh inning to force the game into a tiebreaker, only to drop it to the Aggies after nine frames. Jordan Fines was Cal’s bright spot, with a season-high two hits and two runs plus an RBI and critical play overall.

“We’ve played some extremely tough competition early in the year — probably have played better competition earlier than any year that we’ve ever played,” Ninemire said. “So I was expecting that we’d have some highs and lows and ups and downs, but at the end of it all, I’m hoping that it’s going to make this team more postseason-ready and prepare them for a very tough conference that we have in the Pac-12.”

And tough it will be — four teams in the Pac-12 are ranked in the top 10 nationally, and three of those teams are in the top five in the RPI rankings. But that’s a problem for two-weeks-in-the-future Cal.

The Bears had another uncomfortably familiar experience in their game against Long Beach State the next day, as they once more found themselves tied 9-9 in the bottom of the sixth. This time, though, Lindsay Rood and Fines led a rally late in the seventh inning to help Cal claw its way back on top and put Long Beach away 12-9.

In their second doubleheader in a row, the Bears seemed intent on changing the tournament’s plotline and scored two in the top of the fourth to try and stave off Cal State Fullerton. After scoring one run in the fifth, the Titans were silenced by Dung in the last two innings, and the Bears walked away with a 2-1 win to mark their last game of the weekend.

“It doesn’t matter whether we win by 10 or if we win by one — we just need to win,” Ninemire said.

Emily Ohman is an assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].