Cal baseball’s Korey Lee, pitching staff not changing approach in Saint Mary’s College series

A batter is about to hit the ball with his bat.
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After opening the season with seven road games, the Bears return to Evans Diamond to face a familiar and competent opponent in Saint Mary’s College. Cal stumbled in its first three games of the Angels College Classic but responded with steady pitching and clutch at-bats to sweep Cal Poly in three games and secure a 4-3 overall record prior to the home-opener.

Shaky performances on the mound contributed to the Bears’ slow road start — Cal’s pitching staff failed to secure early leads or simply could not keep games in reach for the Bears’ potent offense. But now, more than two weeks into the season, it seems like this young staff is settling into their roles within head coach Mike Neu’s “opener” approach.

“We trust our pitching staff to do whatever we want them to do. Starting off with our closer gives us a little bit of a heads up and a little bit of a front-runner concept,” said junior catcher Korey Lee. “They’re doing a really good job with everything so far. I couldn’t be happier with our pitchers.”

Cal’s growth on the mound could not have begun at a better time, as the team gears up to face a Saint Mary’s team who burst into the 2019 campaign as one of the hottest teams in college baseball. The Gaels brought the wood in a four-game rout of Washington State, outscoring the Cougars 37 to 13 and slashing .373/.469. After the first weekend, Saint Mary’s ranked fifth in batting average and hits and averaged 9.3 runs per game.

Fortunately for Cal, the Gaels’ lineup came back to Earth and has dropped four straight games since their hot start. Saint Mary’s failed to score at the same clip during a sloppy series in Oregon and suffered a disappointing 3-7 defeat at San Jose State on Tuesday.

During its own four-game win streak, Cal showed flexibility and resolve on the offensive side as well, securing early leads or igniting late comebacks with timely hitting.

Several Bears will look to carry their solid hitting into the Saint Mary’s series. Junior Andrew Vaughn was named Pac-12 Player of the Week for going eight-for-13 with seven walks during the win streak. Redshirt sophomore Brandon McIlwain, who will make his home debut for the Bears this weekend, impressed with the bat and his legs, accounting for six runs against Cal Poly. McIlwain was a home run shy of the cycle in last Friday’s 10-2 win over the Mustangs.

As the constant force in the Bears’ battery, Lee has personally contributed to the improvements on the mound and at the plate, igniting Sunday’s comeback victory at Cal Poly with four RBI between the eighth and ninth innings.

After his success on the road last week, the Bears’ catcher doesn’t plan on changing much about his offensive approach: “Just keep on seeing it and keep on hitting … I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team — if that’s putting down a bunt, if that’s sacrificing, if that’s getting a hit in a clutch situation,” Lee said.

Cal splits a four-game set in Berkeley on Thursday and Friday before heading to Moraga over the weekend.

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