Cal softball looking to rebound against archrival Stanford

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Error-ridden and faltering in the clutch, Cal softball (20-9) needs to re-evaluate its intentions after an abysmal start to Pac-12 conference play last weekend, dropping two of three games to a beatable Utah.

The Bears are now feeling the heat going into their first three-game home series against archrival Stanford (19-4) starting Saturday. Stanford is surprisingly one of the hottest teams in the conference, and the Cardinal have proved their worth on multiple occasions so far this season. Cal has beaten Stanford in their last 14 meetings dating back to 2014, but this time around, the Cardinal are rightfully in pole position to reverse the script.

It was the worst possible start to conference play for Cal, whose impressive 11-game winning streak dissolved into thin air after nearly getting swept by the Utes, save for a nail-biting 8-7 victory for the Bears in extras in the final game of the series.

Despite the winning streak, Cal has persisted with the same type of lackluster play against imposing teams, regardless of the stakes. The occasional offensive burst was repeatedly canceled out by pitchers missing their spots and the defense lacking consistency. Utah had the worst record in the Pac-12 going into the weekend and made Cal look like a deer in headlights.

The reliable pitching duo of Zoe Conley and Kamalani Dung struggled to find footholds in each of the games, giving up a combined 14 runs of the 19 scored by the Bears’ opponents. Even freshman Alexandra Perez, who has been an unsung hero on the mound for the Bears this season, gave up three runs in the final game of the series. She ranks fourth in ERA in the Pac-12, with a 1.39.

Still managing to score 15 runs amid the madness, Cal’s offense remains the team’s saving grace. Senior Lindsay Rood will hope to pad her conference-leading .475 batting average and 19 stolen bases against a stout Stanford pitching staff, whose three-star pitchers rank among the top seven in ERA in the Pac-12.

The Cardinal have yet to play a conference game and have had to marinate in the aftermath of a 4-1 loss to UNLV on March 10. But they will certainly be entering Levine-Fricke Field with confidence, as they have been trending upward since the start of the season.

Silencing Stanford junior Teaghan Cowles will be a point of emphasis for the Bears after she was named the Pac-12 and Louisville Slugger/NFCA National Player of the Week on March 5. Cowles batted .818 with nine hits, two triples, a home run, two RBIs and 11 runs scored to earn the honors. She leads her team with 27 hits, four home runs and 21 runs scored.

Stanford has been in and out of the top-25 rankings this season, presumably for its ability to grind out wins. The Cardinal are 10-2 this season in games decided by two or fewer runs, highlighting their resolute back end of the bullpen and defensive shape.

Ultimately, Cal needs to believe in itself when it matters most; Cal has had no problem beating teams that are less talented and balanced. Against the better squads, the Bears look a shell of themselves and can’t seem to rise to the occasion.

“We have not lost to them in the four years I’ve been here, so we’re not going to start now,” Rood said of the Cardinal. “That’s the one team we cannot lose to this year. We always play well against Stanford, too.”

Cal traveled to Sacramento State on Wednesday and pulled off a narrow 3-1 win in extra-innings against the Hornets.

Game one against Stanford starts Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., with games two and three starting at 2 p.m. Sunday and Monday at Levine-Fricke Field. All games will be televised on the Pac-12 networks.

Spencer Golanka covers softball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.