Cal baseball is far and away the youngest squad in the Pac-12. This team has no seniors and only nine juniors. The experience gap between it and the average postseason contender is glaring.
In spite of its relative inexperience, Cal has refused to get rook’d when going up against the best of the best. Against No. 2 Stanford, head coach Mike Neu’s players will have the chance to solidify themselves as being worthy of going dancing, youth be damned.
“We’ve had a lot of tests up until this point, so we’re excited about the opportunity,” Neu said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our team. We’re in a position that we want to be.”
The months prior to this weekend have been a fantastic mental primer for the latest tango with Stanford. So far this season, Cal has played three-game series against then-No. 10 LSU, then-No. 7 Oregon State and No. 1 UCLA, as well as a Monday matchup with No. 25 BYU.
Those weekends against the Tigers, Beavers and Bruins haven’t been all too friendly to the Bears, as they only took one game in each of those three-game series, going 3-6 against that trio in total, but some context is necessary.
Cal was more competitive than the wins and losses might suggest. Four of those six losses — two against LSU, one each against Oregon State and UCLA — came by one run. Conceivably, the Bears could’ve come out of that scrum with a record of 4-5, 5-4, 6-3 or even 7-2.
There’s also the matter of the location of those series. The Bears played the Tigers in Louisiana, the Beavers in Corvallis and the Bruins in Westwood.
Suffice it to say, those aren’t easy places to win. Those three teams have a combined record of 63-19 at home, with UCLA flexing an otherworldly record of 24-4. For Cal to stroll into all three of those cities and nearly escape with series victories in all three is a testament to the cohort’s collective mental fortitude.
“Anytime you play a tough team on the road, you know that you have to play well to win,” Neu said. “You know you’re going to have to go up some great pitching and some great offense, and (if) you have some success … it gives you some confidence, and I think we know that we have the opportunity, if we play well, to beat anyone.”
Aside from a familiarity with facing opponents of high pedigree, Cal also has experience this season against elite pitching, with the aforementioned UCLA and Oregon State ranking first and fourth in the nation in ERA, respectively. Stanford falls right behind OSU with the nation’s fifth-best ERA, boasting three starters atop the conference leaderboards in ERA.
Most of the Bears’ regulars have, rather unsurprisingly, fared worse against such elite caliber of pitching, but junior Korey Lee has been just the opposite. In 10 games against ranked opponents, Lee is batting a blistering .417 and has recorded at least one hit in every game. Against UCLA, the slugging backstop knocked two home runs in the first game of the series.
If there was ever a time for Lee and company to string together great performances, this weekend is that weekend. For as hot as Cal has been over the past several weeks, its postseason status remains ambiguous. Win this series against Stanford, and the prospects of playing into June glow all the brighter.
“Every game we play during the season is important for (rating percentage index) purposes, but this is a bigger opportunity, there’s no question,” Neu said. “We play a high-RPI team, we play them at home, it’s an opportunity to get closer to where we want to be, which is in the postseason and have a chance to ultimately play and win the College World Series.”