Cal, Arizona State baseball’s weekend duel to shake up playoff picture

Pitcher eyes home plate
Ireland Wagner /Staff

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The Cal (29-17) and Arizona State (35-14) baseball teams are almost identical twins on paper. They are tied for fourth in the Pac-12; they sit 35th and 34th, respectively, in the RPI; and they have each managed one win over Oregon State and UCLA.

As the postseason looms, both teams will try to separate themselves from one another this weekend at Evans Diamond. Not only will a series win rightfully secure fourth place in the Pac-12, but it will also prove to the rest of the country which team can rise to the occasion when the pressure is on.

The Bears — led by junior Jared Horn (1.79), the reigning Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week — boast a slightly lower collective ERA (4.15) than the Sun Devils (4.66).

While Cal has had to change the rotation over the last couple of weekends, the weeklong break in Berkeley will have allowed the pitching staff to recuperate going into the three-game stint, with likely starters being junior Arman Sabouri on Friday, Horn on Saturday and freshman Sam Stoutenborough on Sunday.

Arizona State should be most worried about Saturday’s game, as Cal has earned a win on five of its last seven Saturday games, including its 18-2 demolition of No. 3 Stanford last weekend.

With that said, the Sun Devils have not shied away from a showdown against elite competition this season either, as they kept each of their two losses against Oregon State within two runs and suffered a contentious 3-2 loss to UCLA on the Friday of their series.

The key to Arizona State’s success has largely been its offense, which has been able to hit its way out of tricky situations this season. Junior Hunter Bishop alone has recorded 22 home runs and sophomore Spencer Torkelson has tallied 19 dingers, ranking them fourth and ninth in the nation, respectively.

Take, for example, the Sun Devil’s matchup against Utah on April 18. Going through the 10th and 11th innings still tied 4-4, Arizona State was able to generate a wide variety of offensive plays — singles, doubles, triples and homers from those at the very bottom of the lineup to the very top — to score seven runs in the 12th inning, securing its win with ease.

While Cal has not played into extra innings, it has also relied heavily on its offense, especially earlier in the season when the pitching rotation was still in flux.

“They are returning all their starters from last year, so they have a lot of experience,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “They are probably similar to us where the offense has carried them at times.”

Both teams, in fact, have six players in the lineup batting more than .300, further cementing the importance of the defense and pitching staff, as those will be the make-or-break factors for Cal this series.

“We’re going to have to pitch well and play great defense to keep ourselves in those games. I think they’re a great team, and we’re going to have to play well to win,” Neu said. “If we do that, I think we will have a chance to win the series.”

And while hype about postseason prospects has been swirling around the Bears, they insist that they are not treating this series any differently than other Pac-12 team they have faced thus far — even if Arizona State seems to be the most competitive on the stat sheet.

Lucy Schaefer covers baseball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @lucyjschaefer.