Cal baseball earns at-large bid to NCAA tournament, will play in Fayetteville Regional

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For the first time since 2015, Cal baseball is heading to the NCAA tournament, being selected to play in the Fayetteville Regional alongside host school Arkansas as well as TCU and Central Connecticut.

“We know that our resume got us there, and I think it was just exciting to see where we were going to go and also just to play in a great environment,” said head coach Mike Neu. “Arkansas (has an) unbelievable stadium, unbelievable fan base. We knew anywhere we’re going is going to be a challenge. You don’t play in these regionals without a huge challenge. We’re excited for that challenge.”

On Friday, No. 2 seed Cal will play will play No. 3 seed TCU in the first game of regionals at 4 p.m. PST, a matchup that will evoke memories of the infamous Cheez-It Bowl, while No. 1 seed Arkansas will play No. 4 seed Central Connecticut at 11 a.m. PST. Cal will play either Arkansas or Central Connecticut in the second game of the regional depending on the outcomes of those first two contests.

This year’s Cal team has been defined by its youth, so it should come as no surprise that this will be every player’s first trip to regionals, the lone exception being Brandon McIlwain, who tasted the postseason in 2016 with South Carolina.

Despite that lack of postseason experience, Cal is no stranger to elite competition, having played fellow tournament teams in UCLA, Stanford, Oregon State, LSU, Arizona State and Sacramento State.

“We played some big, tough road series this year,” Neu said. “We’ve played at LSU, we’ve played at Oregon State, we’ve played at UCLA. I think our guys understand it’s going to be a tough environment, but we’ve been there before and put ourselves in a position to win.”

Even with the heightened stakes, the Bears are approaching the regionals as they would any other weekend series.

“I think that’s what we gotta do, is play like it’s any other series,” said star first baseman Andrew Vaughn. “It is playoffs, but we can’t go in with our heads too high. We just gotta play good baseball and play the teams we’re up against.”

Vaughn, who was removed from the second game of Cal’s series with Washington because of illness, is expected to be fully healthy by the beginning of regionals, according to Neu. Additionally, McIlwain, who suffered a foot injury earlier in the season, participated in batting practice and will be evaluated later this week.

“He’s definitely closer than he’s been,” Neu said. “We’ll work with our medical staff and see where he’s at.”

While the mental preparation may be no different, Neu will have to decide whether he’ll roll with Jared Horn in game one against the Horned Frogs. Since returning from injury, Horn has been one of the best pitchers in college baseball, with his ERA of 1.82 currently ranking 15th in the nation, but Horn has typically pitched the second game of weekend series.

“We have to consider leading with Horn,” Neu said. “He’s been our best guy, and we gotta win those first two games to give ourselves the best chance. We can win a different route, but the best opportunity is to win the first two and have somebody beat you twice. TCU will be a tough matchup, and they have a really good arm, so we’ll have to look at it. We’ll see what the matchups are, but I think that’s definitely a possibility.”

For some of the team’s juniors, regionals won’t be the only thing on their minds, as looming in the not-so-distant future is the MLB draft, where several Bears are expected to hear their names called.

Vaughn, the reigning Golden Spikes Award winner, is expected to be a top-five selection, while Horn, Korey Lee and Cameron Eden could potentially hear their names called as well.

“I just want to focus on playing with my team, being out there with my guys — that’s the biggest thing,” Vaughn said. “That’s the most fun. Draft stuff is in the back pocket. It’s gonna happen, but playing baseball is way more fun right now.”

Justice delos Santos covers baseball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.