Cal baseball’s grit earns it a No. 2 seed to face TCU in Arkansas

Ireland Wagner /Staff

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The college baseball teams that weren’t shoo-ins for the postseason needed to possess a certain grit in order to make it to regionals.

They needed to have shown command over both the offensive and defensive sides of their operation and also have displayed an irreverence to ranked teams, approaching any series against an elite team with ambivalence and confidence.

In this regard, it makes perfect sense why No. 2 seed Cal (32-18) and No. 3 seed TCU (32-26) were slated to compete on Friday in the Fayetteville Regional.

On paper, TCU looks similar to many other teams Cal has faced this year. The Horned Frogs have a solid record, feature a lineup with most batters hitting in the high .200s to mid-.300s, and have pitchers with low ERAs. TCU tied for sixth in the Big 12 but defeated some of the conference’s hot shots on a couple occasions, besting Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

Given the unpredictable outcome of a single game, it is crucial that Cal controls any factors possible to win the first two games of the weekend, especially in a double elimination-style tournament.

One potential strategy that the Bears have considered is leading Friday’s game with junior Jared Horn, whose 1.82 ERA earned him a spot on the All-Pac-12 first team, instead of playing him on Saturday as usual, in order to better their odds of taking the first game.

While Cal has come to rely heavily on Horn this season as its go-to arm, TCU also boasts a high-visibility pitcher in junior Nick Lodolo, a projected top-10 pick in the upcoming MLB draft.

In fact, it is highly possible that both teams will decide to start their star pitchers on Friday, making it a veritable head-to-head matchup similar to Cal’s game against UCLA, at which Horn and Ryan Garcia battled it out.

“We will probably get their left-hander Lodolo, who is a big kid and throws pretty hard, but that fires us up,” Cal junior Andrew Vaughn explained. “We want to face the best.”

While these two teams did not meet this season, there is some history — in 2017, then-No. 7 TCU took two of three from Cal.

It is the upperclassmen who constitute the most fearsome hitters on TCU’s team. Redshirt junior Jake Guenther and seniors Josh Watson and Johnny Rizer have combined for 117 RBI, a powerful sequence in the batting order.

Aside from Brandon McIlwain, this is the first time that anyone on the Bears has gone to the college baseball postseason. For juniors on the team, such as Vaughn and Korey Lee, a stint in the playoffs has been incredibly long-awaited.

“I have always dreamed of playing this well and just competing for this team — just doing what we’re doing as an entire team,” Lee said. “It’s a dream come true right now.”

Despite the immense pressure that regionals represent, the Bears are sticking to their seasonlong tactic of approaching every series like it is no different from the last.

“I think our guys understand that it’s going to be a tough environment, but we’ve been there before, and we have put ourselves in a position to win, so I don’t think anything changes for our preparation,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu.

Cal will play TCU in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Friday at 4 p.m. PST. The game will be aired on ESPN3.

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