Both hindsight and the year may be 2020, but for Cal baseball, it’s a tall order to predict anything about the upcoming season with certainty except for one thing — the Bears will be a force to be reckoned with once again.
Although sometimes a postseason run is the result of a perfect storm, much of Cal’s success last season can be attributed to a group of players whose collective talent pushed the team the furthest it’s been in years. Three of the team’s best batters — Andrew Vaughn, Cameron Eden,and Korey Lee — and three of the strongest pitchers with the bullpen’s lowest ERAs, Jared Horn, Arman Sabouri and Rogelio Reyes, are not returning this spring.
All six of these Bears headed to the Show after Cal was bounced from regionals by Central Connecticut, with two of them auctioned off in the first round. Vaughn may be the greatest player ever to have laced up for the Bears, and how the team will function in the absence of all these former players is the most glaring uncertainty for Cal this season.
“Those guys were incredible talents and it’s always tough to lose those guys, but it’s also really fun to see how guys step up, and I think that’s what it’s going to take for this year,” said third baseman Quentin Selma, one of the Bears’ foremost returning talents.
As the first player in Cal history to appear in the College Home Run Derby, well-deserved for slugging .584 last season, Selma shows that despite the departure of some of their heaviest hitters and hurlers, the Bears still have a reliable and talented core with both skill and experience.
“When I think about our team last year at this time, we had a lot of question marks. We didn’t know who was going to step up from the year before when we lost a lot of guys. So I think we’re in a similar situation,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “We know filling the role of a couple first-rounders will be tough, but if we can get some guys that really compete and can fill those holes a little bit, we’ll be in good shape.”
Cal is an exceptionally young team this spring, and the freshman will need to assume important roles from the get-go. With primarily sophomores such as Sam Stoutenborough, Sean Sullivan and Grant Holman expected to make up the pitching rotation, Cal will rely on freshman to fill positional holes like Vaughn’s former first base digs.
“You can simulate things in practice, but it’s different than when you get to a real game. I think once they get over that awe factor of ‘I’m playing at Cal in a college game,’ they’re probably going to start showing their full potential,” said second baseman Darren Baker of the Bears’ young talent. If some players have sophomore slumps, then Baker had a sophomore spike — slashing .273/.326/.302 last season. The current junior is testament to the fact that young talent can breathe new life into a team.
Despite 2020’s uncertainties, there is no doubt that the Bears will compete this season and are poised to make a killing in the Pac-12 after finishing fourth in the conference last season.
“I’m looking forward to going back to Stanford. I grew up going to those games, watching Cal versus Stanford, and then I get to play in it. I have that one circled every year,” Baker said. “We threw away all our red stuff a while ago.”
While the goal is always the postseason, several games on Cal’s schedule are certain to ring in spring ball’s drama well before regionals — including a rematch against the TCU team that knocked the Bears to their knees in the first round of playoffs last year.
“I marked the TCU series last year as soon as we had the regional. That’s on the mind for sure,” Selma said.
The Bears will kick off Friday with a three-game series against Long Beach State before finishing their roadtrip with a game against the Gauchos in Santa Barbara. Although the script of the spring is yet to be written, the Bears have a great deal to prove and even more to gain from playing the way they’re entering the season — fearless, unpredictable and with a chip on their shoulder.