Stepping into the batter’s box can wrack nerves at any level of baseball. All eyes descend upon home. At the end of high school, however, elite players with secured commitments might begin to feel comfortable — but that all changes when they get their first hacks at the collegiate level.
Cal baseball, a squad filled with young players, became well aware of this new sensation over a four-game road set against Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara from Feb. 14-17.
New faces on new fields with new anxieties commanded the weekend narrative, as the Bears worked in a slew of young players and dropped three of four games on the road.
But they didn’t let their early opportunities in blue and gold flutter past.
Twenty different Bears made an appearance in Friday’s season opener in Long Beach, six of whom were making their first collegiate appearance, with 14 underclassmen on the final lineup. Cal needed each and every one of them.
The Dirtbags went the distance, edging the Bears 3-2 in a 13-inning pitcher’s duel. Sophomore righty Nick Proctor tallied six strikeouts over three scoreless innings and sophomore right-handed pitcher Sam Stoutenborough recorded six shutout frames and allowed just four hits. Although offensive firepower lacked for Cal in this outing, the new Bears’ early experience cannot be understated.
“In the first four games, pretty much every one of our freshman got an opportunity to play at some point and some played in enormous spots. There were some really big positives, you know, 13 innings in the first game,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “We had some guys come up clutch … there are some really good things to build on,”
Friday’s long effort wasn’t nearly enough to derail the Bears’ eagerness for the weekend.
“You could always say it took a lot out of us, (because) it’s the first game, you know, going deep into the night. But you always have to bounce back,” said junior infielder Quentin Selma.
Although the Bears didn’t excel at the dish the next day in their 4-0, 3-hit loss, their determination remained untapped.
In the top of the eighth Sunday, facing a 5-4 deficit and looking to avoid a series sweep, freshman first baseman Nathan Martorella juiced a crucial double. After a miscue in the outfield, Martorella’s efforts plated two runs to put the Bears ahead in Cal’s 7-5 victory over Long Beach. Selma kept the rally alive, with faith in his younger teammates and faith in their ability to rebound.
“You could always say it took a lot out of us, cause it’s the first game, you know, going deep into the night. But you always have to bounce back anyways,” Selma said.
Both Selma and Martorella finished the 7-5 win 3-for-4 at the dish with two RBIs and two doubles, respectively, in a 14-hit team effort.
Cal fell short in its Monday effort, surrendering 15 straight runs after leading 6-2 through the top of the fourth inning to emerge defeated, 17-7 to USCB. Despite that defeat, Sunday’s rebound win was a testament to the blue and gold’s potential in the season ahead. With each game, young players gain valuable appearances both at the plate and on mound which will define their ambitions for the spring campaign.
“We learned a lot. We learned a lot about our team, got a lot of experience for our younger players. We just have some things that we need to work on and improve that are definitely doable that we can fix,” Neu said.
While a hard-fought, 1-3 weekend record isn’t exactly a chip on Cal baseball’s shoulder, the road swing exposed areas for improvement, each of which the Bears are eager to attack.
“I’m most looking forward to how we progress as a team and how the freshmen really come into their own. They’ve done a great job so far and I think we have a great outlook going forward,” Selma said.
The blue and gold will put their potential to the test in their first homestand of the 2020 season against St. John’s on Friday.