The last series in which the Bears graced Evans Diamond was nearly a year ago. Cal was facing Arizona State, under assault from monsoon-like rains characteristic of the Bay in the spring. Andrew Vaugn and Korey Lee, star seniors selected in the first round after the Bears’ brief postseason appearance, both notched their final RBI on home turf to complement since-drafted Jared Horn’s complete game and lead Cal to its last victory at Evans for the season.
To compare the last series of 2019 at Evans to the first of 2020 would be to liken apples to oranges for many reasons, but as Cal demonstrated this weekend, those reasons may not all be bad ones.
The Bears blew their second series of the year by dropping two of three games to St. John’s this weekend, but their sole victory flexed the wealth of talent on the verge of flourishing and the potential for Cal to come into its own as a contender.
The series kicked off underneath a brilliant sunset of orange, pink and gold for just a touch of school spirit while the tepid lineup of Bears, four of them underclassmen, prepared to take to home grass for the first time this year. Both Cal and St. John’s immediately made it known that they were there to take the crown — the first inning alone lasted almost 45 minutes, and nearly every at-bat went to a full count in more frames than not.
Points weren’t put on the board until the top of the third when a team effort from a trio of St. John’s seniors, Mitchell Henshaw, Sean McGeehan and Peter Abinanti, combined for a 4 RBI frame. Cal was quick to respond with 2 runs of its own with rips from second baseman Darren Baker and righty Grant Holman.
The Red Storm put up 3 more runs in the next two innings, but the Bears looked ready to literally run away with it after a 4-run inning in the bottom of the sixth thanks in part to 3 walks served up by St. John’s, a well-placed bunt from freshman Keshawn Ogans and a single by Quentin Selma to make the contest 7-6 with the Bears in front.
It was the Johnnies that walked away with the victory, however, after 2 runs in the ninth put Cal’s dreams to bed. The next game in the series would follow a similar script, though the Bears kept the Red Storm on a much tighter leash Saturday — St. John’s was only able to muster a 3-1 win with Holman giving up 3 runs on just 4 hits and putting away 12 batters in a row. Cal only tallied a meager 1 hit in the first six innings and could only scrape 4 together on the night.
The baseball that defined this series was sloppy at times, and its effects were certainly felt. Redshirt junior Brandon McIlwain hit into three double plays over the series — two of them in one game — and Cal left nine runners stranded in each of the first two contests.
“I thought we could definitely do a better job offensively. We had the opportunities but we couldn’t cash in,” said Bears head coach Mike Neu. “You’d like to win and maybe work on some things while you’re winning, but unfortunately some of those mistakes that we made just hurt us and cost us the game.”
But fortune favors the bold, and the Bears, prone to rolling on but rarely over, were able to secure an 11-7 victory Sunday over St. John’s. With Ogans’ first career home run gassing up the offense in the bottom of the fifth, Cal was finally able to knock in some runs and tie the game 7-7 in the seventh. It was Selma who broke it open in the eighth, however, by sending his first dinger of the year over the right field fences and bringing three around the plate.
“Felt amazing. We needed that, too – it was in a big spot, so I was happy to complete for the team,” Selma said. “We still have some work to do. We’ve got to get better at executing, get better at the little things and we’ll have a great week at practice and we’ll fix that up.”
Despite Cal’s 2-5 losing record, Neu maintains that the victory will help lead to others in the near future.
“You’d like to win or sweep the series, but I think we’re a better team now. We’ve learned a lot about our team, and I think guys really stepped up the last couple days,” Neu said. “Our guys have a little bit of momentum and we feel like we’re kind of creating an identity, and moving forward we’re just going to keep getting better.”
Arguably the most urgent question begged by the departure of seven key players to the Show was how the Bears will cope. This series showed that even though Cal may not be what it was last season, it could still turn into something great.
The Bears will take on their rivals, the Stanford Cardinal, at home at Evans on Feb. 25 at 6 p.m.