Enter, Oregon: Cal begins tough conference schedule

Kavya Narendra Babu/Staff

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Update 3/12/2020: Cal Athletics announced that all competitions, including Softball, will be suspended until further notice.

Levine-Fricke Field is tucked away in the peaceful confines of Strawberry Canyon, an idyllic setting which stands a step away from the bustle and hustle of UC Berkeley’s main campus and the crowded streets and sounds of the Bay Area. Trees and steep hills paint a tranquil background for a field which has remained quiet through the offseason and 2020 campaign as Cal softball has traveled around the nation for its nonconference slate.

That will change Friday, however, as the Bears return to Cal for their home opener. Fans will fill the bleachers, bats will hit balls and Cal’s first Pac-12 opponent, No. 9 Oregon, will rumble into town for a three-game series.

The blue and gold welcome the Ducks after accumulating a 3-2 record at the JMU Dukes Invitational. It was a streaky weekend for the Bears, who won three straight and produced 38 total runs in those games before losing two on the bounce by a combined score of 18-3 — falling victim to the eight-run mercy rule for the first time this season against the University of Connecticut.

Fans and opponents alike will surely wonder which Cal team shows up this season, but interim head coach Tammy Lohmann is hoping that moving from nonconference tournaments to Pac-12 play will make a difference for the team.

“Going into playing one game a day in conference play is going to be crucial for us just with our pitching staff, our defense and our hitting that have the ability to be able to compete,” Lohmann said.

That statement rings most true, perhaps, for the pitching staff, which has almost exclusively consisted of sophomore Alexandra Perez and junior Chloe Romero to this point. At least one member of the duo has pitched in every game thus far during this season, and although each has a winning record, both have pitched more than 70 innings already this season.

More rest could be what the team needs. Cal has given up an average of 5.1 runs per game this season, but when entering a game after multiple days of rest, the Bears have only allowed 3.8. Additionally, 21% of the runs the Bears give up have been unearned. A little time off and a little more focus might be the recipe for success.

But success will be difficult against the Ducks’ gauntlet of aces. A balanced rotation of senior Samaria Diaz and juniors Brooke Yanez and Jordan Dail have been stellar thus far. Together with freshman Makenna Kliethermes, they boast a total ERA of just 1.70.

Diaz headlines the group, as she boasts an 8-0 record and has allowed only six earned runs in 12 appearances on the mound.

Sophomore catcher Makena Smith will lead the blue and gold’s efforts to interrupt Oregon’s fine form. Smith has been unstoppable thus far, managing an astonishing .481 batting average and a 19-game hit streak. Smith and junior Mikayla Coelho, who leads Cal with 24 RBI, will need to be at their very best if the Bears are to have a chance at victory.

And every victory is crucial. The Pac-12 is loaded in 2020 — three teams from the conference rank above No. 9 Oregon — and the Bears will take on No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 Washington, No. 4 Arizona and No. 15 Arizona State before the season ends. Cal enters this conference slate with the worst record of any team in the Pac-12, but the Bears welcome the challenge and remain undeterred.

“Our goal, also my goal every year, is to take two out of three every weekend,” Lohmann said. “It’s a challenge for us, it’s going to be such a great challenge and it’s a great conference to compete in because you get the opportunity to knock off a top-25 program every day.”

If Cal is to find success, it must become a true giant slayer. The Bears will have their first opportunity to do so when they host Oregon on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Chanun Ong covers softball. Contact him at [email protected].