The bright pink sky hanging over Evans Diamond the evening of March 10 was striking, toting with it the promise of equally electrifying baseball. Its assurance was certainly delivered — a white-knuckle 9-8 contest between Cal and San Jose State gave the toiling Bears their second win over an eight-game stretch, with bombs from Nathan Martorella and Grant Holman aiding the from-behind victory.
And then, that was it. With a weighty win marking the end of nonconference play, Cal baseball may have just reached a pivotal breakthrough before competing against Washington State a few days after to kick off Pac-12 action. The Bears batted like they were turning a corner, but around that bend was a cliff — a sudden, unexpected drop-off beyond which there were no sports within this entire 2,800-mile-wide country and almost all of the planet. The eight innings that reinvigorated the Cal faithful suddenly transformed into what was possibly the last live sports event many would witness, with the rosy glow of the sunset burned into their memory as the final utterance of sports for what could be a very long time.
Although the 2020 season will forever be abridged, one can’t help but to speculate what may have been around the corner if there hadn’t been a near-cataclysmic pandemic. Here are two ways the Bears’ season might have ended if they had the chance to close things out.
New players, new horizons
Cal found itself in uncharted territory at the beginning of this season after the departure of last year’s core to the majors. With massive roster holes and shoes to fill, several freshmen got the chance to step up to the plate, showing promise in the outfield and at bat. Freshmen Martorella and Keshawn Ogans notched four homers combined before the season’s end, while catcher Ethan Cloyd carted a .967 fielding percentage, flashing the class of 2023’s potential.
The midweek win against the Spartans, while still full of familiar errors characteristic of early season acclimation, gave Cal something novel: momentum. In this scenario, the nonconference schedule allowed the Bears to iron out their flaws while giving the freshmen necessary experience at the collegiate level, so by the time the team went toe-to-toe with the Cougars, they would have found their rhythm.
“We could have easily folded once we gave up five runs, and obviously we haven’t been winning a lot of games,” said head coach Mike Neu following Cal’s victory over San Jose State. “You’d like to see some fight, and I think our team showed some fight, so that was good.”
Even if the Bears had shifted gears, with a ruthless Pac-12 schedule ahead, the Bears wouldn’t have made a conference killing — No. 5 UCLA and No. 9 Arizona State were both on the docket, and even middle-of-the-pack teams such as Arizona and USC would have dashed deep-playoff hopes for Cal (although a consecutive regionals appearance might have been reached). But even with such stiff competition, the Bears would have steered what was shaping up to be a rebuild season regardless into a spring spent laying a solid, competitive foundation for years to come. Luckily, there’s always next year, and barring another global disaster, new talent could take the team far in the coming spring.
Fatal flaws and unsteady foundations
Naturally, there could be a world in which that corner the Bears turned was still a cliff, but one beyond which winning was no longer in the cards — or rather, they made no turn at all, carrying the banner of their 5-11 season of offensive ineptitude with them. Cal was struggling through nonconference play, attempting to come to terms with a brand new slew of untried players and even straining to get veteran players to produce, hinted at by the team’s .226 batting average.
If the win over the Spartans was a mere fluke, the Bears were likely doomed to endure their strife throughout the season — the team would show glimpses of potential against similarly reconditioning teams such as Utah and Oregon State, but would be sucker punched by the Pac-12’s biggest contenders. Shaky ground is not where you want to be against heavy hitters such as UCLA, and with 22 errors in 16 nonconference games, it’s unlikely that the Bears would have been able to rely on stellar defense to keep them afloat throughout the season.
With sparse offensive production and equally fickle fielding waning away the likelihood of very many series wins, the Cal baseball team would have forfeited its shot at improvement during the 2020 season and thus postseason appearances for years to come.
Of course, we’ll never know whether the Bears would have achieved greatness this season or experienced a slump just one year after winning 21 of their last 28 conference games, making it to regionals and launching into the nation’s top 25. Until sports come back, though, speculation is all we have — I guess that makes it OK to daydream about a College World Series trophy with Cal’s name on it every once in a while.