Run it back: Despite key departures, Cal baseball eyes 2021 rebound

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Seven months ago, the Bears were in freefall.

A 4-11 record, good for last in the Pac-12. A lackluster team ERA and batting average. With one game left before conference play, they needed a spark.

In the last game played on Evans Diamond this year, the Bears’ bats came alive in a 9-8 thriller against San Jose State. Senior Max Flower led the way, going three for three with a triple in what would be his final game at Cal. Freshman All-American Joseph King secured a two-inning save, and the Bears could go into their conference series against Washington State fresh off a hard-fought win.

Yet the highly anticipated Pac-12 duels never happened. Two days after the Bears’ win over the Spartans, the NCAA called an abrupt halt to the college baseball season in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Bears’ head coach, Mike Neu, was forced to move all team activities online, and the three Cal seniors — Flower, Jack Delmore and Conner Bock — would not get a normal goodbye on the diamond this year.

With college play off the table, all eyes turned to the outcome of the restructured 2020 MLB draft. The cost-minded change from 40 rounds to just five rounds meant that many deserving players who would have been picked during a regular year went completely undrafted instead. In 2019, 1,217 prospects had their names called, but only 160 players were selected in 2020. Those not picked in the five rounds had the option to sign free agent deals with a maximum signing bonus of $20,000 — meanwhile, 10th-round picks in 2019 had slot values of between $142,200 and $149,700.

College players saw this discrepancy too, and it caused a ripple effect in the baseball world. The modified draft didn’t just force the young players who missed out to make crucial, premature career decisions; it caused problems for college baseball as well.

College coaches noticed the impending roster overflow created by the skipped later-round selections returning to their school programs, and the NCAA acted accordingly with a set of roster and eligibility changes for the 2021 season. First, the 35-man roster cap was scrapped entirely. Second, all athletes were granted an additional year of eligibility to make up for the lost 2020 season.

The rule changes do not particularly hurt the Bears, who fielded a young team in the spring and had no players selected in the draft. Alongside the seniors, outfielder and dual-sport athlete Brandon McIlwain will be the team’s biggest loss after the redshirt junior signed as a free agent with the New York Mets.

Despite Cal’s 5-11 record in the shortened 2020 season, the team showed glimpses of greatness. Third baseman Quentin Selma was ranked as the No. 81 hitter in the nation according to D1Baseball, and he led the Bears in a slew of batting categories, including batting average, RBI and on-base percentage. Second baseman Darren Baker combined glove wizardry with a solid presence at the plate, batting .286 with a team-high 18 hits and 15 runs scored. Finally, freshman All-American honors were in store for reliever King, who posted a 1.59 ERA in 11.1 innings.

Cal’s newest batch of freshmen includes pitcher Dez Loessberg, infielder Brian McClellin, pitcher and outfielder Paulshawn Pasqualotto and outfielders Jag Burden and Trevor Tishenkel. One name to watch will be sophomore transfer Josh Rolling, who had a spectacular freshman year at Sierra College. Rolling batted .355 in 2020, ending the abbreviated season on a 14-game hitting streak.

With no announcements from the NCAA on the exact status of baseball in the spring, Evans Diamond will need to wait a little bit longer for its next competitive game. For at least a few more months, the infield dirt will not be covered with slide marks or short-hop divots — it will be pristine and perfect, waiting to be disturbed by the boys in blue and gold.

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