The Bears suffered through a long and dark hibernation during the fall and winter and managed only to limp out of their cave at the first sight of the green pastures of Evans Diamond. But the baseball-starved squad has managed to right the ship after starting the year 1-3, and as the weather has warmed, so too have the blue and gold.
Though a trip to cold Salt Lake City threatened the still-hungry team, Cal baseball managed to ride high out of the mountains with a fifth straight series win and an early share of second place in the Pac-12 standings.
Unlike in previous matchups, it was the Bears’ offense that shined bright in the thin Utah air, putting up 22 runs on 33 hits over their three games this weekend. For a team that slots in the top half of the conference in most pitching categories, the recent offensive outburst is a strong sign of a budding Pac-12 contender.
“Our offense was really clicking, and I feel like over the past few weeks, we’ve just continued to get more comfortable offensively,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “To win the series and the first Pac-12 series on the road, it showed good maturity and some good progress for our team.”
Cal took the series by winning the first two games in sound and convincing fashion, by scores of 9-0 and 9-5, respectively. The Bears never trailed in either game, thanks in part to early offense and strong relief pitching.
Sophomore Nathan Martorella got the lineup moving in game one with a second inning two-run homerun, while fellow sophomore Keshawn Ogans went 3-4 with a triple and 4 RBIs out of the nine hole. Perhaps the biggest victory for Cal on the day, however, was the return of preseason All-American Grant Holman.
Holman, who missed the whole nonconference slate with an arm injury, looked fantastic in his first appearance of the season, throwing three scoreless innings and adding four strikeouts. The 6’6” righty’s command looked especially promising, and his ability to locate the breaking ball late in counts generated numerous swing and misses by the Utes.
“We have the pieces there,” Neu said. “Now, we’re just getting healthy to where we have all of our guys available to pitch.”
Game two saw more of the same, as the blue and gold rode a two-homer performance from senior utility man Hance Smith and a dominant relief outing from sophomore Josh White to the conference series victory.
Although the Bears couldn’t complete the sweep, falling 11-4 in Sunday’s getaway game, the team flashed the potential to be in the running for what is shaping up to be a wide-open race towards the Pac-12 crown. But while this series versus Utah provided a chance to get off to a fast start in conference play, next weekend’s matchup against USC should prove to be a better litmus test of a successful season.
The Trojans currently sit at 4-2 in Pac-12 play following a sweep of Washington and one win in three games over crosstown rival No. 10 UCLA. Although expected to still be in a rebuilding phase, USC has quietly put together a solid spring, winning seven of their last 10 games, including a come-from-behind victory over the Bruins in which the Trojans scored four in the bottom of the ninth inning to walk it off.
USC has relied on some standout players this season, namely veteran Jamal O’Guinn, whose five homers lead the team, and redshirt junior starter Isaac Esqueda, who owns a 2.43 ERA, a .230 on-base average against and 37 strikeouts to pace the rotation.
Cal will most likely counter with a three-man rotation of Holman, Sean Sullivan and Palshawn Pasqualotto and an even more formidable bullpen highlighted by Nick Proctor, Sam Stoutenborough and White. The Bears have yet to be fully healthy on the mound up to this point, and Neu will need to learn how to best utilize all his weapons moving forward.
The coaching staff should get a better sense of the state of their bullpen when Cal takes on San Jose State in a nonconference midweek game Tuesday. Midweek games usually pose a good chance to explore the depth of a club, while also serving as an all-important rating percentage index booster. The duel with the Spartans, which represents the Bears’ first midweek game of the season, will be played in San Jose with first pitch scheduled for 3 p.m.