The four-by-six-feet squares of chalk around home plate are called the batter’s boxes. And yet, when a hitter sets foot inside one of them, any semblance of ownership can quickly disappear.
When a pitcher takes command of the strike zone, that patch of dirt becomes his. When a batter steps up to the plate without belief in himself, he has already signed away his land; every at-bat, a hitter must prove his ownership of the box. It is a case contested in full view, and the chalk lines provide no place to hide.
For Cal baseball, these high-pressure situations were a recurring theme in recent games. In a nonconference matchup with Stanford on April 6, the Bears put the tying run on third base with one out in the seventh inning. Three consecutive Cal batters could not create the 90 feet needed to tie the game, and the Bears went on to lose 3-4.
Last weekend, a Pac-12 series at then-No. 22 Arizona would be the toughest test of the year for the visiting blue and gold. Arizona ace Chase Silseth came out firing in the desert Friday, tossing 6.1 shutout innings and scattering just five hits. Cal’s Grant Holman held his own with just one run allowed over four innings, but the wheels came off for the Bears in the bottom of the fifth inning. Sam Stoutenborough, Cal’s go-to long reliever, was uncharacteristically tagged for five hits and four runs before leaving the game due to injury. With Silseth locked in, the 1-5 deficit became the final score.
“[Grant Holman] did a nice job putting us in a position to win, but then we just had one tough inning,” said head coach Mike Neu. “We’re hoping that [Sam] has a quick turnaround and that he’s available for the weekend.”
Saturday’s game was a close affair throughout, as the trio of Sean Sullivan, Joshua White and Joseph King held the normally free-scoring Wildcats to four runs. This time, the offense that had been missing on Friday woke up — somewhat. The Bears scored three runs, but went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position. In another gutting 3-4 loss, Cal stranded the tying run on third base yet again in the top of the ninth inning. The loss signaled the Bears’ first dropped conference series this season.
“Getting those big hits in big spots and making big pitches in big spots — that’s what the great teams and great players are able to do,” Neu said. “When you play a good team and you get runners in scoring position, that pitching gets a little tighter and you’re seeing some tougher pitches. Our guys are still getting comfortable in those uncomfortable spots.”
The Bears quickly got comfortable Sunday, putting up lopsided numbers in the third and fourth innings to carry a 9-0 lead into the fifth inning. In a rarely-seen baseball oddity, sophomore outfielder Nathan Manning clubbed a grand slam but accidentally passed senior Darren Baker on the basepaths, resulting in Manning’s first career home run being scored as a three-run single. On the mound, freshman right-hander Paulshawn Pasqualotto salvaged the series finale with six shutout innings.
“It showed a lot of grit and toughness by our guys, because we really needed that win,” Neu said. “When you’re playing a good team on the road and you’ve lost the first two games, I think a team that’s not very good loses that game and just folds. [That win] keeps us in the middle of the race for the Pac-12.”
A 3-2 nonconference win against St. Mary’s this Tuesday served as the blue and gold’s final preparation before their upcoming conference series at Oregon State. Manning continues to swing a hot bat, as he currently boasts the highest batting average in the Pac-12. Baker, meanwhile, will look to reach base in a 37th consecutive game this evening. As conference play rolls on, Cal’s confidence is only growing — confidence that will serve the team well in the batter’s box.
“We’re not afraid of any moment in the game or any team we play,” Neu said. “We’re comfortable going up against anyone.”
Chanun Ong covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].