Heartbreak city: Losses further sink Cal’s postseason hopes

Photo of Cal Baseball pitcher throwing the baseball
Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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Baseball is a game of inches. A 3-2 pitch that just misses outside, a sinking liner just out of the reach of a diving outfielder or a tag at the plate applied just a split second late — all potentially game-changing plays decided by mere inches. And while some quick decision-making might help tilt the scales in your favor, sometimes it is merely the baseball gods that decide whether those inches are on your side.

Cal baseball has not been on the right side.

For the second straight week, the Bears narrowly dropped a series to a Pac-12 club, losing three to Oregon State in Corvallis. In similar fashion to its series loss to Arizona two weekends ago, Cal was in good position to win, or even sweep, the series, but late bullpen falterings and inconsistent hitting quenched any hopes of a signature win.

Game one, a 15-8 Oregon State win that was as much a nailbiter as a blowout, might go down as Cal’s most heartbreaking contest in 2021. The Bears had built a 8-4 lead heading into the seventh inning off a gritty performance from starter Grant Holman and a three-run dinger from red-hot Nathan Manning. Spirits were riding high, as the bullpen had yet to blow a lead in the sixth inning or later all year.

Yet the Beavers began to chip away at the lead in the seventh inning, scoring two. Resident Bear-basher Jacob Melton then provided the dagger with a game-tying, two-out, two run triple, building toward his six RBI day. His fly-ball fell just wide of the diving glove of right fielder John Lagattuta, one of numerous excruciatingly close plays that made the blown lead that much harder to swallow.

A quiet top half of the eighth inning added more energy to a surging Oregon State lineup, which turned around and dropped seven runs, including a grand slam later that inning. The Bears, who had just been in prime position to take game one and control the series, had now found themselves in a deep hole to a confident club.

Unfortunately for Cal and its postseason hopes, the blue and gold just couldn’t dig themselves out.

“We have to be a little better offensively, in general,” said head coach Mike Neu. “We have had some breakout games, but we have to get a little more consistent all-the-way around. ”

Games two and three saw more of the same for the struggling Bears; the team built up narrow early leads, only to see them slowly falter away as the rallying Beavers showed their finesse time and time again.

Hitting woes and unlucky plays plagued Cal in Saturday’s matchup, as the Bears wasted a phenomenal start from junior Sean Sullivan when the bats went cold in sunny Corvallis. Sullivan, who got tagged with the hard-luck loss, gave up his only runs on the night in the seventh inning off a heads-up play from Melton. The Oregon State sophomore caught the Cal defense napping and scored from second base on a single he had no business touching home on.

The Bears mustered just one run — off an RBI single by Manning — on three hits en route to the 1-2 loss. The blue and gold just couldn’t get completely clicking the whole series, as they failed to put together both a solid pitching performance and a solid offensive performance in a game all weekend.

“We had the lead late in the first two games, so obviously that was positive,” Neu said. “It was just disappointing that we couldn’t finish it off.”

Though Cal didn’t need another lesson on the Beaver’s comeback abilities, Sunday’s 3-5 loss was as indicative of Oregon State’s resilience — and the Bears’ inability to keep their opponents at bay — as any game in the series. Cal raced out to a 3-1 lead off a RBI single from Lagattuta and home run from Dylan Beavers, but Oregon State slowly and tortuously scored a single run in the fourth, firth, six and eighth innings to take command of the game.

However, no matter how close the series was a loss is a loss, and a sweep is a sweep. The Bears now sit just two games more than .500 overall and 5-7 in Pac-12 play. Cal’s RPI of 107 might be the most frightening of all measures for the team’s postseason aspirations, as the Bears need to get into the 50-60 range as a West Coast team looking for an at-large bid.

That will be quite the tall task, and it boils down to one simple ability: winning series. Cal was doing just that, having won six straight earlier this year, before dropping these last two. The Bears need to regain some of that magic, and do so fast, as they take on Saint Mary’s at home in the midweek and host Washington State for a three-game set this weekend.

Cal has already beaten the Gaels in four of five tries this season and the Cougars sit just below the Bears in conference standings with a 5-10 record. So not only are these winnable games, but must-win contests.

“I would love to be in a better place than we are right now, but we are where we are and we still have a lot of games in front of us,” Neu said. “Hopefully, we can get hot here and make a run.”

For as heartbreaking as this series sweep might have been, the baseball gods work in mysterious ways and fortunes can swing in an instant. If Cal baseball can manage to work itself on the right side of the scales and the inches start swinging their way, the Bears just might have a chance to turn their season around.

Noah Parker covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].