‘Our backs are against the wall’: Bears fold, fumble third conference series

Photo of Sam Stoutenborough of Cal Baseball pitching
Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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What would you do if you ran into yourself on the street?

Some say if you bumped into your clone, you wouldn’t even recognize yourself. Others theorize that the wrinkle in the time-space continuum would be a pleasant opportunity to catch up with your alternate-dimension self and chat about what life looks like in the future. But what if this hypothetical situation wasn’t like an episode of Star Trek and, instead, was more like a twisted Black Mirror plot — what if, under the premise that there could only be one, you had to battle your clone?

Cal had to do something similar this week and with disappointing results. Following a disappointing series loss against Oregon State, the Bears dropped a hard-fought series to the Cougars and limped away with just one win to show for four games of play this week. At face value, Cal and Washington State are eerily similar baseball teams. The stat sheets are lined with numbers so similar it is dizzying to compare the two — the teams’ total batting averages are just .039 apart, their fielding percentages differ by a hair, and the one through nine hitters on both squads boast parallel averages. And the teams are neck-and-neck in the conference as of now, as the Bears are 19-19 while the Cougars sit at 19-16.

With most of the same strengths and weaknesses, the series between these programs was supposed to be an impartial brawl. But costly errors and defensive flukes that plagued both teams proved more costly for the Bears: Despite slamming the game shut Friday night with a late comeback, Cal dropped the following two matchups by small margins.

“We had some critical mistakes that cost us,” Cal head coach Mike Neu said following the rubber match on Sunday. “It’s tough because those physical errors happen. The mental errors you can work on, but physical errors — you’d like to be able to make those plays, but there’s not a whole lot we can do in a game to fix that.”

Despite several starting pitchers sustaining minor injuries, the bullpen offered the Bears crucial opportunities to gain traction that were too often squandered. In the first matchup of the week Wednesday against St. Mary’s, Cal pitcher Reuben Drogin went on a tear, serving three strikeouts in just over an inning of near-perfect relief work to retire the Gaels and give Cal’s offense a shot at closing a gap that was unfortunately forfeited. The 6-3 loss extended the Bears’ losing streak to four games.

Friday’s series opener against Washington State was the exception in a week that was defined by squandering stellar pitching. Since recovering from an early-season affliction, pitcher Grant Holman has kept the opposition’s batter’s box quieter than a library, and the Bears’ offense capitalized. WSU blunders, a throwing error and an HBP, instigated Cal’s two runs in the eighth to give the Bears a 3-2 lead. Righty Josh White earned the save with his four-strikeout ninth-inning appearance.

Saturday, however, presented an opposite reality in which Washington State’s pitching was immaculate and the Bears got unlucky on defense. Although sophomore Dylan Beavers executed an unlikely quantum leap at the right-field fence and snagged a would-be home run, a Cal error in the fourth gave Washington State a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The Bears mustered another two-run eighth inning, but the effort was no match for Cougars pitcher Zane Mill’s ten-strikeout complete game that was backed up by 14 WSU hits.

“We don’t have a lot of margin for error with this team,” Neu said of the 2-4 loss. “When your strength is your pitching, you want to play great defense for them to keep us in the game and we obviously haven’t found a rhythm offensively. We just haven’t really been able to put up a lot of runs.”

Sunday’s match unfolded much the same as the previous game, likely due to something other than a time warp. Cal’s pitching efforts from all seven hurlers that took the mound were valiant — the bullpen totaled nine strikeouts on just three earned runs, and five pitchers threw scoreless innings. Despite plating three runs of their own, all three of which came off of home runs from Quentin Selma and Steven Zobac, the Bears were unable to piece together a late rally and dropped the contest 3-4. Senior Darren Baker had his 42-game reached-base streak snapped in the loss, which marked the third consecutive conference series dropped by the Bears.

“I think any time we lose, the alarm bells go off for me,” Neu said after the series. “We did play good at times, but you have to be able to put together competitive innings and games back-to-back, and we weren’t able to do that.”

Although losing the series to an evenly-matched opponent was no doubt a harsh reality check for the Bears, the timing is auspicious. The opportunity remains for Cal to achieve the winning record that could propel it to the offseason, and a series against a struggling Huskies team next on the docket could be the lucky break the program needs. UW’s bullpen is subpar and could provide the Bears with more than enough leeway to bust open the three-game series in Seattle. The series kicks off this Friday and is critical to keeping Cal’s postseason hopes alive.

“We have a chance to make up some ground in conference this weekend,” said Neu. “I think it’s a really pivotal part of the season. Our backs are against the wall a little bit.”

Emily Ohman covers baseball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.