2 down, 1 to go: Cal clinches huge series against UCLA, eyes Oregon

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Staff

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Baseball seasons are notoriously long and grueling. In college, clubs play more than 50 games during 11 straight weeks. Single games become less important in this scenario, and a solitary heartwarming or heartbreaking performance rarely makes or breaks a season.

Sometimes, however, a season can come down to one game, one inning or one pitch. For Cal, that moment came out on the 2,756th out of the season.

Trailing 2-0 in Saturday’s matchup against then-No. 18 UCLA, Keshawn Ogans hit a screaming liner into the left-center gap on a 3-2, two-out pitch, clearing the bases and giving Cal a one-run lead.

“We really had that one four-run inning, but it was a huge hit by Keshawn (Ogans) to give us the lead,” said head coach Mike Neu. “Obviously, to get the series on the road against a really good team when we needed that, that was a big performance by our guys.”

It was a clutch performance in an important situation. The Bears, who were left for dead after a series loss to ASU in early May, have climbed back into the postseason conversation.

Cal’s success has hinged on the resurgence of its once dormant offense, thanks in part to the hot hitting of cleanup man Quentin Selma and contributions from the bottom of the order from catcher Cole Elvis and Ogans.

The high-flying offense was in full display during Friday’s opener as the Bears defeated the rival Bruins 14-2. Selma and Elvis both had four hits while outfielder Steven Zobac contributed another three. Cal finished with 17 total hits, including four homers, in its best game all season.

“That was a great way to start the weekend,” Cal head coach Mike Neu said. “They came out really focused and we got a great performance; we kept our foot on the gas the whole game, and we pitched really well, too.”

Elvis, who led the team in hits for the first two games of the series, was at the top of his game last weekend. For his terrific performance at the plate, as well as his gritty defense behind it, Elvis was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week.

His budding performance encapsulates the recent upward trend of the Bears’ bottom of the order, which has provided a much-needed spark to Cal’s season. Along with Elvis, Ogans has nearly doubled his output in the month of May, hitting .260 with a couple of dingers and nine RBIs in the warming weather.

“He’s been playing hard and has continued to just get more confident,” Neu said of Ogans. “It was really cool to see him come through right there.”

While the bats had been backed by characteristically strong starting pitching in the first two games, the staff would falter in a 7-4 Sunday loss. Starter Grant Holman lacked his typical sharpness, retiring no batters via strikeout in his 3 ⅓ innings of work.

Despite the series win, the loss was still a shot in the back of a Cal team in desperate need of RPI boosters. Sitting at 28-24 overall and 81 in the RPI, the Bears don’t have a typical postseason resume.

The Bears do, however, have two straight series wins against top 20 opponents under their belts. And more opportunities beckon — Cal plays host to No. 10 Oregon (17 in RPI) this weekend and can make up for lost ground then

For Cal, it’s simple: Win, and you’re in. Lose, and you’ll be sweating it out on Selection Monday.

However, winning will be no easy task against a top 10 ballclub such as the Ducks. Oregon is led by an incredibly talented hitting core of Aaron Zavala, Kenyon Yovan and Gabe Matthews and a pitching staff leading the Pac-12 in ERA.

The stakes are high for the surging Bears. But in the volatile sport of college baseball, sometimes extra motivation can raise a team’s postseason hopes.

“Winning this series gives us a shot, so I know we’re going to be focused and ready to go,” Neu said. “I’m excited to see how we do, and hopefully we can win this series and give ourselves a chance.”

The Bears will have their first shot at the Ducks in a Thursday nightcap, with a powerhouse projected starting matchup of Josh White (5-2, 2.04 ERA) and Robert Ahlstrom (7-3, 2.10 ERA).

Regardless of the results, Cal will have to wait until Selection Monday on May 31 to determine if it has made the cut.

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