Spring has only just begun in Berkeley, but Cal baseball already passed the halfway mark of its 2022 season last weekend with a three-game road series against Arizona State.
This middle stretch of the schedule has been anything but kind to the Bears. Over the course of the eight games entering Tuesday’s home game against Cal Poly, Cal gave up an average of nearly 11 runs per game, including 16 runs in Sunday’s rubber match against the Sun Devils in Phoenix. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bears dropped to 12-15 over that stretch, accruing six losses.
Tuesday night’s 9-3 win over Cal Poly came down to one thing.
“We just pitched a lot better,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “That 2-6 stretch, we played better than our record indicates but we’ve had some tough innings where we’ve given up some big numbers and that’s really hurt us … Our pitching staff did a really good job. They held them to three runs and put up zeros in the last four innings.”
Finding solid pitchers to take the mound on Joseph King’s off days has been the ultimate challenge for Neu this year. Case in point, the junior right-hander pitched a peach of a game on Saturday in the Bears’ 14-7 win against ASU, which evened the series at one a piece. King allowed just five hits and two runs through seven innings pitched before the bullpen allowed five runs in the bottom of the ninth.
Hitting, on the other hand, hasn’t been much of an issue at all this year for Cal. The Bears’ 1-4 hitters combined for 14 hits in Sunday’s 9-16 loss and Cal held a seven-run lead heading into the sixth inning. The opening game of last weekend’s series was a notable exception, as the Bears managed to score just three runs after starting junior pitcher Josh White allowed eight runs through five and a third innings.
To put it mildly, in-game pitching changes have been too little and come too late in recent games. So, Neu decided to switch things up before the first pitch, opting to start sophomore pitcher Aaron Roberts for the first time this season.
“He’s (Roberts) just had some arm problems. So we’re just trying to give him a lot of time to warm up and get him going,” Neu said. “Hopefully we can get him to be really healthy and that’s one way to do it where you don’t have to come out of the pen. It’s a Tuesday game. We knew we weren’t going to throw someone a complete game. He can throw that first inning against their best guys and get us off, hopefully, to a good start, which he did.”
Roberts pitched a shutout inning before being pulled for freshman right-handed pitcher Tucker Bougie in the second. Bougie didn’t allow a run in the second, but gave up back-to-back home runs to the Mustangs in the third as Cal Poly quickly cut Cal’s lead to two.
Senior right-hander Sam Stoutenborough then entered the game and saw it through, earning his first win of the season after allowing six hits and one run through five innings.
Cal eked out two runs in what could have been a huge bottom of the seventh inning to expand its lead to 7-3. The inning was extended after an easy force out at home went awry for the Mustangs. The home plate umpire ruled that Cal Poly catcher Collin Villegas had pulled off home plate while catching an easy toss from pitcher Jason Franks and that Cal first baseman Nathan Martorella was safe at home. Mustangs head coach Larry Lee was then thrown out of the game for an offhand comment he made from the dugout and, rather calmly, retired to the clubhouse.
A two-run laser home run into right-center field from Cal’s junior right fielder Dylan Beavers in the top of the eighth was the final nail in the coffin for Cal Poly. The air horns and Zombie Nation playing over the stadium speakers topped off a moment of relief for a Cal team that likely wanted this win badly — both for its playoff hopes and midseason morale.