Upcoming WSU, USF matchups crucial to Cal baseball’s postseason hopes

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

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A 2-6 slump just a few weeks ago set Cal baseball back in the Pac-12 standings and put a damper on the Bears’ hopes of making regionals for the first time since the 2019 season.

Now, after earning three straight wins — two against Washington in a three-game road series and one 6-0 shutout against Saint Mary’s on Monday — head coach Mike Neu’s team must feel more hopeful that its postseason drought could come to an end next month. While winning the conference is unlikely at this point (Cal currently sits at sixth in the Pac-12 standings),an at-large bid is still very much on the table.

The Bears’ upcoming four-game stretch, which includes a three-game weekend series against Washington State in Pullman and a game against San Francisco in Berkeley on Tuesday, will present Cal with a golden opportunity to rack up some much needed wins against inferior competition before playing series’ against No. 12 UCLA next week and No. 22 Stanford in early May.

Washington State (12-19) sits in last place in the conference standings, and it’s easy to see why. The Cougars are dead last in total runs scored, totals hits and team batting average (.243) among all Pac-12 teams this season. That said, WSU’s bats came alive last weekend in a series win over then-No. 9 Arizona in Tucson, scoring 11 and six runs in its first two games.

It is likely that Cal will face one of three WSU pitchers in the first game of the series at 3:05 on Thursday: sophomore Grant Taylor, redshirt junior McKabe Cottrell or redshirt sophomore Cole McMillan. The three of them have combined for 24 starts this season. Taylor has undoubtedly been the Cougars’ ace this year, boasting a 3.43 ERA over 42 innings pitched, a team high. McMillan (7.2 ERA) and Cottrell (7.18 ERA) have been much more inconsistent, although McMillan earned a win against Arizona on Friday.

Cal’s offense might very well make the difference in this series as the Bears have had little to no trouble scoring this season but have not gotten solid, long outings out of pitchers not named Joseph King and, more recently, Sam Stoutenborough. The Bears have the second-worst team ERA in the Pac-12 (5.64), which attests to a lack of depth in Cal’s bullpen.

Neu has made it clear in recent weeks that pitching is the key area in which the Bears must improve.

“We’ve played well the last couple weeks. We haven’t been able to finish off every game, but we’ve been playing really good baseball,” Neu said after Sunday’s win over Washington. “Obviously, if we can continue to get guys to step up on the mound, that’s going to be huge. Stoutenborough did it this week, and if we can get a couple more guys to continue to do that, then we’ll be in a really good position.”

Tuesday’s matchup against the Dons in Berkeley is the very definition of a trap game. While USF sits at just 17-18 overall this season, it has earned wins against some of the best competition in college baseball and will have two days off between its final game against Pepperdine in Malibu and the game in Berkeley.

Sophomore infielder Luke Keaschall (.331 BA) has been almost unbeatable at the plate this season, and junior reliever/closer Josh Mollerus, who boasts a team best 2.66 ERA, will be hard to beat should the Bears find themselves down a few runs late in the game.

A run at regionals depends on a series win in Washington this weekend. Another slump might prove to be too much for Cal to overcome with just more than a month of regular season baseball left to play.

William Cooke covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].