Ahead of Pac-12 Opener, Cal Baseball Mostly Looks like a Post-Season Team
Golden Bears host No.16 Arizona for three games in Evans Diamond this weekend
Embracing the ability to travel more compared to last year, Cal Baseball head coach Mike Neu scheduled several high-profile non-conference games for his Golden Bears in 2022. In response, the Cal Bears (6-6) have both earned some high-profile wins (over then No.17 TCU in a neutral field, one at No.10 Florida State, and even a home win over then No.23 Sacramento State) while agonizingly allowed other games to slip away.
With the caveat that the RPI is a quite useless measure this early in the season, this week’s college baseball RPI got the Cal Bears at 81st (coincidentally around where the Bears were ranked at the end of 2021 when they were left out of the Postseason field of 64). One would think that the Bears should deserve a ranking closer to the 50s and be on the postseason bubble if that decision is being made now. Cal will also have a lot of Pac-12 opportunities to improve their resume. In the Baseball America poll, upcoming Pac-12 foes who are ranked include No.17 Arizona (this weekend), No.15 UCLA, No.8 Oregon State, and No.2 Stanford (led by former Cal Baseball head coach David Esquer).
In addition to the midweek non-conference games, the uneven number of baseball teams in the Pac-12 means that the Bears will also have a non-conference weekend series against New Mexico. But the biggest change that will ensure that the Cal Bears can dream of making the postseason until the very end of the season is the inaugural Pac-12 Baseball tournament where the conference automatic bid will be awarded. For a team like Cal that got an MLB draft first-round talent in Dylan Beavers who may get hot and carry the team on any given weekend and an ace in Josh White who can give the Golden Bears a chance to compete in any given game, they can be very dangerous in a tournament setting (just like how the Bears went 3-0 in the season-opening MLB4 tournament).
The Bears can also take the simpler path to the postseason by playing well in Pac-12 play, starting tonight.
Cal Bears made the tough trip into Tallahassee to play No.10 Florida State in front of their raucous home crowd this past weekend. The Friday was on the ACC Network and the Sunday games streamed.
Florida State 4, Cal 3
If you watched this game, you would likely always remember this for the Keshawn Ogans homerun that was not. Against Florida State ace Parker Messick, projected to be a day 1 MLB Draft talent, Cal hit two balls out of the park in the 2nd inning. 2nd baseman Hance Smith hit a solo shot first. Two batters later, the other half of the Cal double play duo shortstop Keshawn Ogans also hit a ball out of the park. As Ogans was greeted by his teammates near the homeplate and celebrating in the dugout, FSU immediately informed the umpire that Ogans had missed the homeplate. This ruling was confirmed by video replay showing that Ogans had only straddled the plate at the end of his homerun trot. Ogans was ruled out to end the inning; he was technically awarded the weirdest triple that you will find in the boxscore.
Cal ace Josh White was absolutely brilliant in setting a brand new career-high in strikeouts with 11 in 5 innings. Unfortunately, his high pitch count meant that he could not go deeper into the game. Josh White only gave up a run while getting out of a jam in B5. The Bears added an additional run in T6 to make it 3-1. The Bears got scoreless relief work from Chris Stamos and Christian Becerra.
Of course, the missing run from the baserunning mistake would come back to haunt the Bears. With two out but a runner on in B8, Cal’s de facto “closer” Mitchell Scott hung a pitch to FSU’s Alex Toral. Flamethrowing Aaron Roberts then walked the two batters that he faced in B9. The Seminoles’ James Tibb got the game-winning hit off Henrik Reinertsen with two-out, bases loaded.
Overshadowed by Ogans’ mistake earlier, Cal also made a base-running mistake in T3 when right fielder Dylan Beavers drove a pitch from FSU lefty Messick the other way for an RBI double. Beavers, unfortunately, made an out trying to advance to 3rd. Nonetheless, one would think that Beavers probably boosted his MLB draft stock from this game.
Florida State 7, Cal 4
Converted from the closer role last year, Steven Zobac struck out a career-high 7 batters but also gave up three runs in four innings. Cal trailed 7-1 before late homers from Dylan Beavers and freshman centerfielder Rodney Green Jr. made the final score look more respectable.
Cal 5, Florida State 3 (10 innings)
Joseph King allowed only two singles in 5-innings for the Bears. His scoreless performance earned him the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honor.
The Bears broke through first with a run in T7 and two more runs in T8. Connor Sullivan had been brilliant but left after giving up a walk and a single with one out. Lefty reliever and JuCo transfer Chris Stamos again became the high leverage arm counted on by Mike Neu. Stamos had the good stuff to get a strikeout for the second out. Yet after FSU scored two runs and got the tying run to third thanks to a Cal error and a wild pitch, Stamos allowed the tying run to score by spiking a pitch that Cal catcher Cole Elvis had no chance to block.
Credit to this Cal team for digging deep after another late-game blown save. The Bears scored two runs in T10 from a Nathan Martorella leadoff double, Elvis RBI single, and Green using his speed on both an infield single and scoring on a wild pitch (just like he did for the game-winning run against TCU on opening weekend). Nick Proctor was solid out of the pen to both get the win as well as the final outs.
The Bears showed that they are capable of winning a series at No.10 FSU, but they will have to settle for just one win. Salvaging this Sunday win may prove to be the difference for Cal’s postseason ambition down the line.
Our TD_24 attended Tuesday’s home game against Santa Clara. Below is his recap.
Santa Clara 9 Cal 6
Coming off a roller coaster ride in Tallahassee, the California Golden Bears (6-5) would be facing off against the Santa Clara Broncos on a cozy Tuesday night at Evans Diamond. The chaos that would ensue after the first pitch resembled anything but a cozy first half of the game. It was apparent from the jump that the Broncos and their bench had brought the energy having won five in a row compared to a quiet Cal bench that seemed ready to look towards Arizona.
Jon Jon Berring from Santa Clara would immediately be plucked by Cal opener Sam Stoutenborough, who attempted to pick off Berring and instead threw it in the outfield where neither Dylan Beavers nor Nathan Martorella could get a clean grip, resulting in Berring scoring all the way from first base to put the visitors on the board first. Yet that wouldn’t be the only fielding issue for the Bears in the opening frame. Trevor Tishenkel overran a flyout to left field off the bat of Eamonn Lance, resulting in another run for Santa Clara to put them up 2-0 heading into the home half of the first.
The Bears would face similar luck batting, loading the bases on walk on opener Drake Davis who didn’t record an out before getting yanked. Martorella would bring in two runs on a single to tie the contest before Keshawn Ogans put Cal up 4-2 at the end of the 1st with another two run single.
As if that wasn’t enough offense, Cal Christofori nabbed a triple off a missed dive by Beavers before being sacrificed in. Coleman Brigman would then blast one to deep left field in the top of the 2nd to put SCU ahead 6-4. Cole Elvis would return fire for Cal on a sacrifice fly to make it 6-5 at the end of two. The pitchers, fielders, and coaches after this one were going to need a long ice bath and probably a beer or two.
Hance Smith would tie the game at 6-6 on an RBI groundout in the bottom of the 3rd before Lance responded again with a two run double off Statenborough and Mike Neu had seen enough. For the rest of the game Neu would go one inning apiece with pitchers in what became a defensive struggle between both squads. Only one run was scored across the final four innings, with the offenses from both sides grinding to a halt. Eight others saw the mound for the Bears in what surmounted to a 9-6 defeat at the hands of Santa Clara, who have now won 7 of their last 8 games while Cal has played steady .500 ball for the last week and change.
The Good: Keshawn Ogans and Dylan Beavers got on base a lot tonight, boarding six times
Caleb Lomavita had a nice throw out to stop Jon Jon Berring from stealing 2nd base
The back half of the bullpen really cleaned up, from Mitchell Scott in the 6th inning onwards
Drew 9 total walks
The Bad: Fielding, a lot of muffed balls, missed dives, and missed angles, Mike Neu can’t be pleased
Mike Neu: it’s quite clear he wanted more from Sam Statenborough but just wasn’t getting it, and it cost the Bears dearly
Sam Statenborough: didn’t have great command tonight, not a lot of 50/50 pitches but rather 100/0 pitches where either SCU was swinging at will into the yard or flying out somewhere
Plate vision: 12 of their 27 outs came via strikeout. The Bears couldn’t see the plate when they weren’t hitting it into the outfield, especially from the 7th inning onwards.
Baseball fans know just how fickle the game could be and how a fantastic night could be ruined by bad luck/bad play at a crucial time.
Cal has got the offense and the starting pitching to win most games, but the bullpen has been somewhat uneven as head coach Mike Neu, a former closer himself, is still figuring out his more reliable relievers.
Golden Bears need a brand new pen for 2022 because they have converted their two most reliable returning bullpen arms in Steven Zobac and Joseph King into starters. The pen has also needed to pick up more innings because Mike Neu does not want to push his starters for too long, too early in the season.
Cal ace Josh White has been phenomenal so far, dominating the hitters by striking out 31 in 16.1 IP while allowing only 2 runs. The 1.10 ERA and 0.86 WHIP may not be sustainable, but White has certainly passed the eye test with his nasty mix of pitches. The only knock against him is that the high K rate means that he has yet to get to the 7th inning (then again, neither has most of the starters in MLB now). But with him on the mound, Cal can match anybody in the country for the first 5-6 innings.
After Josh White, both Zobac and King have given up some big innings, but they have also both shown why they are the weekend starters this year. Both guys are getting a strikeout per inning, which is a good indicator of their effectiveness.
Mike Neu experimented with using an opener a few seasons ago, with now midweek starter Sam Stoutenborough as the bulk guy. Neu might be experimenting a bit with the whole "tandem pitching” concept this year, by designating a guy to pitch as the long reliever after the starters. Of course, this may also be the strategy for the early part of the season to make sure that guys do get consistent work since there is no equivalence of Spring Training in college baseball.
Ian May has been the guy to pitch after Zobac on Saturdays. Connor Sullivan has got the ball behind King on Sundays. Sullivan (2.35 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) has got more success so far and could be a candidate to be moved into a starter role if necessary.
With a dozen games in the book now, it is obvious who Mike Neu would prefer to step up from the bullpen.
LHP Chris Stamos, a transfer from junior college, has a good arm but has also blown a couple of saves. In addition to the blown save via a wild pitch, Stamos had also got a BS with an error throwing to first base. When he does have some command of his throws, it is clear why Mike Neu would trust him in high leverage situations. Consistency will hopefully be a thing that he will find soon.
In addition to Stamos, who had a team-high 6 appearances, Mitchell Scott and graduate transfer Henrik Reinertsen, your proverbial “junk” tossing veteran given his varieties of off-speed pitches in his arsenal, have also pitched in half of Cal’s games. Nick Proctor, Vaughn Mauterer, and Aaron Roberts are just behind with 5.
The X-Factor for the Cal Baseball bullpen has got to be Aaron Roberts. Blessed with the best arm on the staff, Roberts’ fastball is around 96-98 mph but his control has been lacking at times. Roberts had a game last year where he came in with the bases loaded and struck out the side. IF he is able to harness his stuff to become the ace out of the pen, Cal Baseball instantly becomes so much more dangerous, particularly in a postseason tournament setting.
Offensively, Cal got pop through the top 2/3 of the lineup. RF Dylan Beavers (0.277/0.397/0.574) is as advertised with a team-high 4 dingers. C Cole Elvis (0.313/0.396/0.521) has been great.
The true freshmen duo of DH/C Caleb Lomavita and CF Rodney Green Jr have produced, fellow freshman 3B Carson Crawford will hopefully hit more.
Out of the returning players, SS Keshwan Ogans (0.313/0.327/0.521) just might have figured something out at the plate. 2B/UTIL Hance Smith (0.268/0.375/0.439) had been moved to the leadoff spot ahead of Beavers in the most recent games.
The Bears are still looking for offense from the 3B and LF spots, but they have some candidates there.
Final non-conference thought: Despite questions about the left side of the diamond and the back of the pen, Cal can be a top-third team in the Pac. It is easy to second guess Neu’s early season decisions at times, but maybe those pressure experiences will pay dividends in conference play and beyond.
Up Next: Pac-12 play vs No.16 Arizona (10-3)