Cal Baseball making a late push for an NCAA postseason berth

Golden Bears won a Pac-12 series over No.12 Stanford last weekend and then took the Friday opener at No.18 UCLA, 14-2.

Cal Baseball (27-23, 13-12 in Pac-12 play) will rather figuratively go down swinging than get caught looking as their 2021 regular-season winds down to the final two weekends.

The typical checkmark for a Pac-12 team to build an NCAA postseason-worthy résumé in a normal season would be to have a winning conference record on top of the required winning season. Yet while Cal has more or less achieved that goal thus far in the 2021 season with 5 games remaining, the Golden Bears have an abysmal RPI of 104 (before this weekend and the expected 15-20 spot boost from Friday’s win) due to their 9-13 road record that included a disastrous midweek (AKA a crapshoot when inexperienced freshmen pitchers get the opportunity to pitch) loss at RPI No.261 San Jose State (6-23) fairly early this season.

With a back-loaded schedule that included 4 games against RPI 18 (then No.12, now No.15 in the human polls) Stanford last weekend, 3 games at RPI 25 (No.18 in the human polls) UCLA this weekend, and a home 3-game series against RPI 12 (No.6 in the human polls) Oregon next weekend, Cal Bears hope to make a late push for a still improbable postseason spot. The Bears have won 8 of their last 12 games, including 3 over ranked opponents; the NCAA committee, if they can get over their recent SEC biases, does prioritize late-season results in their selection process.

After Friday’s win, the Bears’ 13-12 Pac-12 record puts them 7th out of 11 (Colorado does not have a baseball program) in the Pac right now, just a game behind UCLA and Oregon State. With no conference tournament in the Pac-12, Cal would need to both win out and have everything break right to finish tied for the Pac-12 lead. Oregon, Cal’s opponent next week, currently leads the Conference of Champions with an 18-7 record. At the minimum, Cal probably needs to win 3 of their final 5 games to finish 15-14 in Pac-12 play, maybe that’s good enough for a 5th place, to force the NCAA selection committee to consider them.

Regardless of the big picture about the (lack of) potential postseason hope, Cal Baseball does deserve some attention for their good play of late.

Going chronologically backward, here is what happened in Cal’s last 5 games - lots of homers, clutch pitching to get out of jams, but also some missed opportunities and frustrating defensive miscues in the two losses.

Cal 14, No.18 UCLA 2

Helped by 17 hits and more strong late-season pitching from sophomore RHP Josh White, who had a career-high 10 strikeouts, Cal Bears got their biggest win over UCLA since 2007.

Although Josh White had only become a weekend starter about a month ago, he leads the Cal Bears with a 5-2 record and a 2.04 ERA in 57.1 innings-pitched (2nd on the team behind Saturday starter Sean Sullivan). In only his 4th start of the season, White posted a strong pitching line of 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 10 K.

White also benefited from a Cal offensive outburst that included 4 home runs.

Senior 3rd baseman Quentin Selma fell a triple shy of the cycle but still went 3 for 4 while scoring 3 runs with 2 RBIs.

Cal sophomore outfielder Dylan Beavers crushed his team-high 15th homer. Beavers is just one homer behind ASU’s freshman DH/P Ethan Long for the Pac-12 lead going into Saturday. The most recent Pac-12 homerun leaders had also come from these two schools - ASU’s Spencer Torkelson ended up being the top overall pick of the 2020 MLB Draft while Cal’s Andrew Vaughn was the third overall pick of the 2019 MLB Draft. Fortunately for the Pac-12, both Beavers and Long are not yet MLB draft-eligible this summer.

On the year, Dylan Beavers is slashing 0.305 (batting average) / 0.404 (on-base percentage) / 0.611 (slugging percentage) for a very impressive OPS of 1.015. His line only looks ordinary if one unfairly compares them to Andrew Vaughn’s recent 0.380/0.500/0.700 slash lines in the Golden Bears uniform.

Cal Bears also got dingers from catcher Cole Elvis and 1st baseman Nathan Martorella. The 17 hits set a new season-high, and 7 of them went for extra bases.

Darren Baker, a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award (Cal fans can vote for him via the link), got his 193rd career hit and may get to 200 for his collegiate career. Baker also swiped his 27th base of the year. The Cal 2nd baseman has a team-high 0.323 batting average with a 0.403 on-base percentage.

Cal 6, No.15 Stanford 7 (12 innings)

The Cal Bears missed a major opportunity for a “big” road win on Monday from The Farm after taking the Big Series over the weekend in Berkeley. Even though this Monday game was a “non-conference” game, the RPI values road wins far more than home wins.

Connor Mack hit a 3-run homer in T3 to put the Bears ahead.

Cal, in fact, had a 5-0 lead going to B4 but a Monday game meant that it was going to be a bullpen game for both teams. Joe Ammirato was solid in his two scoreless innings as the “starter” for the Bears but Mitch Benson (3 ER in 1.2 IP) and Vaughn Mauterer (3 ER in 0.1 IP) could not hold on. Stanford took a 6-5 lead by the end of the 5th.

Reuben Drogin and Nick Proctor, who both pitched again to finish Cal’s big Friday win at UCLA in low-leverage situations, escaped some jams to preserve the one-run deficit.

Stanford, also having to rely on some less reliable arms for an out here or there (there is no three-batter minimum rule in college baseball, so teams can still bring in a pitcher just for one or two batters), gave up the lead in T8 to Cole Elvis on his clutch, two-out double to the opposite field.

Cal got 2.2 IP of scoreless ball from junior RHP Mitchell Scott. Over his past 7 appearances, Scott has effectively pitched a “no-hitter” with 9 (and counting) hitless streak.

But the Bears could not break through despite some errors from David Esquer’s Stanford squad late. Conversely, the Bears also made a lot of clutch plays (catcher Cole Elvis picked off a runner! Ian Viller stranded Stanford despite the first batter reached 3rd with no out!) to earn additional innings until they effectively ran out of pitcher in B12 and had to bring in Ben Lake (who had allowed 3 ER in 0.1 IP against San Jose State prior to this appearance). Lake did lower his 81 ERA to 54 by getting one out but also allowed the winning run to be scored.

Cal 9, No.12 Stanford 5

Cal effectively secured a “Big Series” victory with an 8-run B4 in this Sunday game thanks to a Selma grand slam and then a Beavers 3-run shot. This earned the Bears’ first Big Series win since 2014.

Helped by the large lead, Cal ace Grant Holman pitched 6.1 innings to get his first win of the season after a late start to the year. Holman allowed two runs (a “Quality Start”) even after Stanford hit a 3-run homer off Nick Proctor in T7 after Grant Holman was pulled.

Thankfully, Stanford only scored 4 in T7. Sam Stoutenborough and Mitchell Scott finished the game without stranding four runners on base to preserve a four-run victory.

Cal 5, No.12 Stanford 4

In dramatic fashion, Cal Bears earned yet another patented walk-off win from Evans Diamond last Saturday. This was Cal’s 6th walk-off win of the 2021 season.

Steven Zubac hit a two-run, walk-off single when the Bears were down to their penultimate out while trailing by one.

With the tying run on 3rd and the winning run on 2nd, our old pal David Esquer questionably opted to play the Stanford infield in to cut off the potential tying run. Zobac was able to take advantage and poked a game-winning base hit through the drawn-in infield to set off the Cal celebration on the field.

Sean Sullivan technically had a quality start because only two of the four runs he gave up were earned runs. Sullivan allowed only singles but two errors behind in the first two innings put him in an early hole as four Cardinal runs crossed homeplate by the end of T2.

Before Zobac’s heroic, Cal got homers from Quentin Selma (2 for 4, 1 R, 2 RBI) and Nathan Martorella (3 for 4, 3 R, 1 RBI). Darren Baker (2 for 3, 1 R) padded his team lead in SB with a swipe. Martorella’s B6 solo shot made the score 4-3 Stanford ahead of Cal’s memorable 9th.

Cal 2, No.12 Stanford 9

Solo homers from Cole Elvis and Quentin Selma were not enough as Stanford tagged Cal starter Josh White for 6 runs (3 earned) in the first 5 innings. After an error to open T2, Stanford had three two-out singles to score three unearned runs. They hit a three-run homer in T3 to make it 6-0.

Stanford ace Brenden Beck improved to 6-0 and struck out 12 in 8 innings. Beck’s older brother Tristan was a former Stanford star who is now in the San Francisco Giants organization (Tristan Beck was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Giants for Mark Melancon and his large contract a couple of years ago midseason; this move was hailed as a steal by Giants fans who praised their President of Baseball Operations in Farhan Zaidi, a Cal Economics Ph.D. alum, but that deal had really worked out for both teams).

Easily, Quentin Selma was the Best Bear from the weekend with his three homers to secure the much-needed Big Series win for Cal.

Coming up next this weekend, Cal’s top two 2021 MLB Draft prospects will take the mound for the Golden Bears in their next two critical games. Junior RHP Sean Sullivan (3.57 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 63 K in team-high 68 IP) will go on Saturday afternoon at 2 PM PT. Junior RHP Grant Holman (3.00 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 43 K in 39 IP) and his 98 mph fastball, 85 mph changeup, and 75 mph curve will start on Sunday at 1 PM PT.

The Cal offense with their left-hand heavy lineup (the most-used lineup includes 6 lefties, all stacked near the top of the batting order) will look to continue their offensive attacks against a pair of Bruins righties in Sean Mullen (9-1, 2.77 ERA) on Saturday and Jesse Bergin (4-3, 4.76 ERA) on Sunday.

UCLA (31-17) will have free online streams of both games, this honestly meant that more people could watch them than if the games were on the Pac-12 Networks.