Just a week ago Cal was humming along with a four game winning streak and sat in a tie for second place in the Pac-10. One week later and they’re riding a four game losing streak and sit in fourth place, 2.5 games behind Oregon State. What happened?
The simple answer? For 32 excruciating innings at Evans Diamond, Cal’s offense fell almost completely silent. The Bears don’t frighten an opposing pitching staff with imposing power and frequent home runs, but they’ve carved out a strong offensive identity with solid plate discipline and lineup balance. Prior to the ASU series Cal had a team slash line of .303/.380/.424. The offense has been so successful that Cal had not been shut out once on the season prior to facing Arizona St.
And then it happened twice in 24 hours.
In the process Cal’s team slash lines had fallen all the way to .290/.365/.406. The pitching staff more or less held up their end of the bargain against Arizona St.’s fearsome lineup, but Sun Devil pitching managed a cumulative 1.03 ERA over 35 innings. That kind of stunning stat might leave Cal fans wondering if everything that had been achieved to start the season had been a mirage, a function of a schedule heavily front loaded with teams that wouldn’t test Cal’s true ability. Cal’s RPI of 37, behind five other conference foes, reflects how relatively weak their schedule has been up to this point.
If that is the case, then the Bears failed their first test. And yet it’s way too soon to press the panic button. There are still opportunities to prove that they belong amongst the elite in the Pac-10. Oregon St., Stanford and UCLA all remain on the schedule, and all are nationally ranked. Cal’s exact post season fate will almost certainly ride on the outcome of those 9 games.
Granted, nobody should be expecting an offensive explosion against those teams. UCLA and Oregon St. have two of the best pitching staffs in baseball, with lower ERAs than even Cal’s (and, for that matter, Arizona State’s) impressive hurlers. And college baseball fans are just going to have to get used to reduced offense because of the off-season changes to bat size regulations that have inarguably diminished hitting stats across the board. The national stats indicate the bat change has made revolutionary changes to the game, and you can see it in Berkeley. For just one example, compare Chadd Krist’s 2010 stats with his 2011 stats: 20 doubles and 1 home run so far this year compared to 10 home runs and 15 doubles last year.
Talented opponents and new bats notwithstanding, Cal will have to find a way to support their pitching staff enough to win games and series the rest of the way. Otherwise the positive feelings from a hot start and successful reinstatement will fade very quickly. The Bears have had too many recent seasons finish with quick playoff exists or shocking selection day disappointment. Winning play from this point forward will go a long way towards avoiding that fate.
It’s not quite time for the Oregon St.-UCLA-Stanford gauntlet yet. Cal gets to warm up for it with a home series against the struggling Oregon Ducks. Oregon was so successful in their first year after the program returned that it raised expectations perhaps too high for the 2011 season. Cal’s slumping batters will be disappointed to learn that Oregon actually has a lower team ERA than Arizona St., but the Ducks have had a tough time winning games because of a truly anemic offense that ranks 279th (out of 292) in the country in batting average. They make up for it a bit with a good walk rate, but Cal’s pitchers are stingy about handing out free passes. The Ducks should have real trouble scoring runs.