Farewell, Cal baseball 2011, and thanks for the memories! (Photo credit: gobears725)
With the bleak backdrop of elimination, the season finally began on February 20th. And despite so much uncertainty, Cal raced to a 19-6 start that saw them earn a ranking as high as #13 in the nation. The Bears were delivering on their promise behind a pitching staff that was dominating opposing batters and an offense that had a knack for delivering in the clutch.
Cal fans who made the drive to San Francisco to watch the Bears take on #18 Rice at AT&T Park probably felt that something special was happening. The Bears fell behind 6-1 after five innings, then scored four runs over the last three innings to tie the game before finally winning in the 15th inning with Tony Renda scoring the final run. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was a performance that typified the Bears at their best.
Meanwhile, Save Cal Baseball was busy pulling off a miracle. I still don’t know how they did it, but led by former baseball player Stu Gordon, pledges went from ~2 million dollars to ~9 million dollars between early February and late April. But it was still short of the 10 million target set by the administration. Would it be enough?
The Bears were in Arizona, preparing for an important road series against a ranked Pac-10 foe. Coach Esquer received the news over the phone and then gathered his team for a meeting to deliver the news: Salvation. Administrators had been successfully convinced that despite not reaching the 10 million target, enough money had been raised to keep the program running for the long term. Later, the players would admit that they had already begun planning for their future. Tony Renda and Justin Jones admitted they were preparing to transfer to Oregon to continue their promising careers. The exodus had been prevented.
Cal still had the meat of their regular season schedule to face, and it didn’t go nearly as well as the first two months of the season. After sweeping a woeful Washington team, the Bears finished Pac-10 play on a 4-10 conference streak that saw them fall out of the national rankings. Some players felt that they had lost their edge upon learning that baseball would not be cut. It’s also true that in those 14 games Cal faced four ranked, playoff bound teams. Whatever the reason, optimism was in short supply when it was announced that Cal was heading to Houston to take on Rice, Baylor and Alcorn St. to open their NCAA playoffs.
That lack of optimism seemed well founded when Cal lost to Baylor 6-4 in game 1. Then the Bears fell behind 4-0 to Alcorn St., and it looked like they would be swept out of the playoffs without a win once again. Perhaps the season wouldn’t be a disappointment – the Bears did make the playoffs, and the program would continue to exist – but it seemed too soon for a team that reached such heights in April.
And then, out of nowhere, Cal rediscovered their first-half-of-the-season mojo. Cal’s struggling lineup exploded for 10 runs to come back against Alcorn St. After falling behind they again came back to eliminate Rice, 6-3. With most of the pitching staff having been used in the three prior games, Coach Esquer turned to freshman Kyle Porter to start just his third game of the year. He responded with 6 2/3 of brilliant, shut out pitching and Cal’s lineup exploded for 8 runs. The Bears were one win away from a stirring regional championship.
And then it all fell apart. Baylor exploded for 6 runs in the 4th inning and Cal’s season looked like it was over. Even when Cal scored two runs in the 6th and two more in the 8th Baylor still held an 8-5 lead. To make matters worse, Baylor had brought in ace Logan Verrett, who had already shut down Cal in Baylor’s earlier win.
So if you believe that fate, or destiny, or karma, or any other kind of higher power influences sporting events, what happened next can only be described as some sort of divine providence mixed with grit, talent and some amazing clutch hitting. The details have been discussed many times over the last 10 days. Three hits, one hit by pitch, one walk, one horribly botched run-down and one unbelievable error combined in one of the most amazing 9th inning comebacks you’ll ever see.
Compared to the events in Houston, Cal’s two game sweep of fellow upstart Dallas Baptist to advance to the College World Series was downright boring. It seemed that, in surviving the regional round, Cal rediscovered their talent and confidence from earlier in the season. It was on full display as the Bears dominated the Patriots in front of more than 1,000 joyful Cal fans in Santa Clara.
Omaha. The entire experience was surreal. There were the Bears getting pregame features from ESPN. KALX broadcaster Danny Freisinger briefly called the World Series to a national audience. Ball players were psuedo celebrities, bringing cheer to a children's hospital. The perpetually embattled David Esquer was named national coach of the year. You couldn't make any of this up.
The road the Bears faced would be extraordinarily tough. Six national seeds plus a seventh team that should have been one as well. And to start, a date with #1 Virginia. Honestly, I feared that the Bears would be two and out against such spectacularly competition. That's why Cal's win over Texas A&M was particularly satisfying.
This wasn't a team that deserved to be dismissed as an upstart, a lucky fluke that took advantage of a cushy path through the regionals and super-regionals. Despite Cal's rough end-of-the-regular-season stretch, they had proven that they had the talent to compete with the best in the country. Sure, seven losses by three runs or less to Pac-10 playoff teams hurt, but it certainly proved that the Bears could beat anybody. They fully proved that with a decisive win over a talented Texas A&M squad sending their ace to the mound.
The players undoubtedly feel disappointed that they were unable to progress further, or even to have been more competitive against Virginia. But that one win meant something. For one thing, it was Cal's first World Series win in over 30 years. For another, it showed that Cal belonged on the big stage for reasons beyond the Hollywood-ready story. Those who were truly in tune with the team knew that this was a team missing one of their most important players in Justin Jones, the man who might have been selected to start against Virginia in game one. Even without him Cal hung tough over three games.
But the real victory is that Cal will play again next year. This season wasn’t just a victory for the baseball team – it was a victory for the Cal community. Bear backers were faced with the loss of four sports, and rather than accepting it, they fought back. A statement was made: these programs are an important, worthwhile part of our university, something worth saving. And they backed up that statement with time and money, and they won. Every single sport was saved.
Now, instead of celebrating the ultimate Pyrrhic victory, we can enjoy more mundane discussions. As one season ends thoughts immediately turn to the next. The Bears will lose seniors Austin Booker, Kevin Miller, and Dwight Tanaka. Juniors Erik Johnson, Marcus Semien, Chadd Krist, Matt Flemer, and Dixon Anderson will all have to choose between professional careers and their final season of eligibility. But there will still be plenty of talent on the roster. Justin Jones and Kyle Porter look to form one of the most talented lefty duos in the nation. Tony Renda will look to defend his Pac-10 player of the year title. Talented freshmen like Derek Campbell, Andrew Knapp and Louis Lechich will have the chance to further carve out full-time roles after impressing in their first year. The 2012 squad may not reach the heights of 2011, but the most important part is that they will have the chance.