The Bears face a nationally ranked Oregon squad tonight at 6:00! Check back here to follow along on the radio and talk some baseball as Cal kicks off a critical road series.
A week and a half ago the Bears lost to Santa Clara just a day after getting blown out at home by Stanford. It was surely the nadir of the season and it left Cal floundering with a record of 18-14. Riding a four game losing streak, the team held a players-only meeting and has won six of seven since, including a dominating three game sweep over Utah.
Was that meeting a catalyst that helped create the current win streak? Well, it certainly didn't hurt. It’s worth pointing out that the Bears have enjoyed seven straight home games and have faced two teams that might very well finish last and 2nd to last in the conference this season. Considering the expectations Cal carried into 2012, taking five of six at home from Washington and Utah wouldn’t normally be cause for excitement.
But considering the direction the season was trending, Cal’s mini-streak feels like a revival of hope. During Sunday’s KALX broadcast, Danny Fry mentioned that he talked to Coach Esquer and asked him how many wins the Bears might need to make the playoffs. With 16 games (including Sunday’s game against Utah left) his response was that the Bears needed to Beat Utah, then go 7-8 in conference play the rest of the way.
7-8 hardly sounds good enough for a team largely perceived as on the outside looking in, but when you consider the remaining schedule you see how it might work. Here’s what’s left:
3 at Oregon (RPI 21)
3 at Washington St. (RPI 75)
3 vs. Arizona (RPI 16)
1 vs. Washington St. (RPI 77)*
3 vs. UCLA (RPI 3)
3 at Stanford (RPI 9)
*Technically a non-conference game. Man is Cal’s post-near-elimination schedule weird.
That’s 12 games against teams inside the RPI top 21. As of right now the Bears have a mediocre RPI of 66 – good enough to be considered for the playoffs, bad enough to be left out. With a remaining schedule that is so strong, Cal could probably lose every series and still see its RPI rise slightly from where it is now.
Playing .500 baseball the rest of the way would probably be enough to put the Bears on the proverbial bubble, which means that if they want to feel truly safe they are going to need to play better than .500. Why should Cal fans feel hopeful that the Bears can play that well against such a stacked run to end the season?
Only one more mid-week games
Cal has built up a bit more pitching depth over the course of the season, but this is still a team that benefits from extra rest. Cal’s only mid-week game is the previously mentioned home tilt against WSU on the Monday right after the Fri-Sat-Sun home series against Arizona.
The return of Kyle Porter
This dovetails with the point above. Ryan Gorcey at Bear Territory writes that Porter is very close to returning to the mound after a slow rehab. I don’t know what his exact role will be, but his addition could pay huge dividends. If he can come back as an effective starter that would obviously be a huge boost. But even if he returned to the role he filled for the majority of 2011 – as a shut down bullpen arm – that would really change Cal’s bullpen dynamic. It would give Cal three very trustworthy arms along with Joey Donofrio and a suddenly hot Logan Scott.
Red hot hitters
Cal’s early Pac-12 struggles were team-wide, and that included cold streaks at the plate at different times from different players. But over the last few weeks most of the top and middle of the order have been crushing the ball. Vince Bruno has been getting on base constantly, Chad Bunting has been on a home run binge, Chadd Krist has a solid hit streak going and Tony Renda is the hottest man on the planet.
Maybe facing stronger arms against teams like Oregon and UCLA will cool Cal’s bats down. Or maybe the Bears will keep hitting their way back into the playoffs.
Three games in Eugene against Pac-12 title contender Oregon sounds daunting. But the Ducks aren’t coming into this series playing their best baseball after dropping a series at home against Washington State. The Cougars battered Oregon pitching for 18 runs in the final two games of the series, a blueprint Cal will try to emulate. The Ducks are also dealing with a number of key injuries that likely contributed to their lackluster weekend.
The Ducks still lead the conference in run prevention, even after getting wacked around by Wazzu. But they also struggle to score. If Cal’s surging weekend rotation continues to pitch well and if Oregon’s arms are still iffy there’s no reason the Bears can’t take the series in Eugene. And if Cal can tread water (or better) on their six game road trip then they’ll return home to finish out the rest of the season in the Bay Area. In that regard, this series might be the fulcrum that the rest of the season turns on. So boot up the radio (online or otherwise) and follow along. It’s white-knuckle baseball the rest of the way.