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Cal Baseball: Life On The Margins

Cal and USC waged a spectacularly even battle in L.A. last week. Over a three game series, USC outscored Cal just 9-8 and outhit Cal just 23-22. 6 of the 17 combined runs were scored in the 9th inning, and all three games were decided with 9th inning rallies. From the purely neutral perspective, it was a thrilling weekend of white-knuckle baseball.

Unfortunately, none of us are neutrals and Cal travelled back to the Bay Area with a devastating series defeat. After winning game 1 and getting within 1 strike of winning game 2, it seemed that the Bears were poised for their first Pac-12 series win of the season – on the road, no less! But then Logan Scott allowed a two out, two strike single that drove in the tying and winning runs, and Joey Donofrio followed that up by walking in the winning run in the 9th in Game 3. The Bears easily could have finished the weekend 4-5 in the conference and back in the thick of things. Instead they dropped to 2-7, last place by a full game and a half.

And then Stanford destroyed the Bears in what is technically a non-conference game, 19-6. Rain mercifully cancelled Tuesday’s game against Santa Clara, giving the Bears a needed day off.

It’s premature to say that this is a lost season. The Pac-12 is really good this year, and if Cal can go on an extended hot streak they can raise their record and RPI into NCAA at-large range. But there’s a flip side to that possibility. The Pac-12 is really good this year, and if Cal doesn’t start playing significantly better, they will finish the season with a conference record around 9-21. Hell, Cal hasn’t even played the three best teams in the conference so far and has still struggled.

I think the reality is that Cal’s World Series run last year may have blinded us fans. It’s worth remembering that before Cal went on their 7-3 run through the playoffs, the Bears ended the season with a fairly pedestrian record of 31-20 (13-13 in conference) and wasn’t actually considered a stone-cold lock to make the post-season. If you take away a few players from that team (from graduation, the draft, or to injuries) and then add in a last minute recruiting class that probably isn’t going to contribute a ton right away . . . well, then it’s probably fair to say that you’re left with a team that can’t afford any slumps, and that needs things to go their way most of the season.

Right now, things aren’t going Cal’s way, and the record reflects that. This isn’t the team that can easily deal with injuries to players like Kyle Porter and Devon Rodriguez. This isn’t a team that can overcome defensive miscues (10 more errors in 4 games last week). And unfortunately, the 2012 Bears are being impacted by the decision to cut the program much more than the 2011 Bears.

Cal’s next two Pac-12 series are against Washington and Utah, two teams that Cal can beat. The time for a winning streak is now, because the season ends like this:

at Oregon (#16 in the country)
at Washington State
vs. Arizona (#6)
vs. UCLA (#17)
at Stanford (#4)

This can still be a successful season, and God knows I’m not stupid enough to count this group of players out. But the margin for error is gone.