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Cal Baseball Week In Review: Time To Start A Streak

Last week’s weekly baseball recap was entitled ‘Life on the Margins,’ which some of you may have recognized if you have spent the last few years reading the work of Sunday Morning Quarterback/Doctor Saturday. The concept of ‘Life on the Margins’ is a look at football teams that are good enough to beat most teams but not so good that they can’t also lose to most teams. As a result, a large portion of their games are decided by small margins, random chance and a few key plays that take on outsized importance.

Which is exactly what Cal baseball in 2012 has to deal with on a game to game basis. Players like Tony Renda, Vince Bruno and Matt Flemer keep Cal competitive, but a lack of depth and consistency keep Cal from pulling away. Consider that in 12 conference games so far this year, the average margin of victory has been 2.9 runs. Cal’s last 7 conference games have all been decided by 3 runs or fewer.

And that’s why Cal’s defense has been so, so damaging. If the Bears had a dominating lineup from top to bottom, or a collection of power arms with great strikeout stuff every day, they might be better equipped to work around a few errors. But this team can’t afford to constantly give back outs. When I last checked the NCAA leaderboards, Cal had the single worst fielding percentage of any BCS conference team. Being the internet stat nerd that I am, I recognize that fielding percentage isn’t even close to the best measure of defensive quality, but even a number like .950 means something. It’s just tough to succeed when you commit an error once every 20 chances.

In 34 games Cal has given up a stunning 44 unearned runs, roughly twice as many as most other Pac-12 teams. That’s more than a run given away for free a game. And when you’re routinely playing in close ballgames those free runs are almost guaranteed to hurt.

OK, now that I’ve gotten the Debbie Downer segment out of the way, let’s focus on three big positives over the last few weeks: Matt Flemer, Justin Jones and Michael Theofanopoulos.

Cal’s starters have all been excellent over the last two weeks, keeping Cal close in every single game. It’s a testament to their progress that Cal was a few close plays away from a 6-0 run in conference play.*

Flemer’s continued excellent play can no longer be considered a surprise as he’s been throwing well all season. It’s gratifying to see such an important player forgo a pro contract and then pitch so well, helping Cal and getting rewarded by (presumably) improving his draft prospects at the same time.

But the improvements from Jones and Theofanopoulos are of critical importance over the rest of the season. We’ve discussed Justin’s struggles in this space before. Maybe he just needed some innings to rediscover his stuff after an off-season of injury rehab. Maybe it was just a cold stretch. Maybe he just had a couple of solid games against a couple of relatively weak Pac-12 offenses. Whatever the explanation, he’s now thrown 7 or more innings twice in a row and gave the Bears a great chance to win both games.

The performances of Theofanopoulos have really come out of nowhere. He didn't even throw an inning as a pitcher in his first year as a program, so it's unexpected to find him starting on Fridays and keeping Cal right in the game against USC and Washington. He's already made 8 starts and he kept the game close in almost every game. It's heartening that an underclassman has stepped up both for this season and next, when Cal will be without Matt Flemer and perhaps Justin Jones as well.

*It’s also a testament to an inconsistent offense and bullpen that the Bears could have just as easily finished the stretch 0-6, considering their 3 wins came by a total margin of 5 runs.

On Deck

With a record of 10-25 (5-10), Utah is pretty clearly the worst team in the Pac-12, and Cal gets them at home. It's pretty dumb to say that a sweep is necessary and should be expected . . . so I won't. But as of right now, Cal isn't even listed as a team being considered for post-season play in some projections. Losing any home games to the RPI #159 team would hurt. I still think it's entirely possible that Cal can play their way into the playoffs if they go on a streak, but if they lose a series to Utah I may have to reconsider.

Utah has scored the fewest runs in the Pac-12 while simultaneously allowing the most, which is generally a bad omen. They do have some power and they have only been swept once in 5 Pac-12 series so far this year, so it's not like Cal can win just by showing up. This isn't Lehigh.

Believe it or not, a sweep could push Cal all the way from last place into 5th in the Pac-12, which gives you an idea how closely bunched everybody is after the lead pack of UCLA, Oregon, Arizona and Arizona St. This season is far from over and this weekend is the perfect time to start a streak.