The one defining character trait of the 2011 World Series Bears was the incredible ability to fight back when their back was up against the wall. This meant playing great baseball in the face of elimination and playing great baseball when they were behind in games or needed to end a losing streak.
If the 2-1 series win against Texas was any indication, the Bears still have that fight in them.
On Friday, Cal looked down and out. They had lost six of nine entering the first game in Round Rock against the Longhorns, and then were promptly blown out by a hot Texas squad. If Cal continued to play the way they had been playing over the last few weeks they were going to get swept, which would have left the Bears with an unimpressive record and few (if any) impressive wins.
But the Bears rallied behind Matt Flemer, who has seemlessly transformed himself from shut-down closer into shut-down starter, then somehow held on to win a kitchen-sink game on Sunday for a rousing and unexpected road series win against the perennial national power Longhorns. Cal's lineup - largely silent against OSU and ASU - collected 26 hits combined on Saturday and Sunday, including 10 extra base hits. The team that we all hoped we would see when the season started came back.
Of course, it's tempting to want to ignore Cal's flaws after such a satisfying weekend, but the problems the Bears have are glaring and unavoidable: Starting pitching and defense. I talked about the defense last week and don't want to belabor the point, but the Bears committed another four errors and a couple other mental mistakes that technically didn't count as errors. We know this team is capable of good defense, so we just have to hope that the plays get made from this point forward.
The starting pitching, on the other hand, may very well be a problem throughout the season. The simple reality right now is that Justin Jones and Kyle Porter - two of the three pitchers David Esquer was going to have to lean on this year - aren't right.
Can't say I've ever seen Justin Jones pitch that poorly. Wildly inconsistent fastball command, worked scared (i.e. away in the zone)— Ryan Gorcey (@RGBearTerritory) March 31, 2012
We all know what Justin Jones can do. Over the first two years of his Cal career he was consistently excellent. A freshman all-american, and then a pre-season all-american this year tells you just how much respect the nation has for his talent. So it's hard not to conclude that he's just not completely healthy and/or confident in his stuff after suffering his freak injury against Dallas Baptist last year.
And my concern is that Cal's season is riding on Jones finding his form. Cal just doesn't have the bullpen depth to win games if Jones isn't going 6 or 7 innings into most games.
After two brilliant post-season outings, expectations for Kyle Porter were nearly as high, but a January bout of elbow tendinitis set back his preparations for the season and he's only intermittently looked like himself. He's only averaging a hair over two innings per outing and has struggled with his command in the process. Just like Justin Jones, it's essential for Porter to reach his best soon.
Until they do Cal's lineup will have to carry the team, and the good news is that they have the talent and experience to do so. The Bears leave Texas with a number of hitters on hot streaks - Vince Bruno, Chadd Krist, Mitch Delfino, Darrell Matthews, and Tony Renda, whose entire season is basically one long hot streak. Until the pitching and defense catch up, it's up to them to punish the opposition's pitching.
No mid-week game this week, and the schedule is a little weird heading into the weekend thanks to Easter. Cal will continue their long road trip in Los Angeles against USC starting on Thursday, with the three game set ending on Saturday. The briefest of breaks for egg painting and jelly bean eating comes before mid-week games against Stanford and Santa Clara on Monday and Tuesday.
That means five games in six days, which is going to put a pretty huge strain on Cal's limited pitching depth. USC's offense may not be as good as Texas', but the Trojans have been mashing the ball as of late. Generally speaking, USC is a team much improved from the squad that struggled through most of last season, so it's going to be tough for Cal to try to climb out of the 1-5 hole they've dug for themselves. Then again, pretty much everybody except for Utah is a significantly above-average team in the Pac-12 this year, and the Bears have to start somewhere. May as well be at USC's expense, right?