During Cal's two losses to Texas A&M that ended their series, I always remembered to remind myself that this effort from this young Cal baseball team is absolutely incredible. If this is how they're playing one of the best teams in the country with no postseason experience, imagine how they will perform in future seasons?
It didn't work, Sunday and Monday's losses were absolutely devastating. When you are two outs away from a Super Regional berth, and then 24 hours later your season is over instead, a lot of "what ifs" play in your head. What if Esquer and Neu stayed with Jeff Bain instead of turning it to Lucas Erceg in the 9th? What if, after Chris Paul's HR tied the game, Chris Muse-Fisher came in immediately instead of after Alex Schick walked two guys, the first of which would score the regional winning run? The fact that the winning runs for Texas A&M came because of an error (Sunday) and two gift walks from a tired reliever (Monday), also make it feel more like Cal lost rather than Texas A&M winning.
Nonetheless, I had to remind myself again as I said earlier, this team will be REALLY good next year. Hopefully it will be enough to have an even deeper run next year. Seeing #1 seed UCLA eliminated, and for that matter every other Pac-12 team, is a reminder that the postseason really can be a crapshoot sometimes (Oregon State got eliminated as a #1 seed in 2014, too).
We did a summary of the season ending loss already so I won't do a recap. I just want to look at the season as a whole and look at all the positives, and see what to expect for next year.
I remember attending all 3 games of the opening series against Duke, which Cal lost two out of three. Cal looked decent in the games, but there was a "Here we go again" feeling at first. Then the Bears went to Stanford and won 11-1 with freshman Brett Cumberland hitting a first inning grand slam. At the time Stanford was thought (incorrectly) to be a pretty good team, so that was a big jolt to the club.
Then there was the 3-1 series win over UC Irvine, who was struggling at the time but since rebounded to be one of the better teams in the country. The Bears would go on to win 11 straight games, including 2 of 3 against Oregon (overrated at the time, but still a solid team) and it was on. This was going to be a good team, one that would make noise in the postseason.
Think about it, the 2011 season was special, but the potential elimination of the program did a lot of damage to the recruiting classes. The result was a bad 2012-2014, despite being one of the better teams in the country in 2010-2011 (While the Bears making the CWS was a surprise, remember they came into the season ranked and were playing good ball the whole year)
There was a slump, as most teams have, that prevented Cal from being ranked and being in the conversation for hosting a regional. Losing at home to Washington State and Stanford were tough, and it seemed like maybe the spotlight (and going from being the underdog to the favorites) did the team in. The Bears did show a lot of fight in losing the series to eventual #1 seed UCLA, and it was clear this team would not go away. Following a near no-hitter by Stanford, the Bears swept Arizona in Tuscon for the first time under Esquer, and took 2 out of 3 from Arizona State, Campbell and USC. A regional berth was a formality. Overall, the team finished in a tie for third in the Pac-12, which is incredible given how stacked the conference tends to be every year.
The individual performances were amazing. There was Lucas Erceg showing off his power, hitting a home run in every game of the Washington series. Senior Chris Paul establishing a name for himself during the USC series. The roller coaster season for Daulton Jefferies, which ended in a stunning performance against Oregon State. Ryan Mason becoming a second ace for the Cal squad. Freshmen Matt Ladrech and Jeff Bain showing so much promise in the first season as starters, almost never showing signs of inexperience against big opponents. Brett Cumberland and Mitchell "El Gaucho" Kranson showing power at the catcher position. Several friends telling me how great Preston Grand Pre's name is, and it turns out his defense was pretty great too. The bullpen becoming almost a guarantee, thanks to Erik Martinez and senior Dylan Nelson. There's so many names I haven't mentioned because the Cal offense really came to life this year, and it was great to see.
Cal was back in the postseason. The question is how far could they go? Coastal Carolina presented a big challenge for the Bears, but had injury problems. Cal took advantage and pulled off a solid upset. The Chanticleers were barely in the game.
The Texas A&M series was phenomenal, but it was clear the offense wasn't quite ready for an elite opponent. El Gaucho's HR won it Saturday, but there wasn't much of a chance on winning from a series of base hits, because Texas A&M pitchers were lights out. It got to the point that on Sunday and Monday I couldn't get excited for runners in scoring position for Cal, because I knew there was a pretty good chance the Aggies would get out of it, and they did.
LOOKING TO 2016
For the record, only juniors/seniors OR freshmen/sophomores that are at least 21 years old are eligible to be drafted by a MLB franchise, and anyone drafted can either sign and leave Cal or stay with the school. A system I wish the other sports would adopt.
The offense will be returning everybody except for Chris Paul, who graduated. Paul had a very good 2015 after being one of the weak spots his first three years (the ESPN announcers mentioned this almost every time he came to bat). His clutch HR on Monday, the last run for the Bears in 2015, was one to remember, but I trust his void will be filled in the 2016 lineup. Mitchell Kranson, Devin Pearson and Brian Celsi may also get selected but I would assume they will be back in 2016. At a later time I will look at offensive prospects that will join the team next season.
The other two seniors (again, our 2015 class was VERY depleted because of the program's elimination) departing are Chris Muse-Fisher and Dylan Nelson, who were vital parts of the Cal bullpen. There's also a chance Ryan Mason could leave to turn pro. There's no doubt a team will select him during the MLB draft next week, but he could elect to serve his final year anyway. With Erik Martinez and Jeff Bain stepping up big time this year, they should be able to fill those voids. Tanner Dodson and Mike Soroka are highly touted freshmen coming in next year, but we'll have to wait until after the MLB draft before getting excited about them!
The players to build on are definitely Daulton Jefferies, Matt Ledrech, Jeff Brain, Lucas Erceg, Brian Celsi and Brett Cumberland. I really think this team will make a lot of noise in 2016. I don't want to say "Super Regional or Bust" or even "Pac-12 title" or Bust, because I know other teams will improve too, but that 2015 postseason was way too exciting to not improve on that next season.
Thanks for Golden Blogs to let me use the Cal Baseball and Softball teams get my feet wet in becoming a full-time blogger. I will take a look at the recruiting for both teams near the end of the year. I will take a break for now, but will hopefully get to write about other non-revenue sports in the fall including Volleyball and Soccer (and getting to chime in on Football and Basketball every once in a while). This experience did make me enjoy the Baseball and Softball seasons even more, and I've already had a soft spot for these two teams for a while now.