A baseball game is a symphony of satisfying sounds — a coming-together of noise that’s as much of a pleasure to listen to as it is to watch. It’s a combination of the cracks of a bat, the pops of gloves and a supporting cast of everything in between. Perhaps, if the crowd was silenced for a minuscule fraction of a second, one could discern the scuff of a headfirst slide into second base, the joyous yell of a closer who’s recorded the final out or the whizz of a fastball passing through the fabric of a cold night. And now, the crowd has been silenced.
Evans Diamond has been quiet for almost a year as college baseball took a back seat in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Cal’s conductor Mike Neu and his troupe will take the field for the first time since last March in what could be a bumpy 2021 season. Despite the uncertainty of managing a team through a pandemic, Neu and the Bears begin a four-game series with Pacific on Friday with a grounded mindset for the upcoming year.
“In our minds, we’re going to play every game, we’re going to compete with everything that we have every game and we’re going to prepare like we’re going to play every game,” Neu said. “We’re going to have to adjust, and obviously it’s going to be more difficult on certain teams and potentially us if something like (a positive COVID-19 test) happens.”
Cal will play the first two games of the series in Berkeley on Friday and Saturday evening, but the Bears will complete the latter half of their four-game set with the Tigers in Stockton. It’s been a while since they’ve seen each other — the last time the two teams met was in March 2015. Cal holds an 11-4 record against the West Coast Conference squad, which earned an 8-9 record in the abbreviated 2020 season.
The blue and gold’s rotation for their first series consists of junior Grant Holman, junior Sean Sullivan, freshman Paulshawn Pasqualotto and sophomore Josh White. Holman, a 2021 Baseball America Preseason All-American and a member of the 2021 Perfect Game Preseason All-Pac-12 team, will aim to carry over his lights-out stuff from this past summer: The big right-hander tallied 17 strikeouts over nine innings in the San Diego League and was named a D1Baseball summer breakout prospect.
This weekend will mark the first college games for five true freshmen: Pasqualotto, Dez Loessberg, Brian McClellin, Jag Burden and Trevor Tishenkel. They’re joined by two new faces, transfers Josh Rolling and Mitch Benson from Sierra College and Chabot College, respectively. Aaron Roberts, a highly regarded recruit from last year’s class who redshirted his 2020 season due to injury, may also get his first opportunities to shine for the blue and gold in 2021.
“(Our recruits) are really talented, and we have a really good class coming in behind these guys next year, too,” Neu said. “You can have a good class and it’ll still be tough (in the Pac-12), but I’m excited about the core group of guys that we have over the next few years.”
That faith in Cal’s future showed as Neu and the coaches constructed the pitching staff, naming Pasqualotto the starter for the Bears’ third game of their opening series. The No. 1 player in the state of Nevada’s 2020 graduating class, according to Perfect Game, is fresh off his own stellar campaign in the San Diego League last summer and will be tasked with getting the blue and gold’s first road win of the new season.
Neu will tentatively roll with a batting order fronted by Darren Baker, Dylan Beavers, Quentin Selma and Nathan Martorella. After underperforming in the shortened 2020 season, the Bears’ lineup will enter 2021 looking to align its numbers more closely with the 2019 offensive powerhouse that included first-round MLB draft picks Andrew Vaughn and Korey Lee. At the same time, however, Neu has planned extensively for the worst-case scenarios: coronavirus-related changes and last-minute shuffles.
“We’ve prepared for coaches to not be here and different guys playing different positions. If you don’t prepare for that, you’re probably doing yourself a little bit of a disservice,” Neu said. “You know that at any point you could lose two, three, four (or) seven guys, and you have to be very versatile.”
Even with COVID-19 precautions in place, Neu and the coaching staff understand that a lot of what happens this year remains out of their control. As Cal kicks off a season filled with the unexpected, one thing is constant: a desire to win.
“The goal is to win every nonconference game and to win the conference,” Neu said. “I don’t think that changes for us.”
Pac-12 title or not, hearing the traveling symphony back in town brings forth a much-needed spark of happiness in a tense world — and with no fans in the stands, the sounds of the game will ring out loud and true. On Friday, there will be snaps, dings, pops, yells and whizzes in all their glory. But the most satisfying sound of all? Just two words: “Play ball.”
Chanun Ong covers baseball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.