A colossal task awaits Cal baseball this weekend. The Bears will be on the road and approximately nine games back from an at-large bid to regionals with nine games left on their schedule. To make the challenge even harder, they will face No. 11 Stanford in what will be their penultimate conference series before the Pac-12 tournament begins on May 25.
Cal knows what it’s up against this weekend, but head coach Mike Neu spoke stoically after shutting out San Jose State 10-0 this past Tuesday.
“It’s a Pac-12 team — every series is a difficult series,” said Neu. “We’re just going to prepare the same way and go play our game. If we play well, we have a chance to do well.”
It may be bravado, or a Cal coach unwilling to sing Stanford’s praises. Either way, Neu’s confidence is admirable, especially considering how well the Cardinal has played at Sunken Diamond in Palo Alto this season.
Stanford is .500 in away games this season but is 14-5 at home after winning its last five games played in Palo Alto. A long road stretch that lasted the final two weeks of April saw the Cardinal win a three-game series over No. 12 UCLA and tie two series against Grand Canyon and San Diego State. In its long-awaited return home this past Tuesday, Stanford beat UC Davis 16-6.
Despite being significantly worse on the road than at home this year, the Cardinal was unranked at this time last month. Its recent two-week road trip saw Stanford fly up the rankings to No. 11, just in time to host the Bears.
If that’s not scary enough for Cal fans, Stanford’s dominant win over the Aggies on Tuesday saw the Cardinal hit a season-high five home runs and score another season-high 16 runs. Stanford has been one of the best pitching teams in the conference all season, allowing the third fewest runs among all Pac-12 teams, so this late-season renaissance of its offense might make the Cardinal unstoppable through the final stretch of the season.
Stanford’s reinvigorated offense should be especially concerning for the Bears, whose bullpen has been their weakest link this year. Case in point, Cal allowed 23 runs through its three-game series against No. 25 Oregon last week. Even in their 9-8 win over the Ducks this past Sunday, their sole win in the series, the Bears’ Christian Becerra and Josh White allowed a combined three runs in the bottom of the ninth.
Just as it has all season, Cal will likely have to rely on its hitting to slug out a series win this weekend. Junior first baseman Nathan Martorella was extraordinary for the Bears throughout the month of April, hitting .431 through 72 at bats for 24 RBI. Martorella, along with shortstop Keshawn Ogans, who is batting .322 on the season, as well as deep-ball machine and outfielder Dylan Beavers (15 home runs) have led the Bears on offense and oftentimes made up for sub-par pitching.
A combined four-hit shutout against the Spartans this past Tuesday was an anomaly, but a most welcome one for Neu and the Cal pitchers. Reliever Tucker Bougie, who pitched 2 ⅓ scoreless innings in relief of starter Ian May, earned the win.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the Cardinal will throw the first pitch of the series. Even though Cal’s postseason chances are slim, a series win on the road over a ranked Stanford team would at the very least be a moral victory, one they could carry into the conference tournament later this month and use to mount an improbable run at a Regionals berth.
William Cooke covers baseball. Contact him at email@example.com.