What's at Stake
California is in a free-fall; No two ways about it. The Bears have lost eight straight for just the second time in head coach David Esquer's tenure. After a 4-0 start to Pac-12 play, Cal has gone 1-10 in conference against No. 11 UCLA, USC, No. 21 Arizona and No. 7 Oregon.
The Bears are also now 0-4 under the newly-installed lights at Evans Diamond, and, as alumnus Tony Renda -- currently playing with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League -- said, "We just need a W to get these lights in the books."
Cal's best shot at getting that milestone out of the way will be against Washington State on Friday at 6 p.m., with the second game scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturday and the finale at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
By the Numbers
The Cougars (18-16, 5-7 in the Pac-12) are three games ahead of the Bears in the conference standings, and the only other team with fewer league wins left on Cal's schedule is Washington (9-25, 3-9).
Washington State boasts the league's second-highest team batting average (.309), best slugging percentage (.439), second-best on-base percentage (.388), second-most runs scored (215), most hits (354), second-most RBI (188), third-most doubles (68), second-most homers (tied with Cal with 19) and most total bases (503).
The Cougars took two of three on the road against then-No. 14 Arizona State to open conference play, and own wins over Stanford and Arizona – which are 5-0 against Cal this season.
Washington State is 110th in RPI, while Cal is 87th.
Redshirt freshman Nick Tanielu leads the Pac-12 in batting average (.402), slugging (.626), on-base percentage (.492), is fifth in runs (29), 10th in hits (43), third in doubles (12), sixth in triples (3) and seventh in total bases (67).
But, Tanielu sprained his knee on April 6 against Utah, and did not play last weekend against the Wildcats. If he's in the lineup this weekend, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound third baseman is a force to be reckoned with in the cleanup spot.
Since the game in which Tanielu went down, Washington State is 2-4, with a team batting average of .240, leaving 41 men on base, so as he goes, so go the Cougars.
On the injury front, Cal was without sophomore third baseman Chris Paul in Tuesday's loss to San Francisco because of a concussion suffered during practice, pressing true freshman Max Dutto into service in the hot corner. Paul is tied for the team lead with five home runs, and is second to Devon Rodriguez and Andrew Knapp with 27 RBI, so getting him back this weekend could be a big boost, though he's hitting just .209. Junior two-way player Michael Theofanopoulos is also likely out for the rest of the season, facing another four weeks in a cast for his broken left hand. Junior Derek Campbell has missed the majority of the season with a broken leg, but has resumed throwing, albeit in a limited fashion. He is a candidate for a medical redshirt, should he need one.
The Cougars aren't nearly the pressure-and-speed offense the Bears have faced the past two weekends against the Ducks and the Wildcats, but they get on base are very sound as far as situational hitting is concerned.
For the purposes of analysis, Cal Sports Digest has come up with a metric for measuring offensive success. Let's call it offensive efficiency. While it's not perfect, it does correlate strongly to winning. It measures the percentage of runs scored per runner reaching base via a hit, a walk or hit batter: R / (H + BB + HBP).
The league leader in that statistic is Arizona (43.1%), which has the third-most overall wins in the Pac-12. The two worst teams (Washington with 30.8% and USC with 29.9%) have the two fewest overall win totals out of the 11 Pac-12 teams.
At least in the conference, the statistic appears to have a high correlation to wins. Teams with 39.0% or higher have a winning percentage of .691, while teams below 39% have a winning percentage of .480. Of nine teams that all appear in the top 10 in the four NCAA baseball polls, all but one (Oregon State) have offensive efficiency ratings of 40.5% or higher, with the top three teams (North Carolina, LSU and Vanderbilt) have offensive efficiencies of 49.6%, 45.1% and 44.5%.
Where do the Cougars fit in? Washington State's 41.8% offensive efficiency is the second-highest in the conference, just ahead of the Ducks (41.0%).
Cal's offensive efficiency? 34.2% -- fourth-worst in the conference, and behind Utah's 35%.
In the more traditional SABRmetric stats, the Cougars are tops in the conference in OPS -- on-base plus slugging -- with a .822 mark, ahead of Arizona (.819) and Arizona State (.789). The Bears' OPS comes in at .705 – better only than Utah and Washington.
Keys to Victory
• Shut down Tanielu: If the hard-hitting infielder is in the lineup, he's not going to be easy to pitch around, since the Cougars have four other regulars hitting .317 or better. Contrary to basketball, in baseball, you don't force the other team's best guy to beat you; You neutralize him. Given Cal's pitching woes (a Pac-12-worst 4.83 team ERA), that's not going to be very easy.
• Put the pressure on: In Pac-12 play, the Washington State bullpen has a 6.11 ERA, but over 12 conference games, they've pitched just 28.0 innings. That means that Cougars starters are lasting an average of 6.2 innings per game. By forcing the trio of Joe Pistorese (4-2, 2.23), Scott Simon (3-1, 4.21) and Tanner Chleborad (3-6, 4.97) to throw high-pressure pitches -- and a lot of them -- the Bears can get to the soft underbelly of the Washington State staff. One of the best ways to do that is to put high-pressure hitters in spots where pitchers normally think they're getting a rest. A perfect example: When Mike Reuvekamp hits ninth, the Bears are 0-7, but when slap-hitting Brian Celsi hits ninth, Cal is 13-12. In conference play, Celsi is hitting .385 with an on-base percentage of .407. He may not be disciplined enough to hit in the two-hole, but he creates a lot of issues when he has the ability to turn the lineup over.
• Get the Big Cat purring: One of the best ways to get and keep pressure on the starters is to have the guys in the middle of the order keep the hit parade going. Rodriguez was mired in what he called the worst stretch of his life, going 1-for-25 headed into the final game last weekend against Oregon. Since then, he's 4-for-7, and starting to go the other way to left. What Rodriguez needs to do is stay short to the ball and keep his hands in. Many a hitting streak have started with an opposite-field roller through the infield. Recently, the junior slugger has been particularly susceptible to breaking balls and off-speed pitches. He's tried to get his mojo back with one swing of the bat, and more often than not, winds up looking foolish. He needs to trust his hands and keep things simple. If he does that, he can return to the form that had him hitting .351 for the first third of the season, instead of what's had him in his latest, 8-for-46 funk (.174).
• Don't start behind the eight ball: Cal has scored first in one out of the past eight games, and in the past four games, Bears opponents have scored in the top of the first inning before the fans even had a chance to get settled. Cal is 6-3 when scoring in the first inning, and 10-7 when scoring first. When, however, opponents score first, the Bears are 6-13. When opponents score in the first, Cal is 4-10. When Cal goes 1-2-3 in the first inning, things get even uglier. Having Knapp (.348/.429/.538) come up with no one on base wastes perhaps the Bears' biggest bat. When Cal goes down in order in the first, it has a 5-10 record, but a 1-6 record over the past 16 games, as opposed to a 4-4 record over the first 20. Predictably, 16 of Knapp's team-leading 28 RBI came during the first 20 games.
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