The California baseball team has hit a speed bump. After starting off the season 10-5, with five wins over ranked teams and an eye-opening day where the Bears beat back Baylor and San Diego in a doubleheader, Cal has lost four straight – three at home to reigning national champion UCLA and one on the road to streaking Fresno State. Oh, and they're heading into a four-game road set against No. 6 Cal Poly down in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
"The tough thing is, there's no easy part of our schedule," said pitching coach Mike Neu. "It doesn't let up. It's going to continue to be tough, and I think that's going to be good for us. If we're going to make the playoffs and be good, we're going to have to get to the level that's going to get us there. We're going to deserve to be there."
Ultimately, Neu said, "we need to be No. 1." Playing teams like the Mustangs is how the Bears are going to get there.
"This program has to have the ultimate goal of winning our conference, and winning a College World Series, and if we're going to do that, then we have to be able to be prepared through our nonconference games to win our conference," Neu continued. "That's something that hasn't been done here in a long time, probably over 50 years. It's been a long time since we've won the conference, and that's a goal that this program needs to have. We need to win a conference championship and be able to host a Regional and a Super Regional at Cal. For us to do that, we're going to have to play a tough nonconference schedule that's going to prepare us to beat all the teams in our conference and win those series. It's unacceptable for us to lose three to UCLA at home."
While most televisions on campus were tuned into the NCAA Tournament, the flat screen in the baseball office on Thursday was set to practice tape, as assistants Tony Arnerich and Ruben Noriega got down to fixing some swings, while at his desk, Neu worked on some statistical analysis, SABR-style. New uniforms, new way of doing business; anything to stop this skid, during which the Bears have scoured just four runs. They have hit just .146 (18-for-123) with only four extra-base hits.
"I think our pitchers have done a good job, and they've been competing and doing a good job, giving us an opportunity, and I think our hitting's going to be fine," said Neu, who's pitchers have a sparkling 2.91 ERA on the season. "We've got some older guys that are our leaders, and we've played some tough competition. We've faced a couple of the perennial best pitching staffs in the country with Texas and UCLA early, and Arkansas. We're going to be alright. We've got to get it rolling and find the right formula with these older guys and some of these younger guys together and we'll be OK."
Of greater concern: Cal has committed 11 errors. In the 15 games before this latest stretch, the Bears had only committed 12 fielding miscues.
"We need to play better defense," said Neu. "That's the thing. That's what's really killed us in some of these losses. If we play defense, with the way our pitching staff is competing – we haven't pitched lights out, but we've pitched good enough to keep us in games – and if we play defense, we're a clutch hit away from winning any of those games, really. That's going to be the key for us."
The first two games of the series against the Bruins were right there for the taking, but key errors by shortstop Mike Reuvekamp in the late innings cost the Bears in 3-2 and 3-1 losses at Evans Diamond. Part of that – and Reuvekamp's slow start (he's hitting .195) – has been a broken hamate bone in his left hand, an injury that will shut the starting shortstop down starting this weekend.
"It was just from hitting," Neu said. "He was playing with a soft cast on his hand for two weeks, two weeks before he finally couldn't play with the pain anymore. He's playing with basically a cast on his glove hand, and he was hitting with it. Him, at full strength, is a really good player for us. Rev at half strength isn't great. He was trying. He was playing his butt off trying to give us a chance to win and it just wasn't great for us."
In Reuvekamp's place will be infielder Brenden Farney, who will slide over from second, replaced by true freshman Robbie Tenerowicz, who hit his first collegiate home run on Saturday.
"We're searching a little bit for the answer there, right now," Neu said. "This is a big weekend for us, because we're into conference after this, and those games are the most important. We're going to have to try some different combinations and we're going to have to set a lineup and a rotation by next weekend when we play Utah, here, and this is still going to be a bit of an opportunity series for some guys. At the same time, we've got to get out of this rut and start winning some games."
Farney has good hands and a quick exchange, so the move to shortstop is a natural one for the 5-foot-9, 215-pounder out of Fairfield (Calif.) Vacaville. Farney has also been one of the Bears' most consistent hitters, batting a team-leading .351 with two doubles and five RBIs.
Pitching-wise, the Bears will open on Friday at 6 p.m. with freshman righty Daulton Jefferies (2-1, 3.86 ERA), who, after a stellar start to his college career with two straight wins and going 6.0 innings or more in his first two outings, has failed to get out of the fourth inning in his last three starts.
The Mustangs (17-3) are ranked No. 6 by Perfect Game, No. 7 in the Baseball America poll and No. 10 by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper this week, and will counter with junior lefty Matt Imhoff (4-1, 1.29), who has fanned 55 and walked 12 in 35.0 innings of work.
"Their Friday guy is leading the country in strikeouts per nine innings, so he's going to be tough," Neu said. "It's not like we're on a hitting roll, so we're running into a tough guy right off the bat, there."
On Saturday at 6 p.m., Cal will send senior lefty Kyle Porter (2-1, 1.76) to the mound against freshman righty Justin Calomeni (5-0, 1.95). Porter, who has gone progressively longer in each of his past four starts, going 3.0 innings, then 5.1, 5.2 and a season-high 6.1 last time out against UCLA, scattering five hits and allowing three earned runs while striking out three and walking three to take his first loss of the season.
On Sunday at 1 p.m., the Bears will start redshirt junior Michael Theofanopoulos (1-3, 3.80), who has been distressingly inconsistent, going 11.0 innings and allowing just five hits in his first two outings with 11 strikeouts, but then getting out of the third just once in his past three starts, allowing 16 hits and five earned runs in 10.1 innings, striking out just four.
In Theofanopoulos's last start, he went just 2.0 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits while committing two errors and hitting one batter.
"I watched the film, and I thought he pitched great for two innings," Neu said. "His command was sharp, his out stuff – change up and breaking ball – were good, and he threw the ball in, well. The biggest thing with him is being able to slow the game down when things don't go great and deal with adversity a little bit better. I don't really see it as a setback. I thought he threw the ball as well for two innings as I've ever seen him throw the ball, but we have to be able to have him pitch into the sixth, seventh inning and turn it over to [Ryan] Mason and [Trevor] Hildenberger and [Keaton] Siomkin and [Dylan] Nelson. Those four guys have thrown the ball as well as we could have asked them to throw it at this point, and if we can turn it over to them with a lead, we're going to take our chances. Statistically, we're going to win a lot of those games."
Theofanopoulos will square off with sophomore right-hander Casey Bloomquist (4-0, 0.99 ERA).
The series will conclude on Monday at 3 p.m., with freshman righty Alex Martinez (0-2, 2.12) facing freshman right-hander Slater Lee (2-1, 5.68).
The one bright spot that's shone consistently through both the good times and bad for the Bears has been the bullpen. Cal relievers have a 2.55 ERA in 81.1 innings of work. The problem has been that those 81.1 innings represent nearly half of the pitching staff's 170.0 total frames.
"We've been really fortunate to have our bullpen be so competitive and tough," Neu said. "They have really picked us up. The next step is getting Daulton Jefferies, Porter has been pretty good lately, and then we have either Theo or Martinez, depending on who wins that Sunday role, to make that depth in the bullpen really shine through, once we start conference. Six innings a start, we have enough depth in the bullpen to shorten the game, as much as probably almost every other team in our conference. We can make it a six- or seven-inning game, if we can get those starters to get through to the next level, and they're all capable of it. This is about the time when we need to start getting that done."
One of Cal's biggest weapons out of the pen is Mason, who leads the staff with a 0.96 ERA and a 2-0 record in 9.1 innings of relief work, with eight strikeouts and three walks, holding opposing hitters to a .229 batting average. Last season, Mason was called upon to start on Friday nights, but his closer mentality is probably best suited for the end of games.
"I think that there's definitely discussion in here about that," Neu said. "I want him to stay in the bullpen, personally. I think he's a weapon in the bullpen, and if we can keep him there, I think that's his strength. He comes in with a lot of fire and he can be so effective. He's shown that in every one of his bullpen opportunities that he's had since he's been here, going back to last year against Michigan and pitching at Irvine last year. We finally had to put him in the starting rotation, but he has been just a lights-out weapon, and I think his mentality, he really has a closer's brain. He goes in with a bullpen attitude that is hard to find."
Neu should know. He was the closer that pitched the final inning for the Miami Hurricanes that won them the College World Series, and pitched out of the bullpen in the Major Leagues at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds.
"Me being a former bullpen pitcher, I know that that's a tough one to have," Neu said. "We have a few guys that have that, between Hildenberger, him and Siomkin, and I'd love to keep that as the strength of our team. I'd love to keep that. We're going to have to eventually find that six or seven innings out of our starter, and that might be a decision we have to make to change [Mason] down the road, but I hope we don't have to. I hope we stay with what we have. I think it's the best thing going for our team."
Cal Poly has its own ace reliever in junior Reed Reilly (2.29 ERA, 14 saves), who was drafted last June but chose to return to the Mustangs.
On offense, Cal Poly is 49th in Division I with a .294 team average, 27th in doubles (39) and 44th in total runs scored (124). The Mustangs are led by third baseman Jimmy Allen, who hit .299 with 39 RBIs in 2013 and was drafted last June. Outfielder Nick Torres hit .333 with seven home runs and 49 RBIs last season, and is off to a hot start this year, hitting .361 with four home runs, four doubles and 22 RBIs, to go along with a team-leading .583 slugging percentage.
Designated hitter Brian Mundell slugged 11 homers and drove in 42 runs last season, and has likewise started this year on a roll, hitting .303 in 19 games with six doubles, three home runs and 19 RBIs.
"They have some physical hitters," Neu said. "I think, top to bottom, it seems like they're pretty solid. They're going to pressure you. They've been offensive for the last two years. It's great preparation for us getting into league. We have to be successful in our conference, and if we do that, then we're going to be alright, but it's going to be a tough one. Our guys are going to have to be ready to play hard every pitch and every inning this weekend, and that's what we're trying to prepare them to do, right now."
BSB: 'We Need to Be No. 1,' Neu Says
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