Cal vs. USC: Who Gets to Host?

For Cal and USC, this weekend's Pac-12 baseball series is about more than just bragging rights. Whoever comes out on top could have the inside track to host an NCAA Regional, something that Cal baseball has never done.

SERIES AT A GLANCE
California Golden Bears (31-16, 15-9) vs. USC Trojans (34-16, 15-9)
Polls: Cal is No. 22 in Baseball America, No. 28 in NCBWA, No. 11 in Collegiate Baseball; USC is No. 16 in NCBWA, No. 16 in D1Baseball.com, No. 16 in USA Today Coaches’ Poll, No. 15 in Baseball America, No. 17 in Collegiate Baseball
RPI: Cal is No. 39, USC is No. 25

NOTABLE UPCOMING DATES: May 25, Memorial Day at 9 a.m. PT on ESPNU, NCAA field announced; May 27, All-Pac-12 team announced; May 29, start of NCAA Regionals; June 5 start of NCAA Super Regionals; June 8, first 75 picks of MLB Draft, 4 p.m. PT on MLB Network, June 9-10, MLB Draft, June 13-23/24, College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

TV: All games will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks, with Guy Haberman on play-by-play, former MLB outfielder Eric Byrnes doing the analysis on Saturday and Monday, and Dean Stotz on analysis Sunday

Saturday, 1 p.m., at Evans Diamond (Berkeley, Calif.): RHP, Soph., Daulton Jefferies (5-3, 2.39 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Davis (2-1, 3.82)

Sunday, 4:00 p.m., at Evans Diamond (Berkeley, Calif.): RHP, Jr., Ryan Mason (6-2, 2.98) vs. LHP Kyle Twomey (7-2, 2.35)

Monday, 7 p.m., at Evans Diamond Berkeley, Calif.): LHP, Fr., Matt Ladrech (6-4, 2.71) vs. RHP Mitch Hart (7-2, 3.48)

The last time the California baseball program hosted any postseason game was a conference playoff series in 1980. The Bears swept Washington State in a best-of-three series, en route to Omaha for the College World Series.

The last proper NCAA Tournament games Cal hosted was back in 1957, when the Bears faced Pepperdine in the three-game NCAA District Playoffs at Evans Diamond, en route, again, to the College World Series, which they won for the second time.

The last time USC hosted an NCAA Regional at Dedeaux Field was back in 2002 – the second-to-last time the Trojans made the postseason (the last being in 2005).

The Trojans finished 29-24 last season, overall, and 16-14 in league, becoming just the third team in the modern history of the Pac-12 to not make the playoffs with a record over .500.

Before this season, USC was picked to finish sixth in the conference, with Cal picked to finish eighth.

Now, with two series left for the Bears, No. 15 USC (34-16, 15-9 in Pac-12) and No. 22 Cal (31-16, 15-9) are locked in a tie for third place in the conference, 3.0 games back of No. 2 UCLA (37-12, 18-6), and instead of vying for a playoff berth, they’re vying for who could potentially host the first stop on the road to Omaha.

“They’re hungry, I think, to make the playoffs, because none of those guys have been to the playoffs – similar to us, in that way,” said Mike Neu, who replaced Dan Hubbs as the Bears’ pitching coach after Hubbs left to coach his alma mater – USC – before being named interim and now-head coach.

Cal – which tied its highest conference wins total (15, also in 2001) in head coach David Esquer’s tenure by taking two of three from Arizona State two weeks ago -- entered the Baseball America poll at No. 23 last week, moving up to No. 22, despite having been as high as No. 9 in the Collegiate Baseball poll over the last several weeks, and hosting a Regional would go a long way toward continuing the program’s rise from the ashes.

Hosting becomes that much more important in light of the fact that it’s entirely likely that both Regional sites on the West Coast will be Pac-12 venues – USC, UCLA – unless Cal State Fullerton makes a push.

That means that those teams who don’t host – Oregon State, Arizona and Arizona State, for instance -- have to travel to the other side of the country, to a Stillwater, Okla. – where the Bears are projected to go, should USC wind up a host -- or Iowa City, perhaps even Miami, which would be quite a familiar site for Neu, who closed out the College World Series final for the Hurricanes in 1999.

“We hosted both the first and second round, both years I was there,” Neu said. “You look at the way things are shaking out, if we don’t host, we’re definitely going to be going somewhere – Oklahoma, Iowa, Miami – we could end up at Miami. We’re going to go somewhere far, because the Regional sites on the West Coast are going to be Pac-12 sites, and that just doesn’t work for us.

“I think it is a huge advantage. Based on my experience there, we had great crowds in those first two rounds of Regionals. You’re comfortable playing at home. I think our place is similar to Miami, in the fact that it’s an on-campus field. It’s a little different for teams to come in and play here. I don’t think it’s a comfortable environment for other teams. You have a really different surrounding with the buildings, the crowd’s kind of right on top of you. I think you’ve seen this year that our home field advantage in the Pac-12, when we have a good crowd, is probably as good – if not better – than anybody in our conference.”

•••••

Hubbs has now been part of the coaching staffs of two teams with winning conference records not to make the postseason – the first was back in 2005, when he was Esquer’s right arm – and again last year.

One of the reasons the Trojans were kept from he postseason was a late series loss at the hands of Cal, down in Los Angeles.

USC had come into that series hot, having won 10 of its last 13 games, but starting with the series against the Bears, the Trojans went 4-4 down the stretch, and even a series win against Oregon State couldn’t give them the final push they needed to get into the postseason.

“I think the toughest thing, is that just like last weekend when we played Stanford – and we didn’t score much last weekend, just like we did against Cal a year ago – we’re in the middle of finals,” said Hubbs. “Our finals run Wednesday to Wednesday, so we had finals Friday and Saturday this week, and we play Friday and Saturday. Not to make excuses, but I don’t think it’s the most ideal, all the time, to play in the middle of your finals.”

This time, it’s Cal coming off of finals, which limited team practice opportunities over the course of the week.

“We’re trying to get our work in when we can, but hopefully, by the end of the week, we can put together a couple team practices, and get the flow going back,” Neu said on Tuesday. “But, most of these guys are going to have finals the next couple days, so we’re going to have some bullpens. I’m going to try to put together some simulated games for maybe the pitchers to face some hitters, since we have an extra day of rest, and just trying to prep these guys the best we can. It’s not ideal for the baseball side of it, but I think these guys will be ready, and it will probably be a weight off their shoulders.”

USC scored just 6 runs in the entire series against the Bears last year, winning 2-1 on Friday, getting blasted 11-4 on Saturday and then losing in the finale, 4-1, on Sunday, and they’ll face a much stronger – and deeper – pitching staff this year in Berkeley, one that, for the first time, won’t feature a starter recruited by Hubbs.

Neu’s bunch is No. 13 in the nation in ERA (2.90), and second in the Pac-12 to the Bruins (2.16), who themselves are second in the nation.

Despite a sub-par outing against Campbell last weekend – allowing a season-high 5 earned runs -- ace Daulton Jefferies is still one of the most formidable arms in the league, sporting a 2.39 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 60.1 innings of work.

In fact, Jefferies and junior righty Ryan Mason were a bit too efficient last weekend against the Camels, each tossing complete games, which eliminated the opportunity for Neu to get some work for Keaton Siomkin and closer Dylan Nelson.

Siomkin – coming off of Tommy John surgery – was set to return this past weekend, but with no easy innings available (Neu would have gotten Nelson work before Siomkin), it looks like he won’t see much time this weekend, either. Facing USC would be his first outing of the year, and likely in a very high-pressure environment -- not the way you want to ease back into things.

Both Siomkin and Nelson throw in simulated games this week.

•••••

The Trojans – despite having a head coach who cut his teeth as a pitcher, and as a pitching coach (and USC is doing just fine in the pitching department, with a 3.20 team ERA) – have one of the most dynamic offenses in the Pac-12. USC leads the conference in stolen bases, and also rank T19 in the country in that category. The Trojans’ 83 steals are 14 more than the next-most prolific pilferers, Utah.

“When you look at our numbers, it’s pretty much throughout [the lineup],” Hubbs said. “We have a lot of guys who are very athletic, and are good base runners. We’re able to use that to our advantage. I don’t know that it’s any one person, in particular. When you look at the numbers, obviously Stubbs and Robinson have the most, but it’s the guys that have been getting on the most that have the most stolen bases.”

Led by the duo of Garrett Stubbs (18-for-25) and Timmy Robinson (17-for-23), the Trojans have stolen bases with a 75% success rate this season, and that’s contributed to their 308 runs scored – second only to the Wildcats, who play in an offensive park.

“Being athletic has been a huge thing for us,” Hubbs said. “We haven’t hit as many home runs as Cal has, so the three-run homer isn’t necessarily a huge part of our game, so we have to manufacture and find ways to score, and a big part of that is getting runners into scoring position so that we can get that hit to drive in a run.”

USC is third in the Pac-12 in batting (.292) behind both desert teams, is third in on-base percentage behind Arizona and the Bruins, but where the Trojans’ offense really excels is – as Hubbs said – at moving runners into scoring position, and that comes via the bunt. Once a staple of Esquer’s teams of the past, Cal has only 32 sacrifice bunts this season in 44 games, while USC has sacrificed 41 times in 47 games, tied for 68th-most in the nation.

“I think their strength is probably that they have a veteran, offensive team,” Neu said. “These guys have been in the lineup for three years, some seniors that have a lot of experience in this conference. I think when you look at that team, you look at probably one of the more veteran teams in our conference – guys that have played a lot of Pac-12 games, a lot of games against a lot of competition.”

Other than Oregon, this is the most Cal will have seen forced action and speed pressure this season, and perhaps since hosting Texas to start off last season, but this series comes as the Bears are hitting their stride defensively: Cal has committed just two errors in the last six games.

Freshman catcher Brett Cumberland has also done quite a bit recently to control the running game. On the season, Cumberland has thrown out 28.2% of runners, but has also picked off two runners – both against Arizona State two weeks ago.

“We haven’t had a ton of teams run against us,” said Neu, who’s team has allowed the fourth-fewest stolen bases in the Pac-12 (30). “I think Campbell was probably the biggest running team we had played. The one thing we’ve done a really good job of, is our pitchers have given a really good time to the plate, overall, and given our catchers a chance to throw guys out. Cumberland’s done a good job throwing guys out when the numbers match up with our pop times and our break times.”

Cumberland has been around 2.0 seconds in his pop time – the time from the pop of the catcher’s mitt to the pop of the middle infielder’s mitt at second base – and his pitchers have also been quick to the plate, with both Daulton Jefferies and Ryan Mason clocking at 1.2 seconds. Lefty Matt Ladrech has also been good at keeping runners in check with his pickoff moves.

“I don’t think teams have been overly aggressive against us, just because we haven’t really given them a chance to,” Neu said. “We’re not giving them a huge window to steal, even with their best base-stealers, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to try to do it, but they’re going to have to get really good jumps, and we do a pretty good job.”

•••••

Speed, of course, isn’t the only weapon that USC has. Their biggest guns are Stubbs – who’s hitting .340 – and the emergent Bobby Stahel. Both players made the midseason USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Watch List, and both are among the conference’s top-10 in batting.

Stahel is second in the league with a .386 batting average, fifth in slugging (.535), tied with Stubbs for seventh with a .426 on-base percentage, second in runs scored (47) and second with 78 hits.

Last season, Stahel started just nine games, and played in 21 as a redshirt sophomore, hitting just .235. This summer, he hit .263 in 34 games for the Valley Blue Sox in the New England Collegiate League. What’s been the key to his explosive transformation?

“Obviously, he’s been hotter than anything all year, and he’s been a huge part of our success, because it seems like he’s on base all the time,” Hubbs said. “When he gets his pitch, he’s not missing it, for the most part. He’s become a lot more competitive with two strikes. He’s really bought in to trying to keep the ball low and hard, as opposed to trying to hit homers and getting the ball in the air. I think he’s just been a lot more consistent, and that’s been the biggest thing.”

Stahel is among the Pac-12 leaders in seven offensive categories, but he and Stubbs can’t do things alone. USC has the third-best on-base percentage in the Pac-12, at .369, and, as such, both Robinson (44) and A.J. Ramirez (39) are among the conference’s leaders in RBIs.

“There’s not a whole lot they haven’t seen, so you’re not really going to trick them too much,” Neu said of Stahel and Stubbs. “You’re going to have to make quality pitches and get them out. At this level, you’re just not going to be able to do that every time. We may be a little more equipped to do that, with some of our pitching, than some other teams.

“Jefferies is obviously capable, and Mason and Ladrech – our starters – and obviously our bullpen guys are capable of doing it, but you’re not going to make a perfect pitch every time. They’re going to put some pressure on you with mistakes, and they’re going to hit bad pitches. They’re not going to miss a lot of those.”

•••••

Of course, Cal is not without plenty of punch in its lineup. The Bears just go about their business much differently.

In contrast to the speed-and-pressure attack the Trojans employ, Cal is built around the longball, and the Bears do that better than anyone in the Pac-12, pacing the circuit with 41 round-trippers.

Sophomore Lucas Erceg is second in the league with 10 home runs, followed by Ramirez – who leads USC in that department -- in fourth, with eight. The Bears also have Chris Paul’s eight jacks, and seven from Cumberland, who also places fifth in the league in walks (28) and third in being hit by pitches (14).

Junior outfielder Devin Pearson has started to heat up over the past three weeks, going 15-for-35 (.429) with two home runs, eight RBIs, eight runs scored and three walks. He and Aaron Knapp -- who ranks ninth in the conference in hits, with 62 – set the table for Paul and Erceg in the middle of the order, with Erceg placing eighth in the Pac-12 with 37 RBIs. Erceg leads the Bears with 10 multiple-RBI games and 19 multiple-hit games, and is currently on a four-game hitting streak. Erceg’s had a streak as long as 18 this season.

Currently, second baseman Robbie Tenerowicz is on a five-game hitting streak (5-for-17), while junior Nick Halamandaris has hit in four straight, going 6-for-14 with three RBIs in that span.

•••••

Monday will serve as Senior Day for three Bears: Paul, lefty reliever Chris Muse-Fisher and closer Dylan Nelson.

Nelson leads the team with seven saves, and has a 3.91 ERA, striking out 31 in 23.0 innings of work.

Muse-Fisher has bounced back from two seasons where his ERA was over 8.00, and has become a key component of the bullpen, recording a pair of saves and three wins on the season, striking out 29 in 30.0 innings. His 2.10 ERA ranks second on the staff.

Paul is hitting .313, and has driven in 33 runs in 163 at-bats, playing in 44 of 47 games, slugging .528 with an on-base percentage of .399 and a fielding percentage of .993 – providing a steadying influence on the infield at first base.


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