All games available on ESPN3
Friday, May 29
12 PM (CT) Game 1: No. 3 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 2 California
6 PM (CT) Game 2: No. 1 Texas A&M vs. No. 4 Texas Southern
Saturday, May 30
12 PM (CT) Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
6 PM (CT) Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
Sunday, May 31
12 PM (CT) Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4
6 PM (CT) Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5
Monday, June 1
6:30 (CT): Game 7: Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary)
BERKELEY -- Two of the last three times that the No. 25 California baseball team has reached the College World Series, that road to Omaha led through the state of Texas. On Friday, at 10 a.m., Pacific, that road will start again, as the Bears kick off the College Station, Tex., Regional, against No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina.
In 2011, the Bears – like this year, a three-seed – had to fight through the loser’s bracket after an opening defeat at the hands of Baylor to win four straight games and advance to the Super Regionals. And, in case you forgot, this is how it happened:
During that season, Cal downed the Chanticleers by the tally of 17-0 in the Caravelle Resorts Tournament, behind 7.0 no-hit innings from then-senior Kevin Miller, who wound up allowing one hit in the eighth before being pulled.
The Bears (34-19) and Coastal Carolina (38-19) are now very different than they were four seasons ago, with no overlap in players. But, both Cal head coach David Esquer and hitting coach Brad Sanfilipo -- who was a volunteer assistant for the 2011 Cal team – have been down this road before.
“We went through Texas. We went to Rice as a three-seed. There are similarities, and you try to get them comfortable in the moment, that this moment has been overcome, and embraced,” says Sanfilipo.
As in 2011, the winner of the Bears' Regional will match up against the winner of the TCU Regional in Dallas, Tex., a Regional that features the Horned Frogs, No. 4 seed Sacred Heart, the darling of the 2012 College World Series in No. 3 seed Stony Brook, and No. 2 seed N.C. State, which made it to Omaha each year from 2011 to 2013.
“I really think this is one of those landmark years,” says Esquer. “Getting back to the playoffs, in our program, is like getting there the first time, and sometimes, you don’t just step through that door very easily. You’ve got to knock it down. We thought, last year, we were close to getting to the playoffs. We weren’t able to do that. We fell short.
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“This is the year that we had to really knock it down, and they really did. 18 wins, and a third-place finish in the league, they didn’t leave any doubt, and they didn’t leave it in anyone else’s hands but themselves. That’s what they promised themselves that they would do. The preseason workouts, the strength training, and just what they’ve done, individually, to try to build this as a team and a close-knit group, they really were going to leave no stone unturned.”
2011 had rally capes and bleached hair. They had the threat of program elimination to impel them. This team looks like a bunch of traffic cops and truckers. Unless, that is, you’re team RBI leader Chris Paul. The senior first baseman’s upper lip is noticeably not hirsute.
“I might have to, now,” Paul says, “but I can’t grow a ‘stache. We’re the Flavor Saver Crew, but I’m not blessed with a mustache. I’ll do what I can.”
“Every team is different,” says Sanfilipo. “Every team has their own feel, every team has their own attitude, and rallying cries. It’s all very individual, but there are a lot of similarities with this team, just in terms of how they get along, and the looseness that they play with, the confidence that they play with. You try to share similar experiences with them.
“It’s a fun challenge, it’s a challenge that previous teams have taken to Omaha, and I think they’re excited about it. I think that’s the fun part of working hard throughout the year to provide yourself with an opportunity to do this.”
Love the draw for @Cal_Baseball. Just saying in 2011 we were matched up with the TCU regional...— Devon Rodriguez (@devrodriguez3) May 25, 2015
This bunch won 18 games in the Pac-12, which sent the second-most teams (6) into the Regionals of any conference in the nation. Those 18 wins tied the 1995 team for the most conference wins in a season in program history. The third-place finish in the Pac-12 hasn’t been equaled since 2001. Before that, Cal tied for third in 1992, and third, outright, in 1991, and tied for third in 1988. The Bears finished second in 1985.
The 34 wins this season tied the two highest outputs under Esquer – from 2001 and 2005.
“It’s definitely one of the better performing teams that we’ve had,” said Esquer, in his 16th season as head coach. “It kind of came out of nowhere, but I give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches, because I thought we were the best prepared that we’ve been in my career here, as far as infield play, outfield play, pitching, the scouting and just the information work that we did prior to the game, I thought our kids were just as prepared as any teams that I’ve had up here.”
One of his assistant coaches – volunteer assistant Noah Jackson -- was a member of that 2001 team that traveled to Baton Rouge, La., for a Regional, before the advent of the Super Regional round. Jackson, as it so happens, is the God son of former San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker, who’s biological son -- Darren Baker -- is a Cal commit, set to sign in November of 2016.
“These kids really worked hard, and always believed in themselves,” Jackson says. “For us, the coaches’ expectations were always this, to see this come to fruition, and to see how far the kids, and the program, has come, in such a short time.”
Pitching coach Mike Neu has yet to see the postseason with Cal, but he did close out the 1999 College World Series for Miami, lifting the Hurricanes to a national title. He, too, knows what it takes to get to that stage.
“It was obviously exciting,” says Neu. “Coming in, for one year, playing with a great team, and a team that, it probably was supposed to be a down year at Miami, and I think we just had a tough group of guys that really competed well, and put ourselves in position to win a national championship.
“It obviously was one of the reasons that I wanted to coach, is having a lot of success in team environments, where I felt like we really were able to do some pretty special things at the college level. It’s exciting. This team has a chance to do something the same way. It was fun. It was a great time.”
Congrats @Cal_Baseball on getting back to the postseason! Pretty sure our road to Omaha went thru the state of Texas in '11. Just saying...— Matt Flemer (@MattFlemer) May 25, 2015
Neu’s staff boasts a 3.13 ERA (30th in the nation) on the season, with opposing teams hitting .247 against them. The regular four starters -- Daulton Jefferies (who will start on Friday against Coastal Carolina), Ryan Mason, Matt Ladrech and Jeff Bain -- have thrown a total of 292.0 innings in starts, with a collective ERA of 2.90.
“I’m with the pitchers, mostly, and we’re trying to prepare them to pitch in the biggest games and the biggest spots, all year, and if you’re capable of competing in those situations, you’re going to be good in any spot,” says Neu. “I’d like to think we’re preparing our guys for that, the whole season, and being best when the spotlight’s on you, in the biggest situation.”
Freshman righty Bain has certainly done that. Bain went 2-1 in four starts with a 2.70 ERA when tasked with starting the Pac-12 portion of the schedule, after ace Jefferies went down with biceps tendonitis.
Should Cal make it to a third game in College Station, he has as good a chance as freshman lefty Ladrech (7-4, 2.72 ERA) to start, according to both Esquer and Neu. After slotting back into a weekday starter/weekend reliever role, Bain has continued to impress, finishing his first collegiate regular season with a 6-2 record and a 2.54 ERA.
Cal has set a program attendance record at Evans Diamond this season – 25,090, averaging 836 per game – but now, the stage gets even bigger. Texas A&M’s park – Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park – was renovated in 2012, and seats 6,100.
“Obviously, I thought it was good experience at Oregon State,” Neu says of Cal’s final regular-season series against the Beavers at Goss Stadium, which seats 3,248. “They had a good crowd, it was a big series. Our young guys got some good experience in that, but I think that’s what we’re trying to prepare for. If you’re not preparing for that, I don’t know what you’re preparing for.”
With No. 4 seed Texas Southern (31-17) likely to bring some of its fans along, whoever the Bears face in their second game – win or lose – will certainly have a home field advantage.
The Aggies rank 28th in the nation in ERA (3.14), ninth in batting average (.307), ninth in home runs (64), ninth in slugging percentage (.472), 18th in scoring (7.0 runs per game) and 34th in hits (575). A future match-up between them and the Bears -- who rank 51st in the nation in homers (42) and 71st in slugging (.409) in a conference known for its pitching – should be an entertaining affair.
“I was really making sure that our kids were getting comfortable in that environment all weekend, and by the end, when we played our third game, it was our best game, and I felt like that was a real positive for us,” says Esquer. “Now, you’re going to go into another hostile environment, and the road probably leads through Texas A&M – the No. 1 seed – and you’ve got to be ready to play there.”
The Aggies and the Bears, as it happens, share a bit of history. The two teams split a pair of Regional meetings in the East Regional in Gainesville, Fla., in 1992, with Cal taking the Regional championship game 11-4 to advance to Omaha. In 2011, the Bears eliminated Texas A&M from the College World Series, scoring a 7-3 win for the program’s first win in Omaha since 1980.
Stay tuned for an in-depth preview of Cal’s playoff opener against Coastal Carolina.