Regional Postmortem, Looking at Cal's Future

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- California may be flying home empty-handed from the College Station Regional, but the Bears pushed one of the best teams in the nation to the brink, and will bring back almost their entire (very young) roster in 2016, all with high-pressure playoff experience.

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- Now that California has been bounced from the playoffs – the Bears' first foray into the postseason since reaching the College World Series in the face of the program’s elimination in 2011 – it’s time to do a postmortem. First, we’ll take a look at the final game, and the moments that defined Cal's exit. Next, we’ll move into what this team looks like moving forward, and there’s a lot that says the national audience hasn’t seen the last of El Gaucho and the rest of the Golden Bears.

•••••

WRENCH IN THE WORKS OF THE RUN FACTORY
California’s offense – all of which, aside from All-Regional senior first baseman Chris Paul, will return next season – showed its youth during the weekend, and particularly on Monday in the Bears’ 3-1 loss to Texas A&M. Cal went 4-for-9 when leading off an inning, but 1-for-11 with runners on base, 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-11 when given the chance to advance runners.

Moving hot-hitting catcher Mitchell Kranson -- who was named to the All-Regional team – to the third slot weakened the bottom half of the order, as the fifth-through-ninth hitters went 3-for-16, and grounded into two double plays.

With no Kranson for pop in the bottom of the lineup, two players who would normally be asked to bunt -- Robbie Tenerowicz and shortstop Preston GrandPre – swung away and slashed, respectively. The decisions to not have them bunt to advance runners, when on Sunday, hot-hitting Devin Pearson was asked to bunt twice in the later innings, is curious indeed.

“We just thought that, being the visitors today, a little bit different strategy,” head coach David Esquer said. “We thought, ‘Hey, play to tie, or play to win?’ When we decided to slash with Preston, it was to get their defense to move a little bit, and in the college game, if you can get a step or two one way or the other, it’s not like professional baseball, where they can make up those one or two steps. We thought we’d get the defense a little off, to one side or the other, and we could take advantage of it.”

GrandPre’s slash -- with one out in the bottom of the fourth, after Brett Cumberland reached on a whiffed catch at first by Hunter Melton -- resulted in a double play with Brian Celsi – who already had one hit against Aggies starter Matt Kent (the Regional’s Most Outstanding Player) on the day – on deck.

“We were looking for a little bit of a spark,” Esquer said. “We weren’t able to get that traditional bunt-‘em-over, get-‘em-in hit yet. We wanted to get something were it was first-and-third, and we did have that situation, but it just didn’t happen for us. God bless our guys – they’re trying like crazy to get it done – but it just didn’t happen.

Just as he did on Celsi’s double play grounder in the seventh, shortstop Blake Allemand had cheated over to second in order to cover the bunt, which put him in prime position to field the ball and turn two.

“When you go slash, you try to hit one in the hole, the six or the four hole, and he just happened to hit the ball up the middle,” Esquer said. “When you show bunt, the shortstop will slide to the middle, and maybe they get the second baseman to move over towards first base a little bit. He just wasn’t able to get the ball into one of those holes.”

Esquer has said earlier this season that when his team is hitting, and getting the base hits with runners on base, he’s less inclined to bunt. For much of the season, that’s what the Bears did, and for much of the season, Kranson was in the bottom half of the lineup to do just that – as he did for much of the Regional.

•••••

SITUATIONAL UN-AWARENESS
After the opening 9-3 win over No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina, Cal went 2-for-24 (.083) with runners in scoring position against Texas A&M, and 11-for-52 (.212) with runners on base.

“We really never got into any offensive rhythm, where we really were just swinging the bats unconsciously, up and down the order,” Esquer said. “I’ve been in a couple Regional tournaments, and sometimes, you face such good pitching that you’ve got to hang around in the tournament a little while until the bats get going, and sometimes you end the tournament swinging the bat pretty well.

“We never really got to that point. We kept hoping it would come, because we were in there ‘til the end, but we never got to the point where, up and down the lineup, we were as big a threat as we had been during the season, when we had much better offensive days.”

With Kent on the mound, the Aggies were able to take advantage of over-anxious swings, particularly on his fastball inside and off speed pitches down and away, as the Bears pressed.

“Kent was tough,” Esquer said. Give him credit. “He threw a lot of strikes. His walk numbers were real low during the year. He gave up some hits, but we weren’t able to get to him.”

•••••

BIG PRAISE FOR NEU
Texas A&M averaged nearly seven runs per game over the regular season. Cal held the Aggies to eight runs in three games.

“My hat goes off to my pitching coach,” Esquer said of Mike Neu. “He has them prepared and ready to go in all situations. He has them pretty fearless. They trust the plan, they trust the pitch calling.”

Childress, likewise, was glowing in his praise of Neu, whose staff posted a 3.03 ERA this season.

“I can’t give Cal enough credit, and their pitching coach,” Childress said. “I thought he did a fabulous job pitching to our guys, and it didn’t matter who he went to – they all made pitches, and that guy’s pretty special. I got a chance to visit with him [Sunday] night after the game, and they’ve got a very good staff. The left side of their infield is as good as you’re going to see in the country.”

•••••

SAVING JEFFERIES
Sophomore Daulton Jefferies threw for the second time in the weekend, starting the game and throwing 22 pitches in his 1.0 inning of work, flirting with 95 mph and allowing one hit, striking out two. It was never a consideration to allow him to go like the Aggies allowed Kent to go.

“Mike was pretty cognizant, when you’re dealing with Daulton Jefferies, next year, he’s going to be in that conversation for the top half of the draft, and you don’t want to take too many risks with guys like that,” Esquer said. “He felt like we could get one good, solid one out of him, and then we’d try to piece it together, nine innings. It’s not ideal. Obviously, they were in a little bit better situation with Kent, where they could ride him for seven innings. We just weren’t in that position.”

•••••

PITCHING REINFORCEMENTS ARE COMING
And here is where we talk about depth. Neu, being the recruiting coordinator and pitching coach, has quite an eye for arms, and he’s got a few dandies coming in. Judging by this weekend, that’s what Cal needs to realistically take the next step.

Despite playing an additional game, Texas A&M had more pitching depth than the Bears. Next year’s recruiting class could very well change that.

Realistically, the Bears could lose Ryan Mason to the draft later this week. But, there’s a good chance he returns. Jefferies (6-5, 2.92 ERA, 80.0 IP), a sophomore, returns next season. So do freshmen Jeff Bain (6-2, 2.52 ERA, 64.1 IP) and Matt Ladrech (7-4, 2.67 ERA, 87.2 IP).

The Bears have two real pitching gems in their next signing class, in big Canadian right-hander Mike Soroka (who’s hitting 94 on the radar gun, regularly) and local product Tanner Dodson.

Soroka is ranked No. 94 on the MLB’s top 100 prospects list for the upcoming draft, and consistently sits at 92 with his fastball His curve and his change could be above-average MLB-quality pitches, the change in particular. He’s projected to go in the top three rounds. No Bears commit has ever gone that high, but Cal has had two out of three players drafted in the top 10 rounds (Justin Jones in the seventh and Nick Halamandaris in the eighth) come to school, instead of going pro.

[RECRUITING: Bears Land Canadian Righty]

In addition to those two, bonafide Pac-12-level starters, Cal also brings in Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley righty Joey Matulovich and Napa (Calif.) Vintage two-way player Aaron Shortridge, who has compiled a 1.65 ERA and 19 wins with 174.1 innings pitched in four varsity seasons, with 209 strikeouts.

[RECRUITING: Bears Add Second Crusher in Shortridge]

Matulovich – a late signee – posted a 1.30 ERA this season with eight wins in 70.0 innings of work, striking out 99 and tossing five complete games. His best outing was against sure-fire first-rounder Justin Hooper of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle on April 24, when he tossed 6.2 innings to Hooper’s 5.0, allowe one run to Hooper’s two, and struck out out nine to Hooper’s seven.

[RECRUITING: Matulovich Signs At Last Minute]

Cal does lose Dylan Nelson -- who pitched his final inning in a Cal uniform on Monday, getting an inning ending double play against the only batter he faced – and senior lefty Chris Muse-Fisher (3-1, 2.33 ERA in 38.2 IP), but freshman righty Erik Martinez (3-1, 1.56 ERA, 34.2 IP, 1 SV) looks poised to take over as the closer, and redshirt sophomore Akaash Agarwal has been upping his velocity this season, and could very well be a situational lefty coming out of the pen.

•••••

MOVING FORWARD: THE CURRENT ROSTER
There is a lot of youth on the Cal roster, and in the lineup, and as we saw over the course of the weekend, there are some very, very good defenders.

Even Halamandaris, who had some hiccups when he first played the field – mainly due to missing all of fall with injury – looked more than capable (bordering on excellent) at first base during the Regional, and he’ll take over for Paul next season. If he can stay healthy over the offseason – which he hasn’t done the past two years – he’s got a lot of thump in his bat, especially after simplifying his swing before 2015 helped him be more direct to the ball.

GrandPre and Tenerowicz – a true freshman and a sophomore, respectively -- may have been a mixed bag offensively (combining to go 7-for-34 at the plate), but defensively, it’s hard to think that there are many better double-play combinations in the Pac-12, if not the nation.

While sophomore third baseman Lucas Erceg went 3-for-18 at the plate over the course of the Regional, his defense never took a day off. He made a tough catch at the railing on a foul pop in the bottom of the fourth and started a double play on a hard grounder off the bat of Jonathan Moroney to end the bottom of the eighth.

Much of Cumberland’s power was sapped by a sore wrist – which forced him to serve as designated hitter for the entire Regional – but he did go 4-for-11 over the weekend, a notable uptick from how he ended the season, with one hit in the final eight games he played before College Station (.042). When he gets healthy, though, he’ll have to contend with Kranson, who was exceptional behind the plate in his four games, after having caught just six over the course of the regular season, but more on El Gaucho in a bit.

Having two of the team’s best power hitters -- Erceg and Cumberland -- go homerless in the playoffs, on the surface, isn’t encouraging. But when one considers that they are both full-time starters for the first time in their careers, and both underclassmen, then that pill becomes a bit easier to swallow, especially considering the experience they got on a big stage.

“It’s experience,” Esquer said. “Not everybody is ready to hit the ground running on the big stage. They learn from it, and they come back the next time, and they feel a bit more relaxed, a bit more prepared. That’s the growth. That’s what experience is. Maybe you don’t have success the first time, but the next time, you figure it out.”

Celsi returns as a speedy veteran, who’s added dimensions to his offensive game each season he’s been in Berkeley. He’ll be challenged by the big, athletic Lorenzo Hampton, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder with a cannon for an arm and a big power bat. Hampton is the No. 151 player overall in the class nationally, and the No. 33 outfielder.

[RECRUITING: Cal Lands Top Prospect in Hampton]

Next season, right fielder Devin Pearson will be a senior, and he’s coming off a virtuoso junior campaign. Had he not been injured over the past two years, we’d be looking at a potential MLB Draft pick. As it stands, he finished the Regional 7-for-18, with two runs, two doubles, one RBI and a .643 slugging percentage.

Pearson’s offensive production from April 25 until the end of Cal’s season on Monday night gave a glimpse of what he can do when he’s healthy, and it’s impressive. He went 31-for-74 (.419) with two home runs, 10 RBIs, six walks and 15 runs scored during that span. Put that in the two-hole, and that’s a recipe for scoring.

The only hitter the Bears realistically will lose is the graduating Paul. That means that almost all of this talented lineup – which hit .275 over the regular season – will return one year older, one year stronger and one year more mature.

•••••

RIDING EL GAUCHO
While Cumberland is the catcher of the future, Kranson’s defense took a huge leap over the weekend, and he’s going to make things interesting over the fall and going into the spring, but his offensive numbers are very impressive, as well.

“I thought Mitchell Kranson did an outstanding job at catching,” Esquer said. “Quite frankly, by the end of the tournament, Mitchell Kranson was calling pitches, because Mike felt so comfortable that he knew the hitters, and in the college game, you’ve got to have big trust in your catcher to let him call the pitches. That doesn’t happen too often. That’s the level that we were playing there, at the end.

“We had our catcher calling pitches, and we were trusting people to do their jobs, and it was a lot of fun. You don’t have too much fun in games that you don’t win, but when I look back on this atmosphere, and what Texas A&M brought out in our team and our program, we can only build off of that and go higher.”

Kranson came into the postseason on a 5-for-34 slide over the final nine games of the regular season, but his outs were well-struck, low and hard.

Looking at perhaps more advanced metrics, Kranson was one of the 20 hardest batters to strike out in all of Division I college baseball, and is the hardest to K in the entire Pac-12.

At 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, he may not look like it, but Kranson is the best bat handler on the team. He’s Cal’s best bunter despite his lack of speed, and he just flat-out makes contact. That paid off over the weekend, as Kranson went 8-for-18 (.444) with two home runs, three runs scored, one double and a Regional-best five RBIs. The only reason he didn’t take home Most Outstanding Player honors was because Aggies starter Kent went 14.0 innings in two starts.

“Mitch had an outstanding last half of the season, played a tremendous tournament here, and he’s set to build off of his performance and be an even better player next year,” Esquer said. “Brett Cumberland is an outstanding freshman, and someone we’re going to count on in the future. He swung the bat well for most of the year. At the end here, he tailed off, had a little bit of a sore wrist, but I think that only makes us stronger to have two options like that.”

•••••

THE BOTTOM LINE
There may be no moral victories for Esquer, but the simple fact is this: A young team with depth issues was able to take one of the top 16 teams in the nation to the brink, in their home park. They’ll be adding more than they’ll be losing next season, and that young team added four games of postseason experience in a very hostile environment, which Childress called the best crowd he’s seen at Olsen Field all season.

“I feel the camaraderie that we have in our program, what lifts any program, that X-factor you’re looking for, is that brotherhood that your players play with,” Esquer said. “The mechanical part of the baseball has to be there. You’ve got to pitch, you’ve got to play defense, but to have a team that works as hard and trusts each other and understands that is what’s going to make a program strong, you know you have your program working right when you’re playing with your best friends, and they’re as close as brothers. If you start there, you can do some special things.

“Those are things that we know work, and something we’ve got to take in, next year. We’ve got to pitch a little better, play a little bit better defense and hit a little bit better, but those are the types of things you can build a program off of.”


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