Cal Baseball: Hot Bears Challenge No. 1 UCLA

Cal will find out how good it is in this weekend's series in Los Angeles

Cal is on a serious roll at the moment, but are the Bears good enough to compete with the best college baseball team in the country?

The Bears (19-12, 7-5 Pac-12) recently reeled off eight straight wins, and it probably should have been nine, and they will find out just how good they are when they travel to Los Angeles to face No. 1-ranked UCLA in a three-game series that starts tonight (Thursday).

Head coach Mike Neu is saying what a coach needs to say, claiming that every game and every series carries equal weight.

“However, I will say this,” he said. “When you play the No. 1 team on the road, you have an opportunity to make up a little more ground, in the standings, in the RPI. And that’s just reality of it.”

(Click here for a video of Neu's comments about the significance of the UCLA series.)

Indeed, if Cal wants to get to the postseason for the first time since 2015, it needs to show it belongs with the big boys.

Pitcher Jared Horn, who will start Friday night’s game and is in the video above, was less reserved in his estimation of the series’ importance.

“It’s a huge series,” he said. “We’re just excited to go down there, maybe prove some people wrong.”

Cal hopes to do better against a No. 1 team than it did last year, when the Bears got swept by then-No. 1 Oregon State in a three-game series in Berkeley. That sweep came on the heels of a six-game Cal winning streak.

Cal’s eight-game win streak this season – its longest in three years -- ended on Sunday, when Arizona held on for a 4-2 victory in Tucson, even though Cal outhit the Wildcats 13-6 and left 12 runners on base.

The Bears know they are playing well and still feel pretty good about themselves.

“It’s a big series,” Cal centerfielder and base-stealer extraordinaire Cameron Eden said. “Get a couple wins, win the series, I think it would really help us in our playoff run.”

(Click here for a video of Eden talking about the UCLA series.)

UCLA is ranked No. 1 for the fifth consecutive week and is on a seven-game winning streak that included a three-game sweep of then-No. 8 East Carolina this past weekend and two victories over second-ranked Stanford the week before. UCLA has not lost a series all season.

The Bruins (28-6, 9-3) have a decent offense, but their strength is pitching. They are second in the nation in team ERA (2.62), second in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.3) and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.5). And as Neu points out, the Bruins don’t beat themselves, ranking seventh nationally in fewest errors per game.

(Click here for a video of Mike Neu assessing the Bruins' talent.)

It will be challenge for Cal’s hitting star, Andrew Vaughn, last season’s winner of the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur player in the country. Vaughn’s numbers our down slightly from his amazing 2018 season, but he is still ninth in the Pac-12 in batting average (.364), fourth in home runs (10), third in on-base percentage (.531) and third in slugging average (.701). Part of his problem is that opposing pitchers are unwilling to give him a chance to hit. He has already drawn 37 walks, averaging of more than one walk per game.

The beneficiaries have been leadoff hitter Eden, who is hitting .345 with 14 steals, and catcher Korey Lee (.328, 7 homers).

The Bruins will start Zach Pettway (2-2, 3.81 ERA) Thursday, Ryan Garcia (4-0, 1.32 ERA) Friday and Jack Ralston (5-0, 3.20 ERA) Saturday. The Bears will go with a different approach. Horn is scheduled to start Friday, but on Thursday and Saturday, the Bears will use openers instead of traditional starters. Arman Sabouri will start Thursday’s game but will throw only 30 pitches before being replaced. Neu does not know who will start Saturday’s game, but it could be Sabouri again.

Thursday’s 7 p.m. game and Friday’s 7 p.m. game will both televised by Pac-12 Networks. Saturday’s 2 p.m. game will not be televised, but you can follow along with live stats by clicking here.

The series will run Thursday through Saturday rather than the usual Friday through Sunday to avoid playing on Easter.

(Cover photo by Al Sermeno/KLC Fotos)