The 2011 College World Series kicks off in Omaha tomorrow, and it has a distinctly Southern feel, with three SEC teams, one future SEC team, Texa$, and a couple of schools from that girls' soccer conference up in North Carolina. The program that is probably most unfamiliar to South Carolina fans is Cal.
We earlier responded to questions posed by the phenomenal Cal Golden Blogs (check out the site - they have Q&A's with the other CWS programs and even cover Cal rugby). Now, OhioBear and NorCalNick of Cal Golden Blogs stop in to introduce us to Cal baseball and tell us what they really think of the man who rode Terrell Davis from, "Hey, that guy kinda sucks in big games," to "OMG! He's the Farve of the Rockies!"
1. Cal baseball was literally at death's door earlier this year. Do you think the team would be in the CWS if they had not faced such an existential crisis, and is the program now on solid financial ground for the foreseeable future?
OhioBear: Logic wouldn't support this conclusion, but no -- I don't think Cal would be in the CWS absent the existential crisis. Call it karma. Call it poetic justice. Whatever you call it, it's just one of those things you can't really explain. As for whether the program is on solid financial ground, the indications are yes: the $9 million that was raised between September and March will sustain the program for the next 6 to 7 years, at least. A group called "Save Cal Baseball" is still working hard to raise money and there seems to be a belief that the money raised will allow the program to sustain itself indefinitely.
NorCalNick: It sure doesn't feel like the team would have made it this far. Even since beloved coach Bob Milano retired in 1999 Cal baseball has underacheived. The last few years have been solid, but also marked by playoff failures. So something changed this year. It might just be a combination of a slightly higher talent level, a relatively kind playoff path and just a little bit of luck (like Baylor booting a sure-fire double play grounder in the 9th). But if you asked the team they would unequivocally tell you that it gave them a focus and intensity that changed the season for the better. True or not, it certainly makes for a better story.
The current financial situation seems much better. I think the administration set the fundraising target intentionally high to absolutely ensure stability if donors were somehow able to reach the target. That plus a better than expected Pac-12 TV contract should prevent any kind of program cuts for the foreseeable future (we hope).
2. The famed tree sit-in calcified some notions of West Coast fans and turned Cal athletics into an occasional punchline in this part of the country (think Cartman muttering "Hippies everywhere!). Is that image overblown? What kind of atmosphere should a visitor expect for a Cal baseball game and football game?
NorCalNick: It's overblown in the sense that it's generally a bad idea to form opinions about a place based on its most vocal and extreme inhabitants (plus a number of the tree posse were probably from other places beyond the greater Bay Area). But there is certainly a grain of truth to the notion that Bay Area residents aren't nearly as supportive of athletics as other places in the country. Part of the reason Cal baseball and three other sports faced elimination was because much of the greater Cal community objected to applying any kind of campus money to a non-essential program when impactful cuts were being made to education and research programs.
Many Cal fans have bemoaned the fact that in the past Cal administrators have ranged from an indifferent to down right hostile attitude towards athletics. That has improved dramatically over the last decade as Jeff Tedford revitalized Cal football and our last few athletic directors made huge strides to rebuild the entire department into a top 10 nationally program.
As for game atmosphere - that varies wildly from sport to sport and even game to game. If Cal football is reasonably competitive there can be great, loud crowds - just ask Tennessee fans who made the trip a few years ago. Baseball, because of substandard facilities and a decade of mediocre teams, hasn't had much fan support until extinction and this unexpected post-season run captured the attention of the Bay Area.
3. When did the fans start to realize that this might be a special season for Cal baseball?
OhioBear: Honestly, I don't think I realized it until Cal eliminated Rice in the Houston regional. At that point, I think a lot of us thought, "Wow, we actually have a chance to get through here." And then, when we realized we were playing Dallas Baptist in the super regionals, a lot of us thought, "We got this." No disrespect intended to Dallas Baptist, but to have things break that way, where we actually got to host a super regional, it just felt like we weren't going to be denied a trip to Omaha.
NorCalNick: It was something of a gradual process, but a come from behind 15 inning victory over Rice was a pretty good example of the spirit of the team. And as the team kept winning, more and more good news kept popping up about fundraising efforts. Gradually, savecalbaseball announced more and more pledges, there were rumblings about positive meetings with administrators, and all of a sudden baseball was saved. Even if Cal flamed out of the post-season that would have made the year special.
4. Cal should face Virginia ace and #2 overall pick Danny Hultzen in the first game. How have the Bears fared against top level pitching this season?
OhioBear: Cal has stayed in games against top flight pitching. Cal won against Ucla's Gerrit Cole, the # 1 overall pick, and lost a one-run game to Ucla's Trevor Bauer, the # 3 overall pick. Cal got only a run of each, but managed to stay in those games. That says more about Cal's pitching than Cal's hitting.
NorCalNick: Thanks to the Pac-10's pitching heavy nature, there are a number of examples. The best performance was a 4-0 win over Gerritt Cole of UCLA . . . except three of those runs came off of UCLA's bullpen. They did tag Josh Osich of Oregon St. for four runs in six innings soon after he no-hit UCLA, but Osich really struggled all the way down the stretch this year. We really struggled to score in a three game sweep to Arizona State. To be honest, Cal hasn't gotten many wins over the best pitchers they have faced. And when they do it's usually because Erik Johnson or Justin Jones have pitched brilliantly.
5. Who is Cal likely to take the mound for you in Game 2, and what type of pitcher is he? How fearful should we (or you) be of the Cal bullpen? If you find yourselves in the loser's bracket, do you have the pitching depth to battle out?
NorCalNick: We all desperately hope that Justin Jones will be on the mound in Game 2. He likely would have pitched Game 1, but he hurt his bicep on his pitchign arm in the super-regionals. He is currently listed as 'questionable' and still feels some tightness and the coaching staff says they won't risk his long-term health.
Jones is a lefty who gets outs more because of movement and deception than pure power and velocity, though he can throw reasonably hard if he needs to. If Jones is unable to pitch at all you might see lefty Kyle Porter or righties Dixon Anderson and Kevin Miller. Anderson is the most likely choice since he was Cal's usual Sunday starter, but Porter had a brilliant start against Baylor and Miller is a veteran that Coach Esquer has lots of trust in. I know that's not a very specific answer, throwing out four possible names, but I don't even think Esquer knows what he'll do at this point.
OhioBear: If Cal coach Dave Esquer sticks to pattern, it will be either lefty Justin Jones or righty Erik Johnson (a 2nd round pick of the White Sox). Jones has been lights out all postseason, but he suffered what was described as a "cramp" and came out of his super regional start because of it. As for the bullpen, that is a Cal strength: Cal's bullpen is deep. We have a team ERA under 3.00, so you be the judge of how good they've been.
6. Give us an scouting report for other facets of Cal baseball. Is your lineup built around the longball, or station-to-station baseball? What is the team's philosophy on the basepaths, and how good is the team in the field? Without knowing which team won, if someone gave you a choice of a 10-8 or 4-2 outcome for a Cal game, which do you think is more conducive to a Cal victory?
NorCalNick: Cal's lineup is at its best when somebody besides Tony Renda and Chadd Krist are contributing, and that's what has happened in the playoffs so far. When other players stop hitting, that's when Cal starts trying to steal bases and bunt runners over, often with decidedly negative results. So ideally our offense is station to station, but when that stagnates we go extreme small-ball and it's a struggle to get runners across the plate.
OhioBear: Cal is not a power hitting team. We have only 31 homers in 58 games, and that includes what was (for us) a home run barrage against Dallas Baptist (two 3-run HRs and a 2-run HR in the two games). Coach Esquer likes to send runner and likes to use the sacrifice. Cal is aggressive on the basepaths and pays for it at times: we make a lot of outs on the bases, which is probably a function of Coach Esquer knowing that the 3-run homer isn't necessarily coming. So all things considered, we'd feel like we had a better chance in a 4-2 game than a 10-8 game. Cal scored 10 runs or more in a game only five times this season, and only once since April 10.
NorCalNick: The realist in me says that the Bears will be overmatched and will need brilliant performances from our starting pitchers to stand a chance. But the way this season has gone it's nearly impossible to stay rational. I'm mostly just glad to be able to experience it all, and any wins will be a bonus.
7. What are your expectations for the Bears in Omaha?
OhioBear: The way this season has gone? Anything from a two-and-done to dogpiling after winning the title wouldn't surprise us.
8. Honestly - what do you think of John Elway?
OhioBear: Whiney horse face
NorCalNick: Everything about his collegiate and professional career went just fine until that stupid Terrell Davis had to go and win him two super bowls, for which everyone promptly gave Elway credit for. But that doesn't change the fact that we ruined his senior season.