The foul lines at major league stadiums have an almost perfect glow as if someone had traced them along a ruler’s edge with a brilliant white pen. The lines are absolute. They treat all players equally and are completely impartial. And yet they are cruel through no fault of their own, shattering dreams and breaking hearts as a baseball lands fair or foul.
Everyone who’s played the game has wished for the lines to bend in their favor, but no number of prayers to the baseball gods can change the result. Wind, altitude, air temperature and uncontrollable spin off the bat have already imparted a destiny on the ball. All that’s left to do is watch it fly — eyes wide, mind racing, breath held.
The final arbiter of Cal’s playoff hopes was not a set of chalk lines, but the NCAA baseball selection committee. The blue and gold had taken four of six conference games against rivals Stanford and UCLA; if they maintained this trajectory in their final Pac-12 series, a regional playoff berth was within their grasp. Veer off course, and — barring a collapse from other teams in the running — their season was over.
“I think we had a playoff type atmosphere for the last three weeks and our guys stepped up to the challenge,” said Cal coach Mike Neu. “We knew we had to win every series to get the chance to go to a regional.”
No. 10 Oregon stood in the Bears’ way, and an 11-5 loss Thursday meant that Cal was face-to-face with elimination. But the Bears cobbled together a six-run inning Friday to lock in a 10-3 win and even the series, setting up a crucial season finale at Evans Diamond on Saturday.
The Ducks and Bears traded blows in a game that featured three lead changes, and Cal trailed 6-4 into the bottom of the ninth inning after squandering an opportunity to tie the game in the previous frame. As heads began to droop, the Bears’ Quentin Selma launched a home run to right field to bring the game back to within one. Keshawn Ogans singled, but Cole Elvis — who had hit a game-winning home run against the USF Dons earlier in the season — was retired to end the threat. The 6-5 loss dropped the Bears to 15-15 in conference play and meant that Cal’s fate was now out of its hands.
Come Monday, the Bears would finally know if they had landed on the right side of the line. And as the 64 named teams in the regional playoff were called one by one, Cal was not among them. It was a bitter ending to a season that had been so magical, a year removed from going 5-11 in a 2020 schedule that had abruptly been canceled due to COVID-19.
“Our guys gave us a chance to get to a regional all the way down to the last game of the season,” Neu said. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t make it, but the steps that we took were really positive.”
The book is closed on 2021 for the Bears, who will sorely miss the presence of seven seniors, including Selma and speedster Darren Baker in 2022. Though they’ll need to turn their focus towards player development, the pain of being right on the doorstep of the postseason is still fresh.
“You know we’d like to look back and win a couple more games here and there that would have put us in a better position,” Neu said. “It’s a tough one because it can be so heartbreaking to lose when you know so much is on the line and the games are so close.”
Cal has every right to be happy. It delivered admirably, both on the mound and at the plate, in a resurgent year that bore few similarities to an abysmal 2020. But as the Bears’ season ends, they’ll use their disappointment as fuel for the next year. After all, even the most sweetly struck contact in this game can end up falling just foul.