42 — the number of outs recorded by Cal pitchers before allowing a run to begin the 2023 campaign. By that many outs last year, the Bears had already surrendered six.
There were a lot of question marks surrounding Cal’s starting rotation heading into its opening-day matchup against Houston. With eight innings of three hit, zero-run baseball, sophomore Ian May seemingly dispelled all those qualms with an absolutely dominating performance in the opener.
A complete team effort limited Houston to just three runs the next game. And while the getaway game Sunday got away from the relief core, the Bears showed promising signs of rediscovering their dominant pitching identity that had been severely lacking during the last few years.
Head coach Mike Neu, already an accomplished college pitcher himself at the University of Miami (and with the neighborly Oakland Athletics), came to Cal a well-regarded pitching savant primed to sustain the legacy of strong performance on the mound in Berkeley. And sustain he did, leading his team to ERAs of 4.20, 4.33 and 4.05 in his first three complete seasons as skipper, nearly one point lower than the year before.
However, Neu’s staff took a major step back in 2022, compiling a 5.39 ERA, despite returning most of his key contributors. While it was easy to pinpoint a few veterans that failed to live up to the preseason hype, the team as a whole struggled to both go deep into games and maintain late leads, a far cry from the culture Neu had built in his first four years.
One such game, a 16-9 May 2022 loss to Arizona State, encapsulated the problem in a sadistic, yet perfect way: The Bears took a commanding 9-2 lead in the top half of the fifth, but the bullpen allowed a whopping 14 unanswered runs in the latter innings to throw away a road-series win.
“We had three of our relievers from the previous year that stepped into the starting role. We weren’t able to really get that consistency, whether it was some injuries or some guys who didn’t really transition to that role until the end,” Neu said.
While a fair assessment of the lack of depth the Bears had on the mound last year, the outlook of the Cal staff appeared just the same this year, if not even more underdeveloped. The blue and gold have returned just 11 of 56 starts this year, and most of those 11 came in shortened opener roles.
In short, Cal lacks any substantial experience in the starting rotation.
That does not mean the Bears have a lack of talent in that position group, however — this is evident from the strong showings in Texas this weekend. May put together the best performance of his career, and best of any Bear in a long time, with his eight shutout innings Friday. The sophomore southpaw, who carved out an important role as the 2022 season progressed, made the jump to the starting rotation this year — to considerable success.
Yet behind his exclamation point of a performance lies a number of question marks. Paulshawn Pasqualotto, a freshman All-American in 2021 who sat out last year due to Tommy John surgery, lasted just one inning in his start Saturday as he struggled with his command. Connor Sullivan and Christian Becerra were solid out of the pen, but it is still unclear if they will be able to pitch deep enough into games to get a starting nod.
The good news for Neu is that he has a plethora of directions he can point to, as evidenced by the hodgepodge of arms used to get through Saturday and Sunday’s games. The bad news is that he doesn’t have much time to figure which ones he can trust, as the Bears will take on two regional teams from last season in the next two weeks, including the NCAA Men’s College World Series runners-up in Oklahoma.
“It’s a process,” Neu said. “As the year goes on, some of the younger guys will get experience. They just have to continue to get better.”
Though the lack of experience and collegiate results remain big question marks, the pitching performance from this weekend may be a sign that the Bears are clawing their way back to their old, trusty selves. And along with their high-powered offense, a light-out pitching staff is exactly what the team needs to make its first postseason run since 2019.
“I know the formula is for us to pitch and play really good defense,” Neu said. “If we do those things and we get better as the year goes on in those areas, we will be in position to win a lot of games.”