The 2011 Cal baseball team almost made history for all the wrong reasons, so it's gone largely unnoticed that the Bears are making history now for a lot of right reasons.
At the same time Cal's program overcame the spectre of being eliminated from the athletic department because of budget constraints, its pitching staff has put together one of the best seasons in school history. The Bears enter this weekend's best-of-three NCAA Super Regional against Dallas Baptist with a team ERA of 2.90, its best since finishing the 1976 season at 2.84. Cal had four pitchers selected in this week's Major League Baseball first-year player draft.
"That's the basis for our team this year -- pitching and defense," said right-hander Erik Johnson, an All-Pac-10 first-team pick who was drafted in the second round by the Chicago White Sox. "Pitching well is contagious. With all that momentum, it's hard not to pitch well."
Coach David Esquer didn't hesitate to call this the deepest pitching staff he's had in his 12 years leading the Bears. In Johnson, Justin Jones and Dixon Anderson, the Bears returned all three members of their starting rotation from 2010. Throw in the return to health of Kevin Miller, the emergence of junior Matt Flemer as a top-level closer and contributions from younger pitchers such as Joey Donofrio and Logan Scott, this team feels like it's built for a deep run in the postseason, when fresh arms are at a premium.
"We have the arms to do it," said Flemer, who has a 2.14 ERA with five saves and was drafted in the 19th round by the Kansas City Royals. "We're confident in our arms. We really feel like we can win two games this weekend and move on (to the College World Series) and see what happens."
While Johnson -- who is 6-4 with a 2.91 ERA -- received first-team conference honors, he is by no means the definitive ace of the staff. Jones, a freshman All-American last season, is 8-6 with a 3.09 ERA and will start Game 1 on Saturday. Anderson was a ninth-round pick by the Washington Nationals (after getting picked in the sixth round by Baltimore last year), and Miller was taken in the 18th round by the Houston Astros.
"I think there's a little internal competition, which is good taken the right way," Esquer said. "Each guy wants to keep up. It's not about being better but keeping up."
Miller's contributions this season can't be overstated. He exploded on to the scene in 2008 as a freshman, pitching the first 44 innings of his college career without giving up an earned run. He ended up going 6-1 with a 2.90 ERA and was named a freshman All-American.
But Miller tore the labrum in his hip that fall but put off surgery until after his sophomore season. He was not himself during his sophomore and junior seasons, combining to go 5-6 with a 4.49 ERA. Finally at the top of his game again this season, Miller is 6-4 with a 2.62 ERA while excelling both as a starter and reliever.
"Kevin Miller is our most valuable pitcher," Esquer said. "He has so many different roles. He was willing to postpone his surgery just because he knew he was so vital to us. Then he got himself back healthy and pitched like we new he always could."
Cal's pitching staff peaked in mid-March, when it went 47 innings without allowing an earned run. That included shutouts against Ohio State, Nevada and two against Washington State sandwiched between parts of games against Ohio State and USF.
"When you get on a hot streak like that, you think you're invincible," Flemer said. "That just shows the kind of talent we have out there on the mound."