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Baseball Preview: Bears Will Go as Far as Vaughn Can Carry Them

January 31, 2019

As he prepares for his second season as Cal’s head baseball coach, Mike Neu knows what he has and what he doesn’t have.

He has the premier player in college baseball, junior first baseman Andrew Vaughn, winner of the 2018 Golden Spikes Award, the sports equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

What he doesn’t have is an experienced pitching staff.

“We return just 150 out of 500 innings (pitched) so that’s going to be something that we’re going to have to figure out,” Neu said at the Bay Area Baseball Media Day this week. “ We have nine freshman pitchers.”

Neu is thinking of the best ways to deal with that strength and that weakness. He plans to do some tinkering during the early season, and whatever plans he adopts are likely to be unconventional.

Vaughn hit .402 with 23 home runs and 63 RBIs in 199 at-bats last year. Those numbers might be tough to match.

“I think he will get fewer pitches to hit this year,” Neu said. “We lost three of our top four hitters (Jonah Davis, Tanner Dodson, Tyrus Green)  to the draft. So we don’t have the protection around him we had last year. And he won the Golden Spikes Award last year so you’re returning a guy who is going to get walked some times.

“He understands that.That’s going to be part of the game and somebody else is going to have to step up and beat ‘em. That’s something we’re prepared for. We will need other guys to step up.”

Vaughn spent most of the season in the third spot in the batting order.”We moved him up to second midway through conference season because we wanted to maximize his at-bats,” Neu said. “And we felt like we had a couple guys behind him that we could put there and do some damage.”

But with a less imposing supporting cast, Neu said he might try and even more radical tactic, batting Vaughn leadoff. .”It would assure one at-bat per game where they’d have to pitch to him or put him on base and maybe set up an impact inning,” Neu said. “We’ll mess around the first two weeks and see what works best for our team.”

Should Vaughn lead off, Neu said he probably would hit second baseman Darren Baker (son of former Giants manager Dusty Baker) behind him. “We feel Darren Baker is a really good hitter in his sophomore year and probably the best protection for Andrew,” Neu said. “Because  he’s left-handed and he’s a polished hitter and he can do a lot of damage.”

A year ago the plan was to use both Vaughn and Dodson as pitchers as well as position players. Dodson did double-duty, hitting .320 as an outfielder and pitching in 19 games, recording 11 saves to lead the team. Although Vaughn, who had pitched in ten games as a freshman,  was always ready to take the mound, he made just one appearance throwing a shutout inning.

“Last year he threw a bullpen once a week,” Neu said. “And about the fourth to the last game he came in and did a good job.”

But that was probably his final pitching appearance as a Bear. “Last year we didn’t have a lot of pitchers,” Neu said. “This year we have more pitchers with less experience. We are going to let him do what he does best, which is hit the ball and play defense.”

How all those pitchers will be used has not been decided.

“Our goal is to put some of these returning guys in the biggest spots,” Neu said. “If  you had to ask me right now, (junior)J ared Horn (5-5, 6.15 ERA) would be our Friday guy, but we want to give him a chance to pitch in the biggest spots. So if that’s Friday, or for him to pitch multiple innings on the weekend,” Neu said. “We need to him to pitch in big spots for us to be successful. That’s the same with (junior) Arman Sabouri (5-1, 3.17).”

What Neu is considering, especially with his abundance of freshmen, is adopting the strategy of using an “opener” which has become all the rage with some major leagues.

“Maybe they will pitch less innings than a normal starter to get us to a certain point in the game and  then hand the ball off to somebody else,” he said. “Maybe go by matchups. There are a lof of options we are looking into.”

The Bears return the entire starting infield with Vaughn, Baker (fully recovered from the ankle injury that cost him the last ten games of 2018), shortstop Cameron Eden and third baseman Sam Wezniak,

Korey Lee, who was in 36 games as the backup last year, becomes the No. 1 catcher.

Max Flower is the only outfielder with significant experience. Neu said he can play at any one of the three spots. Sophomore lettermen Sam Cachola, John Lagattuta and Connor Mack are the main contenders for playing time, although there is another intriguing option. Brandon McIlwain, the transfer from South Carolina, who for three games was the starting quarterback for the football team is in the mix.

“It’s amazing what his development has been over a short period of time,” Neu said. “At the same time we’ve had guys who have been out there every day for the last couple of years. He has to work and get his opportunities when they come. He’s a talented guy and as he does develop he is going to have chances and be able to take advantage of them.  But we have other guys who have been out there every day.”

McIlwain said he plans to participate in spring football as well baseball. “Football practice will be in the morning,” he said. “Then I’ll play baseball in the afternoon.”

The Bears were 32-22 a year ago, 16-14 in the Pac-12, which was good for a fifth-place finish. Neu felt they deserved an NCAA Tournament bid, but did not receive one.

This year with the inexperienced pitching staff, they will be hard-pressed to match that record. UCLA, Stanford and perennial power Oregon State figure to be the class of the Pac-12.

But Vaughn’s bat makes the Bears worth watching.

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Baseball Preview: Bears Will Go as Far as Vaughn Can Carry Them

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