Photo by Robert Edwards/klc photos

Catcher Lee a Major Factor in Baseball Team's Hot Streak

April 16, 2019

The Cal baseball team, which visits top-ranked UCLA for a big three-game series starting Thursday night, is on something of a roll with eight wins in its last nine games.

And when listing the reasons for the success of the Bears (19-12 7-5 Pac 12) it doesn’t take head coach Mike Neu long to get to catcher Korey Lee.

The junior from Vista (San Diego County) is not only proving to be a steadying influence on the young Cal pitching staff, he is effectively filling the most important slot in the batting order: third,  immediately behind All-American first baseman Andrew Vaughn.

Lee is hitting .328 (38-for-116) with seven home runs and 32 RBI. More important he has made opposing teams pay for intentionally walking Vaughn, last season’s Gold Spikes Award winner. Vaughn has received 15 intentional walks this year. Following those, Lee is 5-for14 (.357) with eight RBI.

“It kind of gets me excited,” Lee said in an interview this week. “I get to hit with people in scoring position. That is kind of my role and what I take pride in. Anytime I can get the team an RBI that is the best thing I can do. ... I get pitches I can hit because they don’t really want to pitch to Vaughn.”

All of this is pretty heady stuff for a guy who spent his first two varsity years in something of a position limbo. While Tyrus Green did most of the catching, Lee, besides being his backup, played several positions, including pitcher for one inning. However, he hit just .238 in 2018. But with a regular role he has prospered..

“This is his first opportunity to really play a lot, and he has had an outstanding year,” Neu said. “He’s really talented. He’s got a big strong arm, he’s got a lot of power. He is an athletic catcher.

“In his opportunities last year, they were minimal, and he didn’t have a lot of success offensively.”

Lee didn’t exactly re-invent himself as a hitter, but he did make some changes to his approach.

“Over the summer I kind of talked to hitting coaches figuring out what kind of swing I wanted to put on each pitch. And our coach Noah Jackson did a lot of work with me.”

Neu said the results are obvious. “He is more disciplined, He struggled with strikeouts last year, he has been more selective in the zone. Using the whole field, he has done a great job adjusting to this level.”

Hitting, of course, is only part of Lee’s job. “We knew he had to make a couple of changes defensively moving forward,” Neu said. “To his credit he worked really hard, he is a great competitor. He has done an unbelievable job working with the pitchers and just improving his game. It is just fun to see him step up and become a high-level Pac-12 guy Not just a contributor but a high-level guy.”

Lee said he enjoys working with the Bears’ pitching staff that is dominated by freshmen. As with all successful catchers, he views psychology as part of his job description.

“Our team is full of personalities,” he said. “Especially our freshmen. Sam Stoutenborourgh our Friday night guy, has a little bit of fire in him. Sometimes you have to calm him down a little bit. But it’s a pleasure to work with him. It’s a pleasure to work with all our pitchers. Can’t ask for more than what they’re doing.”

The Bears 3.93 ERA ranks fourth in the conference. And the Bears are a bit unconventional in how they are going about it.

WIth most of their pitching staff from last year moving on, and the top returning starter Jared Horn temporarily sidelined with appendicitis just as the season was about to begin, Neu decided on some drastic revisions to accepted intercollegiate pitching practices. The Bears are going with the concept of an “opener”, the strategy begun by the MLB Tampa Bay Rays and used by several other big league clubs, including the Oakland A’s. In the first of a three-game series, a starting assignment usually reserved for a team’s best pitcher, Neu goes with a reliever, usually junior Arman Sabouri. After a couple of innings in comes Stoutenborough, who is usually good for six or seven innings. Then it’s the traditional time for the back end of the bullpen.

“We felt like if we are going to compete on a Friday (Thursday this week) we are going to have to be creative, and take the pressure off a guy,” Neu said. “If we tell one of our freshmen that you are going to have to go in and beat UCLA by yourself on a Friday night, he might be able to do that, but could we win that game?

“This puts us in a position to do that. We did some research and how they do it. It puts our best pitcher at the biggest spots in the game. Armani Sabouri pitching to the heart of the order in a tie game, then Stoutenborough is going to face their lineup two times rather than three.”

Neu said he and his staff did quite a bit of research on the move, including lengthy talks with Bob Melvin, the A’s manager who is also a Cal alum.

Horn, fully recovered from his appendicitis, draws the second game starting assignment in a more conventional move, and the third day is something of a mix and match, which will be the case this weekend.

Lee, for one, is fine with the arrangement. “It’s different. You don’t really see that in college baseball. I know the Rays did it in MLB.. We have kind of special arm with Arman Sabouri who can come out and throw two or three innings, and you have Sam Stoutenborough coming in on Friday night and kind of shutting the door after that.”

Aided at least in part by Lee and Max Flower (.323) who bats cleanup) is having another terrific year, hitting .364 with 10 home runs and 32 RBI in 110 at-bats. Neu also gave a tip of his cap to Cameron Eden who has taken over the center field spot after Brandon McIlwain was injured and is hitting .345.

UCLA (28-6, 9-3) are one of the more experienced teams in the country.  “They return almost their entire roster from last year, plus their entire weekend pitching staff,” Neu said. And their young guys in the bullpen have been doing a really good job. .. .They were a regional team last year. They are now a team with all that experience that is ranked number one. And they are well-coached.”

Playing a team like that, winners of seven games in a row, on the road is a difficult task, but if the Bears manage to win a game or two, they can significantly boost their postseason chances.

“Going into L.A. against the number one team in the nation, gives us a little bit of fire,” Lee said/ “We’ve got nothing to lose If we just to in there and play our game and it will be a good matchup.”.


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Catcher Lee a Major Factor in Baseball Team's Hot Streak

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