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Cal Softball: Bears' Long-Shot NCAA Hopes Start With Challenging Task at No. 8 UCLA

Cal, which hasn't beaten the Bruins since 2013, needs a big weekend in Westwood.

Justin McLeod, publisher of a website that focuses on college softball, says Cal still has a slim chance of securing a spot in the 64-team NCAA tournament.

But the path to good news when the field is announced Sunday at 4 p.m. PDT on ESPN2 is steep and narrow.

McLeod says their final mock bracket, revealed Monday on, has the Bears among the “first five teams out,” suggesting there is a way into the field.

For Cal (28-24-1, 8-13 Pac-12), it starts with a season-ending series at No. 8 UCLA (40-8, 16-5), with games set for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“There’s a recipe for Cal,” McLeod said. “They definitely they need to take the series from UCLA. I don’t think they have to sweep.”

Before we move on to what else has to happen for the Bears to keep alive their hopes, there’s this bit of stark reality:

Cal has not beaten UCLA since the 2013 season, going 0-19-1 over that near-decade-long stretch, although the teams did not meet the past two seasons.

UCLA resides in second place in the Pac-12 but is a sturdy No. 5 in the RPI computer national rankings. The Bruins make their living with excellent pitching. They lead the Pac-12 with a 1.45 team ERA (Cal is last at 3.88) and with 9.23 strikeouts per seven innings

Just pulling off a couple surprise wins this weekend in Westwood likely will not be enough to get Cal into the NCAAs for the first time since 2018.

“They control their own destiny in the sense they have to beat UCLA,” McLeod said. "Outside of that, they’ve definitely got to have some other things happen.”

Cal is tied for sixth with Utah in the nine-team conference standings, ahead by one game over Arizona and slumping Oregon State. But the Bears are last among Pac-12 schools in the RPI ratings at No. 51.

The 64-team field will include 32 automatic entries plus 32 at-large selections.

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Oregon State, at No. 36 in the RPI despite a 10-game losing streak, and No. 45 Utah square off three times in Corvallis to close the regular season. McLeod suggested it would best serve Cal if neither of those teams pulled a weekend sweep.

The mock bracket is assembled for by Eric Lopez, who correctly predicted 63 of 64 teams last year. He has seven Pac-12 schools in his current projection, with Utah as the 64th and final team in the field. OSU is one spot out, with Cal at No. 68.

The Bears are coming off a successful weekend in which they took two of three from Arizona. But there have been some hiccups this season that damage their resume.

Cal suffered non-conference losses to four teams whose RPI is above 100, categorizing them as Quad 4 games. Those defeats to Hawaii (108), Portland State (111), San Diego (115) and Sacramento State (141) are viewed by the selection committee as “egregious,” according to McLeod.

The Bears also lost an opportunity to boost their standing when they traveled to the midwest in the middle of last month for a three-game set outside the Pac-12 against Miami-Ohio. Cal was top-40 in the RPI before going 0-2-1 against the Redhawks, leaders of the Mid-American Conference.

Cal gets a potential boost from the committee based on star slugger Makena Smith missing 13 games due to injury. Smith is third in the Pac-12 with a .421 batting average and has 12 home runs, but the Bears were 5-9 in games without her including 1-6 against Pac-12 foes.

“One of the committee’s stated criterion is absence of star players. It’s a consideration the committee uses,” McLeod suggested.

The Pac-12’s reputation as one of the nation’s elite softball conferences obviously elevates every team in the league. But just three teams — Arizona State, UCLA and Washington — have winning conference records, with the other six all at least three games under .500 in Pac-12 play.

“It is the wackiest I have seen in a long, long time,” McLeod said. “Parity in the Pac-12 is going to be such a conversation in the committee room and that definitely benefits Cal.”

It all starts on the field. And the Bears have to take care of business against UCLA for any of the rest to matter.

Cover photo of Cal's Makena Smith by Michelle Minehan, Cal Athletics 

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo