Young Bears Capture Hormel Foods Baseball Classic, Achieve Individual Honors in 1998
The California baseball team finished the 1998 season by winning one-of-three games May 8-10 at Washington, defeating the Pac-10 Champion Huskies, 6-0, before falling in the last two games of the series, 6-4 and 8-4.
That was the pattern of the '98 squad. Despite having a 22-32 overall record and only a 5-24 mark in the Pacific-10 Conference Southern Division, the young Golden Bears, who often started as many as five freshmen, would occasionally show what they were capable of and what the future might hold. Through a season of heartbreaking losses and tough breaks, Cal also shined by capturing the Hormel Foods Baseball Classic at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, MN, twice defeating No. 1 ranked Stanford, shutting out Washington in Seattle and finishing with a respectable 17-8 non-conference record.
"I think the biggest positive about the season was the amount of playing time the freshmen and sophomores had," said head coach Bob Milano at the end of the '98 campaign. "The young players got a taste of what the conference is all about, and then from mid-April to the end of our season in May, I saw a big improvement. I feel comfortable that the team has got a feel of what it takes to be successful and I can't wait to get into next season."
Individually, the Bears also had some highlights, most notably Xavier Nady, who was selected National Freshman Player of the Year by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. Nady, the most highly decorated freshman in the history of Cal baseball, was a second team All-American, as well, batting .404 with a school record 28 doubles, five triples, 15 home runs (Cal freshman record), 70 RBI and a school record .776 slugging percentage. He was twice named Pac-10 Player of Week and was a member of the NCBWA Super Team and a first team ABCA All-West Region selection.
Nady and junior catcher Jason Hill were both selected to the All-Pac-10 Southern Division team. Nady was also voted the winner of the Clint Evans Award as the Bears Most Valuable Player and the Robert A. Roos Batting Cup as the team's leading hitter.
Freshman left-hander Jason Dennis had an outstanding effort in the Bears 6-0 shutout victory against Washington, pitching his third complete game of the season with six hits, one walk and a career-high seven strikeouts. The Huskies had not been shutout in 115 straight games prior to Dennis' pitching gem. Dennis finished the season 6-5 with a 4.88 ERA, one save and a team-leading 97.7 innings pitched. He also had a stellar effort in a 4-3 complete-game victory at top-ranked Stanford. He twice earned Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week during the season.
Hill had an outstanding junior year, batting .347 with 15 doubles, a triple, 12 home runs and 54 RBI. Besides being an All-Pac-10 selection, he was selected to the ABCA All-West Region Team and was drafted in the eighth round by the Anaheim Angles.
Senior outfielder Aaron Gordnier and junior shortstop Brian Oliver were voted co-winners of the Edwin E. Lord Jr. Award as the team's most inspirational players. Gordnier wrapped up his college career in fine fashion, batting .345 with 12 doubles, two triples, 14 home runs and 47 RBI, earning Pac-10 honorable mention and signing as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians.
Oliver, who missed 20 games due to a badly bruised tendon in his right hand, still finished the season with a .386 average, 10 doubles, two triples, five home runs and 23 RBI. One of the slickest fielders in Cal baseball history, he only had two errors in 135 chances last year and earned Pac-10 honorable mention. For his career, Oliver had a .358 average with 39 doubles, seven triples, 14 home runs, 91 RBI and 53 stolen bases. He was drafted in the fourth round (121st pick) by the Anaheim Angles.
Freshman outfielder/pitcher Rob Meyer and freshman pitcher Ryan Atkinson were named the winners of the George Wolfman Award as the team's most improved players. Meyer finished the season batting .349 and was 1-2 with a save on the mound. Atkinson came on the last half of the season to become the Bears third starter and had a 2-6 record with a complete game Apr. 19 at national champion USC.
Some other players who earned individual accolades included freshman third baseman/catcher Mike Tonis, sophomore right-hander Jon Shirley and freshman first baseman/designated hitter David Sark. Tonis was spectacular at the Hormel Foods Classic, earning tournament MVP honors by batting a phenomenal 9-for-14 (.643) with two doubles, four home runs and nine RBI in three games. He broke the tournament record for home runs and was named Pac-10 Southern Division Player of the Week for his efforts. Shirley was the Pac-10 Southern Division Pitcher of the Week after defeating Stanford, 10-2, Apr. 25 with a 7.0 inning, two-hit effort. Sark was a member of the Hormel Classic All-Tournament team, joining fellow Bears Nady, Tonis, Dennis and Oliver.
Junior right-hander Ryan Drese concluded his Cal career when he was drafted in the fifth round and signed with the Cleveland Indians. Drese had been plagued with arm problems (strained ligaments in his right elbow) for the majority of the 1996 and 1997 seasons before returning in '98 and showing signs of brilliance, despite going 3-6 with a 7.06 ERA (56 strikeouts in 58.7 innings). He was outstanding in the summer of 1995 with the U.S. National Team, leading Team USA with a 5-1 record, a 2.15 ERA and defeating Cuba with an 8.0 inning, four hit, one walk and 10 strikeout performance.