It was a tough year for the 1997 California baseball team, but the Golden Bears received some solace when they won four of their last five games, including defeating No. 4 ranked UCLA (9-8) and winning two-of-three at No. 21 ranked Clemson to end the season.
"It was a nice way to end the season; winning two-of-three from a Clemson team that played in an NCAA regional," said Cal coach Bob Milano. "It was great seeing our seniors play well in their last series, and hopefully it will give our younger players some confidence going into this year."
Milano's squad (21-38, 4-26 in the Pac-10 Southern Division) was not intimidated by a Clemson team that had a 27-4 home mark entering the series. Cal stole 18 bases during the three games against the Tigers; winning 12-11 May 9, losing 15-3 May 10 and winning 12-10 May 11.
Three of the Bears seniors went out on a fine note at Clemson as second baseman Jim Schmidt was 5-for-7 with three doubles and five RBI, first baseman John Furstenthal was 4-for-11 with three RBI and third baseman/outfielder Ivan Lewis was 4-for-12 with two RBI and seven stolen bases. Other top hitters for Cal included sophomore catcher Jason Hill (5-for-13, home run, four RBI), freshman right fielder Juan Hernandez (5-for-14, double, two RBI), junior designated hitter Aaron Gordnier (4-for-14, double, five RBI) and sophomore shortstop Brian Oliver (4-for-14, double, home run, four RBI).
Lewis, a Pac-10 honorable mention selection, finished his college career third on the Cal all-time stolen base list with 115 stolen bases. He was the Pac-10 stolen base champ in 1995 and '96.
On the mound, the Bears were paced by freshman submarine reliever Jon Cuccias (2-0, three saves, 3.38 ERA). Cuccias picked up the save in the first game against Clemson, pitching 2.0 innings with three hits, no earned runs, no walks and three strikeouts. On the third day, he earned the win by throwing a career-high 5.3 innings with 10 hits, four runs, two walks and a strikeout.
Despite the team's sub-par '97 campaign, Cal still had an outstanding year from shortstop Oliver, who earned All-Pac-10 honors, as well as the Robert A. Roos Batting Cup as the team's leading hitter and the Clint Evans Award as the team's most valuable player. Oliver and Hill were also selected to play for the USA National Team that was coached by Bob Milano over the summer. Oliver started all 59 games at shortstop and led the Bears in nearly every offensive category during the 1997 season, including batting average (.364), runs (42), hits (88), doubles (15), triples (three) and stolen bases (24-for-26). He was third in the conference in stolen bases and ninth in batting average.
Other award winners for Cal in '97 were senior pitcher Drew Fischer and freshman pitcher Jon Shirley. Fischer was the winner of the Edwin E. Lord Jr. Award as the Bears most inspirational player. He finished his senior season 3-6 as a starter, but for his career amassed 15 saves, third-best on the Cal all-time list. Shirley won the George Wolfman Award as the team's most improved player. He finished the year 2-7 with a save and a 5.47 ERA, yet as a first-year player led the team in strikeouts (54) and innings pitched (82.3).
Junior right-hander Tyler Walker was a bright spot for the Bears as he had an impressive '97 campaign, going 4-4 with a team-high four saves and a 3.40 ERA. Walker, whose over 90 mile-an-hour fastball got the attention of professional scout all season long, also had 50 strikeouts in 47.7 innings and was a second-round selection (58th pick overall) in the amateur draft and signed with the New York Mets.
Another Cal player who signed professionally after his junior season was right-hander Doug Nickle. Nickle, who was 3-5 with two saves and a 6.39 ERA, was drafted in the 13th round and signed with the Anaheim Angels.
The young Bears (five seniors, five juniors, eight sophomores, 18 freshmen) never really gelled as they finished the preseason 9-9 before the first league series versus Arizona. The home series against the Wildcats set the tone for the rest of the season as Cal lost its first two conference games both by one run in extra innings and didn't win its first league game until Mar. 15 (6-4 versus Arizona State). The Bears had a nine and an eight-game conference losing streak during the season and only won one league series (two-of-three versus USC Apr. 11-13).
Still, by defeating UCLA, Sacramento State and two-of-three at Clemson to end the '97 season, Cal showed its potential for 1998.