Since 1947, when Cal won the first College World Series, the Bay Area has frequently been part of the NCAA baseball tournament field.

Stanford alone has been to the tournament 30 times, winning national titles in 1987 and '88, and reaching the Super Regionals nine times since 1999.

Just three years ago, Stanford, Cal and USF all got invitations, with the Golden Bears making a surprise run to the College World Series.

But when this year's 64-team field is announced May 26, the six local schools may be shut out.

Only Santa Clara is in the upper division of its conference. Only Stanford is above .500, and the Cardinal is coming off an ill-timed loss this week to lowly San Jose State.

With two weekends left on the schedule, the Bay Area seems likely to be left on the outside for only the third time in 20 years.

Stanford may have done itself in with a killer early schedule designed to boost its power rating. By mid-April, the Cardinal found itself scrambling for survival with an 11-16 record.

USF, the only local school that reached the NCAAs a year ago, sits in seventh place in the West Coast Conference, doomed by poor pitching.

Cal's struggles can be traced to lingering fallout from the athletic department's decision in September 2010 to eliminate the program, along with four other sports, in a budget-crunching move. Though boosters rescued the program with pledges totaling $1.9 million and Cal spent $2.2 million in private money last year to add permanent lighting and a video scoreboard to Evans Diamond, the aftereffects remain evident.


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Cal coach David Esquer is uncomfortable making excuses, but Stanford's Mark Marquess said, "That cost them three years. Recruiting against Cal, they're going to say, `What's their commitment?'''

Surging top-25 programs from the Northwest pounced. Washington's roster has nine Bay Area players, led by junior right-hander Tyler Davis of Mountain View, who entered the week with a 10-1 record, and sophomore catcher Austin Rei of Moraga, who was hitting .322. Oregon ace right-hander Jeff Gold, 9-1, also hails from Moraga.

With just two scholarship juniors on its roster, Cal is ninth in an 11-team league.

Esquer believes his freshman and sophomore classes provide a solid foundation going forward, but admits, "I'm impatient. I wish we had no gaps."

The most tangible progress being made in the Bay Area is at Santa Clara, where third-year coach Dan O'Brien's program appears to have turned the corner. A year after going 1-23 in the WCC, the Broncos are 15-11 in conference play.

The Broncos unveiled the $8.6 million Stephen Schott Stadium in 2005 and O'Brien aspires to make Santa Clara a "destination program" rather than a fallback option for recruits.

"We believe we're a lot closer than most people think," O'Brien said. "People hear that and roll their eyes. We think we're an up-and-coming program that's right there."

Beginning in 1991, more programs began to feel they could compete after r the NCAA limited baseball scholarships to 11.7, partly as a means to meet Title IX gender requirements. The power schools could no longer stockpile talent and more costly private schools struggled to divvy their limited scholarship money.

Others saw the chance to compete on a more level playing field.

"The dynasties of the past are going to be so difficult to repeat based on the landscape of the game now," Esquer said. "It's going to be more fluid."

How fluid? Who would have imagined that Cal Poly, which didn't begin playing Division I baseball until 1995, would be the nation's fifth-ranked team? Or that USC, winner of 12 national titles, could miss the tournament for the ninth straight season?

Or that Arizona and UCLA, winners of the past two College World Series titles, wouldn't even get tournament invites the following season?

USF coach Nino Giarratano looks at his sport and is reminded of the NCAA basketball tournament. "There were a lot of teams that made it into the Sweet 16, I never heard of those schools," he said.

TV money, new facilities and aggressive recruiting have convinced 302 Division I programs they can play big-time college baseball.

"It's a big (financial) commitment," Marquess said, "but so many people have gone from just having a program to building a new facility and saying, `We're going to try to win.' "

Oregon State in 2006 became just the second school in 40 years not from a sunny climate to win an NCAA baseball title. The Beavers repeated in '07, prompting rival Oregon to bring back the sport after a 28-year hiatus.

Armed with Nike money, the Ducks built a $19.2 million ballpark in 2009. In 2012, Washington opened a 9,000-square-foot baseball complex.

Those three Northwest programs are locks to play in the NCAA tournament, but no one else from the Pac-12 is close to a sure thing.

Stanford is the Bay Area's last hope.

With little margin for error, the Cardinal (26-22, 13-13 Pac-12) looks to complete a three-game home sweep against Washington State on Sunday at Sunken Diamond.

A year ago, Stanford went 32-22, but missed the NCAAs due to a poor RPI computer ranking. Partly because of the tough schedule that generated all those early losses, the Cardinal entered this week with a solid No. 32 RPI.

"This year we have a chance," Marquess said.

In the new landscape of college baseball, the days of the sure thing are over.

Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/JeffFaraudo.