Young in 2016; Cal Poly Opens 2017 Season with Higher Expectations

Young in 2016; Cal Poly Opens 2017 Season with Higher Expectations

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SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-0, 0-0 Big West), which despite having 25 freshmen and sophomores on its 35-man roster a year ago finished 32-25 overall and tied for fourth place in the Big West Conference, opens the 2017 baseball season this weekend with a three-game series against Pacific-12 Conference member California (0-0, 0-0 Pac-12).

First pitches inside Evans Diamond (cap.: 2,500) in Berkeley, Calif., are set for 7 p.m. PST Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 o'clock Sunday. All three games of the series will be aired live on ESPN Radio 1280 with Eric Burdick providing the play-by-play. Links for live stats as well as an audio stream are available on the baseball schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.

Despite all the youth, including as many as six true freshmen and a community college transfer in the starting lineup, Cal Poly won nine of 15 weekend series a year ago, including victories over No. 14 UCLA and No. 19 Michigan and a sweep against College World Series participant UC Santa Barbara.

"We are better in all facets of the game compared to last year's team," said 15th-year Mustang head coach Larry Lee. "We have a lot of experience back on the mound and we're better as a team both offensively and defensively.

"In saying that, position player-wise, we're still very young. Barring injury, we should have a good offensive and defensive team in the field. Now it's just a matter of getting a couple more players involved in the mix."

The pitching rotation features all four returning starters off the 2016 squad, including weekend starters Erich Uelmen (5-3, 3.68 ERA), Kyle Smith (6-6, 3.64 ERA) and Jarred Zill (4-3, 2.79 ERA). The trio will make up the rotation for this weekend's series against the Bears. Sophomore right-hander Cam Schneider also returns after starting seven games a year ago.

"We have all three weekend starters back who are now juniors and we will have strong competition from a couple other candidates to fill out the weekend rotation as well as the midweek starter position," said Lee.

Cal is coming off a 32-21 campaign, including a 14-16 mark for an eighth-place tie in the Pac-12. The Bears return 15 lettermen, but just one of the nine position starters -- shortstop Preston Grand Pre, a .290 hitter with nine doubles and 19 RBI a year ago -- and two pitchers who started nine games each a year ago in right-hander Tanner Dodson (4-5, 3.36 ERA) and southpaw Matt Ladrech (3-4, 4.30 ERA) along with closer Erik Martinez (3-2, 3.13 ERA, eight saves), a righty.

Coached by David Esquer (18th season, 500-438-2, Stanford '87), Cal hit .293 a year ago, led by Pac-12 player of the Year, first-team All-Pac-12 and second-team All-American catcher Brett Cumberland (.344, 16 home runs, 51 RBI) and third baseman Mitchell Kranson (.333, five home runs, 36 RBI), a first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

Cal placed fifth in the 2011 NCAA College World Series, claimed CWS titles in 1947 and 1957, has appeared in the NCAA postseason 13 times, has reached the College World Series six times and last won a conference title in 1980.

Cal made an initial decision in September 2010 to discontinue the baseball program due to pressure on the university's budget. Following a fundraising effort that generated approximately $10 million in commitment, Golden Bear baseball was reinstated April 8, 2011.

Cal Poly and Cal have met 51 times on the baseball field since the series began in 1948. The Bears hold a 36-15 advantage, including a 5-4 triumph at Evans Diamond a year ago, erasing a 3-1 deficit and spoiling a strong start by Mustang right-hander Bobby Ay, who allowed one run and three hits in five innings. The Bears also beat Cal Poly 7-1 at Baggett Stadium two weeks earlier.

Cal Poly won three of four games in a 2014 series at Baggett Stadium. The two teams did not meet in 2015. The two teams are 8-8 against each other since the Mustangs moved to Division I prior to the 1995 season.

Cal Poly's 2017 roster is led by seven returning position starters and eight pitchers who tossed 20 or more innings in 2016.

Outfielder Josh George (.306, seven doubles, 16 RBI) and catcher Nick Meyer (.301, seven doubles, 21 RBI) both hit above the .300 mark a year ago. Meyer was a second-team All-Big West selection and also was named Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year after picking off a Big West-leading 10 runners and threw out 22 would-be base stealers, second in the conference.

Middle infielder Kyle Marinconz (.284, 15 doubles, 25 RBI), an All-Big West honorable mention, joined Meyer on Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team. Third baseman Michael Sanderson (.296, 12 doubles, 33 RBI), outfielder Kevin Morgan (.269, 15 RBI), outfielder Alex McKenna (.261, six home runs, 27 RBI) and shortstop Brett Binning (.225) also return.

A pair of true freshmen -- shortstop Bradlee Beesley (.407, 19 RBI at San Leandro High School) and outfielder Scott Ogrin (.412, 18 RBI at Valencia High School) -- likely will be in the starting lineup on Opening Day along with community college transfer Elijah Skipps (Cypress College) at first base.

A year ago Cal Poly earned its 14th winning season since 2000 and reached the 30-win mark for the 11th time this century. The Mustangs were 23-8 at home last season and have won 134 of their last 176 home games for a winning percentage of 76.1 percent.

Cal Poly, which earned NCAA regional berths in 2009, 2013 and 2014, has finished fourth or higher in the Big West 12 times in its last 14 seasons, including back-to-back fourth-place finishes after capturing its first Big West championship in 2014.

Lee (455-336-2) earned his 400th win March 7, 2015, at Pacific and surpassed Berdy Harr (297-249-6 from 1973-83) as Cal Poly's winningest head baseball coach during the Pacific series in 2011. Lee's previous 14 clubs at Cal Poly have averaged 32.5 wins per season.

Cal Poly's 2017 schedule also includes a three-game series at UCLA in late April. The schedule features 14 games against 2016 NCAA regional qualifiers, a 12-game home stand in March and 28 contests in all inside Baggett Stadium. All 56 Mustang games this spring will be played in the Golden State.

Cal Poly plays its home opener against another Pac-12 foe, Stanford, on Monday. The President's Day matchup in Baggett Stadium begins at 1 o'clock. The Cardinal will make a one-game stop in San Luis Obispo after opening its 2017 season with a three-game series at Cal State Fullerton over the weekend.

It will be Cal Poly's lone home game in the first three weeks of the season as the Mustangs play 10 of their first 11 contests on the road. Next weekend, Cal Poly plays a three-game set at Pacific, followed by a single game at Santa Clara on Feb. 28 and a three-game series at San Diego State on March 3-5.