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Seeking Better Start, Cal Poly Opens 2019 Season on Friday at Oklahoma

Seeking Better Start, Cal Poly Opens 2019 Season on Friday at Oklahoma
 
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly (0-0 overall, 0-0 Big West), seeking to get off to a better start this spring than it has in three of the last four years, opens its 2019 baseball season this weekend with a three-game non-conference series against the Oklahoma Sooners (0-0 overall, 0-0 Big 12) in Norman, Okla.
 
Coach Larry Lee's Mustangs and the Sooners of second-year head coach Skip Johnson square off Friday at 1 p.m., Saturday at noon and Sunday at 10 a.m. (all times Pacific). All three games of the series will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1280 with Eric Burdick providing the play-by-play. The series also will be available on SoonerSports.TV (subscription). Links for live stats and audio and video streams are available on the baseball schedule page at www.GoPoly.com.
 
After back-to-back NCAA regional appearances in 2013 and 2014, Cal Poly opened the 2015 season 7-14 and finished 27-27 by winning 17 of its last 26 games. In 2017, the Mustangs overcame a 3-11 start to end the year 28-28, claiming seven of their last nine contests and 25 of 42. Last year's squad was 6-10 after the Nebraska series in mid-March before winning its last seven games and 24 of 41 to finish 30-27. 
 
Lee hopes this year's club returns to its winning ways early.
 
"It is always important for us to get off to a good start," said the 17th-year Mustangs mentor, "and we've always been that type of program until three of the last four years. In those years, it has taken us too long to become a winning team."
 
Though Cal Poly earned back-to-back second-place finishes in the Big West Conference the last two years, the Mustangs' performances during the non-conference slate of games  kept them out of the postseason.
 
"We dug a big hole those three years and the slow starts forced us to have to win the Big West to get into postseason play," Lee said. "This year's schedule from a non-conference standpoint is going to be very difficult with road series against Oklahoma, Washington and Baylor (all regional participants in 2018) and home series versus Cal, Saint Mary's and USC.
 
"So we better be ready from pitch one if we want to accomplish what we need to accomplish," Lee added. "It is an extremely challenging schedule for the group we have. We'll have to be able to pitch and play defense to keep ourselves in each and every game. We have to be very good in both non-conference and conference games in order to gain a regional berth."
 
The 2016 Mustang squad was 11-3 to open the year; the 2014 team was 4-0, 8-1 and 36-5 en route to the Big West title; the 2013 club was 7-0 and 15-2 on its way to a 40-win season; and the 2012 squad opened the year 11-4.
 
Oklahoma is coming off a 38-25 campaign, including a 14-10 mark for fourth place in the Big 12 Conference and 2-2 records in the Big 12 Championship and NCAA Tallahassee Regional. The Sooners have made 38 NCAA regional appearances, reaching the College World Series 10 times and claiming national titles in 1951 and 1994. Oklahoma last earned a spot in the College World Series in 2010 and captured Big 12 crowns in 1997 and 2013.
 
Among the 15 returning lettermen on the Sooners roster this year are five position starters and nine pitchers, led by senior third baseman Brylie Ware (.331, 20 doubles, 41 RBI, second-team All-Big 12 in 2018), junior infielder Brandon Zaragoza (.279, eight doubles, 28 RBI) and junior catcher Brady Lindsly (.262, 11 doubles, 26 RBI). The pitching staff is paced by sophomore southpaw Levi Prater (3-4, 4.09 ERA, 64 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings, Big West All-Freshman Team in 2018) and junior right-hander Nathan Wiles (7-3, 3.54 ERA, 69 strikeouts in 86 1/3 innings, second-team All-Big 12 in 2018). Ware and Prater were named to the 2019 All-Big 12 Preseason Team. Nine Sooners were drafted by Major League teams last June.
 
Johnson was the pitching coach at Oklahoma in 2017 before he was named the Sooners' 10th head baseball coach in June 2017. Prior to coming to Oklahoma, Johnson spent a 25-year coaching career in the state of Texas, including the most recent 10 years as an assistant and associate head coach at the University of Texas. He also was head coach for 13 years at Navarro College of the NJCAA's Texas Eastern Athletic Conference. Johnson began his collegiate playing career at Ranger (Texas) College, North Texas and UT-Pan American.
 
Cal Poly and Oklahoma are playing against each other in baseball for the first time. The Mustangs have played other teams in the Big 12, including Nebraska, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
 
Lee welcomed back 18 letter winners this spring, including five position players who made 25 or more starts in 2018, and eight pitchers, including three who have made 10 or more career starts.
 
The list of veterans is led by junior center fielder Bradlee Beesley, who hit .277 with 12 doubles and 33 RBI a year ago, was a second-team All-Big West selection in 2017 after hitting .305 and also had a solid Cape Cod League season with Yarmouth-Dennis last summer, hitting .368.
 
Also returning are sophomore first baseman Tate Samuelson (.280, five home runs, 38 RBI in 2018), senior shortstop Dylan Doherty and sophomore third baseman Nick DiCarlo, both .226 hitters a year ago. Junior utility player Scott Ogrin, who hit .266 with 26 RBI last spring, will miss at least the first three weeks of the 2019 season with an injury.
 
The pitching corps will be led by sophomore right-hander Darren Nelson (5-4, 4.79 ERA in 2018), senior righty Jarred Zill (0-1, 3.00 ERA in five starts a year ago), who missed all of 2017 and most of 2018 due to injury, and junior right-hander Bobby Ay (1-6, 5.40 ERA in 2017, made just one appearance in 2018 before he was sidelined with an injury). The starting rotation also could include sophomore righty Taylor Dollard (3-0, 2.43 ERA, three saves in 2018) and freshman southpaw Chase Watkins.
 
The opening weekend pitching rotation for Cal Poly will be led by Zill, followed by Ay and Nelson.
 
The Mustangs were No. 1 in the Big West in team hitting, on-base percentage, hits, doubles, triples, walks and turning double plays in 2018. Twenty of Cal Poly's 24 Big West games were decided by four or fewer runs. The Mustangs defeated UC Davis 16-0 and the three remaining games were six-run decisions, Cal Poly winning twice, and the Mustangs won six of 13 weekend series, sweeping Dartmouth, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside.
 
Cal Poly will play 17 games against 2018 NCAA Regional participants this spring, has a 12-game home stand in late March and early April, 30 home games in all and will play seven contests against Pac-12 schools — three-game series against Cal and College World Series participant Washington and a single game at Stanford. The Mustangs' first three series on the road this season — at Oklahoma, Washington and Baylor — all earned regional berths a year ago along with Cal State Fullerton, Saint Mary's and Stanford.
 
Cal Poly has had just three losing seasons since 2000 and has reached the 30-win mark 12 times this century. The Mustangs have won 168 of their last 231 home games for a 72.7 winning percentage. Cal Poly, which earned NCAA regional berths in 2009, 2013 and 2014, captured its first Big West championship in 2014 and has five second-place finishes, four thirds and six fourths since becoming a member of the conference in 1997. Cal Poly has finished in the top five of the Big West standings 14 times in Lee's previous 16 seasons with the Mustangs. Cal State Fullerton is the only other Big West team that can make the same claim.
 
While all 56 Mustang games in 2017 were played in the Golden State, Cal Poly played four games in  a tournament at Surprise, Ariz., visited Nebraska for a four-game series and traveled to Hawai'i for a three-game Big West series in 2018. The Mustangs make out-of-state trips to Oklahoma, Washington and Baylor this spring.
 
Over the last seven seasons from 2012-18, Cal Poly has won 240 games, the third-highest total among the 24 California schools with Division I programs. Averaging 35 wins per season during those seven campaigns, the victory total is eighth among 46 schools in the NCAA's West Region. In addition, from 2012-14, Cal Poly averaged 41 wins a year with 123 victories, more than any other Division I team in California, and the Mustangs have averaged 32.5 victories per season under Lee's guidance.
 
Lee (513-391-2) reached the 500-victory milestone last April 20 with a 5-4 triumph over Long Beach State. His 513 wins to date are No. 2 in the conference behind Fresno State's Bob Bennett (547) and Lee's 212 conference wins also are No. 2 in the Big West behind Long Beach State's Dave Snow (218).
 
Lee surpassed Berdy Harr (297-249-6 from 1973-83) as Cal Poly's winningest head baseball coach during the Pacific series in 2011. Lee earned 460 wins in 16 seasons at Cuesta College and notched his 460th Mustang victory on March 13, 2017 against Gonzaga. With 973 career wins at Cuesta and Cal Poly, Lee enters the 2019 campaign just 27 victories shy of the 1,000 mark.
 
Next week, Cal Poly concludes its season-opening four-game road trip Tuesday at CSU Bakersfield before opening its 30-game home schedule with a three-game series Friday through Sunday against Cal.
 
Photo at top of Bradlee Beesley courtesy of Alexander Bohlen | Alexander Bohlen Photography