Jones returns to mound in season opener

Junior Justin Jones has been a mainstay in the starting rotation for the past two years. Yet when the lefty takes the Evans Diamond mound on Friday at 1:30 p.m. against Pacific, it will usher in a new era of Cal pitching.

And it’s not just because Friday marks the beginning of the 2012 season for the Cal baseball team. For really the first time, catcher Chadd Krist will be solely responsible for calling pitches rather than looking to the dugout for the pitch selection.

Krist called a few innings when two Cal coaches were ejected from a game last season, but otherwise he has not thrown down signs himself, at least not while wearing blue and gold. The senior from Petaluma, Calif., has called games in summer leagues, but college pitch-calling has been dominated by coaches.

Krist thinks the shift in responsibility will obviously give pitchers more autonomy but also lead to better pitches being thrown.

“I think that pitchers are more inclined to throw pitches that they want to throw,” Krist said. “If they’re not emotionally invested in that pitch, it might not be as good as if they really wanted to throw that pitch.”

While Krist and Jones work through the Tigers’ lineup, the Cal coaching staff will closely monitor how many pitches Jones hurls. The preseason All-American is returning from an arm injury that kept him from playing in the College World Series last summer, and head coach David Esquer said Jones will be kept on a strict pitch count on Friday, the first of a three-game series against the Tigers.

“We’re going to be careful with him,” Esquer said. “Regardless of where the game is, once he hits that pitch count, we’re probably going to take him out, no matter what, whether the game’s tied, behind by one or up by one.”

As Jones makes his return to the hill, first baseman Devon Rodriguez will be on the bench nursing a knee injury sustained last Friday. Esquer said the junior who hit .279 last season will be out for the first couple weeks of the season. Sophomore Andrew Knapp is slated to start in his place.

To counter the veteran Jones, Tigers’ skipper Ed Sprague will send freshman right-hander Michael Benson. Sprague started an inexperienced hurler against Cal last April, and Pacific ran away with a 7-4 victory. Behind a pitcher with less than two innings of action that year, the Tigers notched a win at Evans Diamond en  route to a shoddy 17-37 season record.

“They’re scrappy,” Krist said. “If we let them have too much of the rope, they’ll take all of it.”

Cal got revenge on Pacific later in the season, thrashing the Tigers, 9-2. But the Bears are looking to beat Pacific at the site of last year’s embarrassing loss.

“We take a lot of pride in protecting our field and making sure that we do well here,” said senior pitcher Matt Flemer, who is scheduled to start Saturday’s game at the Tigers’ home field. “It’s our goal and kinda our duty to win here.”

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