No. 10 Cal baseball seeks better results against Duke in 2016 season opener

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For the Cal baseball team, its first-ever series against Duke last year was an opportunity to make a statement and put its lukewarm 2014 season behind.

But a 7-1 loss in the opening game showed that the Blue Devils were stronger than their list of ACC and NCAA accolades implied. Cal still managed to muster a comeback in the following bout to tie up the series, but Duke displayed its grit in the final match to come out on top.

The Bears will have the chance to avenge last season’s loss this weekend, when they take on the Blue Devils in Durham, N.C., in a three-game series scheduled to begin Friday. This time, however, the Bears will head into the season opener with a desire to capitalize on their ability to reach the NCAA Regionals last year, rather than turn over a new leaf and hope for the best.

“Duke was tough on us last year,” said Cal head coach David Esquer. “They beat us two out of three at our place, so we know what they’re capable of.”

Despite the off-season departures and the option of going with a different look for his squad, Esquer will be fielding a lineup that closely resembles last year’s.

Cal will remain with its same three outfielders from last year. In the infield, senior Nick Halamandaris will play at first base. Sophomore Preston Grand Pre will play up the middle, and senior Mitchell Kranson will take over on third base from last year. Sophomore Brett Cumberland is set to resume his role as catcher, while the weekend starters from last season will continue their duties.

Junior pitcher Daulton Jefferies is set to start Friday, and he will be looking to buckle the Duke batters’ knees, and he will seek to prove why he was selected as a preseason All-American by several media outlets. Jefferies threw 80 innings of 2.92 ERA ball last year, a significant improvement from the 3.45 ERA he had in 15 games in 2014. The junior’s rise to prominence has not gone unnoticed, as he earned a spot in USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer.

His experience will be valuable in stopping big bats such as Duke’s Peter Zyla, who possessed the highest batting average on the team last year. But Jefferies isn’t the only pitcher to keep on eye on this weekend. Cal senior Ryan Mason, who is scheduled to start Saturday, has accumulated plenty of experience on the mound and has steadily improved since his first year. He threw 99.2 innings of 2.98 ERA last year, and he appears to be on track to record his best season with the program this year, if he avoids any injuries.

Both Mason and Jefferies have the ability to prey on Duke’s batters. The returning Blue Devils only include one hitter who hit above .300, and the freshman batters may not fare any better.

Overall, the Bears’ veteran experience will give them the edge against a relatively young Duke squad that only boasts two seniors, five juniors and four graduates. Cal is in a much better position to come out on top this time around, and a victory against the Blue Devils will let the Pac-12 know that the Bears are the type of contenders that can remain cool and dispatch inferior opposition.

Manny Flores covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @manny_0.