The Cal men’s baseball team knew exactly what it was getting itself into as soon as now-graduated Jordan Talbot recorded the last out of the 2016 season against Washington State. With their terrible second half — they went 14-15 while missing the postseason — in the books, the Bears’ next challenge was to survive the MLB Draft and graduation, which took 18 of their best and most experienced players.
Now, nine months later and with big shoes to fill, Cal’s youngsters will begin the season against Cal Poly in 2017’s home opener.
The Bears have come a long way since having the talented one-two punch of Daulton Jefferies and Ryan Mason start Friday and Saturday games. They instead will turn to two familiar faces this weekend in Tanner Dodson and Matt Ladrech, who regularly filled out the rotation as either the Tuesday or Sunday starters. Dodson will be taking over Jefferies’ coveted Friday starter role, while freshman Jared Horn will be taking Mason’s.
But a pitcher is only as good as the defense behind him, and how the Bears’ defense will perform is anyone’s guess. Preston Grand Pre, who regularly connected with now-Tampa Bay Rays farmhand Robbie Tenerowicz for 6-4 putouts, is the only starter to return from last season. It’s one thing to go around the horn in practice, but it will be another to do so with two Mustangs on first and second base with nobody out.
“We’re going to need to hold down (Cal Poly’s) offense and be able to muster some offense on our own,” said Cal head coach David Esquer. “We have to play defense to support our offense because the game could get out of hand if we don’t have good defense.”
As with the defense, the new Bear offense will be taking its first bat rips in pressure situations. No longer anchored down with power bats in drafted Brett Cumberland and Mitchell Kranson, Cal will have to rely on the small ball — at least early on — to get runs on the board.
The Bears will likely meet Cal Poly’s Kyle Smith, last year’s Friday starter for the Mustangs. Smith had 14 starts in 15 appearances as a sophomore and compiled a 6-6 record with a 3.64 ERA. While his ERA is nothing to look twice over, he is a strikeout threat — striking out more than eight batters per nine innings last year while collecting 89 overall. He also has a good idea of the strike zone, allowing just more than two walks per nine innings.
A middle-of-the-order threat that Cal’s weekend rotation will have to keep an eye on is Mustang middle infielder Kyle Marinconz. While shortstops or second basemen typically find themselves hitting leadoff or lower in the order, Marinconz definitely found ways to put the ball in play his freshman season. He finished the season with a .284 batting average with 15 doubles, knocking in 25 runners in the process.
2017 looks to be a “rebuilding” year for the Bears. And when their first series of the year concludes, fans should be able to get at least an early indication of where the team appears to be heading as the season goes on.
Chris Tril is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].