After spending the first four seasons as an independent, a new era begins for Cal State Bakersfield's baseball program.

The Roadrunners have joined the Western Athletic Conference as an affiliate member, five months before CSUB athletics joins that league as a full member. The baseball season begins today at Hardt Field against Nebraska at 3 p.m. It's the start of a busy weekend for CSUB.

Saturday, the Roadrunners play host to USC at 2 p.m. Sunday, it's Cal State Fullerton at Hardt Field for another 2 p.m. game.

CSUB has some time to prepare for its inaugural WAC season. The Roadrunners have 23 scheduled games prior to the WAC opener at Sacramento State on March 22.

Based on preseason polls, most baseball observers are not enamored with the Roadrunners, who had their high-water mark two seasons ago when they went 33-22 and nearly earned an NCAA Tournament berth as an at-large pick.

Injuries, the loss of several key players from 2011 and a subsequent inexperienced squad contributed to a 25-30 season in 2012.

This season, Baseball America picked CSUB to finish eighth in the 10-team WAC. A recent WAC coaches poll predicted a fifth-place finish.

"And Collegiate Baseball had 111 teams they mentioned in their poll, none of which was Cal State Bakersfield," coach Bill Kernen said.

If CSUB finishes in the top eight in the WAC, it will qualify for the conference tournament and the WAC's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

Kernen has the luxury of five returning starting position players, several others who rotated into the lineup at times last season and many veteran pitchers.

"Our middle infielders are juniors now," Kernen said, referring to second baseman Oscar Sanay and shortstop Tyler Shryock. "Our catching (junior Cael Brockmeyer and senior Frank Martinez) and some outfielders (senior left fielder Kevin Young and sophomore center fielder Jordie Hein) are more veteran guys. They've played together 2-3 years, depending on how long they've been here.

"We lost one pitcher who was important (Spenser Messmore, who graduated). Other pitchers are coming back, plus who we've recruited. We're the opposite from what we had last year with the pitching staff where everyone leaves. We've got everyone coming back."

Senior left-hander Jeff McKenzie (6-5 with a team-best 2.67 ERA and 69 strikeouts last season) will be today's opening-day starter. Senior right-hander Scott Brattvet (6-5, 4.75) will follow, then senior left-hander Jonathan Montoya (8-5, 3.67 in 2011), who missed all of last season because of Tommy John surgery.

Other pitchers back from last season are junior left-hander Taylor Aikenhead (6-3, 3.20), senior lefty Chuck Buchanan (1-1, 3.95), sophomore righties James Barragan (0-4, 4.08) and Hayden Carter (1-3, 4.81) and sophomore lefty Austin Davis (1-1, 6.49).

Senior right-hander Brandon Van Dam is also back after missing all of last season and most of 2011 because of a shoulder injury. Newcomers are Josh Rodriguez, a JC transfer from Cabrillo College, and freshman lefty Pat Higashi.

The closer’s role is a question mark, Kernen said. Senior Dylan Christensen and freshman Chance Guspeth, both right-handers, may get the initial look.

“We’re very left-handed, which I like,” Kernen said. “We also have veteran guys, which I also think is a big plus. We have some who have had success at this level who are coming back as seniors. ...

“We have a chance on the mound to keep ourselves in the games every day. If our pitching doesn’t lead the way and stay healthy, we’ve got a big problem.”

Brockmeyer, the starting catcher who also played several games at first base last season, was the team’s top run-producer in 2012 with team highs in homers (six) and RBIs (32). Martinez batted .294 as a part-time catcher.

Sanay has led the Roadrunners in batting (.355 as a freshman in 2011, .312 last season) and hits (78 in 2011, 64 last season) in both of his CSUB seasons.

Shryock raised his average nearly 30 points last season, to .276. Younger batted .285 last season and Hein started quickly but struggled the second half of the season and finished at .228.

Newcomers in the mix to see significant playing time are freshman third baseman Mylz Jones (Lancaster-Paraclete High), and first base candidates Gusbeth (freshman, Lancaster-Desert Christian), Nick Vehlewald (Garces High) and Chris Mallon (Granada Hills), who’s also a catcher. Vehlewald can play first or third.

Hein has moved from right field to center field to replace standout defender Andrew Letourneau, a senior last year who Kernen called one of the best defensive outfielders in the nation. Centennial High graduate Garrett Pierce, a part-time player last season as a freshman, is starting in right field.

Jones is expected to play against left-handers and could see additional at-bats if he hits well. Closer candidate Christensen is another first base possibility, but will likely see most at-bats at designated hitter. He hit .244 with one homer and 18 RBIs last season.

“We think Mylz Jones is going to be a very, very good player, student and person and everything we try to have with this program,” Kernen said. “Chase Gusbeth has had a really good fall. And another 4-5 freshmen have done equally well.”

Kernen has only brought in three junior college transfers among his nine new players.

“It’s by design. I want to have guys in the program for their entire career, if possible,” Kernen said. “My first two years here I wasn’t able to get the quality high school guys in terms of depth although we got some good ones.

“I had to do something to get somebody to play college baseball to get the program started, a mix of junior college and high school. Now I definitely emphasize high school.”

So many JC players in the past helped cause the inexperienced team from last season when so many experienced players either graduated or turned pro.

“That’s the advantage of having high school guys so the turnover we had (before) last year doesn’t happen,” Kernen said. “We want guys developing while the other guys, the veteran guys, are playing. We have that in place now.”