While his team celebrated a walk-off win over Wichita State earlier this month, Dirtbag head coach Troy Buckley tempered his excitement, saying, “These guys have to stop worrying and focusing solely on results. That’s just going to make you tight, and we can’t afford to play like that in conference.”
That advice is much easier to listen to after a win, and unfortunately for Long Beach State (9-15), there haven’t been many of them during this 2013 non-conference campaign. The three-game sweep of Wichita State was sandwiched between losing streaks of six and currently four games. It’s felt like every storyline has a “but” or “however” tagged on.
Last season, the Dirtbags also struggled through the first half of the schedule. With Big West Conference play staring this weekend when Cal State Northridge visits Blair Field, the Dirtbags are going to try and repeat their late season charge that had them playing for the conference crown on the last day of the regular season. However, they’re going to be going it with fresh self-inflicted wounds after being swept by Cal State Fullerton at home in a non-conference weekend series.
On Friday night, junior Shane Carle surrendered only three hits over 6.2 innings for the Dirtbags, but Titan hurlers Thomas Eshelman and J.D. Davis combined for a two-hit shutout as No. 8 Cal State Fullerton blanked Long Beach State, 6-0.
Carle, a transfer from Santa Cruz, finished with five strikeouts but didn’t get any help from his offense. Eshelman had no walks or strikeouts but was very efficient, allowing just one hit to Dirtbag freshman Eric Hutting over seven innings on 62 pitches. Davis threw two innings of relief with a pair of strikeouts to finish off the game.
The offensive woes are nothing new for this Dirtbag team. They are getting outscored 124-75 on the season and hitting .239 as a team while opposing pitchers are posting a 2.69 ERA. Carle has a 1.64 ERA with a team-high 29 strikeouts and is holding opponents to a .190 batting average, but he’s only 1-3 in six starts.
The bats woke up on a promising Saturday start for Long Beach State, but that was soured with a late Titans comeback and an 8-6 loss. Senior Ino Patron finished with a single, a double, a triple, and an intentional walk with four RBI to lead the Dirtbags and finish a home run away from hitting for the cycle. Hitting .261 with 10 RBI and six doubles, Patron is an anchor in the lineup and very versatile in the field. However, he’s leading the team with 22 strikeouts and his on base percentage is .309, fifth lowest on the team.
The biggest positive coming out of the weekend is pitcher Jake Stassi. Making just his third start of the year, Stassi was outstanding for the second weekend in a row, striking out four and allowing just one run while scattering seven hits over seven innings. The junior made 19 appearances out of the bullpen last season and is being called on to work back into a starting role because of season-ending injuries to last year’s starters Ryan Strufing and Kyle Friedrichs.
Obviously the pitching rotation has suffered with depth, and after Stassi's exit in the seventh inning with a 5-1 lead, trouble escalated quickly for the Dirtbags. Ryan Millison retired the first batter he faced in the top of the eighth inning, but then put four runners on base and walked in a run. Jon Maciel then came in to try and close the door, but surrendered an RBI single to Anthony Hutting (brother of Eric) before striking out Clay Williamson. Maciel hit pinch hitter Jared Deacon to bring in another run, making the score 5-4, and Pedroza hit a comebacker up the middle with Michael Lorenzen coming around to score the go-ahead run.
In what felt like a microcosm of the whole season, the Sunday game was slow torture in another low scoring affair for the Dirtbags.
Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Michael Hill led off the inning with a base hit, and following a second single by Richard Prigatano, a sacrifice put both the tying and winning runs in scoring position. The freshman catcher Hutting then came up and lifted a ball into shallow center field, allowing Hill to beat the throw to the plate. However, on appeal called for by the Fullerton dugout, Hill was deemed to have left early, finishing the game as the final out for the Dirtbags in the bottom of the ninth and wiping the game tying run off of the scoreboard.
Freshman David Hill pitched well in his second start of the year, going 6.2 innings and allowing five hits and two runs, keeping the Dirtbags in the game. Senior Landon Hunt threw 1.2 scoreless innings to keep the game within reach, while Prigatano had three of the Dirtbags' eight hits.
Buckley and his coaches are choosing to look at the Big West conference schedule as the start of a new season.
“No matter your record, the Big West champ is going to the postseason,” said Buckley. “We know exactly what we need to do.”
That series against Cal State Northridge begins today (Thursday, March 28) at 6 p.m., followed by a 6 p.m. game on Friday and a 2 p.m. game to finish the series Saturday.