After a flurry of games in Big West action, the Long Beach State Dirtbags are sitting alone at the top. Preseason favorite Cal State Fullerton has struggled to keep the pace of the Dirtbags this season.
The Dirtbags have moved as high as #8 in the nation according to Baseball America, and could move even higher if they take care of business in the final two games of their series versus Cal Poly. Sitting at 29-14-1 on the season with a sparkling 14-2 conference record, a first glance would say that the Dirtbags are set up for a long run the NCAA tournament.
But, are they playing that well or benefitting from an overall down year in Big West play?
Let’s take a look at the season for LBSU and whether they are set up to make a run to the College World Series.
Some struggles in non-conference game:
Non-conference play can be a bit of a struggle for teams like LBSU. They have to schedule strong teams to balance out a conference slate that can be a bit disappointing at times. It is all about finding that perfect balance.
The Dirtbags have had some issues versus fellow California programs in going 0-4 versus San Diego State and UCLA.
They also struggled versus Arizona State in going 0-3 versus the Sun Devils. Those games alone make up seven of the 12 losses by LBSU on non-conference play. Winning half of their games on the road isn’t bad, but they will not be sitting in Long Beach for the entirety of the postseason (unless they don’t get out of regionals).
LBSU has a chance to prove doubters wrong as a sold to good Minnesota team welcomes them for a three game series next weekend. It should be a tricky game as the Golden Gophers are better on the road and LBSU is better at home. Winning two of three would be a huge confidence boost heading into the postseason.
Offensive struggles to score at a high rate:
Starting pitching is only going to get a team so far in the postseason. The pitcher can go out and shut down a big-time offense, but he has to get some production from his offense. That is where LBSU tends to struggle.
Only four batters have an average over .300 on the year with Ramsey Romano (.356) leading the way. The Dirtbags are a small ball team with a total of 26 homeruns on the year. They instead work the count and earn lots of free passes as evidenced by 153 walks on the year. Once on base, it’s steal, steal, steal. They have attempted 85 steals on the season, though only successful on 55 of those attempts. Bunting, stealing, and sacrifice flies are the way to keep the Dirtbags offense rolling.
The question remains whether a team that barely scores five runs per game can get by so many teams that can put up five or more runs in a single inning on a regular basis.
Three big time starters:
If LBSU can overcome a struggling offense, it is because of Dave Smith, Darren McCaughen, and John Sheaks. The trio are a combined 18-4 as starters with McCaughen throwing four complete games. Smith has the fewest starts, but has turned into a Sunday starter with a 1.65 ERA and only five walks given up in 49.0 innings.
McCaughen is the pitcher that could lead them to the College World Series. He averages nearly a strikeout per inning and will go late into games whenever needed. He averages just over seven innings per game in his starts.
JUCO transfer John Sheaks has a sparking 7-1 record, but is the most inconsistent of the big three. When he is on his game, he is nearly unhittable. The biggest problem for Sheaks is learning to control his pitches better. Even so, he is 7-1 with a 3.15 ERA. Any team in the nation would roll with those statistics from a weekend starter.
A very good bullpen:
As the regular seasons flips to the postseason, bullpens tighten up. Pitchers that struggled in appearances throughout the season are dropped to the bottom of the roster while top performers find their roles. Luckily for the Dirtbags, they have four bullpen pitchers with over 16 innings pitched and an ERA under 3.00.
Eli Villalobos was a catcher at this time last season for Golden West College. Now, he is a bullpen pitcher with a 3-0 record, 1.90 ERA, and 17 strikeouts in 23.2 innings pitched.
Senior Josh Advocate is the workhorse and leader of the group. He is tied for the team-high with 19 appearances on the year, but he comes in for multiple innings on most occasions. On average, Advocate is expected to come into a tough situation and either get a five out save or shut down an offensive threat. With a 2.17 ERA and a strikeout per inning pitched, he is doing just fine.
Chris Rivera has seen his role change a bit this season after saving 13 games last season. He is still a good closer, but has only six on the season while sharing the role a bit with Advocate (4 saves). Rivera averages right at 14 strikeouts per nine innings, but rarely goes more than four outs. It would not surprise me to see Rivera as the closer in the postseason with Advocate eating up innings seven and eight.
A true freshman from Lakewood, California, Matt Fields has done everything asked of him this season. He has started games and came in as a reliever to help secure wins. At times, he can look a bit overmatched versus upperclassmen, but he has an ERA of 3.31 on the year. The Dirtbags are handling Fields with caution, evident from his five appearances on the season, but may need him to step up and get a few crucial outs in the offseason.
The biggest wildcard for LBSU is AJ Jones. The junior was impressive in his starting outings, but did not go incredibly long. He only averaged just over four innings pitched per outing. If he is able to come out of the bullpen and get 5-7 outs in the middle of a game, he could be the player that gets LBSU back to the College World Series.
When a baseball team builds confidence, there is no telling what they could do. Just ask Coastal Carolina about confidence heading into the postseason last year. This is a very confident LBSU squad that believes it can make a run in the postseason. Brackets and matchups will determine quite a bit, but a confident team like the Dirtbags honestly do not even care who they play in the postseason.
I fully expect LBSU to host a regional and cruise through that section of the tournament. They will not get so lucky in the super-regionals, falling in three games due to their inability to score enough when needed.