The Long Beach State Dirtbags are coming off one of the most unlucky seasons of baseball in school history. The talented squad with NCAA Super Regional experience under their belts was decimated by injuries, and only half of the projected starting lineup was available for the start of Big West Conference play.
“It was challenging, especially coming off of the two previous years,” LBSU ninth-year coach Troy Buckley said. “But I think you use every experience as some type of education. But as far as sitting (with a bad taste) in our mouths? No. It’s a completely different year, a completely different team and there’s excitement abounding all across the country.”
There are some residual effects from the 27-30 campaign that landed LBSU fifth in the Big West. Shortstop Laine Huffman (shoulder) and John Sheaks (elbow) will be on the disabled list for the season opener at No. 3 Florida this weekend. Huffman, who hurt himself just before the start of conference, and Sheaks, who was injured in the preseason scrimmage, could both be back in the lineup as early as next month.
“We’re not flushing it completely,” Huffman (pictured right) said of last season. “We’re learning from it and finding a way to get better from it. I guess you could say it’s motivation. We’re not forgetting about it by any means.”
Over two seasons and 72 games at LBSU, Huffman has hit .271 and driven in 29 runs while posting a .951 fielding percentage. Sophomore Santino Rivera filled in for Huffman last year, but he will be battling for playing time with freshman Kaden Hogan.
The loss of Sheaks before last season sent shockwaves through the entire pitching staff as players adjusted to their roles. The biggest adjustment came from Zak Baayoun (pictured left), who went from the bullpen to the Friday night starter as a sophomore. The crafty lefty made second-team All-Big West after posting a 9-3 record and 3.58 ERA in 15 starts.
Junior Dylan Spacke will also be a key to the pitching staff after striking out 43 in 35.2 innings last season. The left-handed Adam Seminaris could end up being a starter and a reliever out of the bullpen by year’s end.
“We’re deep and have complete balance with numbers left and right, which I love,” Buckley said. “I don’t like to play platoons, but if we have to play platoons, we could.”
The most important position with the most options is catcher, with sophomore Chris Jimenez, redshirt junior Cole Joy, senior Antonio Torres, freshman Charlie Loust and junior Dominic Campeau on the roster. Jimenez filled in for an injured Joy last year as a freshman and had 38 hits in 54 games with a .986 fielding percentage.
Designated hitter/first baseman Luke Rasmussen (foot) is the other key starter with a lot of experience coming off a season-ending injury. The redshirt senior has hit .278 in 170 games at LBSU while compiling 99 RBIs, 29 doubles, 13 home runs and a .408 slugging percentage. Sophomore Leonard Jones stepped up admirably to fill in for Rasmussen at first base, and he finished the season with a .312 batting average and 22 RBIs as a true freshman.
Buckley said he’s counting on Brooks Stotler to lead the outfield. The senior has 83 hits, 58 runs scored, 32 RBIs and nine triples in 130 games as a Dirtbag. He also said that newcomers Jake Vender Wal and Calvin Estrada will be the most important additions to the outfield. Both players are junior transfers from junior colleges who will play immediately.
“This team has to have the mantra of always getting better because of the schedule and the quality of competition we’re going to put ourselves in front of,” Buckley said. “There’s going to be a small margin for error.”
The Dirtbags will end up playing three series against teams who hosted NCAA Regionals last year in Florida (Feb. 15-17), Ole Miss (March 1-3) and Cal (March 28-30). LBSU will also host rival Cal State Fullerton (March 22-24) in the annual nonconference matchup.
Huffman said that hosting Fullerton in the Super Regional two years ago is still his biggest motivation to get back on Bohl Diamond at Blair Field.
“We were 90 feet away from going to Omaha,” Huffman said. “We know we can get there… and the rivalry (with Fullerton) is unbelievable. It goes without saying but if you’re not ready to play that game, you really shouldn’t be playing college baseball. Playing against those guys just brings everyone up to another level.”
The Dirtbags home opener is Tuesday, Feb. 19, against San Diego, and then they’ll host Nevada for a weekend series. First pitch is 6 p.m. for all of those games, except the Sunday 1 p.m. start time.
DIRTBAGS BY THE NUMBERS
3 – NCAA Regionals reached under Buckley in 2014, 2016 and 2017
1 – Super Regional since Jered Weaver was a Dirtbag
1998 – Last time the Dirtbags went to the College World Series
42 – Wins in 2017
27 – Wins in 2018
5 – Returning starters
22- Newcomers on the roster