The Eric Valenzuela era starts this weekend at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field when the Long Beach State Dirtbags host Cal in a season-opening series.
LBSU’s historic baseball program has been significantly slowing down since hosting the 2017 NCAA Super Regional. Last season was doomed by a record-worst start and midseason firing of coach Troy Buckley. This year, a new coaching staff is bringing a completely new philosophy to shake things up.
For example, coach Valenzuela will let 6’1” 225-pound outfielder Calvin Estrada hit at the top of the Dirtbags lineup.
“We want to start off games with thunder,” Valenzuela says. “We have physical guys so we’re going to let them go in there and swing the bats.”
Valenzuela, who is coming off four consecutive 30-win seasons at St. Mary’s, said his team will rarely square up for an early-show bunt. He would rather see his team push bunt or drag it down the line.
“In the first or second inning we won’t be bunting a guy over to play for one run,” Valenzuela said. “If you have that kind of offensive mentality, that’s how the team is going to be mentally. We want our guys to be foaming at the mouth to hit balls in the gaps and over the fence.”
Most of the LBSU starting lineup is back from the 14-41 team that limped through last season, but senior Jacob Hughey said there’s more energy in Valenzuela’s program.
“There’s good things to come,” Hughey said. “These coaches are really good at developing players and doing what it takes to win. Knowing that they have our backs, that we’re all family and that we’re going to win and lose together… I’m loving every single second of it.”
Hughey hit a team-best .324 last season and led with way with 26 RBIs and 13 doubles. Valenzuela said Hughey might hit second behind Estrada, who had 37 hits in 39 starts last year.
“We know exactly what our game plan is, and what we want to do,” Hughey said. “I don’t think there’s another team in the country that’s more prepared than us.”
“I love him man,” Valenzuela says of first baseman Hughey. “He’s an older guy who’s been there. He has a little chip on his shoulder about what’s been going on. They want to play good baseball, they want to win… I know we’re all a team, but he has to have a good year. He knows that.”
Valenzuela was hired in June and credits his assistants, especially hitting coach Bryan Peters, for having his team ready to go already with a decent about of depth.
“Being new makes every practice important, and that’s what we’ve stressed to these guys, and I really think they take it to heart,” Valenzuela said. “If you come and watch our practice you’ll see the energy and enthusiasm, so I’m glad that part of the culture is created.”
Outfielders Connor Kokx, Aidan Malm and Leonard “LJ” Jones will be in the heart of the Dirtbags lineup. Shortstop Tyler Porter, third baseman Santino Rivera and second baseman Victor Carlino hit behind each other after Jones in the most recent scrimmage.
Junior catcher Chris Jimenez might miss opening weekend with a nagging elbow injury, but redshirt senior Cole Joy and junior college transfer Thomas Greely are capable backups behind the plate who will both play.
Valenzuela, who was pitching coach for Tony Gywnn at San Diego State, is also excited to have three capable arms ready to start opening weekend. Junior left-handed pitcher Adam Seminaris is tabbed to return as the Friday night starter, sophomore lefty Alfredo Ruiz will take the ball Saturday and freshman Luis Ramirez will get a chance to prove himself on Sunday.
Seminaris had a 3.35 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 14 starts and 94 innings last year. He got a confidence boost by pitching well in the Cape Cod League over the summer, and is back with a much-improved breaking ball to go with his fantastic changeup.
Ruiz pitched 53.1 innings in five starts and 15 relief appearances as a true freshman. Valenzuela thinks that if he can cut down on his 22 walks, he’ll be effective.
“Ramirez is as good a freshman as I’ve ever had before the season has started,” Valenzuela said. “We’ll see what happens when the lights go on. That was a good get from the staff here before, for sure.”
Right-handed pitchers sophomore Jonathan Carlos, freshman Jake Rons and senior Tyler Gums are all candidates to come out of the bullpen first and possibly start on Tuesday.
“I think we’re all excited for this and excited to see what a pitching guru is able to improve,” LBSU Athletics Director Andy Fee said of Valenzuela. “Even though we had some struggles last year, it is a new season.”
Valenzuela said he was very surprised the Dirtbags were picked to finish second in the Big West by the conference coaches.
“That says a lot about the guys that are here and the tradition of this program,” Valenzuela said. “There’s an expectation from the college baseball world. It wants and needs Long Beach State baseball to be legit.”
“We’re hungry to win and I know these coaches are hungry to get some wins under their belt at a new school,” Hughey said. “We all have something to prove. We’re all playing with a chip on our shoulder. We’re doing nothing but looking forward at what’s next.”
The Dirtbags open the season at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field against Cal this weekend, and it will be the first games with the new protective netting up at the old ballpark. Cal leads the all-time series with the Dirtbags 37-32, and swept LBSU in Berkley late last season. The series starts at 6 tonight and continues at 3 p.m. on Saturday before concluding at 1 p.m. on Sunday.