The Long Beach State Dirtbags were the last NCAA baseball program to return to practice in February but the players and coaches who get to compete together this weekend don’t care.
“That’s the last thing on our minds,” Dirtbags pitcher Alfredo Ruiz (pictured) said. “We’re just excited to be out here every single day.”
It’s been a long year since LBSU and first-year coach Eric Valenzuela had their incredible bounce back season canceled due to COVID-19. The Dirtbags were 10-5 and ranked No. 12 in the nation last year, and they’ll start over this weekend at Hawaii to begin the Big West Conference schedule. LBSU hosts Cal State Northridge next weekend at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field for the home opener.
“We’ve been busy,” Valenzuela said of the five weeks he got to prepare his team for this condensed slate of games. “It was a grind and it was a great grind.”
The offseason was full of adjusting for the Dirtbags with over 40 guys on the roster because of eligibility relief. Valenzuela’s offseason program is primarily individual work, and since they didn’t get those workouts in the fall the Dirtbags used the first week of practice for specific instruction. Valenzuela said they’ve also played a dozen intersquad scrimmages that have been very useful, but the biggest difference is how he’s handling his pitching staff.
“Our pitchers are still getting in game shape,” Valenzuela said. “They went a max four innings (in intersquad games) so they can go five or six innings this weekend to keep them healthy because that’s the main goal. We’re going to take our time, trust our bullpen, be offensive and hopefully win a lot of baseball games.”
Ruiz, who will get the start tonight at 9:35 p.m. PDT, said he feels strong and trusts Valenzuela to protect his left arm after the short offseason. The sophomore southpaw won three of his four starts last year with a 1.80 ERA thanks in large part to his fastball that hangs around 89-93 MPH.
“He’ll pitch off his fastball and his fastball is pretty electric,” Valenzuela said. “He’s in really good shape and he’s ready. The struggle has been the breaking ball but he’s been working hard and now has a curve and a slider he can throw for strikes.”
Valenzuela is planning on sending freshman Luis Ramirez and junior college transfer Jack Noble to the mound for the doubleheader on Saturday. The Sunday starter is yet to be decided because Valenzuela doesn’t know who will need to come out of the bullpen when the starters come out earlier that normal to protect arms.
Basilio Pacheco, Johnathan Lavallee and Noah Carbajal are in the mix to be first out of the bullpen or starting on Sunday. Pacheco is a talented lefty coming back from injury, Lavallee picked up a quality win against Wake Forrest last season and Carbajal is a freshman from Las Vegas.
The Dirtbags have some power pitching on the back end of the bullpen with returner Devereaux Harrison and newcomer Marques Johnson. They are both freshman hanging around 95-96 MPH with their live fastballs. Harrison led the team in appearances last year with a 1.32 ERA. Junior Matt Fields, a Lakewood High alum, could settle in as a setup man with his tough slider.
Valenzuela and his coaching staff never stopped recruiting during the extended offseason and they’re reaping the benefits with the arrival of catcher Connor Burns and third baseman Jonathon Long. Burns turned down MLB money to attend LBSU, and Valenzuela said Long has been the best hitter in the intersquad games.
“He’s a pretty special kid,” Valenzuela said of Burns. “If he stays healthy he’ll be a first rounder in two years.”
Burns will join junior Thomas Greely, senior Cole Joy and junior Chris Jimenez to make a solid crop of catchers. Greely will get the start tonight, but Burns will play this weekend.
With Tyler Porter out for the season and Sunny Rivera out for a few weeks with injury, Valenzuela will lean on sophomores Tanner Carlson and Toren Craig to fill in at shortstop.
At second base, senior Riki DeSa and speedy junior college transfer Luke Chung could both see time. Chung could also play third base where sophomore Brennan Rozell will be in the mix with Long. Rounding out the infield, sophomore Chase Luttrell has the first baseman job locked down after hitting .370 last season.
The Dirtbags outfield is one of the most talented and experienced they’ve had in years with left fielder Alex Pimentel, center fielder Connor Kokx and right fielder Calvin Estrada. Senior Aidan Malm will also get starts as the designated hitter. Kokx, Malm and Estrada all hit over .290 last year.
Estrada scored a team-high 10 runs at the top of the lineup, and Valenzuela said he could play some second base as part of a “thunder lineup” that will have an extra big bat in the heart of the order.
“There’s nobody that we’re gonna look across at and say, ‘That team is more talented than us and more experienced than us’,” Valenzuela said. “It’s just a matter of if we’re gonna play good baseball or not. I just have a good feeling.”
The Dirtbags didn’t reach Big West play last year before the season was canceled, but Valenzuela knows how difficult the all-conference schedule will be this year.
“UC Irvine is good, UC Santa Barbara is in the top 25, Cal Poly just beat UCLA in two of three games, CSUN will be better and Cal State Fullerton is a a rivalry so that’s always tough,” Valenzuela said. “It’s also not easy to go to Hawaii, so it’s right back into the fire.”
The Big West coaches picked LBSU to finish second in the preseason Big West poll behind UCSB. The Dirtbags were also picked to make the postseason by both D1Baseball.com and Baseball America.