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The Long Beach State Dirtbags have all of the ingredients necessary to cook up a very successful year in the first full season under coach Eric Valenzuela.
“Our guys are hungry and they’re ready for any challenges coming our way,” Valenzuela said. “We’re super talented. It’s a great mixture of older guys and really good younger guys that are pushing the older guys.”
With about half of its starting lineup returning from a great finish last season, LBSU was picked to win the Big West by the conference coaches, and is ranked No. 24 in the nation by D1Baseball. com and Perfect Game.
“There’s nothing in our way from being super successful,” Valenzuela added. “This squad has been through a ton of different things from coaching changes to COVID,” right fielder Chase Luttrell said. “That kind of experience mixed with the young, exciting flair we have makes for a really good ball club. There’s a ton of different personalities that want to play with something to prove.”
The Dirtbags have an elite pitcher again with Devereaux Harrison back for his sophomore season. The closer is a preseason All-American who was named the Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year and NCBWA All-American among other national honors last year. The hard-throwing Harrison had a 1.57 ERA across 34.1 innings while striking out 42 batters and collecting 10 saves.
“He’s a spark plug for the team,” Luttrell said of Harrison. “When you’re on defense, that’s the guy you want on the mound. He’s a guy you want to make plays for. When you see him coming to the mound with a one-run lead, you know we have a good chance to win the game.”
Harrison spent part of his summer with Team USA.
“I throw a lot of fastballs in the Big West, but with Team USA and the top 25 guys in the nation at the college level, you can’t do that,” Harrison said. “I really had to learn how to pitch and not just throw. I had to learn to throw a breaking ball in a 2-0 count. If I threw a fastball they’d be geared up for that and it was going to go a long way.”
Valenzuela said it’s possible that Harrison could get some at-bats as a pinch hitter or designated hitter.
“I’m ready for whatever if they need me to like hit, start games or close,” Harrison said. “Whatever coach thinks I need to do to help us get as far as we can I’ll do it.”
Harrison leads a pitching staff with a lot of velocity, and Valenzuela said it’s his hardest throwing starting rotation he’s had in 21 years as a coach. All three projected starters consistently throw their fast balls between 91-94 MPH and can touch 94-96 MPH.
Sophomore Luis Ramirez will take over as the Friday night starter after three years of being a weekend starter. He pitched a team-high 65.1 innings last season while recording 58 strikeouts.
Fresh arms Marques Johnson and Juaron Watts-Brown will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The junior Johnson is coming from Riverside Community College, and the redshirt freshman Watts-Brown is coming off injury.
Offensively, Valenzuela and his coach staff like a bigger bat at the top of his lineup, and that responsibility will rest on the capable shoulders of Luttrell. The junior was first-team All-Big West last year after slashing .316/.347/.520 over all 43 games. Luttrell spent his summer in the Cape Cod league.
“I kind of struggled a little bit against tough competition over the summer,” Luttrell said. “I learned a lot playing against some of the best guys in the country. You’re facing 95 MPH plus every day you learn to deal with the failures there.”
Sophomore Alex Pimentel will be next to Luttrell in center field, and while redshirt sophomore Charlie Loust recovers from an arm injury, sophomore Isaac Ramirez and freshman Kaden Moeller could both get playing time in left field.
Sophomore Sebastian Murillo is ranked as a top 50 shortstop in the country and leads a mostly rebuilt infield. Sophomore Jonathon Long is back from injury at first base, freshman Eddie Saldivar is at second base, and redshirt freshman Rocco Peppi has taken over at third base after returning from injury. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Porter will also get playing time in the infield.
With all of this talent on the roster, Valenzuela is ready to try three different starting lineups this weekend at No. 5 Mississippi State in the season openers. For example, he’s already planning on playing sophomore Connor Burns and senior Chris Jimenez as catchers.
“It’s about getting through that while getting guys in there, so the biggest challenge will be us managing our players the right way to get them the reps and figure out in conference who we’re going to go with,” Valenzuela said.
LBSU starts the year with a challenging set of nonleague series against Mississippi State, Sacramento State, North Dakota State and Nebraska. Mississippi State is the defending National Champion, Sac State has had a run of 30-win seasons and North Dakota State has made the NCAA postseason in three of the last five years.
The Dirtbags start the Big West schedule on March 18 against Hawaii at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field. The regular season ends the weekend of May 26-28 at UC Davis.
The Top 25 Dirtbags get going this week with one of the nation’s premier opening weekend series at Mississippi State, so we had Eric Valenzuela on to talk about his team and upcoming season, and JJ and Andy work through big weeks for No.