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In a series that wasn’t even scheduled to happen, things didn’t go to plan for Long Beach State (5-7) in their opener against No. 15 Gonzaga (11-2) on Friday night. Bohl Diamond at Blair Field was a much more accommodating site for a baseball game than snow-covered Lincoln, Neb. (where LBSU was originally slated to play this weekend) but the visiting Bulldogs had the upper hand in a 7-2 win to open the weekend set.
Long Beach State expected to throw regular Friday starter Luis Ramirez in the opener, but the talented sophomore was a late scratch due to shoulder discomfort. Head coach Eric Valenzuela confirmed that Ramirez is still slated to take the ball next Friday against Hawai’i for the start of Big West play, and the decision to hold him out was mostly precautionary.
“We just found out about (the discomfort) late, so I wasn’t going to move (Jack) Noble or Juaron (Watts-Brown) up a day,” Valenzuela explained after the loss. “We wanted to keep them on their schedule and then kind of piece it together. I felt totally confident that we’d be in the game, but (Gonzaga) had some good at-bats, we walked some guys and they got some big hits. That’s what good teams do, they’ll find ways to win and that’s what they did.”
The Dirtbags went with sophomore Jake Rons for the spot start, and he was greeted with a two-run home run in the first inning by Gonzaga’s Stephen Lund to put the Bulldogs up 2-0 early. The Zags would then add single runs in the third and fourth innings to take a 4-0 lead.
LBSU struggled to figure out Gonzaga righthander Gabriel Hughes, a highly-touted starter who works in the mid-90’s with his fastball. He cruised through the Dirtbags batting order for the first three innings before Long Beach got a rally started in the fourth.
Rocco Peppi (2/4, BB) recorded LBSU’s first hit of the night to lead off the inning, then was joined on the basepaths by Eddie Saldivar on a fielder’s choice. After a Tyler Porter single loaded the bases with one out, Gonzaga tried for an inning-ending double play, but a throwing error allowed Saldivar to score all the way from second. That put Long Beach on the board, making it 4-1 Gonzaga, but that was as close as the Beach would get.
“You’ve got to give credit to their pitcher, their guy was really good,” Valenzuela said of Hughes. “I thought our guys battled him, and a lot of times we were one hit away from making it a big inning and just didn’t get that hit. The at-bats were better, but with the arms we’re facing you’ve gotta give them credit too. We just continue to grind and we’ll learn from it going forward.”
The Zags scored three times in the sixth to open up a 7-1 advantage, then held that lead until the bottom of the ninth.
Long Beach State refused to go quietly, recording three straight singles with two outs in the ninth to plate a run and load the bases. Chase Luttrell (2/5, RBI) drove in Isaac Ramirez to cut the deficit to five, but that’s all the Dirtbags would get as a grounder to first ended the game.
After the game, Dirtbags head coach Eric Valenzuela pulled his hitters aside for an extended meeting that lasted more than 45 minutes–uncharacteristic for one of his postgame talks.
“We just talked about approach,” Valenzuela said. “From my side of things as the head coach and the pitching coach, I think that they need to get that perspective as well. I just talked to them about what pitchers are trying to do to them in all situations … We have a lot of young hitters. We have a lot of guys that this is their first Division I experience and so you’ve got to help them with their approach and what pitchers are trying to do to them … I’m just talking about having an identity, right? I think this is a very, very powerful offense when we get it going and it will be. So it’s just about having an identity, getting in there and having tough at-bats.”
Without their ace starting the game, the Dirtbags ended up using five pitchers in the opener. Rons went the first three before Josh Haley and Ray Cebulski each tossed a pair of innings. Jonathan Carlos and Cole Chimenti covered the eighth and ninth, respectively.
LBSU will look to even the series on Saturday at 3 p.m. with game two against the Bulldogs.