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Things looked a bit grim for Long Beach State (10-7, 2-0 Big West) during the 7th inning stretch on Saturday afternoon. The Dirtbags were trailing Hawai’i (6-12, 0-2) by a score of 4-1 and had mustered just three hits against UH starter Cade Halemanu.
But Long Beach State stayed the course and won the battle of the bullpens, scoring twice in the ninth inning to set up senior Chris Jimenez for a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning, giving the Dirtbags a 5-4 win to clinch their opening series of Big West Conference action.
“It felt great,” said Jimenez of his walk-off blast. “I was just trying to get on base and get something going for the guys and try to give the next guy up an opportunity. But I got a good pitch to hit and I wailed on it.”
Despite his numbers entering the game, Long Beach State had great respect for Halemanu, who delivered his best outing of the season.
“Hawaii had a hell of a game. Their starter got us pretty good for the first five or six innings, but we just stayed in the game and everyone was together,” said Jimenez. “That’s the biggest thing for us right now. Even though sometimes our hitting’s a little off, our pitching usually picks us up and today I thought both were really on even though we competed against a pretty good pitcher.”
Valenzuela felt that if the Dirtbags could get into the Hawai’i bullpen, his offense could find some success, and that’s exactly how the game played out. UH used four different relievers on Saturday, who combined to allow four runs on three hits, five walks, and three hit batters in just 3.1 innings pitched.
Meanwhile, the Dirtbags’ relievers were much more effective in relief of starter Jack Noble, who allowed four runs on six hits over his six innings of work, while racking up a season-high seven strikeouts. The quartet of Dalton Ponce, Jonathan Carlos, Josh Haley and Devereaux Harrison tossed four scoreless innings out of the ‘pen, pitching around three singles and two walks to keep Hawai’i’s offense in check.
The Rainbow Warriors took the lead in the second inning on an RBI groundout, then doubled their lead in the fourth on an RBI single from Cole Cabrera. Long Beach State pulled a run back in the fifth as a bloop double from Tanner Carlson plated Eddie Saldivar from first base for one of his two runs scored on the day.
Hawai’i delivered its biggest blow in the top of the sixth when Matt Wong launched a two-run home run to make it 4-1 Rainbow Warriors, but it was all Dirtbags after that.
LBSU scored once in the seventh thanks to three hit batters and a wild pitch from Hawai’i reliever Tai Atkins to make it a 4-2 game. That’s how the score remained until the ninth, when Jimenez started the inning with an opposite field single. He would be then be thrown out trying to advance on a ball in the dirt on a questionable call at second base, but the Dirtbags kept the rally going regardless.
Oddly enough, his single was Long Beach’s only hit of the ninth inning as five walks from two different relievers helped push two runs across to tie the game at 4-all. Tyler Porter worked the first bases-loaded walk to pick up an RBI, then Jesse Lopez received the next free pass to push home the tying run.
Jimenez was the second batter up to the plate in the 10th, and despite not starting Saturday’s game he became the hero with his second homer of the season and third of his career. Valenzuela likened the senior backstop to Crash Davis from the movie “Bull Durham” due to his leadership in the clubhouse.
“You're talking about a fifth year senior that is not selfish because Connor Burns gets most of the playing time,” Valenzuela said of Jimenez. “You're talking about a super senior that understands his role. He knows that he'll play, he'll get spot starts, buthe's kind of mentoring Connor Burns, he really is. And they work well together, and there's no ego at all. They help each other get better, and (Jimenez) deserves that man. He definitely deserves that. I'm proud of him.”
Remarkably, the Dirtbags were just 1/14 with runners on base on Saturday and were 0/8 with runners on base, but still found a way to win–their fifth in a row. Now the attention shifts to Sunday, where freshman Juaron Watts-Brown will get the ball for a 1 p.m. first pitch and a chance to clinch Long Beach State’s first sweep of the season.
As Valenzuela has reiterated with this team, any game could prove to be the difference between hosting a regional or not, or in determining whether the team earns an at-large bid into the postseason.
“That's something I hope we learned from the Mississippi State weekend, where I felt like we were satisfied with 2-0,” said Valenzuela of finishing off the sweep. “And then we came in Sunday and we played the worst game we played all weekend. I think our guys have learned that every game matters and I love the fact that we have Juaron going. I think he's a super competitor … I really believe in my pitchers and I believe that our offense got a jump start at the end of this game today, and we'll be ready to go.”