Thursday, April 4, 2013

Series Preview: Dirtbags @ Pacific, 4/5-7

Twelve second scouting report on Pacific.

It’s been awhile. In my absence the Dirtbags have had their souls crushed by San Diego State, received a kick to the groin from Cal State Fullerton, and played a solid series in their conference opener against Cal State Northridge.

The Pacific Tigers, meanwhile, played poorly to begin the year, poorly against Creighton, and assembled a local little league all-star team to play Fullerton in their stead last weekend. I don’t really hold the contempt for Pacific that my rhetoric may reflect, but as I’ve said on multiple message boards “good luck in the WCC next year, Tigers.” (I frequently follow this up my lamenting about how I wish the Big West could find a tenth school. Apparently, beggars can be choosers)

What's at stake
You’ll notice even before I stopped writing altogether, I stopped mentioning the Dirtbags RPI numbers (currently #138, 36th in SoS, 1-8 record against teams in the top 25, and an overall “RPI record” of 8.3-16). That’s because any hope the Dirtbags had of grabbing an at-large regional bid has long since disappeared. Sure, there’s a chance LBSU could go on a tear and post a record of 27-3 the rest of the way, but in that scenario they’d probably simply win the conference’s automatic bid anyway.

And that’s what’s at stake. The 2-1 Dirtbags will have to win the Big West to be playing June baseball this year, so from this point forward just about every series is a must-win, and this weekend may be a “must-sweep”. Taking only two out of three wouldn’t be crippling to the Dirtbags’ conference hopes, but would likely reflect a talent-gap of a team that simply can’t win a 27-game conference season.

As for Pacific, they’re going to do their best to keep their net runs in the –30 range for the series. I swear to God, if they win this series, there will be bloodshed.

Tale of the Tape
Pitching Match-ups
Friday: RHP Shane Carle (3:35 ERA, 33:12 K:BB, 43 IP)  vs. LHP John Haberman (8.44 ERA, 15:8 K:BB, 21.1 IP)

Carle has been the Dirtbags’ top pitcher all season and should continue to be so. The occasional blow up has kept his ERA in the less-than-outstanding range, but typically he’s been a good bet to get a quality start.

John Haberman has pitched better than his 8.44 ERA indicates but still, his ERA is 8.44. Seriously, guys.

Saturday: LHP Jake Stassi (2.73 ERA, 19:11 K:BB, 29.2 IP) vs. RHP Michael Benson (3.43 ERA, 11:13 K:BB, 42 IP)

Stassi has been one of the surprises of the season for the Dirtbags as he continues to offer consistently solid outings. Since a shaky three-inning start against Arizona State back in early March, Stassi has gone three straight outings of six-plus innings while allowing only one run.

Benson is somewhat of the antonym of Haberman. His performance this year has been slightly less impressive than his decent ERA would imply, though last season he was easily the Tigers best pitcher.

Sunday: RHP David Hill (4.55 ERA, 20:16 K:BB, 31.2 IP) vs. TBA

David Hill has settled into the Sunday role nicely, thus far, pitching two consecutive quality starts against Big West opponents. It’d be unfair to expect much bigger things out of him for this season, but his ceiling is sky-high.

The Sunday starter for the Tigers will likely be either Cory Popham, Michael Hager, or Kyle Crawford. Only one of those options (Crawford) is an unhittable-lefty.

Juan Avila and Ino Patron have returned to the Dirtbag lineup to give the offense a badly needed boost. Avila is back after suffering a hand injury, while Patron returns after letting Royce Murai hit for him the first five weeks of the season. Both Avila and Patron have pushed their on-base percentages over .350 and Patron is slugging .418

In an interesting development, it appears The Colby Brenner Show has gone the way of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Jeff McNeil moved into center field for the entire CSUN series last week. Colton Vaughn has taken over at second base and has some dynamic speed of his own, while currently boasting a .357 on-base mark. Keep an eye on his progress, as the redshirt sophomore could grab a starting role in 2014 if McNeil or Michael Hill depart for the professional ranks this June.

The Tigers typically offer an offense that isn’t horrifyingly awful, though this year they have just a .306 team on-base percentage and a .329 slugging mark. First baseman Erik Lockwood (.333/.418/.449 in 23 games) remains the team’s biggest threat. Catcher Jason Taasaas, with .383 OBP, is having a solid year but aside from that there aren’t many noteworthy performances from the UoP lineup. Senior second baseman Dustin Torchino has been something of a sparkplug for the Tigers for much of his career, but has disappointed thus far with a .645 OPS. Although Pacific will soon be leaving the Big West, it might be worth watching freshman outfielder Gio Brusa. Brusa has gotten off to a slow start (.414 OPS) but has the potential to be one of the better Tiger hitters in recent memory.

Dirty Talk
I’m still working on getting this blog back up to speed, so I wasn’t able to find a Pacific fan for “Dirty Talk” this week. But that’s okay because I have something even better, a chat with ever-present Fullerton fan Dave Wright from two weeks ago that I never posted. Sorry for the delay, Dave.

Dirtbag Blues: Having already climbed into the top 10 in most polls, how do you think this year's team compares to other Titan squads of the past several years?

Dave Wright: There is much more cohesiveness with this year's team than there was in 2011, the last year that Serrano was the head coach, or last year in Vanderhook's first season.  There were major internal issues in 2011 and there was a transition period last season that isn't uncommon with a new coaching staff where some players didn't have as big of a role that they thought they would.  It helps that there are more seniors on the team than any other team at Fullerton in recent memory because the leadership from the seniors has been excellent.

The one area on the field that this team is much better in than the previous two teams is the ability to hit for power, which they haven't done much at all since the BBCOR bats were introduced other than Nick Ramirez in 2011.  The rest of the team hit 8 HR's that year and Fullerton only hit 10 HR's last season but they have already hit 11 HR's.  

DB: What could be the Titans biggest weakness?

DW: The team hasn't been stringing together many hits on the weekends, hitting in the .235-.240 range in each of the last four weekend series.  However, they have seen some pretty good pitching in those series against TCU, Oregon and Texas A&M and the best starter they have seen was probably Alex Gonzalez last weekend at Oral Roberts, who is likely to be drafted in the first two rounds.

DB: What's Michael Lorenzen's draft stock look like right now? Any other draft-eligible Titans making a name for themselves so far? 

DW: Lorenzen has been hitting much better than he did in the last six weeks of 2012 and is driving the ball with more authority.  He will probably be drafted either late in the first round or in the second round.  The player who can be drafted in June who has made the biggest jump from last season is Chad Wallach.  The MLB guys obviously like his bloodlines but he has gone from being a poor defensive catcher, after being converted to the position last year, with a below average bat to a solid defender and one of the better hitters on the team.  There aren't too many juniors on the team so the other players who are going to be drafted are seniors and the one who is standing out is Carlos Lopez, who has gotten himself in much better shape and is having a great season.

DB: I'm gonna challenge you here... who's been better, Justin Garza or Thomas Eshelman? When was the last time the Titans had two freshmen arms that were so good, so early?

DW: They have been about the same.  Eshelman is a bulldog who doesn't throw as hard as Garza, who has a live arm, but Eshelman is a little more polished.  Fullerton had two solid freshmen in the weekend rotation last season with Kenny Mathews and Grahamm Wiest and had a couple of pretty good freshmen in the rotation in 2009 with Noe Ramirez and Tyler Pill, which is the last time that the Titans went to Omaha.

DB: Austin Diemer looks like he's gotten off to a very nice start, any other Titans who have had surprisingly strong/poor seasons?

DW: Diemer has very good speed and will be the starting CF in 2014 after Lorenzen has moved on.  He just needed to get some playing time after getting used to hitting against D1 pitchers.  Wallach, whom I already mentioned, is another one who is having a surprisingly good season.

DB: We both know the Dirtbags are going to win the conference, but hypothetically speaking... who poses a bigger threat in the Big West to the Titans; UC Irvine or Cal Poly?

DW: Interesting question.  Everybody expected Irvine to have a very good pitching staff and those guys have delivered but their offense has been surprisingly good and their defense has been excellent despite losing three senior starters up the middle at 2B, SS and CF.  Cal Poly returned most of their lineup but hasn't been hitting much until recently and the main reason why they got off to such a good start is due to their pitching being excellent.  They look like two pretty evenly matched teams.

DB: We've talk a little about this before, but in general what do you think caused such a large regression for the Dirtbags in recent years, and what do you think they need to do to get back on track?

DW: Long Beach stopped getting the amount of front line talent that they were getting in Mike Weathers earlier years as recruiting slipped and the talent level has been below average compared to where it was up to 2008 and that is a big reason why the program has regressed.  Troy Buckley has started to get the program solidified since returning as an assistant for the 2010 season but he probably needs one more big recruiting group to get the talent level in the program close to where it was in 2007-2008 when Long Beach hosted regionals in both of those seasons.

I’ll look forward to chatting with Dave again in four weeks, in the mean time you can find him on twitter here, where you can ask him pretty much anything about the Titans.

Dirtbags' Keys to the Series

An absent supporting cast
Though Avila and Patron have rebounded, Jeff Yamaguchi and the trio of freshman Eric Hutting, Zach Rivera, and Jonathan Serven have regressed, leaving the LBSU lineup awfully top-heavy. Some more support from the 5 through 9 hitters are badly needed for this light-hitting offense.

The Stassi/Hill weekend combo
The Dirtbags may have finally solidified the back end of their rotation and if Stassi/Hill are able to keep the Tigers offense at bay it’s hard to image the Dirtbags could lose this series, or even fail to sweep.

Don’t screw it up
It still seems like the Dirtbags haven’t been able to get running on all cylinders this year, and the team’s imbalanced output has been even more glaring in the last couple weeks. Rookie righty David Hill tosses a strong game against Fullerton…. Michael Hill’s inexplicably called out at third base to end the game; the Dirtbags manage to get seven hits against Northridge’s Jerry Keel… Shane Carle somehow gets lit up by a poor CSUN lineup.

The Tigers may end up being the worst opponent the Dirtbags face all season, if there’s going to be a series where everything should go right for Long Beach, this would be it.

Up Next: For the Dirtbags; San Diego State and UC David; for me, probably writing a remorse-filled letter begging Pacific to stay in the conference.