We're still waiting on the official announcement on the Long Beach State 2014 schedule, but the out-of-conference slate was recently announced on twitter (one of the two accounts the Dirtbags seem to have) and it's a thing of beauty. Though they're again going a tad heavy on the home games, next season's schedule has the potential to be the strongest in years, which is saying quite a bit. In the first of three posts, we take a look at some of the teams headed to Blair Field this spring...
Vanderbilt (2013 ISR: 4; RPI: 2) – The Commodores cruised to a series win against the Dirtbags to open what would be a historic season for VU. Frankly, in retrospect it's amazing Long Beach State even managed to win one game at the Hawk, given how good the Dores turned out to be. Vandy would go on be win a record 26 SEC games and become a national seed. In that three-game series, Vandy outscoured LBSU 31-19, despite being tied with 30 hits each. The difference would be Vanderbilt's trademark base on balls (18) and fearless baserunning (seven steals, plus more extra bases taken than I care to remember).
Vandy lost half a minor league team-worth of players to the draft, but will nevertheless open 2014 as one of the top teams in the nation. On the hill for Vandy will be Golden Spikes Finalist RHP Tyler Beede (2.32 ERA, 103 K/63 BB, 101 IP) who tossed five solid innings against the Dirtbags last February, albeit while struggling to manage a tight strike zone. Senior RHP TJ Pecoraro (5.97, 15/14, 34.2 IP) also returns but was hit hard in Long Beach State's Sunday win last year and will have to fight his way back into the rotation against RHPs Walker Buehler (3.14, 57/25, 63 IP), Tyler Ferguson (4.21, 21/11, 25.2 IP), and LHP Philip Pfeifer (3.68, 47/30, 63.2 IP). Ferguson and Pfeifer both had mediocre relief appearances against the Dirtbags last season.
SS Vince Conde (.307/.380/.458) is arguably the best of the few returning starters, though a plethora of part-timers from last year seem poised to become impact players. What will be interesting to see is what the Dores offensive approach will look like after losing five players that drew 30+ walks, and four of five players with 15+ steals in 2013, but rest assured the 2014 lineup will present a challenge for Dirtbag pitching it what's likely to be the first series of the season.
“Mini-Tournament” featuring Arizona State, Wright State, and UC Irvine – This series is actually going to include two games at home (versus Arizona State and Wright State) and one on the road (at UC Irvine). This will be the first tournament-style weekend for in Blair Field since the start of the 2010 season, and oddly enough it'll conclude with ASU playing WSU on Sunday, while the Dirtbags are down in Orange County battling the Anteaters. It's confirmed that this will be the second weekend of the season.
Arizona State (ISR: 15, RPI: 20) – Last season's series in Tempe resulted in a three-game sweep for the Sun Devils and one of the most anemic offensive outputs from the Dirtbags all year. LHP Ryan Kellogg (3.15, 54/17, 103 IP) is likely to get the ball for this Friday game. Kellogg tossed seven, two-hit, scoreless frames against LBSU a year ago, leading ASU to its second shutout of the series. Several of ASU's top hitters from last year are gone, but the Sun Devils bring in a strong recruiting class and a solid core of returners lead by SS Drew Stankiewicz (.295/.363/.396) and 1B Dalton DiNatale (.302/.397/.405).
Wright State (ISR: 202, RPI: 219) – Wright State returns to the southland after being swept at UCLA last spring, however the Raiders are an unfamiliar foe to Blair Field. Wright State finished fourth last season in the Horizon League; a conference whose only regional representative, Valparaiso, suffered an early season sweep to the Dirtbags. Wright State will see a lot of lineup turnover in 2014 but returns senior OFs Kieston Greene (.335/.396/.492) and Mark Fowler (.308/.383/.390).
UC Irvine (ISR: 29, RPI: 80) – The Anteaters are coming off a disappointing 2013 and saw further coaching turnover in the summer, resulting in the exit of revered assistant Pat Shine. However they did manage to take two of three against the Dirtbags last season (the first series since 2010 that didn't include a no-hitter!). Irvine enters 2014 with lower expectations and may not quite be the pitching-rich team they've been in recent years, but they return some star-studded hitters like 3B Taylor Sparks (.360/.388/.581), 1B Connor Spencer (.373/.443/.491), and SS Chris Rabago (.269/.325/.356). The Dirtbags will be heading to Irvine for the Sunday-finale of this tournament. The back of the Irvine rotation is currently up in the air but a strong returning candidate for this role is sophomore southpaw Elliot Surrey (3.95, 10/5, 13.2 IP). It's also been announced the Dirtbags' regular season will close with a home conference series against the Anteaters.
Utah Valley (2013 ISR: 211; RPI: 232) – Utah Valley! It's Utah Valley you guys! A favorite of myself and writers like Eric Sorenson from two years ago make the trip out to Long Beach next season, their first in the re-vamped WAC. These Wolverines, however, are a far cry from the 2012 squad that won 47 games behind a .959 OPS. After seeing their run production drop by over 40% in 2013, the 2014 team will return a somewhat more experienced lineup lead by Sophomore’s 3B Stone Ramsey (.307/.402/.457) and 1B Mark Krueger (.323/.374/.453). On the pitching side Utah Valley also saw a slight regression in 2013, and lose 2012 Great West Pitcher of the Year RHP Adam Gunn, among others. Top returners include likely Friday starter RHP Devin Nelson (3.55 ERA, 61/17 K/BB in 78.2 IP) and reliever RHP Brian Whatcott (1.69, 19/11, 26.2 IP).
The Wolverines will likely be the Dirtbags' weakest weekend opponent next year, and their 2013 stats and RPI weren't that dissimilar from arguably LBSU's weakest foe last season; the Seattle Redhawks. The same Seattle Redhawks that came to Blair Field and won two out of three.
Up next: We round out the home schedule with one-forth of last year's College World Series field.