Rounding out the OOC series previews are the road trips for the Dirtbags, which all feature opponents who traveled to Long Beach in 2013.
Wichita State (ISR: 92, RPI: 103) – Last year nearly turned into a nightmare of a season for our (partially) cross-country rival, who started the year dropping three games to Pittsburgh, then losing four games to the snow. However, the Shockers, rebounded to win 39 games and the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
The Dirtbags have won their last three series against WSU, including a sweep in Blair Field last year, and a near-sweep in their 2012 trip to Eck Stadium. However, the 2014 Shockers could be a dangerous club, as they retain several key players including their top four hitters; 1B Casey Gillaspie (.299/.447/.517), C Tyler Baker (.328/.394/.466), OF Garrett Bayliff (.379/.439/.425), and 2B Tanner Dearman (.301/.404/.335); and their entire weekend rotation; closer-turned-starter RHP Cale Elam (3.17, 75/30, 93.2 IP), RHP A.J. Ladwig (4.54, 68/15, 85.1 IP), and RHP Garrett Brummett (1.16, 24/11, 38.2 IP). This experienced team will be lead by new Head Coach Todd Butler, former assistant and recruiting coordinator for two Omaha-bound Arkansas squads. Add the fact that this is easily the Dirtbags' longest road trip of the regular season, geographically speaking, and this could be another tough test for Troy Buckley's boys.
Arizona (ISR: 34, RPI: 59) – two game mid-week series – Long Beach State split two home mid-week games last season against the then-defending champion Wildcats. That series was the first test of the pitching depth for a team that had no healthy returning starters. Though the 2014 Dirtbags return LHPs Jake Stassi and Ryan Strufing, this two game set in Tucson could serve as a similar measuring stick for the rotation, with returners LHP Nick Sabo and RHP Ryan Millison (the starters from last year's series) and newcomers RHP Christian Belleque and LHP Cameron Pongs potentially getting the nods.
Most of the major players from the Wildcats' Omaha team are gone but they return a large portion of last year's lineup, including dynamic middle infielders 2B Trent Gilbert (.344/.407/.448) and SS Kevin Newman (.336/.398/.392). It will be interesting to see how the Dirtbag lineup, particularly players like Michael Hill and Richard Prigatano, approach hitting in Hi Corbett, where the speed/gap power combo remains U of A's M.O..
Cal State Fullerton (ISR: 2, RPI: 6) – In what is typically the final warmup before conference play, this series could be the Dirtbags' most difficult of the season as Fullerton is likely to be a top five team in the pre-season rankings. Some wins in this series would be a big boost to the RPI and would look great on LBSU's regional bid resume, but I don't really care about that.
After losing 22 of 25 to the Titans (3-15 in the Troy Buckley-era), the six meetings this season have to take on a greater significance. How Long Beach State performs on the road against likely one of the better Fullerton teams in recent years will serve as a strong indicator of the strength of the Dirtbag moniker.
They will be combated with one of the best rotations in the nation, RHP Thomas Eshelman (1.48, 83/3, 115.2 IP), RHP Justin Garza (2.03, 95/17, 115 IP) coming off all-universe freshman seasons, RHP Grahamm Wiest (3.27, 76/13, 104.2 IP), not to mention about 12 other All-Big West arms.
If there's a weakness to be found, it could be Fullerton's comparatively unproven lineup. Gone is a large portion of last year's lineup, including Big West players of the year Michael Lorenzen and Carlos Lopez, though they do retain legitimate conference POY candidates 1B JD Davis (.318/.407/.436) and 3B Matt Chapman (.285/.415/.457). Though the Titans always have a steady pipeline of talent, the 2014 outfield and shortstop positions will have a hard time replicating the production of their predecessors (not that they'd necessarily have to).
LBSU's best chance here is to be able to exploit that new-look lineup behind strong pitching and grind out some low-scoring victories.
It's regional or bust next year for Long Beach State, but while simply earning a bid would seem to make 2014 a successful enough campaign, if the Dirtbags can get through this gauntlet of a schedule there's no telling how they can go. The key, of course, will be surviving the regular season.