Long Beach State has a rare situation on its hands at first base this spring. They enter the spring without last season's starter, Jeff Yamaguchi, yet the position remains arguably the most secure one on the field. While twitter searches for what became of Yamaguchi, the 2014 Dirtbags fill first base with one of its team leader of the last three years and two sophomores with intriguing potential but will find themselves vying for playing time this spring.
Zack Belanger – Red Shirt Sophomore; Bats: Left; .250/.291/.346, 25 games
In his first season playing on Blair Field, Belanger struggled while playing sporadically, though he did show some promise by season's end. The-then redshirt freshman posted a poor K/BB of 20/1 and collected just four hits, all singles, in his first 24 at bats. He began to turn things around in the season's final month, slugging a home run against Cal State Fullerton, one of just 12 blasts the Dirtbags had on the season, before closing out with nine hits in his final 27 at bats (.333). Belanger ended up starting as the Designated Hitter more often than not for the hobbled Dirtbags over the final weeks.
In the summer Belanger would serve as the regular first baseman for the Wisconsin Rapid Rafters in the Northwoods League; though he continued to strike out with alarming frequency, K'ing nearly as often as he reached base. In the dog days of summer he followed a similar hitting pattern to his Dirtbags season, including going through an awful 16-for-107 slump in the middle of the year with just two extra base hits. He eventually rebounded a bit, went on a six-game hitting streak, and closed the summer on a 7-for-12 run.
Well-recruited out of high school with strong blood lines, Belanger will be interesting to watch as his college career progresses. Listed at 6'4”, 195 pounds he could develop some good raw power as he fills out. How that power potential comes along, and how well he manages to plug the hole in his swing, will determine just how much playing time he sees between first, outfield, and DH this season. For now, expect him to play a pinch hitting role, with the occasional start at first.
Ino Patron – Senior; Bats: Left; .301/.359/.435, 55 games
On the final game I attended of the 2011 season, the Dirtbags were in the midst of being no-hit by UC Irvine hurler Matt Summers. With two outs in the 8th inning a scrappy freshman came to the plate and I remember thinking to myself “if this guy can't get a hit, then Summers is gonna do it.” The batter, named Ino Patron, failed to get a base knock, but it was through no fault of his own. He got plunked with the pitch and even stole second for good measure. But that was our last real shot and sure enough the Dirtbags would end up going hitless (I really was at the game, I have an Irvine-superfan autograph in my scorebook to prove it).
All spring long, when the Dirtbags were having a painfully bad year at the plate, I was struck by how the freshman Patron seemed to grind out every at bat. As he enters his senior season as a would-be four year starter, Patron remains the best active embodiment of the Dirtbags name. For those four years he has been Long Beach's toughest out and best pure hitter; scratching a clawing for numbers that don't blow you away but always seem to get the job done (one stat on Patron I really wish I had to share is pitches-per-at-bat).
After two years of splitting time between first base and designated hitter, the loss of Johnny Bekakis forced Patron to add left field to his resume in 2013, playing 18 games there. At the plate he remained steady as always, hitting .316 during a nine-game hitting streak that began the third day of the season. After a brief cold spell in the first week of March, Patron's bat exploded; from March 10 to the 29th, against opponents such as Arizona State, Wichita State, and Cal State Fullerton, he hit .385 while slugging .641. That streak overlapped with a run of 19 consecutive games having reached base, running from March 23 to April 28, which included an OPS of 1.132. The on-base streak was snapped on April 30 against Loyola Marymount, marking the only time in the month of April Patron failed to reach base. Since we're on the subject, Patron will enter the 2014 season ridding a nine-game hitting streak.
In 27 Big West games Patron put up a slashline of .343/.395/.486; in between that he mixed in a 4 RBI game against eventual national champion UCLA, as the Dirtbags handed the Bruins their worst loss of the year, 11-1.
Eventually Patron made his way from left field back to first base; playing there in ten of the Dirtbags' final 12 games. With the departure of Yamaguchi and the return of Johnny Bekakis, it's likely Patron will spend most, if not all, of the summer back at first base, with an occasional start at DH.
Patron is pretty much what you see above. He'll remain Long Beach's toughest out in 2014, likely batting third or fourth all season. As he enters his final year at Blair Field I'm reminded of Brennan Metzger's career at Long Beach State. Metzger, another quintessential Dirtbag, was also a four year starter (well, three and a half), and was the offensive leader in his final campaign. Sadly, Metzger saw his run end with a hard fought, yet losing, battle for a regional bid in 2012, thus finishing his career without a postseason appearance. While the 2014 season could present one of the strongest Big West conferences in recent years, with Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara, and Cal Poly all in Top-25 territory, and UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge hoping for a postseason birth, it would be a shame to see Patron and the rest of the senior class also fail to see June baseball in their careers.
It'll take Dirtbags like Ino Patron to make sure that doesn't happen.