May 1, 2008


Puzzling Season at Long Beach State


By Abbey Mastracco


LONG BEACH, Calif. —Long Beach State began the season as a puzzle that had so intricately been put together after an off-season of hard work.


The Dirtbags continued their long-standing dark-horse tradition, as they went on a torrid stretch to open the 2008 season, going 18-3 through March, winning five straight series and sweeping four straight. Three of those series (two sweeps) were over ranked opponents while the other two were no slouches.


The Dirtbags fought and scraped and pulled out some stunning come-from-behind wins when it mattered the most. They were ranked as high as No. 3 in the country and owned the second-best team ERA as well, but a 10-game road stretch suddenly sent them on a dismal 1-9 skid that carried over into their first two conference series against UC Riverside and No. 5 UC Irvine.


It was so unexpected and uncharacteristic; the puzzle was suddenly in pieces, leaving the team puzzled themselves and leaving head coach Mike Weathers with the daunting task of putting those pieces back together right before the most important part of the season, conference play, began.


Where it started


The Dirtbags went into their spring break in the last days of March on quite a high, as they swept UCLA and handed Harvard a beating. Junior first baseman Shane Peterson (right, photo by Mike Plaza, Daily Forty-Niner) said the team knew they would be good but they didn’t expect to be this good.


As it turns out, they weren’t.


The Dirtbags headed up to Malibu for a Tuesday game against Pepperdine to being their 10-game road trip. The Dirtbags committed three errors in the first inning and one more, late in the game. They got on board early but Tuesday starter Tyler Topp, who started his slide before the rest of the team did, was roughed up early on, and despite a ninth-inning push, his crew behind him was unable to recover.


This game provided an omnipresent look as the wave (no pun intended) that was about to come crashing down on Long Beach State.


Problem No. 1: Defense


“We’re not playing Long Beach State baseball,” Weathers said. To him, Dirtbag baseball is more-than-solid defensively. And the 20 errors committed over a 13-game stretch just won’t cut it.


“We’re in a team slump defensively,” Weathers said. “Our people are capable [of getting out of it], I don’t believe that we’re not capable of playing better defense, we’ve got too good of players. But right now, we’re not playing good defense and it cost us.”


Over that 13-game stretch (which included midweek contests against Pepperdine, Stanford, Fresno State and Loyola Marymount and three-game series against California, UC Riverside and UC Irvine) the Dirtbags fielded just .956.


Problem No. 2: Untimely hitting


Jason Corder provided a much-needed offense spark for the Dirtbags over that stretch, clubbing seven homers, including a grand slam against his former team, California, and driving in 15 runs. Corder made up the majority of the Dirtbags .247 average the team hit throughout those games, as the rest contributed just four homers and not one had more than six RBI.


Weathers tried anyone and everyone in the lineup, much to no avail.


“Almost every game there seems to be a new face in there, and that face does nothing,” Weathers said. “I’m looking for someone to be Lou Gehrig and take Wally Pipp’s spot. I tell the team every year about the old Wally Pipp story.


“Wally Pipp was a first baseman for the Yankees, came to the stadium sick one day and the manager said ‘take first base today’. Wally Pip never played again. I’m looking for someone to do that.”


The Dirtbags have had no problems putting runners in scoring position; it’s capitalizing on those runners that are problematic. Runs come, just not enough in time.


Problem No. 3: Bullpen Breakdown


To be fair, the bullpen is not completely at fault. With the exception of Andrew Liebel who continues to dominate every Friday night, the Dirtbags regular rotation has been fairly shaky lately. But the slightly-inflated 5.83 ERA over those 13 games is largely a result of relief pitching.


The once rock-solid bullpen looked as if it nearly imploded, giving up a total of 21 earned runs in relief over the 13-game span, with a high of six in the UC Irvine series opener.


“It’s conference time and everyone wants to win a championship,” Weathers said. “But we can’t continue to give up double-digit hits.”


Drawing a parallel


After being one of the top teams for several weeks, Arizona began a troubled start in Pac-10 conference play that seemingly mirrored that of the Dirtbags’.


Both are ranked similarly in their respective conferences: On the lower end in team batting and team fielding and on or near the top in team pitching. Preston Guilmet and C.J. Ziegler have some notable stats that rank in the Pac-10, as do Peterson and Corder. But few others fail to compare to the strong numbers put up in two conference comprised of incredible depth.


The poor play of both clubs could be a result of scheduling, but for very different reasons.


The Wildcats easily defeated unranked teams like Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The tougher teams on Arizona’s schedule, such as CS Fullerton and Georgia, were struggling early in the season when Arizona faced them. Their non-conference schedule may possibly have left them ill-prepared to handle the high level of talent and competition in the Pac-10.


But the Dirtbags, however, have no excuse.


Weathers is infamous for his near-torturous schedules from year-to-year, with this year’s nearly topping all others with a difficult non-conference stretch that ended with that 10-game road trip, something just one other Long Beach team has done before and Weathers says he will never do again.


UC Riverside head coach Doug Smith said he didn’t think the Dirtbags were slumping, he just felt they were tired when they fell to his Highlanders in Riverside to open Big West play. And Big West play is never exactly easy.


Signs of Life


The fragmented pieces of the Long Beach State puzzle look as though they have finally started to fit together once again. Now at 26-15 overall and 8-4 in the Big West (tied for second), the Dirtbags have managed to hang around the rankings with two conference sweeps of CS Northridge and Pacific, and in a rematch against Pepperdine, Peterson became the first Dirtbag ever recorded to hit for the cycle as the Dirtbags routed the Waves, 10-1.


What may be the determining factor in their turnaround is acknowledgement of their troubles, as their veil of ignorance was a sham, as the more the team pretended they didn’t exist, the more they continued to struggle. Admitting they had problems may have been the first step.


“I think that now we know something is wrong,” Peterson said. “Before we were just playing like everything was good, we were still playing pretty similar. But now, I think we all need to bear down and make adjustments.”


"It's nice to see that we're finding a way to stay in the game," Weathers said. "It’s like we did in the beginning of the year against all of those ranked teams. A lot of those [wins] were come-from-behind or 'leave them on the field.' Very close to what we were doing at the beginning of the year, that's a good sign."


The question remains how Long Beach State will fare against teams at a higher level, as Northridge and Pacific were bottom-of-the-barrel Big West teams. With conference losses to two of the top-ranked Big West teams already and archrival CS Fullerton still yet to come, the Dirtbags are running out of time.