Baseball Preview: Long Beach State

When Cal State Fullerton (32-21, 9-9) and Long Beach State (35-17, 13-5) play a series at the end of the season, the Big West championship is usually on the line. This year, that is not the case after the results of recent conference series. Fullerton's only Big West series wins have been against the two bottom dwellers - Pacific and Northridge.

Long Beach was in line to win the championship and for an opportunity to host a regional as a national seed prior to being swept at home last weekend by Riverside. Now, the Dirtbags cannot win the automatic bid as the Big West champion due to that series loss as well as one to Irvine earlier in the season. However, there is still much at stake for both teams because Fullerton cannot afford to be swept and still get into a regional and with a series win, Long Beach still has an opportunity to host a regional at Blair Field.

LINEUP

Long Beach's lineup was bashing their way to the Big West championship prior to running into the Riverside pitching staff, averaging nearly 9 runs per game in Big West games. After scoring at least six runs in 11 straight games (8+ runs in 10 of those games), the Dirtbags offense came back to earth against Riverside by scoring 11 runs (7 earned) in the three game series. Long Beach has hit for a .316 average in Big West games and has displayed an unusual amount of power for a Dirtbag team by averaging an HR per game (18 in 18 games). Long Beach hasn't been running much (12 SB's - 5 by Peterson) and hasn't been bunting much (17 - 7 by Cline). They've been swinging away and have been productive at doing that prior to the Riverside series.

C - Travis Howell (RH - .290 - 2 - 17 - 0) usually hits 8th in the lineup and has taken over the C position after it was a platoon situation earlier in the year, starting 14 of 18 Big West games. Howell has been red hot, hitting .392 in conf games. He is adequate behind the plate (7-11 SB's, 15 WP's/PB's during the conf season; 24-36 SB's overall). Howell went 1-4 and hit an HR in his only game against Fullerton.

1B - Shane Peterson (LH - .343 - 4 - 38 - 10) was hitting .083 (3-36) going into the first Fullerton series. The sight of the guys wearing orange F's on their hats must have done something to Peterson because he has hit .414 since then (55-133), including .421 in Big West games with 3 HR's and 20 RBI's. Peterson usually hits 3rd and has to be kept under control, which Fullerton hasn't done a good job of doing because he is 10-28 (.357 avg) in his career against the Titans. Peterson is also the Sunday SP so he will DH then and Brandon Godfrey (LH - .305 - 0 - 13 - 2) will start at 1B. Godfrey was hitting well earlier this year (.340 going into the first Fullerton series) but injured a wrist early in the conf season and has struggled since coming back, hitting only .257. Godfrey is 7-28 in his career against Fullerton. Both are solid defensively.

2B - Matt Cline (RH - .341 - 0 - 25 - 9) usually hit 9th last year and earlier this year but when Long Beach moved some hitters around early in the conf schedule, Cline was moved into the 2nd spot. Cline was hot earlier in the year but has cooled off during Big West play (.266 avg). Cline leads the team with 15 SAC bunts so he will be bunting at every opportunity to move a runner over. Cline is a good fielder but has struggled defensively recently, making 6 E's in 17 conf games. Cline is 5-24 (.208 avg) in his career against Fullerton.

SS - Danny Espinosa (Both - .326 - 7 - 36 - 2) is the cleanup hitter and has been one of the clutch hitters for the Dirtbags,

delivering several key hits such as the game winning 3 run HR in the 9th inning at UCSB. He has still hit well (.323 - 3 - 12) in conf games despite suffering an injury that kept him out of the lineup for a couple of weeks. Espinosa has struggled defensively in conf games (10 E's in 15 games) after playing well in the non-conf games (only 3 E's). He is 7-31 (.226 avg) in his career against Fullerton.

3B - Jason Tweedy (LH - .226 - 1 - 16 - 0) and Taylor Krick (RH - .296 - 2 - 20 - 0) have shared this position all year but haven't provided much offense except for when Krick got off to a hot start earlier in the season (11-24 - .458 avg - going into the first Fullerton series; 18-74 - .243 avg - since then). They usually hit 8th or 9th and are hitting a combined .184 and have made six E's in conf games, including a crucial one by Krick that allowed Riverside to tie the game in the top of the 9th last Sunday. They combined to go 2-12 in the first series with Fullerton.

LF - TJ Mittlestadt (LH - .286 - 0 - 5 - 2) is the leadoff hitter and took advantage of some lineup shuffling at the start of the conf season after not playing much while a bunch of guys played LF during the non-conf schedule. Mittlestadt is very patient at the plate, with 30 BB's in only 136 plate apps. He is a converted infielder and has been a little shaky defensively. He went 0-1 in the first series with Fullerton.

CF - Chris Nelson (RH - .303 - 4 - 16 - 4) didn't play much earlier in the year as he recovered from a hamate injury but has gotten in the lineup more often during conf play, starting 11 of 18 games. Nelson usually hits in the lower part of the lineup and has some pop in his bat, with 3 HR's in 47 AB's in conf games. Nelson is a good defensive player but the one error he made this season was a memorable one that started the 9th inning rally in the Sunday game against Fullerton that helped allow the Titans to score four unearned runs and come back to win the game and the series. Nelson went 1-9 in the first series with Fullerton.

RF - Robert Perry (LH - .322 - 6 - 45 - 0) usually hit leadoff hitter and played in CF in his first 1 1/2 seasons but recently has been moved into the 5th spot in the lineup and played more RF. Perry went from being the guy whose job was to bunt and steal bases to somebody whose job is to drive in runs and he has been very good at that, leading the team in RBI's. Perry has been red hot in conf games, hitting .390 with 4 HR's and 25 RBI's. Perry is solid defensively in CF and a very good RF. Perry is 6-32 (.188 avg) in his career against Fullerton. When Perry shifts over to CF, Jason Corder (RH - .294 - 7 - 28 - 0) will be in RF. Corder has good pop in his bat and is tied for the team lead in HR's, although most of those were hit early in the season. Corder went 0-3 in his only game against Fullerton. He is average defensively.

DH - Long Beach doesn't have a regular DH. Peterson will DH on Sundays when he is pitching. In the first two games of the series, Godfrey is likely to start one of those games and either Corder or AJ Pinocchio (Both - .264 - 1 - 16 - 4) in the other one.

PITCHING

Long Beach has had to do quite a bit of shuffling with their starting rotation due to injuries to two of their SP's (Vance Worley and Manny McElroy). For the first time this year, the Dirtbags have everybody back healthy, although in different roles than where most of the pitchers were in earlier this year. Long Beach's pitching has been up and down in conf games, allowing 5+ runs in 7 of 15 games that weren't played against Northridge.

Friday SP - Manny McElroy (RHP - 5-2, 3.69 ERA, 10 apps, 9 starts, 46 IP, 49 H's, 11 BB's, 24 K's, .269 BA) was scheduled to be the Sat SP earlier this year but was injured in Feb and missed two months. McElroy has pitched well since returning, allowing 7 runs in 29 IP (2.17 ERA) in his 5 starts. McElroy is a control specialist who is usually around the plate but he has struggled with his control in his last two outings, allowing 7 BB's in 10 2/3 IP, including 4 BB's in 3 2/3 IP against Riverside last Friday. McElroy didn't pitch in the first series against Fullerton.

Sat SP - Andrew Liebel (RHP - 7-3, 2.53 ERA, 23 apps, 4 starts, 85 IP, 80 H's, 13 BB's, 47 K's, .247 BA) was the primary middle reliever when Fullerton played the Dirtbags earlier this year but due to the injuries to the SP's, Liebel was moved into the rotation during the conf schedule. Liebel is 2-1 in his four starts, with a 3.60 ERA in 30 IP, allowing 35 H's and only one walk. Liebel does a good job of keeping the ball down in the zone. In two appearances against Fullerton in the first series, Liebel went 1-1, allowing 3 R's on 4 H's in 5 2/3 IP.

Sun SP - Shane Peterson (LHP - 2-1, 4.44 ERA, 13 apps, 12 starts, 47 IP, 45 H's, 15 BB's, 31 K's, .256 BA) or Omar Arif (LHP - 5-5, 2.61 ERA, 17 apps, 14 starts, 72 IP, 77 H's, 20 BB's, 38 K's, .275 BA). Long Beach's Sun SP is TBA but it will either be Peterson or Arif. Arif is the typical "crafty lefty" and usually doesn't pitch much more than 5-6 innings, with his longest start of the season against Fullerton (6 2/3 IP, 5 H's, 1 unearned run, 1 BB, 6 K's). Arif was taken out of the rotation after a couple of mediocre starts against Davis and Pacific when McElroy was moved back into the rotation and Arif has been the midweek SP and long reliever on the weekends for the past month. Peterson has been the Sun SP since March but rarely throws more than five innings (longest start of the year is 5 1/3 IP). Peterson also pitched well against Fullerton, shutting out the Titans for 4 2/3 innings and allowing 2 H's. Peterson has not made it past the 4th inning in 3 of his last 4 starts, including being pulled after the 1st inning last Sunday.

Relievers - Long Beach has a deep bullpen that was affected by the injuries to some of the SP's that resulted in some shuffling of roles. The closer is Bryan Shaw (RHP - 6-2, 2.44 ERA, 9 saves, 44 IP, 36 H's, 21 BB's, 39 K's, .218 BA), who has converted blown 5 of 14 save chances, including last Sunday when a two out error allowed Riverside to tie the game. Shaw struggled against Fullerton earlier this season, blowing saves in both appearances and allowing 5 R's (1 ER) on 5 H's in 1 1/3 IP. Shaw has also struggled in conf games, with a 4.05 ERA in 8 apps, allowing 14 H's, 7 BB's and 7 R's (6 ER) in 13 IP.

Vance Worley (RHP - 1-2, 3.69 ERA, 11 apps, 9 starts, 54 IP, 58 H's, 12 BB's, 38 K's, .284 BA) recently returned from an elbow injury, throwing 1 1/3 innings in two appearances, and took the loss last Sunday against Riverside after allowing 1 R on 2 H's in 1/3 of an inning. Worley has allowed 8 R's on 14 H's in 10 IP in 5 apps (1 start) against Fullerton. The three primary middle relievers since Liebel was moved into the rotation have been David Roberts (RHP - 3-0, 2.73 ERA, 25 apps, 33 IP, 32 H's, 12 BB's, 32 K's, .258 BA) had 2 apps in the first Fullerton series, allowing 0 R's in 3 IP and has allowed 3 R's in 12 IP in 10 apps in Big West games; Dustin Rasco (RHP - 1-0, 4.32 ERA, 21 apps, 25 IP, 16 H's, 11 BB's, 17 K's, .180 BA) had 2 apps in the first Fullerton series, allowing 0 R's in 2 1/3 IP and has pitched well in Big West games, allowing 1 R and 4 H's in 9 1/3 IP in 7 apps and Adam Wilk (LHP - 3-0, 4.75 ERA, 21 apps, 30 IP, 37 H's, 12 BB's, 21 K's, .296 BA) had 2 apps in the first Fullerton series, allowing 2 R's in 1 1/3 IP, and has struggled in Big West games, allowing 9 R's (7 ER) on 10 H's in 7 apps (7 IP).

OUTLOOK

Fullerton has played very well against Long Beach since 2004, winning 16 of the last 20 games. However, Fullerton has not played well lately in losing all four series to teams that are .500 or better in the Big West. Long Beach was playing very well in going 21-3 and beating the lower level and mid level Big West teams until running into a red hot Riverside team last weekend. Will Fullerton continue to play well against Long Beach and finally get a Big West series win against one of the contenders? Or, will Long Beach bounce back from getting swept by Riverside and play the way they did during their 21-3 streak? Unless Fullerton gets some things straightened out offensively and with the Sunday SP spot, it is tough to pick against Long Beach in this situation when the Dirtbags likely need to win two games to host a regional and the Titans likely need to win only one game to wrap up a spot in a regional. Either that or I'm attempting to use reverse psychology and whenever I pick Fullerton to win a series, they lose it (Irvine, UCSB, Cal Poly) and whenever I pick against the Titans, they win the series (Wichita).