Regionals Preview - Part II

Surprise, surprise. The Long Beach State 49ers are making yet another postseason trip to Sunken Diamond. Armed and dangerous with probably the top player in the college baseball this season, the Dirtbags are finally looking to get over the hump and win in June at Sunken Diamond. Meanwhile, St. John's rounds out the field in Palo Alto this weekend. The Red Storm had a successful season in the Big East and are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years.

2. Long Beach State 49ers (36-19, 14-7 Big West)

For the fourth consecutive season, the Dirtbags of Long Beach State will make their way north to Sunken Diamond for postseason play.  Stanford and Long Beach did not play each other during the 2001 Palo Alto Regional, however the Cardinal did knock off the Dirtbags twice (including in the championship game) of the '02 sub-regionals.  Then last year, Stanford swept away The Beach, 2-0, in the super regional round to advance to Omaha.  Now here in 2004, the Dirtbags get yet another shot to try to conquer Sunken Diamond.

The Dirtbags have been ranked in the top 10 for nearly the entire regular season, but a seven-game losing streak to close out the year has dropped them down to #18 entering play this weekend.  And while Long Beach does come into Sunken Diamond with that lengthy losing streak, don't be fooled, this team isn't playing nearly as bad as the streak would indicate.  They dropped the final game of a series with UC Riverside (after winning the first two) by one run and then were swept at home by the red-hot Cal State Fullerton Titans.  Those three losses came by a grand total of four runs.  Then last weekend, LBSU went down to Coral Gables and were swept by the #2 ranked Miami Hurricanes.  However, one of those games was another one-run loss and Miami took a different game with a walkoff grandslam home run in the bottom of the ninth.

Long Beach has played numerous Pac-10 teams this season in non-conference play.  They took 2-of-3 at home over California while also taking 2-of-3 in a home-and-home series with USC.  Both of those series' were back in February.  The Dirtbags swept a three-game home series with Arizona in March and also went 2-1 during the course of the season against UCLA.  Long Beach finished the year 2-4 against Cal State Fullerton and 0-3 versus Miami - both top ten teams.

Long Beach State is everything UNLV is not.  While the Rebels rely heavily on hitting to win ballgames, the Dirtbags win with pitching and defense.  Their team ERA currently sits at a very impressive 3.09 which is the fifth lowest in the entire NCAA's this season.  Meanwhile, their team fielding percentage is at an amazing .977 - third best in Division I Baseball this year.

Leading the way is junior right handed starting pitcher Jered Weaver.  Weaver is the front-runner to take home all the national Player of the Year awards and could possibly be taken first overall in the Amateur Draft next week.  The numbers speak for themselves:

14-1 record, 1.68 ERA, 128 1/3 IP, 71 H, 18 BB, 193 SO, .161 opposing average

Weaver has recorded double figure strike out totals in 13 of his 17 starts this season.  He leads all of Division I in wins and strike outs per nine innings (13.6).  He's also third overall in earned run average.  Last summer, Weaver was the ace of the US National Team and went on to record an amazing 0.38 ERA in leading the Red, White, and Blue to their best record ever.  While nothing has been made official yet, it is likely that Weaver is held out of Long Beach's first-round game against St. John's so that he could be used in the all-important winners bracket game on Saturday afternoon (with Stanford as the likely opponent).

It should be noted though that Stanford did beat Weaver last year during the super regionals.  Mark Romanczuk and the Cardinal posted a 4-2 win in Game Two of the super regionals to send Stanford to Omaha.  Weaver breezed through the first six innings yielding only one run before the Cardinal got to him for three scores in the top of the seventh to take the lead for good. 

The Long Beach coaching staff is very careful with Weaver and his pitch counts.  We saw it last year in the supers when he was pulled after roughly 120 pitches despite the game being tied at 2 and Weaver still throwing pretty well.  He was lifted from the game and Danny Putnam promptly delivered the clutch two-out, two-run single that gave the Cardinal the 4-2 lead.  This has happened a couple of times this year again with Long Beach where Weaver is pulled (at around 120 pitches) and the Long Beach bullpen can't hold the lead and/or suffers the loss.  So while Stanford will likely not get many runs against Weaver if they were to face him, they can still try to work counts and get his pitch count up, because every time he gets to the 120-125 mark, the LBSU coaching staff will make a pitching change.

Weaver was also hammered in his last start at Miami surrendering seven runs (all earned) on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings.  He allowed three home runs, but still did manage to strike out 11. 

There really isn't that big of a dropoff from Weaver down to their #2 starter, Cesar Ramos.  Ramos is a sophomore lefty who has burst onto the scene this year to the tune of a 10-4 record and 2.10 ERA.  Stanford has never faced Ramos.

The #3 starter is Jason Vargas, a junior right hander.  Vargas hasn't put up nearly as strong a numbers with a 7-6 record and 4.25 ERA.  If Weaver doesn't start their opening game on Friday, it will be interesting to see which direction the Dirtbags go.  If Ramos goes, you figure LBSU still has a pretty big advantage against the Red Storm.  But if they really roll the dice and go with Vargas, St. John's has a significantly better chance of pulling off the upset.

Long Beach's bullpen isn't particularly deep.  Closer Neil Jamison is having a great year with a 3.42 ERA and 12 saves.  However, he was hit pretty hard by Fullerton and Miami the last two weekends.  Brian Anderson (3.09 ERA, 2 Saves) also is a huge contributor out of their bullpen.  But, after those two relievers (plus the three starters), there is major dropoff in performance and experience.  It hasn't been that big of an issue for The Beach this year since Weaver and Ramos basically go eight innings in every one of their starts, but if the Dirtbags have to fight their way through the losers bracket, they could be in trouble.

As for their hitting, Long Beach State is a very average club.  They hit .300 as a team and score only 5.5 runs per game.  They do not hit a lot of home runs with only 29 on the year in 55 games.  They also don't steal a lot of bases, but will play small ball (i.e. they do move runners around the bases well).  Not a lot of offense is needed when Weaver and Ramos pitch, but if either hurler is having an off-day, Long Beach would be in trouble with their average offensive club (below-average for a national title contender).

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Sean Boatright, RF  (So., .303, 2 HR, 16 RBI)
2. Josh Buhagiar, CF  (Sr., .318, 0 HR, 10 RBI)  or  Steve Velazco, CF  (Jr., .242, 0 HR, 16 RBI)
3. John Bowker, LF  (So., .328, 6 HR, 35 RBI)
4. Troy Tulowitzki, SS  (So., .307, 3 HR, 36 RBI)
5. Jason Vargas, DH  (Jr., .368, 5 HR, 32 RBI)
6. Brad Davis, C  (Jr., .332, 4 HR, 36 RBI)
7. Mike Hofius, 1B  (Sr., .295, 4 HR, 45 RBI)
8. Danny Mocny, 3B  (Jr., .346, 3 HR, 22 RBI)
9. Chuck Sindlinger, 2B  (So., .276, 1 HR, 7 RBI)

SP- Jered Weaver, RHP  (Jr., 14-1, 1.68 ERA, 128.1 IP, 18 BB, 193 SO)
SP- Cesar Ramos, LHP  (So., 10-4, 2.10 ERA, 120 IP, 29 BB, 85 SO)
SP- Jason Vargas, LHP  (Jr., 7-6, 4.25 ERA, 97.1 IP, 29 BB, 81 SO)

Notes: Bowker leads the team in homers, but with just six ... Tulowitzki is an excellent defensive shortstop, however his costly error in the seventh inning of Game Two last year opened the door for Stanford's three-run rally ... Vargas doubles as LBSU's #3 starter and DH ... He leads the team in hitting at .368 ... Hofius is a four-year starter.

3. St. John's Red Storm (36-21, 17-9 Big East)

The Red Storm are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.  They had a very successful regular season, especially in Big East play as they finished in a tie for second - three games behind first-place Notre Dame.  The Red Storm were swept at Arkansas (the #8 national seed) to open the season as they weren't very competitive in two of those games.  However, the very next weekend, St. John's did take 2-of-3 against a talented Lamar team (they are the #3 seed in Rice's regional) on the road.  St. John's didn't play a lot of high-profile clubs in the Big East, but they did manage a two-game split with Notre Dame in South Bend during the regular season.  The Irish did rout the Red Storm by a 9-2 score in the Big East Tournament last weekend (St. John's went 1-2 in that tourney).

Like Long Beach State, the Red Storm are an average hitting squad.  They hit .308 as a team and average 6.1 runs per game.  That doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents when you consider their strength of schedule was a dismal 133 this season.  As a team, they have average power, but they do steal a lot of bases.  #3 hitter and shortstop Mike Rozema was a Third Team All-American last season when he .408.  He's dropped off to .322 this year, but does have 22 stolen bases (in 25 attempts) to his credit.

Leadoff batter and third baseman Jim Martin leads the team in hitting at .357 while #4 hitter Blake Hershelman is the only major power threat in their lineup with 10 homers and 48 RBI (next closest home run hitter has five longballs on the year). 

On the mound, the Red Storm have a 3.88 team ERA.  Their #1 starter has put up some very solid numbers and could give Long Beach some problems on Friday afternoon.  Senior Anthony Varvaro is 8-3 on the year with a 3.80 ERA.  Opponents are hitting just .241 against him.  Last weekend in the Big East Tournament against Pittsburgh, Varvaro tossed eight quality innings yielding only one run on three hits with ten strike outs.  The Red Storm are going to need him to come up big on Friday if they want to knock off the Dirtbags.

The rest of the rotation is very average.  Joe Reid (6-5, 5.38) has been a regular starter this year while the #3 position has been a revolving door.  Out of the bullpen, St. John's does boast a talented closer in Craig Hanson who has a 2.97 ERA and nine saves on the year.

On paper, it would appear that St. John's could have some difficulty winning this regional.  I don't know if their schedule has prepared them enough for Long Beach State and a potential date with Stanford down the rode.  This appears to be a much weaker team than past #3 seeds UC Riverside ('03), San Jose State ('02), and Texas ('01).  Because of this, I would expect Jered Weaver to be held back from starting against this club on Friday.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Jim Martin, 3B  (Jr., .357, 0 HR, 23 RBI)
2. P.J. Antoniato, 2B  (Jr., .327, 5 HR, 38 RBI)
3. Mike Rozema, SS  (Sr., .322, 2 HR, 23 RBI)
4. Blake Hershelman, RF  (Jr., .325, 10 HR, 48 RBI)
5. Greg Thomson, CF  (So., .347, 3 HR, 23 RBI)
6. Christopher Joachim, 1B  (Fr., .294, 3 HR, 27 RBI)
7. Joe Burke, C  (Jr., .337, 1 HR, 25 RBI)
8. Eddie Schultz, DH  (So., .275, 3 HR, 39 RBI)
9. Anthony DeRosa, LF  (Sr., .259, 5 HR, 26 RBI)

SP- Anthony Varvaro  (Sr., 8-3, 3.80 ERA, 83 IP, 52 BB, 71 SO)
SP- Joe Reid  (Sr., 6-5, 5.38 ERA, 73.2 IP, 57 BB, 77 SO)
SP- Robert Delaney  (Fr., 3-1, 2.96 ERA, 48.2 IP, 21 BB, 41 SO)

Notes: Martin is your typical leadoff batter as he hits for a high average (.357) and has only struck out 12 times in 213 AB's on the year ... Antoniato is also very tough to strike out (223 AB/13 SO) and he can steal a base (13 SB) ... Hershelman leads the team in doubles, homers, and slugging percentage ... Varvaro was named Second Team All-Big East last week.

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