Long Beach State flew under the radar for much of 2014. The Dirtbags were 18-21 as late as April 25, when it lost its series opener against powerhouse Cal Poly. Then they suddenly caught fire.
Winning the next two games against the Mustangs, and taking series against Cal State Fullerton, Hawaii, UC Riverside and UC Irvine to finish the regular season and storm into a regional for the first time since 2008. They wound up as the Gainesville Regional runner-up, beating North Carolina twice in the process to finish with a 34-26 overall record.
That was an older Long Beach State team, with upperclassmen all over the field, and still it took more than half the season to really find its stride. Of course, a rigorous schedule contributed to the ups and downs, but ultimately a series win against Indiana and an April series win against UCLA helped bolster LBSU’s resume.
The Dirtbags lost five of their top six hitters from that team (Ino Patron, Johnny Bekakis, Richard Prigatano, Michael Hill and Colby Brenner), as well as their entire weekend rotation (Josh Frye, Andrew Rohrbach and Nick Sabo). They headed into 2015 with 19 newcomers on the roster, and a rebuilding year seemed inevitable.
So the Dirtbags opened a few eyes when they started the year with a series win against a veteran Michigan team. They followed it up with a midweek win against Pepperdine (a super regional team last year) and a series win against Utah Valley.
After a 1-0 midweek loss at UCLA, the Dirtbags swept Wichita State. LBSU’s retooled pitching staff allowed just two runs total in those three games, shutting out the Shockers on Friday and throwing the first no-hitter in program history on Sunday.
“In the past, coming off of last year, we lost the whole rotation the year before last year. So at least from a mentality standpoint for the [coaching] staff, it’s like, ‘Yeah, OK, so what?’ Sometimes you wake up in the morning and wonder how you’re going to replace 274 innings or whatever, you have a little cold sweat once in a while. But for the most part it’s a new opportunity for guys. We like our new arms, and they’ve been really good.”
Buckley said his best recruit was Mike Steele -- his new pitching coach.
A well-respected veteran instructor in the Pittsburgh Pirates system (where Buckley used to work as minor league pitching coordinator), Steele has spent time working with his pitchers on more advanced concepts that Buckley did not have time to explore in past years when he was serving as pitching coach as well as head coach.
“That’s kind of why I hired him, because I could not service the pitchers the way I think they’ve always been serviced, as a head coach,” Buckley said.
“As a head coach and a pitching coach over the last five years, I just found it hard to give the attention I needed to the position players, as well as the pitchers. Mike’s in the trenches with them every day.”
Buckley said he knows Long Beach State will never land the marquee arms that John Savage gets at UCLA, for instance, so development is critical. Pitching and defense have always formed the bedrock of LBSU’s program, and always will.
Kyle Friedrichs is a good example of a pitcher who has developed into something effective for the college game. After missing the 2013 season with Tommy John surgery, Friedrichs spent last year in the bullpen, notching six saves in 26.1 innings.
He slid into the Friday starter spot this year and has been a revelation, going 3-0, 1.80 with a dazzling 34-3 strikeout-walk mark in 20 innings.
“I’m probably more surprised with the volume of the strikeouts, which makes your defense better when you don’t touch the ball,” Buckley said.
“He’s a little stronger than he was a couple years ago, 85-88, a really really good college pitcher. Really good feel for a changeup, and there’s a slider. And he can move the ball to both sides of the plate with some action … Friday night is as much about perception and setting a tempo, setting that on the right track and making sure the bullpen doesn’t have to go into overdrive early in the series. So that was our trust in Kyle; we trust him.”
Saturday starter Tanner Brown is a lean 6-foot-4 righty with whose calling card is the movement on his fastball -- it cuts, darts and sinks all over the place, reminding Buckley a bit of Frye, a stalwart from last year’s rotation. He also mixes in a good changeup and a slider.
“He’s really been a pleasant surprise for us,” Buckley said. “He can really field his position, controls the running game, been throwing strikes and getting a lot of ground balls. He’s been very, very efficient with his pitches.”
The Sunday starter is talented freshman Chris Mathewson, who threw the first seven innings of that no-hitter against Wichita State. He’s just coming back from early January meniscus surgery, so Buckley responsibly pulled him after 84 pitches on Sunday even though he wanted to keep going.
Mathewson pitches in the 87-89 range and bumps 90-91 at this stage, but there’s more in the tank, and most importantly he doesn’t get rattled. He has also developed a good changeup and has the ability to throw his breaking ball for strikes or use it as a chase.
“It’s like the American Express curveball: Don’t leave home without it,” Buckley said. “He can really rotate the ball. He’s going to be really good.”
“There are a little more options,” Buckley said. “We’re probably 8-9 deep right now, which is better than I thought we were gonna be.”
Offense figures to be a challenge for this team at times -- the Dirtbags are hitting just .242 as a team but shortstop Garrett Hampson is a bona fide star and veteran outfielder Zack Rivera is a proven run producer. The Dirtbags are still looking for the right combinations in their lineup.
They are fortunate to have an experienced catcher who really handles the pitching staff well in Eric Hutting, and they expect defense to be a real strength.
A couple of sleepers to keep an eye on in the lineup: freshman outfielder Chris McCready, whom Buckley calls the team’s best athlete after Hampson, and Jared James, a speedster who is the son of former big leaguer Dion James.
“We’re still young,” Buckley said. “I’m happy for them, I like coaching them. They’ve got a Dirtbag attitude, they really do. And I give a lot of credit to the older guys, the guys that returned -- the one thing they had to figure out how to do was win to be a true Dirtbag team. They did, and that carried over and some bled over into some of the 19 new players.”