Big West Conference Preview

Dirtbags lead healthy crop of teams ahead of Fullerton, UC Irvine and Cal Poly


Feb. 15, 2008


 
 

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

 

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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If there were a BCS for baseball, the Big West would join the rest of the major conference behemoths. There should be no doubting this conference now, after UC Irvine went on the road and made its way to Omaha and Fullerton reached the Promised Land with one of its weaker teams in years. That's the nature of the Big West. Unpredictable. Unflinching. Unrepentant. And yet, strangely unrewarded in some ways too. Even four teams to the NCAA tournament felt under-represented last year. So the battles will be even bigger this year. To hell with tradition, if you don't take each weekend serious, you'll find yourself saddled with Ls in the right hand column. Being the favorite here doesn't mean a lot. Survival in the post-season does.

 

Favorite: Long Beach State

Contenders: Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly, UC Irvine

Darkhorse: UC Riverside

 

Cal Poly (32-24, 13-8)

 

The Good News:

Unlike the national scene, in Big West circles Larry Lee's Mustangs are held in high regard. Nobody likes making that trip to San Luis Obispo. Eight position starters return, led by Brent Morel (.333-17-31) and OF Logan Schafer (.335). C Wes Dorrell (.303-6-40) will catch battery mates LHP Derrick Saito (3-2, 3.03, 56Ks in 35.2inns.) and RHP Kevin Castner, who was named the No. 3 prospect on West Coast Collegiate League despite a disappointing 2007 campaign. 1B David Van Ostrand was the No. 8 prospect in California Collegiate League according to Baseball America.

 

The Bad News:

Once again Cal Poly barely missed making the NCAA field of 64. Three players were drafted off last year's team, including slugger Grant Desme (2nd round), weekend starter Thomas Eager (5th round) and ace reliever Evan Reed (3rd round). The bullpen is the biggest question mark. Expected Saturday starter Matt Leonard and 1B Adam Buschini were both lost for the season to injuries it was announced this week.

 

The Intangible:

Continually under-appreciated.

 

Once again the Mustangs finished higher than another Big West team that went to the NCAA tournament. This time it was Fullerton, who made it all the way to Omaha. Doesn't that prove that the NCAA selection committee continually underrates them? Maybe some kind of litigation will work here?

 

Schedule Note:

You'd think a team that has many near-misses in getting an at-large NCAA bid would schedule down a bit. But Coach Lee isn't ducking anyone, opening at Alabama and then playing San Diego, Fresno State and UCLA in pre-Big West play.

 

Cal State Fullerton (38-25, 10-11)

 

The Good News:

Well Fullerton is Fullerton, they never have a drop-off. Even in a "rebuilding" season like 2007, they made it to Omaha. With stars like RHP Jeff Kaplan (11-3, 3.30), RHP Adam Jorgenson (4-2, 4.29, 8svs) and OF Josh Fellhauer (.304), they'll still be formidable. A big boost came in the form of LMU transfer pitcher Brian Wilson (4-7, 5.71, 2svs) who looks to be the closer. Also, 1B Jared Clark returns from injury (was also a 21st round pick of Cleveland) and SS Joe Scott (.246) came back despite being a 39th round pick of the Braves. But the SS spot may go to Frosh phenom Christian Colon, a 10th round pick of the Padres who Coach Serrano has raved about.

 

The Bad News:

Really? This team hit just .277 last year? That's so un-Fullerton. But it's true. The Titans not only lost their longtime head coach (George Horton moved on to Oregon, for those of you living under a rock), but also two-year ace Wes Roemer and center field cannon Clark Hardman. C John Curtis did yeoman's work behind the dish for two years as well.

 

The Intangible:

No drop off.

 

You'd have thought the world got knocked off its axis after Horton hit the Oregon Trail. But never fear Tuffy fans, new coach Dave Serrano proved he could lead a program to the top level while at UC Irvine, so the rumors of a Titan demise have been greatly exaggerated.

 

Schedule Note:

Once again, I defy anyone to find a non-conference schedule that is as tough as Fullerton's. (Hmmmm, and they've also spent most of the 2000s in Omaha each June. Do the math there people.) Road trips to TCU, Stanford and Arizona are typical of the road-tough Titans.

 

Cal State Northridge (15-41, 3-18)

 

The Good News:

It's been a tough ride for coach Steve Rousey, but his Matadors are always on the verge of a breakout year. 3B Richard Cates (.302) and 1B Jowen-James Murray-Thorton (.296 and the most dashes in a name) will lead the offense. Righty Jimmy Jolicoeur (5-3, 4.65) is a serviceable Big West pitcher. He'll be backed by relievers Phillip Hann (0-2, 3.50) and Mark Haderlein (3-4, 5.06), both seniors. At SoCal Media Day, coach Rousey couldn't stop talking about OF C.J. Belanger (just .261 with six triples) as a team leader.

 

The Bad News:

As the Big West gets tougher, so does CSUN's plight. Just 13 home runs? I remember the '96 team hitting 13 in a single game at Matador Field! Must have improvement everywhere, the .265 batting average and the .945 fielding percentage were last in the Big West. The 5.82 team ERA was second to worst. There will be 17 freshmen on the roster, the most in the country.

 

The Intangible:

Stuck in a rut.

 

Since winning the Big West and going to the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed in 2002, Northridge has won 8, 5, 2, 6 and 3 games in conference play. The Mats have also won more than 20 games overall only once (26 in 2006). It's time to shake the rust and get back to the winning ways. Or as Coach Rousey stated, "elevate our expectations."

 

Schedule Note:

CSUN always plays an interesting non-conference schedule. This year the Matadors will play host to a weekend series with Big East favorite St. John's in early March. That is followed up by a trip to play in the Coca-Cola Classic at Southern Miss.

 

Long Beach State (39-20, 15-6)

 

The Good News:

This could be the best Beach team since the 2004 Jered Weaver-led outfit. SS Danny Espinosa (.319-7-38) is another in a long line of infield future pros and teams with 1B Shane Peterson (.327) to ignite the offense. The weekend rotation is set with All-Big West pick Andrew Liebel (9-3, 2.84), Vance Worley (1-2, 3.64, injury-shortened '07) and Manny McElroy (5-3, 4.25). Closer Bryan Shaw (6-2, 2.39, 11svs), is also an All-Big West pick. Battery mate Travis Howell (.283), a 43rd round pick by Cleveland, was the All-Big West catcher in 2007.

 

The Bad News:

Long Beach has to live with the memory of dropping games to UIC and UCLA at its own home Regional last June. Three of the top four hitters have moved on, as has 15 game starter Omar Arif. The Beach had a lot of injury issues in 2007, here's to better luck infirmary-wise in '08.

 

The Intangible:

Never a shortage of JC blood.

 

Long Beach relies on JC transfers more than just about any Top 25 program out there and 2008 won't be any different. In the fall games vs. San Diego, California JC player of the year Rylan Sandoval was a mad-man, hitting three home runs to spark the offense. Also, RHP Tyler Topp went 11-3 at Riverside CC and RHP Brian Belli struck out 127 batters at Canada JC last season.

 

Schedule Note:

Okay Fullerton, I hear ya', but maybe Long Beach plays a tougher schedule. Or at least just as tough (please don't get me in the middle of that argument). Rice, San Diego, Wichita State, Hawaii, USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, Cal, Fresno State... hell, even Ivy favorite Harvard is on there. The Dirtbags rule.

 

Pacific (16-43, 3-18)

 

The Good News:

Six starters return for Coach Ed Sprague's charges. Just about everybody returns, including nine of the top 10 hitters. C Joe Oliveira (.327), OF Matt Fuson (.311), DH Joey Centanni (.303) and OF Zach Chamberlain (.278-6-41) lead a capable offense. Two weekend starters are back in Soph Hunter Carnevale (2-5, 5.99) and LHP David Rowse (2-7, 7.08), who should post better numbers.

 

The Bad News:

Pacific is a small private school that just has trouble competing with all the big SoCal state schools. Do-it-all Justin Baum was a team leader, as was Curtis Pasma on the mound. Both have moved on to pro ball. The team ERA of 6.29 was the worst in the Big West. The batting average of .268 wasn't so hot either.

 

The Intangible:

Experience. Experience. Experience.

 

The Tigers return almost their entire team, including five seniors in the starting lineup and some valuable juniors on the pitching staff. All that experience has to account for something.

 

Schedule Note:

This is the home for the geographically challenged. Pacific plays against such isolationist teams as Minnesota, Washington, Gonzaga, BYU, Nevada and Oregon State. That's awfully nice of them.

 

UC Davis (24-32)

 

The Good News:

Finally, UC Davis will officially be Division I members and be able to compete in Big West play. Every significant arm from the staff that posted a 4.91 ERA returns, including starters Brian McAtee (4-4, 3.76), Jeff Reekers (6-5, 4.14), Bryan Evans (5-5, 5.28) and closer Eddie Gamboa (4-1, 3.25, 2svs). Seniors Matt Dempsey (.362) and Evan Hudson (.326) will pace the offense.

 

The Bad News:

The .959 fielding will have to improve and more patience at the plate must be exhibited as well (just 184 walks). The Ags were outscored in every inning after the 4th inning last year, so the bullpen must help put the clamps on better in 2008.

 

The Intangible:

NOW everything counts in large amounts.

 

Long gone are the days of UC Davis being a lame duck team with nothing to play for. The 2008 season is the Aggies first official season in Division I play and makes them eligible to go to the post-season. With a wealth of experience back, we'll see if they play with more purpose this season.

 

Schedule Note:

Baptism by fire. UCD opens with a tough four game stand at Fresno State. The Aggies do get league powers UC Irvine, Long Beach State and Cal Poly all at home this season.

 

UC Irvine (47-17, 15-6)

 

The Good News:

Wow. Just... wow! THIS team made it to Omaha? Oh hell yeah! And what a ride that was for the Anteaters. Talk about brass, these guys won at Texas and Wichita State in the post-season. Strong work. Leadoff man extraordinaire, Ollie Linton (.342, 15SBs), INF Ben Orloff (.324, led the nation with 34 sacrifice hits), INF Jeff Cusick (.319) and C Aaron Lowenstein (.296, 10SBs) lead a still-potent offense and form a solid defense. Junior hurler Scott Gorgen (13-3, 2.83, 6CGs) is an All-American candidate. Cory Hamilton (4-1, 2.25) and Eric Pettis (4-0, 4.53) are capable arms for Big West play.

 

The Bad News:

Players like Taylor Holiday, Matt Morris, Cody Cipriano and Bryan Peterson were generally Billy bad-asses when it came to post-season play last year. Plus, Wes Etheridge, Blair Erickson and Dylan Axelrod were huge arms when needed in 2007. All of those players are gone now.

 

The Intangible:

A great coach leaves. A great coach steps in.

 

There's no questioning coach Mike Gillespie's coaching ability. He's the dean of Southern California coaches. But with Dave Serrano gone, will this team have the same hard-scrabble moxie under Gillespie? I can't imagine UCI will skip a beat.

 

Schedule Note:

Lots of incredibly tough non-conference games dot this schedule. Love the trip to Tulane in early March and the tournament at Arizona State two weeks later. The Big West slate eases up considerably at the end with Northridge, Pacific, UC Davis and UCSB to end the season.

 

UC Riverside (38-21, 16-5)

 

The Good News:

The Big West champions have a lot of talent coming back to the inland empire school. It's a sophomore-fest of returnees, including OF Joey Gonzales (.356), 2B Bryan Horst (.294), DH Ryan Goetz (.292) and reliever Joe Kelly (3-1, 1.32, 6svs, an expected high draftee in 2009). Also, RHP Stephen Penney (5-2, 5.40), a 20th round pick of the Mariners, returns along with RHP Matt Montgomery (5-1, 2.96). So some decent arms return, but will have new roles.

 

The Bad News:

The Highlanders had a great regular season, but crapped out in the Tempe Regional in three games. Get this, 58 of the 59 starts on the mound have left, including staff ace James Simmons and Saturday starter Mark Rzepczynski. New pitching coach Nathan Choate will have his work cut out for him. Leading home run hitters Jaime Pedroza (13HRs) and Mike Vass (10HRs) both will be missed for their RBI power.

 

The Intangible:

Keeping the expectations up.

 

UCR might be relatively new to the successes of the Big West, but coach Doug Smith is keeping the Highlanders profile, well... high, by bringing in the 25th best recruiting class in the country according to Baseball America. Watch for RHP B.J. Salsbury (37th round pick, Rangers), RHP Eddie Orozco (31st round pick, White Sox) and C Brett Hambright (34th round pick of the Phillies) to make immediate impacts.

 

Schedule Note:

The non-conference slate is manageable, though still stout, especially the trek to Nebraska. The Big West schedule begins with at Fullerton, Long Beach and at UC Irvine. Talk about a tough start? Aye-yaye-yaye.

 

UC Santa Barbara (23-31, 9-12)

 

The Good News:

If they stay injury-free, this could be a really good team (that's a big IF). Three seniors are the top returning hitters, in OF Chris Fox (.328, 14SBs), INF Patrick Rose (.312) and OF Mike Zuanich (.295-5-38). Mike Ford (2-2, 5.05) and Chuck Huggins (6-2, 5.50, 33rd round pick of the D-Backs) combined for 21 starts and are a good lefty-righty combo. Also watch for RHP Michael Martin, a 6th year senior who hopes to revert to his Soph form of 2004 when he went 9-4, 5.15.

 

The Bad News:

The Gauchos can't quite get over the hump and back to the top tier of Big West play. Robbie Blauer was the top hitter and heart-and-soul of the team and has hit the bricks. So have Justin Segal and Brian Tracy, the only two pitchers with ERAs below 5.04.

 

The Intangible:

The injury bug bites.

 

Seems like the Gauchos always have the worst luck in the injury department. In 2006, two expected weekend starters were hurt in preseason and never touched the mound. Then last year, same goes for LHP Mario Hollands, a freshman who had big expectations. After being named the No. 5 prospect in the Alaska League, he's ready to rip it up for the Gauchos. He'll have his 90-plus fastball and devastating change-up awaiting.

 

Schedule Note:

Get the wins while you can Gauchos. UCSB plays expected lower tiered teams Northridge, Pacific and UC Davis in the first three weeks of Big West play. Things get much more serious after that.

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