College baseball’s richest region is once again well-represented as five area teams will hit the Road to Omaha this weekend when college baseball’s postseason begins.
The Big West will send four teams to the NCAA tournament, the most since five represented the conference in 2008, with conference champion Cal Poly hosting its first-ever Regional Tournament. The Big West has been turned upside down as the usual suspects, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine, stumbled to the finish barely getting spots in the playoffs while the Mustangs easily cruised to their first Big West Championship and historic powerhouse Long Beach State returns to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Pepperdine rounds out the Southern California field, earning the automatic bid after winning the West Coast Conference championship.
No. 1 seed Cal Poly (45-10)
Regional location: San Luis Obispo (host)
The Mustangs have been on the college baseball radar since earning an at-large bid into the tournament in 2009 but the 2014 campaign was undoubtedly their breakout year. A 10-2 start to the season that included a sweep of Kansas State and a series win over defending College World Series champion UCLA opened the eyes of much of college baseball and they have yet to relinquish the spotlight. Larry Lee and his program finally have the recognition they deserve hosting their first regional.
However, every year there is a considerably difficult west coast regional that features 3-4 high RPIs. Cal Poly is the only team in California hosting, and by default will battle a tough draw. Nos. 2 and 3 seeds Pepperdine and Arizona State each boast RPIs in the 30s. No. 4 Sacramento State, the WAC champions, have quietly building a solid program for a while.
Shortstop Peter Van Gansen, a Brooks Wallace Award finalist, headlines a group that is one of the most defensively sound in the country. Infielder Mark Mathias leads the Big West with a .378 average and is a threat on the base paths with 11 stolen bases. Jimmy Allen’s bat has pop and big lefty Matt Imhof gets the bats swinging with 120 strikouts — the sixth-best number in Division I. Behind him is Casey Bloomquist and his 12-1 record.
No. 2 Seed Long Beach State (32-24)
Regional location: Gainesville, Fla.
The Dirtbags are back. The last time Long Beach State was in the NCAA tournament was in 2008 — a team still known as the best program to never make the College World Series. After a rebuilding phase, head coach Troy Buckley has the team back to playing the Dirtbag brand of baseball: Pitching, defense and and all-out, scrappy, dirty-uniform style of play.
The nickname the team earned years ago by beating bigger opponents has once again become part of the identity as Long Beach knocked off each of the Big West’s heavy hitters this season to finish second. They aren’t going to hit a lot of home runs — only six this season, to be exact — but they have the ability to break games open offensively and solidify the game defensively. The Dirtbags boast one of the best fielding percentages in the country (.977) and local Milikan product Josh Frye is 8-0 as the staff ace.
Freshman Garrett Hampson is reviving another Long Beach State tradition: All-star caliber shortstops. Hampson and outfielder Richard Prigitano, a newly-minted YouTube sensation after kicking a fly ball into his glove for an out a few weeks ago, will need to continue driving guys in if they want to get through one of the most difficult regional tournaments, first facing No. 3 seed North Carolina, another college powerhouse, and the NCAA tournament’s No. 5 seed Florida.
No. 3 seed UC Irvine (35-22)
Regional site: Corvallis, Ore.
The darlings of the college baseball postseason are back after a short hiatus. Although they stumbled to the finish, the Anteaters ultimately had a good enough RPI and enough early season wins to earn them one of the last four spots in the tournament. They’re an easy team to root for — senior Andrew Morales is a Senior Class Award finalist and as good a kid off the field as he is on and head coach Mike Gillespie won his 1,000th career game earlier this season.
The Anteaters struggled at times with the bat this season but their pitching has been able to protect slim leads. Morales 1.56 ERA is one of the top 30 in the country and behind him is sophomore Elliot Surrey, who was having a career year until a rough end to the regular season.
While No. 2 seed UNLV is dangerous, it’s not unfathomable to think that the Anteaters could make it to the championship round with an opportunity to move on to the Super Regional round. But first they will need to shake the slump that has marred the end of what was otherwise a strong season.
No. 3 seed Cal State Fullerton (32-22)
Regional site: Stillwater, Ok.
Cal State Fullerton avoided becoming the first Titans squad in over 20 years that failed to make the postseason — but barely. The Titans finished fourth in the Big West and with an RPI of 54, some would argue that UC Santa Barbara’s 50 RPI should have gotten the Gauchos into the field but it would almost be a shame to not let the best pitching staff in Division I (nation-leading ERA 2.03) have a shot at the postseason.
This was a difficult year for the embattled Titans. They began the season ranked No. 1 in the country and stumbled out of the gate. On April 17, head coach Rick Vanderhook was suspended after a recording surfaced of a profanity-laced tirade following a loss. Vanderhook was investigated and ultimately cleared of all wrong doing but the program standard is Omaha or bust, and it might be a tall order for this year’s squad.
No. 3 seed Pepperdine (39-16)
Regional site: San Luis Obispo
The Waves’ pitching has been solid this season behind Corey Miller (1.70 ERA, 8-4) and Aaron Brown (2.24 ERA, 11-1) and closer Eric Karch hasn’t given much up this season either with 13 saves. Their lineup is just as strong, with Brown’s 12 home runs and Hutton Moyer wreaking havoc on the base paths with 15 stolen bases in 18 attempts. It’s a very complete team for Pepperdine player and current head coach Steve Rodriguez, a member of the 1992 national championship team, has yet to repeat the success he’s had as a player but this team might be one of his most complete in recent years.
However, the Waves will have to contend with arguably the strongest regional as they will face a Cal Poly team trying to prove they belong, as well as historic powerhouse Arizona State.