Baseball, Sports

Dirtbags look to leave UCI Black and Blue

Just past the midway point of the season, the Dirtbags are 14-14. For one of Long Beach State’s most prestigious programs, a .500 record at this juncture may usually be looked at with some displeasure, but this young team has come a long way.

With 11 players gone via the Major League Baseball Draft from last year’s Big West Conference championship squad, the Dirtbags stumbled early but have rebounded in a big way the last two weeks. After starting 7-12, they came to life with a seven-game win streak. A pair of 4-3 losses in their last two games (UC Riverside on Sunday and San Diego State on Tuesday) have stalled the momentum momentarily, but LBSU is playing the game the right way.

The starting pitching has been much improved, as has the defense. The team speed is the best in recent memory, translating to better coverage in the outfield and a bigger focus on the running game.

TJ Mittelstaedt is tied for the team lead in home runs (four) and leads the Dirtbags with 28 RBIs. Devin Lohman leads the team with 35 hits and is third with a .343 average. Jonathan Jones has a team-high 27 runs scored and Jordan Casas has 13 steals in 15 tries.

In UC Irvine, the Dirtbags face a formidable foe. The Anteaters are 19-9 overall and lead the Big West with a 5-1 mark in conference play.

UCI is ranked fifth in the nation by Baseball America after winning two of three against then No. 1-ranked, and fellow Big West rival, Cal State Fullerton last weekend. The Anteaters lost to UCLA on Tuesday, 8-3, in Los Angeles.

Ben Orloff is hitting .360 and has scored 30 runs for the Anteaters. UCI catcher Francis Larson leads the team with 21 RBIs while Brock Bardeen has a team-high six home runs.

Match-up to watch: While the Dirtbags are out-stealing their opponents, 71-22, and entered the week sixth in the nation in stolen bases, Larson has thrown out 15 of 28 potential base stealers. LBSU likes to get runners in motion to pressure the pitcher and utilize its bunting game to manufacture runs. Larson could neutralize that threat.

Pitching Probables

Tonight – 6 p.m.

LBSU – LHP Adam Wilk (4-1, 3.30 ERA)

UCI – LHP Daniel Bibona (5-1, 2.30 ERA)

Wilk has been tremendous for the Dirtbags so far, having not lost in more than a month. In Bibona, he goes against the reigning Big West pitcher of the week who brings a 14-inning scoreless innings streak into the game and is the league’s leader in ERA and strikeouts (52).

Tomorrow – 6 p.m.

LBSU – RHP Jake Thompson (2-4, 4.63 ERA)

UCI – RHP Christian Bergman (4-1, 2.64 ERA)

Thompson has been nearly unhittable in his last two starts, having not surrendered an earned run in his last two outings (both wins). Bergman was a preseason second team All-American after being a first team All-Big West selection a year ago and has done nothing but bolster his case for further recognition, so far.

Saturday – 1 p.m.

LBSU – RHP Andrew Gagnon (2-3, 4.89 ERA)

UCI – RHP Crosby Slaught (2-0, 3.67 ERA)

Gagnon has been effective in the early going, eating up some innings on Sundays and keeping LBSU in the game. Opponents are hitting .321 against the 6-foot-5 righty despite the respectable ERA. The freshman earned a no-decision in the series finale with Fullerton after departing in the fifth with a 4-1 lead.

Both teams feature excellent closers. Charlie Ruiz’s devastating spilt-finger pitch has been just as hard on LBSU catchers as it has been on opponents this season, but he has six saves and has struck out 24 batters in just 14 2/3 innings.

For UCI, the stopper is Eric Pettis, who already has eight saves this season. He took his first loss of the season in the finale against Fullerton.

UCI is 7-3 at Anteater Ballpark — having won six of their last seven — while LBSU is 6-6 on the road this season.

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