Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part preview, which is broken down by position players and pitchers.
It’s the first year under head coach Mike Weathers’ tenure that Long Beach State hasn’t had at least two starters coming back. Sophomore Jake Thompson is the only returner and the Dirtbags have to replace Tri-Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year Andrew Liebel.
Thompson, who skipped his senior year of high school, has really grown and matured. Thompson talked about making the jump, saying you have to “always be ready to step-in and take a role.”
“That’s the one thing about college. You have to learn to step up, not be a little boy anymore and become a man real quick,” he said. “If the team calls for you to help them out, you got to be there and give it your all.”
Thompson is the most proven starter, but the sophomore usually goes from Sunday to Saturday starts in Weathers’ system.
“He’s had the most success,” Weathers said. “I don’t know if he needs to be our Friday guy. On paper, I think everybody thinks he is but we have some potential candidates that have been around that we need to find out about.”
Those other potential candidates include senior Manny McElroy, who is healthy after making only one appearance in 2008 and missing almost two months during the 2007 campaign.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander is an imposing figure on the mound. Also in the mix, as far as returners go, are Tyler Topp and Adam Wilk.
Topp, a senior, got five starts last year while the junior Wilk, a lefty, has been in the bullpen. According to Weathers, Wilk has a chance to be a weekend starter, despite never having gone more than 3 2/3 innings as a Dirtbag.
The New Guys
A pair of new pitchers are in the mix to start this season for the Dirtbags as well. Sophomore left-hander Jeff Lease had some injury issues in the fall and is behind schedule but has “starter stuff,” Weathers said.
Highly touted freshman recruit Andrew Gagnon could makes waves also early on for LBSU. Weathers said he threw very well in the fall and could be the young “Sunday starter” of the past like Thompson, Jered Weaver, Abe Alvarez and Cesar Ramos were.
“All those guys got to start as freshmen on Sundays. It’s part of our plan and Drew has the chance to be that guy,” Weathers said.
There are three potential candidates at the back-end of the bullpen that could replace Bryan Shaw as the closer.
The trio is Dustin Rasco, Charlie Ruiz and David Brown, who Weathers said was “greatly improved and has enough stuff to be a closer or late-inning game set-up guy.”
This year’s closer role could be filled by committee, so look for all three to see time at the back end of games as the Dirtbags look for the right mix to slam the door.
As far as left-handers go, LBSU has two solid returners to fill the void left by Wilk’s departure to the rotation. Both have shown much improvement and they are senior David Born and junior Jason Markovitz, who “took his game to another level over the summer,” Weathers said.
The Big West
After finishing atop the Big West standings last year LBSU was picked fourth in the preseason conference poll.
Cal State Fullerton was first, followed by UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. After LBSU was Cal Poly, UC Riverside, UC Davis, Cal State Northridge and then Pacific.
“There is a lot of rebuilding in conference,” Weathers said “but it’s a good one. That’s why the Big West was the fiftth-rated conference last year.
“I’m proud of our conference, but it’s really hard to win.”
LBSU will host Riverside, Davis, Northridge and Poly while traveling to Irivne, Pacific, Santa Barbara and finishing the season at Fullerton.
Best of the Rest
The Dirtbags face three other Pac-10 teams (aside from the opening series with Southern California) with four games against California (three of which are at Blair), a three game home set against Washington State and two at UCLA.
The Dirtbags also travel to South Carolina, who will play this season in a brand new $25 million-plus facility. Weathers coached with their coach in the Olympics (2003).
They also play Wichita State again, a perennial national power. Weathers said they have played the Shockers now for 10 years, alternating between home and away.
Also on the schedule is former Big West foe UNLV, which LBSU will establish a home-and-away series format from year-to-year as well, starting this season with a three-game set at Blair FIeld.
After going 1-9 on a 10-game Spring Break road trip in 2008, Weathers smiled and said, “yeah, we got smart,” when asked about the lack of such a trip this season.