It is difficult not to dwell on the historic season the Dirtbags had in 2017, in which they fell just one game short of a trip to Omaha, even just days away from the start of a new campaign. The season where eight players were drafted into the MLB, seven signed and play professionally today. A year Long Beach was 5-1 against Cal State Fullerton in the regular season, bringing a Big West Conference championship back to Blair Field for the first time since 2008.
All of which may still be in the back of Dirtbag Nation minds.
“I hope they would say looking back is a really good memory, but of course it hurts,” head coach Troy Buckley said. “To get to that point means you had a quality season. I’ll never forget that year, but at the same time you have to move on to focus on a completely new team.”
Only three position players who played more than 50 games last season return, joined by three pitchers who appeared in more than 20 games.
A lot of fresh faces with limited experience will be tasked with replacing the players who carried the program back into the national spotlight. Luckily, they will be assisted by a core of returners that understand what it means to be a Dirtbag.
Returning position players:
When all was said and done after the last day of the MLB draft in June, the era of Darren McCaughan, David Banuelos, Ramsey Romano and more had come to an end. Senior shortstop Laine Huffman had his name called in the 25th round after being selected by the New York Mets. Then a junior, he made the decision to pass on the Mets’ signing bonus offer and return to Long Beach for one more season as a Dirtbag.
“It was a dream come true to be drafted,” Huffman said. “But being 90 feet away from going to Omaha played a role in wanting to come back here. A big part of me was still here, and I wanted another shot to make it right.”
Huffman found himself on the wrong end of the starting shortstop job come opening day 2017. The transfer out of Fullerton College did not become a starter until March 18 after Markus Montelongo unexpectedly left the team. The following weekend, in the non-conference series against Cal State Fullerton, he went 5-for-10 with three runs scored and was a major influence in the sweep over the Titans.
He returns as a captain and has already made an impact on the next era of players.
“I think we set a standard last year that we want everyone to live up to so it’s been all about taking [the new players] under our wings and showing them how we do things so we can pick up where we left off last season,” Huffman said.
Junior second baseman Jarren Duran will join Huffman up the middle, as well as a veteran voice to be heard in the locker room. After starting a combined 113 games in his first two seasons, he enters as the squads most tested, and most talented players.
“I’m just excited to see what this whole new team is able to accomplish this season,” Duran said. “We’ve seen what it takes to get to the playoffs and that’s what is going to help us develop the new guys so that we can get back to where we want to be.”
Duran has a career .290 batting average along with a .370 on-base percentage and has scored 81 runs in his career at Long Beach. The only question is where the coaching staff can best utilize his daily offensive production. Buckley said that Duran will be penciled in as either a leadoff hitter, or even in the third spot of the lineup.
“He needs to get on base and he needs to get at bats,” Buckley said. “You want your best hitters to be up there as many times as possible.”
As for the rotation, not one of the three probable weekend starters made a start for the team last year. Sophomore left hander Zak Baayoun served as a specialist out of the bullpen in 2017, striking out 28 batters in just 22 ⅓ innings, but will be the man on the mound in the Dirtbags season opener Friday night.
“The whole process [of transitioning from reliever to starter] has been pretty mapped out for me; I set a lot individual little goals that have gotten me to where I am now,” Baayoun said. “It took a lot of mental and physical changes. Especially in my mechanics for longevity so that I can stay healthy for 90, 100 or how ever many innings I need to throw this year.”
Baayoun was thrust into the Friday night job after returning senior starting pitcher, John Sheaks, suffered a complete tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow just one week ahead of opening night.
“The news is terrible about John [Sheaks] but someone has to step up in that spot,” Baayoun said. “I always told myself that I wanted to become the Friday night starter, and I’ve known that I have the ability to do something great here, but now that it’s all happening it’s just very surreal.”
The Dirtbags will also be able to turn to a reliable option out of the bullpen in junior closer Chris Rivera. He’s recorded 13 saves in each of his first two seasons and has been as accountable as anyone currently with the program.
“It’s my third year doing it now, and I think I have good idea of where I’m at and the things I need to do in order to perform and produce,” Rivera said.
Duran and Rivera are two of Long Beach’s top MLB prospects as they both enter draft seasons.
“It’s going to happen when it’s going to happen,” Rivera said. “We just had a team meeting about our mission statement, and the message was ‘you can’t achieve the big things without taking care of the little things’ so the focus is really on opening day.’”
New impact players:
The biggest challenge for the incoming players will be replacing the production lost to the MLB. Draftees were responsible for nearly half of the runs, hits and RBIs recorded by the offense while 44-percent of innings were thrown by MLB-drafted players such as McCaughan, Dave Smith and Josh Advocate .
Clayton Andrews transfers in as a junior and will be the starting center fielder; except for when he starts Sunday games. A true two-way player, his contribution on both sides of the ball will be a great advantage to the team.
“I’ve done both [pitch and play the field] my whole life so to have the opportunity to continue that here is a dream come true,” Andrews said.
The left-handed arm and bat arrives from Cabrillo college where he hit .399 and scored 39 runs in 44 games. While pitching in relief, he struck out 69 batters over 39 ⅔ innings and nailed down nine saves.
Long Beach is also down a starting catcher in junior transfer Cole Joy, who broke his thumb in practice Feb. 10, completely dismantling Buckley’s prospective Friday night battery. This brings true freshman Chris Jimenez into an everyday role behind the plate until Joy can return. He’ll be set to the same task as his predecessor David Banuelos, who turned in a career year in 2017 before being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the fifth round.
“It’s a huge jump from high school and club ball, the pitchers have more movement and catching is more detailed but I’ve been able to slow everything down and got the swing of things going,” Jimenez said.
Standing only 5 foot 7, he’s not physically comparable to Banuelos but has all the tools needed to develop into a similar player.
“He’s a little grinder,” volunteer assistant coach Zach Miller said. “He’s done a really good job being here and going about his business and we’ve put him in a pretty good spot to be the guy back there.”
The Dirtbags made headlines months ago when they released their schedule which was full of top-ranked teams to round out a tough non-conference schedule. The team will travel to Texas twice for series against Texas Christian University and Texas A&M, ranked 7th and 10th, respectively, by Baseball America’s preseason poll. They also host Ole Miss March 2-4 and Vanderbilt March 7, both of which have developed into powerhouse programs recently.
As of late, Big West Conference baseball has been trending upwards. Northridge and Cal Poly have been on the rise and, along with Fullerton, will look to make repeating as champions as difficult as possible for Long Beach.
“It’s been going on for some time now,” Buckley said. “In 2014 we had four teams in the playoffs and there has been a Big West team in the College World series four years in a row now. The baseball community is starting to understand the quality here.”
The Dirtbags may seem short-handed in talent and experience in 2018, but the goals remain constant for a team who refuses to accept the term “rebuilding.”
“Our ultimate goal is to win a national championship but there are a lot of steps we need to take to get there,” Huffman said. “We need to take care of our non-conference schedule, win the Big West again then on to another regional and super regional Our goal is always to win the national championship regardless of how talented the team is.”
Both the foundation of returners and the fresh crop of new players will have to reach a common ground to attain these goals. Baseball returns to the Bohl Diamond at Blair Field starting Friday, Feb. 16 against St. Mary’s.