The Long Beach State Dirtbags started the 2018 season with injuries and an undermanned pitching staff before ending the year fifth in the Big West. They begin 2019 with the same challenges, and a new roster, making the next few weeks a critical stretch.
“Currently we only have eight healthy pitchers, but we have 15 on the board, so we do have some setbacks,” ninth year head coach Troy Buckley said.
Redshirt senior ace John Sheaks is among those who have had a difficult recovery from injury. The Tommy John Surgery recipient was slated to return at the start of 2019, but is now expected to be out another three weeks before he sees action.
Underclassmen have also fallen victim to injuries. Nick Avila, a junior transfer with a career ERA under 3.4 has been suffering from an oblique injury since January. Redshirt sophomore pitcher Connor Riley missed all of last year after tearing his UCL. Recent setbacks related to nerve inflammation have pushed his return date to the final three weeks of the 2019 season.
“[Avila] could be [out] up to six weeks. It’s kind of going to depend on how he heals and gets the progression of some kind of rotational movement, because there’s a lot going on with that when you’re pitching and you’re hitting since baseball is an extremely rotational sport,” Buckley said.
The injuries mean underclassmen and junior college transfers will fill most of the space on Buckley’s lineup cards for at least the first several weeks of the season. The shortstop position, which fields more grounders than any other position, is expected to be played by freshman Kaden Hogan on opening day. Hogan, who is recovering from a concussion suffered in January, is one of four freshman or redshirt sophomores expected to start the Dirtbags opening series. Only two seniors, centerfielder Brooks Stotler and designated hitter Luke Rasmussen, are projected to join them.
Buckley said he feels “anxious,” but not nervous about the upcoming season. He is confident that he and his staff have recruited quality players to hold down the fort while the pitching staff returns to health.
He said he likes the “next guy up mentality” of younger players who will see innings because of the injuries. He has also been developing lineup strategies to implement as the team returns to full strength.
“Regardless of whether they’ve been great right now or been okay, they’re gonna pitch, and once we start to restock the shelves and get healthier hopefully that will continue to build competition so you can put guys in the best situation for them to be successful,” Buckley said.
That competitive motivation will have to be present from the first game of the season to overcome the challenges presented by the Dirtbags’ opponents. The team faces two of the top four conference teams on the road this year in Fullerton and UC Irvine. It also faces tough road tests in No. 3 Florida and No. 11 Ole Miss
“Our schedule has no margin for error in the sense that we’re playing really really good teams every time we play,” Buckley said.
The Dirtbags’ offense could be their saving grace. The team is healthier and the lineup is deeper than it was last season. That depth provides more balance in terms of lefty-righty matchups which could translate to knocking opposing pitchers out of the game earlier than it could last season.
“There have been signs this could be an interesting team on the offensive end,” Buckley said.
The addition of new bats in the starting lineup, however, means the Dirtbags’ infield looks entirely different than it did last year, with the exception of sophomore catcher Chris Jimenez. That could be a liability as turning double plays and sorting out positioning requires a level of chemistry between infielders.
It’s unclear how far Long Beach State baseball will go in 2019, but the pressure on the Dirtbags heading into the season is already as clear as a diamond.
The Dirtbags open the season 3:30 p.m. Friday at No. 3 Florida.