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Dirtbags to face biggest challenge this season

When the Dirtbags lost to Xavier University on March 8 of last year, no one could have predicted it would be 378 days until their next game. Certainly no one expected that Long Beach State would be one of the last schools approved to return to play, nearly a month after most teams.

After abruptly ending last season with a promising 10-5 record, the Dirtbags now find itself as dead in the middle as a team can be. They hold an 8-8 Big West Conference record, good for fifth place out of the 11 teams in the conference.

With the halfway point of the season coming up, Long Beach State is finding itself at a pivotal point. These next two upcoming BWC series will be the team’s biggest test, and will shape how the rest of the season could go for the Dirtbags.

Long Beach will host second place UC Santa Barbara (13-4 BWC) for a four-game series starting April 23. Then the Dirtbags will travel to take on first place UC Irvine (14-3 BWC) for a series beginning April 30.

By facing the top two teams that are only separated by one game, the Dirtbags have an opportunity to cause some mayhem in the standings and prove they belong in the top. And as if they needed more pressure, both teams swept Long Beach the last time they played in 2019.

These next two weekends will show whether or not the pandemic rust is fully gone from the year layoff. Long Beach will rely on their elite pitching in hopes to silence their opponent’s bats.

Dirtbags’ opening day starter, Alfredo Ruiz was struggling in the beginning of the season. After his first three starts, he was 0-3 with a 4.73 ERA. During his last start against Cal Poly, Ruiz seemed to have found his groove. He pitched seven scoreless innings, only allowing two hits and three walks.

The performance looked reminiscent of his shortened 2020 season where he went 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA. Ruiz is a marker for the team: is the recent success a fluke, or a promise of the Dirtbags finding their hold?

Johnathan Lavallee has an answer to these questions. The junior pitcher has been a breakout star for the Dirtbags this year. After beginning the season in the bullpen, Lavallee has made two BWC starts, and has made the most of the opportunity.

In the 13 innings that made up his outings, Lavallee has allowed only one run on three hits and three walks while striking out 14. Lavallee is currently the ERA leader in the Big West conference at 1.14. He has impressed so much that he earned a permanent spot in the starting rotation.

With the addition of Lavallee and the turnaround of Ruiz, the Dirtbags could surprise teams with a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.

Long Beach’s offense has the most work to do if the team is to be considered a serious contender. The Dirtbags have been streaky this season, and they can’t afford to go on a cold streak against the top two teams in the conference.

Some games the offense looks intimidating, while other series the batters look lost at the plate, hoping to be rescued by the pitching staff. In half of their BWC games, the Dirtbags have been limited to three runs or less.

The team has been finding its power stroke as of late. It recently reached the 13 homerun mark which is the most since 2017, when the team bashed 30 home runs. In 2018 and 2019, Long Beach saw a power decline and only hit 20 homers in the two seasons combined.

The Dirtbags once again find itself in the middle, not lifeless like the 2018-19 seasons, but still needing more power behind the plate.

Senior Calvin Estrada and sophomore Chase Luttrell lead the team with three long balls each, a college career high for both players.

The Dirtbags offense will face a tough challenge trying to prove themselves a threat against Santa Barbara and Irvine. UCSB has two of the top five ERA leaders, and UCI has one. Santa Barbara also has the strikeout leader in Michael McGreevy.

At the end of the month, it will be clear where the Dirtbags stand. Challenges have a way of weeding out real opponents, and Long Beach will be stripped to its instinct as they fight to climb the standings.

We probably shouldn’t expect any series sweeps, but a stronger offense to back up their elite pitching may just be enough to steal a couple of wins and mark themselves a serious threat in the Big West.

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