Despite being one of the hottest teams down the stretch last year, the Long Beach State Dirtbags missed out on an at-large bid to make the playoffs.
Even after starting later than almost every other college team in the nation, finishing on a six-game win streak that ended their season at 26-14 in third place in The Big West, the Dirtbags would find themselves not participating in the NCAA regionals.
“It sucked for sure,” closer Devereaux Harrison said. “We thought that we had a good shot to make it but I mean, that’s baseball. It definitely gave us some fire for this year.”
Eric Valenzuela will be leading the Dirtbags as head coach for a third year. Valenzuela has been the coach since 2019 when the team had an abysmal year in which they finished 14-41.
Since Valenzuela has arrived at The Beach, he has yet to have a “normal season” due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19. His first full season was cut short in March 2020 and in 2021, LBSU would play their first game on March 19, almost a month later than the rest of The Big West.
Despite the adversity, Valenzuela has led his team to an impressive 38-20 record. Coach Valenzuela has already left an impact on Dirtbags baseball, and the administration hopes he will continue to do so for years to come as they signed him to an extension over the summer that will keep him at LBSU until 2026.
“Coach Valenzuela continues to elevate the Dirtbags baseball program to new levels,” Executive Director of Athletics Andy Fee said. “While the past two seasons have been challenging due to COVID-19, he has rebuilt the very core of our program with significant recruiting and on the field successes. In addition to the on-field performance, Eric has continued to develop a culture of growth and winning, doing so in a positive mindset.”
Valenzuela is honored that the administration wants to keep him around longer, and is excited to play in his first full season as head coach for the Dirtbags.
“I want to see the continuation of the development within our program,” Valenzuela said. “From a coach’s side of things, you want to see growth, you want to see the program continue to rise and get better, and you want to see the culture continue to improve.”
This year, Long Beach has a tough non-conference schedule as they will open the season up against the reigning College World Series Champions, Mississippi State this weekend, Feb. 18-20.
The Dirtbags will host Sacramento State from Feb 25-27 for its home opener. Long Beach will also play UCLA, North Dakota, Pepperdine, Nebraska, and Connecticut before Big West play starts on March 15.
Coach Valenzuela believes The Dirtbags boasts one of the best non-conference schedules in the country and doesn’t think his team will crack under the pressure.
“That’s who you want to play, you want to play the best in their house,” Valenzuela said. “We preach in our program that the opponents are nameless and faceless. We’re just going to do our thing and go out there regardless of where it is or who it is.”
The offense will have a mix of returning players such as Chase Luttrell, Brennan Rozell, and Chris Jimenez, as well as an exciting class of incoming freshmen like Eddie Saldivar and Tyler White.
The offense is a big reason the Dirtbags have been ranked No. 24 in the country by both D1baseball.com and PerfectGame.org and picked to win the Big West Conference.
“I think our ranking is not something we focus on,” Lutrell said. “As a team, we’ve been there before. I think that’s kind of how we look at it, you just play your game and rankings are ranking.”
Luttrell has been a staple of the Ditrtbag’s offense ever since his freshman year in 2019. Over three seasons, the first baseman/outfielder has hit .291/.333/.429. Last summer Luttrell played in the Cape Cod League for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
“It was an amazing experience playing with the top talent in the world; I loved it but it was a challenge,” Luttrell said. “I learned a lot about myself as a player and a lot about the game. It kind of helps to learn from those struggles and failures.”
According to Baseball America, LBSU has one of the most notable under-the-radar recruiting classes. Headlining the freshman class is Eddie Saldivar, who is ranked No. 180 of college freshman prospects.
Coming out of San Joaquin Memorial High School, Saldivar is already on many MLB team’s watchlists. Many scouts believed Saldivar could have been drafted in the early rounds out of high school had he entered. However, he believed coming to Long Beach was the best route for his development.
“There was definitely a thought of entering the draft and going pro, but at the end of the day, this is the best decision that I’ve ever made,” Saldivar said. “My relationship has been great with [Valenzuela]. He’s the best coach in the country, and he’s gonna take me where I want to be.”
Saldivar is slated to be the Dirtbag’s opening day leadoff hitter and second baseman. Valenzuela trusts Saldivar is ready to handle the pressure.
Leading the backend of the bullpen is the dominant close in Harrison. Harrison had a stellar 2021 season, leading the Big West Conference with 10 saves in 34.1 innings and holding hitters to a .175 batting average. Harrison’s performance earned him a number of accolades, including Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year.
“Last year, I was trusting every pitch, trusting the defense behind me and being committed to everything,” Harrison said. “A lot of it has to do with Coach V and what he does with pitch calling and how he prepares us for every hitter and game.”
Harrison competed with USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last year. Former Dirtbag and MLB player Troy Tulowitzki was the assistant coach on the team.
“It was a cool moment. I got to play with the best guys in the country,” Harrison said. “We got to play the Olympic team before they went to Japan. It was fun. It was a good environment and a lot of fans.”
Harrison’s personal goal for the year is to outperform his outstanding 2021.
“Every guy’s just trying to get better and better than the year before, and so far I’ve been better than the year before,” Harrison said. “So that’s all I’m trying to do is just be better than the year before and I do whatever I can to help the team.
The Dirtbags seek to be as successful as the other teams at Long Beach State. Both men’s and women’s basketball are fighting for first place in the conference, men’s volleyball is ranked No. 1 in the nation, and softball is coming off a Big West Championship.
“The pressure is on us now,” Valenzuela said.