Long Beach Regional Capsule

Long Beach Regional Capsule
Blair Field, Long Beach, Calif.

No. 1 Long Beach State (37-18)
16th appearance, at-large, Big West

No. 2 UCLA (30-26)
14th appearance, at-large, Pacific-10

No. 3 Pepperdine (35-20)
24th appearance, at-large, West Coast

No. 4 Illinois-Chicago (34-19)
Third appearance, automatic, won Horizon regular season and tournament

One of the most surprising stories of 2007, Long Beach State played its way to a No. 1 seed by weathering one of the nation’s most brutal schedules with a young team that features 21 freshmen and sophomores. The Dirtbags won early series against Texas and Arizona State and lost hard-fought series at Rice and Wichita State, and they compiled a 4-0 record in midweek games against UCLA and Pepperdine. LBSU coach Mike Weathers says this is the first true Dirtbag team he’s had in his six-year tenure as head coach, and they play above their talent by executing the little things and never wilting under pressure or deficits. Long Beach might lack star power, but sophomore shortstop Danny Espinosa (.318/.415/.523 with seven homers) is a legitimate star in the making. On paper, LBSU doesn’t have the firepower of UCLA or Pepperdine, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the Beach’s tenacity and resilience.

UCLA entered the year with big expectations but stumbled to an 8-14 start as freshman righthander Charles Brewer (a projected weekend starter) battled mononucleosis and sophomore third baseman Jermaine Curtis (a catalyst and a leader on the field) worked through academic ineligibility. But Curtis’ return in late March sparked the Bruins to a 20-5 surge, before they limped to a 2-7 finish over the final three weeks. In Brewer’s absence, sophomore lefty Tim Murphy eventually took over the Saturday starter role and showed flashes of brilliance (14 strikeouts against Arizona State), but struggled with consistency and finished 4-4, 5.94. Freshman lefthander Gavin Brooks (5-6, 5.06) also has big-time stuff and also showed flashes of his talent, including a complete-game three-hitter in the season finale against Oregon State. Senior righty Tyson Brummett (9-5, 3.60) is a rock atop the rotation, but UCLA’s chances might hinge upon which Murphy and Brooks show up, and if Brewer is ready to make a start if the Bruins get to a fourth game of the regional.

Pepperdine, a perennial power in the West Coast Conference, saw its string of eight consecutive WCC championship series appearances snapped this year when it dropped back-to-back series against San Diego and Gonzaga late in the year. One reason for that swoon was the absence of sophomore third baseman Chase d’Arnaud (.333/.371/.472), one of the Waves’ top power threats who missed time with a leg injury. He’s back now, and Pepperdine is fresh and rested after having nearly two weeks off. The lineup is filled with speed threats and gap hitters who are well tailored for spacious Blair Field, and the pitching staff is accomplished. Junior righthander Barry Enright (12-4, 1.73) and power-armed righty Brett Hunter (6-5, 3.94) lead a deep staff that should be able to withstand an extended regional. Swingman Adam Olbrychowski (5-2, 3.03) could get the start if Pepperdine goes to a fourth game, and he could help the Waves avoid losing in a regional championship game for the fourth consecutive year.

Illinois-Chicago has established itself as a heavyweight in the Horizon League, winning the regular-season title six years in a row. This year’s UIC edition tested itself early, playing three-game series at Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Washington State–and winning the set against the Vols. The team’s toughness isn’t in question, and neither is that of coach Mike Dee, who has come back from a November injury when his face was shattered in BP by a wayward bat. The Flames won’t be intimidated by the regional atmosphere or the big-name programs they’ll be competing against. UIC’s solid pitching staff is led by Horizon ERA champion Steve Crnkovich (4-3, 2.27) and fellow righty Zach Peterson (7-3, 3.59). Senior outfielder Larry Gempp Jr. (.397/.478/.598 with seven homers and 54 RBIs) is a true impact bat in the middle of the lineup.