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Off The Bat: LBSU, State Farm Showdown Highlight Opening Weekend

Long Beach State Crashes The Party At Mississippi State

Opening Weekend produced several major upsets around the country. Oklahoma State won a tight series at Vanderbilt. Liberty took a series at Florida. Bryant swept East Carolina in Greenville. Sam Houston State took down Nebraska and Southeast Missouri State knocked off Dallas Baptist.

Those series all shook things up in the Top 25, giving it a new look after just one weekend. But the upset that made the biggest wave on Opening Weekend was Long Beach State beating Mississippi State, the reigning national champion, on the first two days of the season at Dudy Noble Field.

The Dirtbags were expected to be a strong team this spring—Big West coaches picked them to win the conference and scouts who watched them leading up to the season came away raving—and they had won a series against the Bulldogs in Long Beach two years ago. But Mississippi State was coming off the first national championship in program history and ranked No. 3 in the Preseason Top 25. It has an incredible home-field advantage in Starkville, Miss., and All-American Landon Sims at the front of its rotation. A series against Long Beach State would be a challenge, but one that Mississippi State was expected to pass.

Long Beach State had other plans, however. Righthander Luis Ramirez went toe-to-toe with Sims on Opening Day and came away the winner, leading the Dirtbags to a 3-0 victory. They romped to a 13-3 victory Saturday to clinch the series before the Bulldogs won Sunday’s finale, 12-4. Long Beach State became the first team to win a non-conference series at Dudy Noble Field since San Diego in 2015.

“I’m proud of my team, proud of what we were able to do on the road in that environment,” coach Eric Valenzuela said. “I’m really excited with how we went about our business, how we played.

“They made us better. A lot comes out this weekend—not only the wins—but what we learned about the team.”

Long Beach State’s pitching stands out the most from the weekend. Ramirez and relievers Matt Fields and Devereaux Harrison combined for a one-hitter on Opening Day, silencing what is expected to be a potent Mississippi State offense. The Dirtbags kept it going in game 2, as Jack Noble and Ethan Clough combined for 6.1 scoreless innings in relief of Marques Johnson.

The Bulldogs offense exploded for 12 runs on 16 hits in the finale, but Long Beach State can feel very good about its pitching this weekend.

“Our guys were good,” Valenzuela said. “They were confident throwing any pitch in any count. We kept them off balance a lot the first two days. You have to almost pitch perfect to keep that lineup at bay.”

That Ramirez delivered for the Dirtbags is not a surprise. He beat Mississippi State in the rubber game of the 2020 series and is coming off a strong summer in the Cape Cod League. Similarly, Fields and Harrison were their top relievers in 2021 and Harrison spent the summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.

Long Beach State also showed strong depth on the mound over the course of the weekend, depth that will serve it well over the course of the season. Noble mostly served as a starter in 2021 when the Big West had four-game weekend series. If the Dirtbags can afford to keep him in relief, it will make for a formidable bullpen.

It wasn’t just the Dirtbags pitching that stood out, however. They pounded out 29 hits on the weekend, including seven doubles and four home runs, against the powerful Mississippi State pitching staff. Just about every pitcher the Bulldogs used this weekend can run his fastball into the mid 90s, but the Dirtbags weren’t overpowered.

“That was as much power as we’ll see all season long,” Valenzuela said. “We did strike out a lot, but that’s what’s going to happen against that type of staff. If you can get some good innings, some good at bats, put on some pressure, force them into long counts and get some big hits, then you can do something with it.”

That’s just what Long Beach State did. Freshman second baseman Eddie Saldivar had an outstanding debut, going 5-for-11 on the weekend, including three hits against Sims. First baseman Jonathan Long went 6-for-11 on the weekend and homered twice in Saturday’s win. Freshman DH Kaden Moeller homered off Sims on Friday, something only Niko Kavadas and Mike Antico did all of last season.

Long Beach State was also able to use the two blowouts in the series to get a lot of players into the game. Twenty players got at least one at-bat for the Dirtbags, experience that will help them down the line and allowed Valenzuela an early look at his options offensively.

Valenzuela said associate head coach Bryan Peters, who serves as Long Beach State’s hitting coach, had the Dirtbags well prepared for the challenge in Starkville.

“Their confidence and mindset against the best pitcher in college baseball in their yard, hitting the ball over the fence and in the gaps, putting on pressure running wise, I was happy with offense,” Valenzuela said.

Now, having taken down the national champions on the road, the challenge will change for the Dirtbags. They are no longer college baseball’s best kept secret. They rose to No. 6 in this week’s Top 25, their highest ranking since 2008.

The Dirtbags now have to maintain this level of play all season long. They’ve had a regional-caliber team the last two years, but circumstances of the pandemic have kept them out of the NCAA Tournament. This spring has a chance to be a special one for Long Beach State, as this weekend demonstrated.

“This team knows that we’re good,” Valenzuela said. “To do it on this stage, that says a lot. But it’s a long season and there are going to be a lot of ups and downs.”

State Farm Showdown Highlights

The weekend’s biggest tournament brought a strong field to Globe Life Field, the Rangers’ home ballpark. Arizona, Auburn and Michigan joined Big 12 teams Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech in the event.

While the tournament had some premium competition, it stood out most for the chance each team had to prove something and answer some of the questions surrounding it going into the season. So, here’s a rundown of some of this weekend’s lessons.

1. Arizona’s lineup reloaded. The Wildcats last season had perhaps the best offense in the nation as their incredibly deep lineup averaged 8.5 runs per game. That lineup now looks much different, however. Arizona lost its top five hitters from last year’s team and coach Jay Johnson, who was hired away by Louisiana State.

On Opening Weekend, however, Arizona—now under the direction of Chip Hale—served notice that it is still one of the best lineups in the country. The Wildcats scored 35 runs in three games against Big 12 opposition and finished the weekend as the lone undefeated team in the tournament.

Outfielders Tanner O’Tremba and Chase Davis were the stars of the show, as O’Tremba went 7-for-14 with two doubles, a triple, two home runs and seven runs and Davis went 6-for-13 with a double, a home run and three runs. But the Wildcats run much deeper than that duo. They have threats throughout the lineup and showed they again run as deep as any team in the country. As a team, Arizona hit .342/.422/.607 with 13 doubles, three triples and four home runs.

“From what I saw from Day 1 in batting practice off the real hard throwing machines with nasty breaking balls, I saw guys that had the ability to make adjustments,” Hale said. “Now, we’re going to run up against a guy that’s just going to deal against us and we’re going to have to win by one, 1-0, 2-1, and play good defense and get great pitching. But I do expect us to be able to score some runs.”

2. Auburn’s pitching staff is ready to take a step forward. The Tigers last year finished 13th in the SEC in team ERA with a mark of 5.24. Their difficult season on the mound was a big part of the reason they finished 25-27 and missed the NCAA Tournament.

In Opening Weekend is any indication, however, Auburn has worked out some of its trouble on the mound. The Tigers went 2-1 against a trio of Big 12 teams and held their opponents to five runs (four earned) on the weekend. They were able to get a look at most of their staff, as 13 pitchers logged an appearance in Arlington. Starters Joseph Gonzalez and Trace Bright were both impressive in winning efforts Saturday and Sunday.

“We didn’t make a secret—we had to revamp and redo our pitching staff,” coach Butch Thompson said. “That was everything we wanted. We thought every guy was competitive.”

Auburn’s offense, somewhat surprisingly, was a bit slower out of the gate. The Tigers were shutout by Oklahoma on Opening Day and then scored just two runs in a 2-1 victory against Texas Tech on Saturday before breaking out for 12 runs Sunday against Kansas State. Getting the lineup rolling will be a key now as the Tigers return home for 18 straight games.

“A loss, a one-run game and then really scoring a lot of runs and a pretty dominant win is, all in all, a pretty good weekend for us,” Thompson said. “To be on the road, to be in a neutral site, we’ve got to take it and we’ve got to move forward and try to get better.”

3. Oklahoma is finding its stride. The Sooners leave Arlington 2-1 with wins against Auburn and Michigan sandwiching a loss against Arizona. It was a weekend that should give them confidence moving forward as they look to rebound from a 27-28 finish last season.

“I think they know they can play with anybody,” coach Skip Johnson said. “That’s the biggest thing. Just go out and play baseball and do the fundamental things.”

The best news for Oklahoma was its pitching. The Sooners threw a three-hit shutout against Auburn on Opening Day and then held Michigan to one run on four hits Sunday. In between, Arizona did score 14 runs, but the Wildcats are going to make many pitching staffs look bad this season.

Oklahoma still has improvements to make. It could use a bit more depth on the mound and, while its offense did enough to beat Auburn and Michigan, the Sooners had a total of nine hits in those games. Preseason All-American Peyton Graham hit a late, go-ahead home run against Auburn, but also went 3-for-14 with seven strikeouts on the weekend.

If Oklahoma keeps pitching the way it did this weekend and its hitters settle in, the Sooners have exciting potential.

4. Clark Elliott is ready for the spotlight. Elliott is coming off a breakout summer in the Cape Cod League, where he won the batting title. That greatly raised his profile coming into 2022, his third season at Michigan, and made him one of the preseason favorites for the Big Ten player of the year.

On Opening Weekend, Elliott looked to be up to the challenge. He went 6-for-13 with a double, two home runs and three runs in the tournament, homering in each of the first two games. Even in a field with a trio of first-team Preseason All-Americans (Arizona’s Daniel Susac, Oklahoma’s Peyton Graham and Texas Tech’s Jace Jung), Elliott stood out for his performance.

Tracy Smith (Andrew Woolley Four Seam Images)

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Michigan tabbed Tracy Smith as its next baseball coach.

Eight for Omaha

Mississippi, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Texas, Vanderbilt, Virginia

A wild Opening Weekend made this a very difficult exercise. What does Long Beach State’s upset series win at Mississippi State say about both teams? What about Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt? Can Arizona keep up its sizzling start? While this weekend answered some questions around the country, it posed even more.

I don’t feel confident in this field at all. It is still February, after all. Notably absent from this projection is either Mississippi State or Long Beach State—I simply want more information about both teams. I am including both Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt, however. I was encouraged by where both teams are on the mound at the start of the season and feel good about both teams growing from this weekend. And count me as a believer in Oregon State, which looks to be very deep both at the plate and on the mound.

Weekend Standouts

California: The Golden Bears swept through the field at the MLB4 Tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., beating Houston, Texas Christian and San Diego State. Cal needed late comebacks to win the first two games, going to extra innings against Houston before walking off TCU. Sunday’s win against San Diego State was more straight forward and the result was Cal’s first Opening Weekend sweep since 2013.

Trey Dombroski, LHP, Monmouth: Dombroski on Friday threw six hitless innings against Penn State to lead Monmouth to a 10-1 Opening Day victory. He struck out seven batters, walked none and faced the minimum as a hit batter was erased by a double play. Monmouth, which was voted the preseason favorite by the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference  coaches, went 3-1 in the tournament in Cary, N.C., also picking up wins against Long Island and Northeastern.

Colin Hunter, RHP, Sacramento State: Hunter on Saturday threw a seven-inning no-hitter in Sac State’s 8-0 victory against Northern Illinois in the first game of a doubleheader. Hunter, a freshman, was making his first college start and struck out nine batters and walked none. The only blemishes on his line came from a pair of errors, as he faced two batters over the minimum. Hunter’s no-hitter is just the second in the program’s Division I history.

Southeast Missouri State: With a pair of extra-innings wins to open the season, SEMO picked up an upset series win at Dallas Baptist. The Redhawks won, 7-6, in 12 innings on Friday night and then came back for a 6-5 victory in 10 innings Saturday. DBU won the series finale, but grabbing a series win against a super regional team from a year ago is still a strong start to the season for SEMO.

Tommy White, 1B, North Carolina State: Part of NC State’s highly touted recruiting class, White got his college career off to a stellar start. He homered three times on Opening Day in a 24-6 victory against Evansville and finished the weekend 9-for-14 with five home runs, seven runs and two walks. White on Friday became the first NC State player to hit three home runs in a game since 2010.

Looking Ahead

Arkansas and Stanford highlight the Round Rock Classic field. With No. 5 Stanford (2-1) and No. 9 Arkansas (2-1) on track for a Saturday night showdown, the tournament has one of the best games of the weekend. But with Louisiana-Lafayette (2-1) coming off an upset of UC Irvine and Indiana (0-3) looking to bounce back after getting swept at Clemson, the whole tournament provides intrigue. Runs could be aplenty throughout the weekend, as all four teams boast strong lineups.

East Carolina and North Carolina resume their rivalry in a split series. For the first time since 2018, the two teams will play each other in a weekend series, with the first two games of the set in Chapel Hill before moving to Greenville for Sunday’s finale. ECU is smarting after getting swept at home by Bryant and will be looking to get back on track. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, rolled to an Opening Weekend sweep of Seton Hall, outscoring the Pirates 40-6 in three games. Building some early-season momentum could be significant for both teams.

The Ivy League returns to the diamond after 715 days off. College baseball will be whole again next week, as the Ancient Eight open their season. The conference canceled its 2021 season (though it allowed teams to play local non-conference competition, something only Pennsylvania took advantage of in baseball), meaning it has been nearly two full years since its teams have been in action. They aren’t easing back into it either—five Ivy League teams are opening against either ACC or SEC opponents.

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