Welcome to Dirtbags Baseball blog! I was introduced to Long Beach State baseball in 2002 when my nephew, Neil Jamison, joined the team (and university) as a freshman. I started the blog in March of 2004, and generally discuss the team, current players and those that have moved on to professional baseball - as Neil has done in the San Diego Padres organization. Living in San Diego County, and with Neil moving to the next level, I won't be attending as many Dirtbags games. But, mostly from a distance, I'll remain a Dirtbags fan. I welcome tips on stories and information concerning the Dirtbags (current, past and future). I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Big West Conference sluggers were hoping the league would finally become a hitters' conference now that Friday night aces Jered Weaver and Jason Windsor are gone, but it appears the Big West's pitching prospects are as strong as ever with three of the best southpaws in the country taking the mound in tonight's openers.
Cal State Fullerton's Ricky Romero, Long Beach State's Cesar Ramos and Cal Poly's Garrett Olson are three of the top four left-handed prospects in Baseball America's recent midseason draft prospects report.
"You don't get guys like this very often," one California-based scout said. "You might have one good lefty in the mix, but not three. You can't just go out and find premium left-handers like that anywhere, and you have three in one conference? That's pretty impressive."
While Olson (5-2, 3.21 earned run average) has come on strong for the Mustangs this season, Romero and Ramos have drawn the most attention as they are among a class of only five 12-game winners who have returned to college. Both are among the eight candidates in the running for Baseball America's national pitcher of the year.
Romero, who plays for the second-ranked and defending national champion Titans, is 5-2 with a 1.98 ERA. He's struck out 57 batters in 50 innings.
Ramos, who plays for the 22nd-ranked 49ers, is 5-3 with a 1.70 ERA. He's struck out 49 in 632/3 innings.
The two have already battled head-to-head this season with Ramos earning the win, throwing a complete-game two hitter against the conference favorites.
"Ramos and Romero are doing what Weaver and Windsor were doing the previous year," said Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee. "They just go out on Friday night and step up their game. I think the pitching in this conference is as good as ever with some high-profile guys that are known all over the country."
Then there are the Big West starters who the scouts are calling their "sleepers."
Pitchers like Olson, who leads the conference in strikeouts (68 in 671/3 innings) and after a solid summer for the Anchorage Bucs has evolved into the Mustangs' ace.
"Olson is definitely a sleeper," the scout said. "Right now he's not getting a whole bunch of looks, but once conference starts and he's matched up against some of those marquee guys, everyone's going to start following him."
UC Irvine, which advanced to the postseason in the program's third year of resurrection, may have the most underrated staff in the bunch. First-year Anteater head coach Dave Serrano, a pitching at Cal State Fullerton over the last decade, has a starting staff that includes former Righetti High School standout Chris Nicoll (3-1, 2.36), Justin Cassel (3-1, 3.40) and Steve Schroer (3-3, 3.94).
Rotations like UC Irvine's are why Lee expects a lot of one- and two-run ballgames this season. Even now that Weaver (drafted by the Angels in the first round but has yet to sign) and Windsor (third-round pick by the A's) are out of the picture.
"You should see a lot of close ballgames," said Lee, whose team travels to pitcher-friendly stadiums at Pacific, Long Beach State and UC Irvine this season. "Staying in games will fall on the shoulders of our starters. They have to be able to keep us within striking distance in the later stages. Defensively, we have to make all the right plays and offensively you have to do just enough to outscore your opponent in those particular games."
Saturday night live
Expect Saturday's games to be closely contested as well.
Like most of the teams in the conference, Cal Poly has moved Saturday's 1 p.m. start times to 6 p.m. this season, giving Saturday games that Friday night lights feel. And the Mustang coaching staff is lining up its rotations accordingly, moving senior right-hander Jimmy Shull from Sunday into the Saturday night role.
Cal Poly hopes the move helps shake Shull out a nonconference slump that saw him go 2-5 with a 6.34 ERA. Shull was 9-5 with a 4.15 ERA a year ago as the Mustangs' Friday night starter and was drafted in the eighth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"You look at a team like SLO and see teams have more than one good starter in their rotation," Cal State Fullerton pitching coach Ted Silva said. "It seems like when someone is supposed to be the guy, another pitcher steps right up and he becomes a stud.
"I think that's why, with as deep as everybody's staff is this season, the scores throughout the weekend are going to be closer. Especially in the night games, which give the advantage to the pitcher."
Cal State Fullerton's rotation looked stronger than anyone's until Saturday starter Ryan Schreppel (4-0, 2.00 ERA) went down with an arm injury [my note: it was a knee injury suffered last Saturday at Blair]. He will be replaced by freshman right-hander Wes Roemer (0-1, 2.37).
Other strong Saturday night starters include Cassel, Long Beach State's Marco Estrada (5-0, 2.08) and UC Riverside ace Hayley Winter (4-3, 1.58).
The conference also has an impressive roster of relievers this season.
Relievers like Cal Poly's Mike Bille, who has overcome a pair of arm surgeries to become the nation's saves leader with nine.
UC Irvine reliever Blair Erickson has five saves this season to go along with a 0.64 ERA. Erickson, who was second in the nation with 17 saves a year ago, has struck out 24 in 14 innings of relief.
Long Beach State has a pair of talented senior right-handers in the bullpen. Closer Neil Jamison (2-0, 0.00), an All-American candidate, has yet to allow an earned run in 12 innings, recording seven saves and 12 strikeouts.
Teammate Brian Anderson is 2-0 with a 0.40 ERA in 16 appearances. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder has struck out 20 in 222/3 innings.
But none have been more impressive than Pacific senior closer Josh Schmidt, who returned to the Tigers despite being drafted last June. On Tuesday, he improved to 4-1, throwing 22/3 innings of hitless relief in a victory over No. 12 Stanford. The right-hander, who tallied 73 strikeouts in 54 innings in 2004, currently has a 0.57 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 312/3 innings.
"We're going to have to find a way to beat those guys," Lee said of the conference's wealth of talented pitchers. "The key is minimizing the big innings. You can't give up a load of runs in this conference and expect to win games. You want to be within a swing of the bat in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings and hope you can pull it out."