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CLARK: Pitchers and freshmen are playing big roles in Dirtbags’ success

Jason Clark, Sports Editor

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Arguably the biggest question mark going into the Dirtbags’ 2013 season was how head coach Troy Buckley would deal with the complete turnover of his starting rotation.

Three starting pitchers from last year’s staff, including All-Big West selection and MLB draft pick Shawn Stuart, either graduated from Long Beach State or turned professional. The fourth regular starter from 2012, All-Big West honorable mention Ryan Strufing, had elbow reconstruction surgery in the offseason and was declared out for the year before he could even throw a pitch in 2013.

When the Dirtbags opened their season with 10-4 and 12-2 losses at No. 2 Vanderbilt, it hardly seemed that the pitching question had been answered. Even after a 16-9 win in the series finale, it looked as if pitching was going to be an obstacle for the hitters to overcome all year.

Five games later, the pitching staff looks like LBSU’s primary asset – and not its biggest liability.

Starting pitchers Nick Sabo, Shane Carle, Landon Hunt and Jon Maciel all earned wins, and none gave up more than one earned run over their starts. The lone loss suffered this week was a 3-1 defeat at the hands of No. 10 Arizona.

“I didn’t think that the start was a true depiction of what we were going to be,” Buckley said. “I think the pitching staff is going to evolve, and we will figure more out with the better teams that we continue to face.”

If anybody knows anything about pitching at LBSU, it’s Buckley. The third-year head coach was the Dirtbags’ pitching coach during the years that current major leaguers Jered Weaver, Jason Vargas and Vance Worley took the mound for The Beach.

Buckley has also had a surprising amount of success following the graduation of his biggest stars. The year after Weaver and Vargas left, the Dirtbags led the nation with a 2.53 ERA.

Also contributing to the Dirtbags’ 5-3 record, which includes two wins over top-10 teams, are a number of freshmen who have gotten off to hot starts in their collegiate careers.

Catcher Michael Hutting is second on the team with a .400 batting average, relief pitcher Logan Lombana hasn’t given up an earned run in 3.1 innings pitched and reliever David Hill earned a nine-out save on Saturday against Valparaiso. Infielders Alex DeGoti, Zack Rivera and Jonathan Serven have also seen playing time.

“You want to find out what you have in your players as you evolve through this nonconference,” Buckley said. “You’ve got Hutting, you’ve got Rivera; you’ll have some pitchers that will have an opportunity. There will be plenty of first-year guys that get their chances.”

If the Dirtbags continue to play at a high level, they could start to receive votes in the national polls. They have quality wins over Vanderbilt and Arizona and swept a three-game series with Valparaiso, which won the Horizon League in 2012.

If LBSU ends up among the national top 30, it will the fourth Big West team to join the rankings this year. Cal State Fullerton started the season as a ranked team, UC Irvine joined a week later and Cal Poly has started to receive votes after getting off to a 7-0 start.

For all of the optimism that has been restored since LBSU’s rough start at Vanderbilt, Buckley said there is plenty for the team to improve on.

“We have to limit the walks, be able to move runners, being able to get bunts down, just little things,” he said.
Fortunately for the Dirtbags, there don’t appear to be any major question marks anymore. With LBSU getting high-quality pitching and significant contributions from freshmen and veterans alike, the 2013 season could be one to get excited about.

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