LOS ANGELES — Being ahead is better than trailing, especially if you can get ahead in the first inning. Putting the opposition in the hole right away can really set the tone for the game and alleviate pressure in the winning team’s dugout.
That’s why Long Beach State second baseman/centerfielder Jeff McNeil has become such a dynamic weapon, which he showed Tuesday night in the Dirtbags’ 11-1 thrashing of No. 9 UCLA at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
On March 12, Long Beach State head coach moved Jeff McNeil into the leadoff spot permanently. Since then, McNeil has reached base to open the Dirtbags’ half of the first inning 13 of 22 games. He has come around to score seven runs in the first inning.
McNeil finished 2-for-3 with two runs, two RBI and two walks Tuesday evening, but it was his leadoff walk to start the game that broke the ice and got the ball rolling. Michael Hill followed with an RBI double to right-centerfield and later came around to score on an Ino Patron groundout.
The Dirtbags (18-20) then blew the game open with a six-run third inning to take an 8-0 lead. An error and two of UCLA starter Cody Poteet’s five walks loaded the bases. The Bruins (25-12) then went to reliever Jake Ehret. Long Beach designated hitter Zack Rivera greeted Ehret with a double to left-centerfield that cleared the bases. Following another UCLA walk, Colton Vaughn singled home a run. McNeil capped the scoring when he ripped a two-run double down the right field line.
Two innings later, Vaughn walked and McNeil singled to set the table that Patron ate heartily from. The short and squat junior crushed a three-run no-doubter out to right-centerfield to put the Dirtbags up 11-0.
That was more than enough for sophomore Nick Sabo, who had the best start of his career. Making his seventh career start and first since March 12, the lefty threw five scoreless innings, allowing three hits and three walks while striking out a pair to pick up his second win of the season.
Eddie Magallon followed with two scoreless innings before UCLA was able to scratch across Landon Hunt in the eighth inning on a Brett Urabe sacrifice fly. Jon Maciel finished off Long Beach’s four-hitter striking out two in a hitless ninth inning.
McNeil and UCLA’s Kevin Kramer were the only two players with multiple hits, but Long Beach State had four players reach base multiple times thanks to nine walks from the UCLA pitching staff.
After the game, I caught up with Long Beach State head coach Troy Buckley and McNeil about the importance of beating a top 10 team with one of the top teams in the Big West, Cal Poly, coming to town this weekend.
Buckley talks about winning at UCLA, Sabo’s performance and McNeil playing some of his best ball:
Dirtbags leadoff hitter Jeff McNeil talks about being a catalyst at the top of the lineup and what the team has to do to potentially get back into postseason contention: