LONG BEACH, Calif. — Long Beach State isn’t quite ready to just play spoiler. The Dirtbags think they still have some quality baseball left in the tank. They are drawing on their experience from last year when they made a run down the stretch, winning 14 of 18 at one point, and had an opportunity to win their way into the NCAA Tournament the final weekend of the regular season.
Long Beach State has shown it can play with anyone in the country with wins on the road at Vanderbilt and UCLA. On Saturday, the Dirtbags knocked off another top 25 team as they beat Cal Poly, ranked No. 23 in the NCBWA poll, 3-2 at Blair Field.
Juan Avila hit a deep sacrifice fly in the eighth inning to score the game-winning run two batters after the Mustangs failed to get an out on a potential double play ball. In the ninth inning, Ryan Millison got the first two outs before allowing a walk, but seldom-used senior catch Zach Miller threw out pinch runner Tyler Evanoff to end the game.
The Game Changer:
They say you can never assume the double play. There’s no error given if you’re too slow on the turn or you bobble the ball, but stil get an out. Though it is more rare, even in Major League Baseball, there are times when a double play tandem can’t flip a pair. That doesn’t mean a missed double play opportunity doesn’t have an effect.
You might not be able to assume double plays, but you can still expect them. Pitchers are a greedy bunch and if they happen to let someone on, it is expected that any groundball will be a double play. So after Colby Brenner snapped Cal Poly starter Matt Imhof’s streak of retiring 14 consecutive Dirtbag batters, with a leadoff single to left field, Imhof expected a simple two-hopper to second base would have been an easy twin killing.
Instead, Denver Chavez struggled to get Jeff McNeil’s bouncer out of his glove. With the game tied, Chavez tried to rush the process and still get the lead runner at second base. When Chavez finally got the ball to shortstop Peter Van Gansen, Van Gansen’s rhythm coming over second base was thrown off, causing him to have to double clutch as he tried to make the glove-to-hand transfer.
McNeil, hustling all the way, was called safe at first, turning what could have been a double play into a no-out rally with the go-ahead run in scoring position. Two batters later, Juan Avila hit a sacrifice fly to score Brenner and put the Dirtbags ahead for good.
But this wasn’t the first time the Mustangs had issues rolling a pair. In the second inning, Long Beach loaded the bases with no outs, but Imhof looked to have minimized the damage with a grounder to second base.
This time, Chavez made a fluid flip to Van Gansen, but Van Gansen’s throw to first was in the dirt and Tommy Pluschkell couldn’t dig it out. But instead of making sure to knock the ball down and keep a future double play in order, Pluschkell allowed the ball to get by him. The runner from second base was able to score as well as the lead runner, giving Long Beach State a 2-0 lead.
Long Beach State head coach Troy Buckley talks about winning a gritty game and his decisions to use Ryan Millison in the ninth inning and roll the dice with the slash rather than sacrifice bunting late in the ballgame:
- Matt Imhof – 7 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, Loss
- Elliot Stewart – 1-for-4, R, 2B, RBI
- John Schuknecht – 1-for-1, RBI
Long Beach State
- Ryan Millison – 1.2 IP, H, 0 R, BB, 2 K, Win
- Jake Stassi – 6.1 IP, 4 H, 2 R (1 ER), BB, 4 K
- Juan Avila – 1-for-3, GWRBI
The Bottom Line:
With the win, Long Beach State pushes their way back toward the middle of the pack in the Big West — teams that are hoping that Cal State Fullerton slips up a couple more times (as the Titans did Friday night at Hawaii). At 8-6 in Big West play, the Dirtbags are tied with Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara three games back of Fullerton with UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge still ahead of them as well.
If Long Beach is going to make a similar run to last season, it is going to have to have timely hitting. The trio of Shane Carle, Jake Stassi and David Hill have been giving Long Beach State an opportunity to win every weekend game, but the Dirtbags need to provide them with more run support. That task isn’t going to get easier with the loss of junior shortstop Michael Hill, who was leading the team with a .336 batting average before breaking his ankle when he stepped wrong charging a soft chopper up the middle Tuesday at UCLA.
Jef McNeil has been terrific getting on base and putting pressure on the defense in the last month, but he’s got to get some help from the rest of the Dirtbags lineup. He can’t be the only one carrying the offense. Guys like Juan Avila and Ino Patron have to make significant contributions in the middle of the lineup. The Dirtbags also need someone to step up at the bottom of the lineup. Four players with at least 50 at bats are batting below .250 with Josh Guerra and Colby Brenner mired in season-long slumps, hitting below the Mendoza line.
Cal Poly needs to get a series win on Sunday. The Mustangs have lost two of their last three series and are fading in the Big West race. They have some solid non-conference wins, but have to take care of their Big West action or they are going to find themselves watching the NCAA Regionals on television.
It all starts with defense. Matt Imhof could have twice been out of jams or had them at least minimized, but the middle of the infield couldn’t complete the double plays. With an error on Saturday, the Mustangs have now committed three in the series and have errors in their last five Big West games.
Starter Joey Wagman and closer Reed Reilly have been a great combination to start the weekend. The Mustangs have won nine of 11 weekend series openers this year. Now the rest of the staff has to follow suit behind them. Imhof gave a quality start, but didn’t get supported. Sophomore Bryan Granger needs to get on track on Sundays. He hasn’t made it past the third inning in either start, compiling some gaudy statistics: 3 2/3 IP, 12 H, 8 ER, 3 BB.
Also check out the 18-shot photo gallery from Saturday’s last at bat win for Long Beach State.