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SoCal College Baseball Opening Weekend Preview

It’s Valentine’s Day!

Who cares? Unless your sweetie is taking you to the ballfield, we definitely don’t.

That’s because it’s Opening Day! The college baseball season officially kicks off today.

To get you ready for the opening weekend of Southern California baseball action, we’ve got where the teams will be playing along with an Around the Horn preview of series to watch.

And in this opening weekend preview, you’ll also get the preseason version of Shotgun’s SoCal Squad, your All-Southern California Team.

Teams wil be trying to start strong to open the season and there is an opportunity for teams to makes some noise. Long Beach State hosts Vanderbilt while No. 1 ranked Cal State Fullerton will welcome a Washington State squad that has a lot of potential.

Where They’ll Be This Weekend:

In SoCal:
Washington State at #1 Cal State Fullerton
#10 Vanderbilt at Long Beach State
Northwestern at USC
Utah Valley at Loyola Marymount
St. John’s at Pepperdine
Fresno State at UC Irvine
Portland at #9 UCLA
San Francisco at UC Riverside
New Mexico at San Diego
??? at UC Santa Barbara (North Carolina State had to cancel its trip due to inclement weather not allowing the Wolfpack to fly out of NC)

On the Road:
San Diego State at San Jose State
Cal State Northridge at Bethune-Cookman

All Eyes On:

The Hunted – Cal State Fullerton enters the season with a large No. 1 bullseye on its back. The Titans are the preseason favorite to emerge from Southern California as a national championship contender in Omaha.

Justin Garza will once again be a key for the Titans.

Fullerton’s ridiculously good pitching staff (2.47 team ERA, 10 shutouts) returns every start from last season. Led by Freshman All-Americans Thomas Eshelman (12-3, 1.48 ERA) and Justin Garza (12-0, 2.03 ERA), the entire weekend rotation is in tact and back ready to build on last season. Unheralded junior Grahamm Wiest (9-3, 3.27 ERA) again will get the ball on Sundays.

The rich got even richer this offseason when No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, Phil Bickford, chose to attend Fullerton rather than signing with the Toronto Blue Jays. He’ll likely be the midweek starter for Rick Vanderhook’s squad, freeing up Koby Gauna (2.60 ERA in 55.1 IP) and J.D. Davis (2.74 ERA in 23 IP) to be a dynamic duo of power arms out of the backend of the bullpen.

Despite having great success with Michael Lorenzen playing two ways and closing games the last two seasons, the Titans pitching staff is so strong, Vanderhook may not even use shortstop/third baseman Matt Chapman on the mound. This summer, Chapman pitched in relief for the Collegiate Team USA, coming in and throwing 97-100 mph gas.

Chapman will instead be counted on to anchor a lineup that lost key pieces in Lorenzen, Carlos Lopez, Richy Pedroza and Chad Wallach. Where Chapman plays (SS/3B) will be determined by the play of freshmen Taylor Bryant and Timmy Richards. The Titans are expecting a big season on the other side of the diamond from sophomores Jake Jefferies and Tanner Pinkston. Jefferies, the son of a former Major Leaguer, will bat in the No. 3 spot while Vanderhook loves the way Pinkston has swung the bat in practice in the fall and leading up to Opening Day.

While Cal State Fullerton has the pieces, Vanderhook said the Titans “have to figure out how to score runs.” Junior college transfer Tyler Stieb provides a different dynamic of speed at the top of the order and outfielders Clay Williamson and Greg Velazquez have shown flashes in the past, but neither has shown the consistency. Vanderhook did say Velazquez “has been ‘Wow!’ since we started going.”

“He’s been wow against Eshelman, wow against Garza, wow against everybody,” Vanderhook said. “He’s played himself into the lineup. He’s good enough to hit behind Pinkston and Davis.”

The Titans will have their mettle put to the test early facing an experienced and physical Washington State team that returns almost everyone.

“They’re old. They’re going to be big, old, giant dudes,” Vanderhook said.

Around the Horn:

1st Base: Return to the National Scene? - USC is the most prolific program in college baseball history. The Trojans’ 12 national championships are unmatched and barely contested (Texas has the second most with six). But no one watching the game the last decade would know that.

Timmy Robinson’s development could be key.

The Trojans are far away from their last national championship under Mike Gillespie in 1998. They have only one winning season since 2002 and haven’t had one since running Gillespie out of town in 2006. Could this be the year that changes?

Second-year head coach Dan Hubbs thinks so. Many believe the Trojans are poised to make their first regional appearance since 2005. USC returns nearly its entire pitching staff and only has three position players to replace.

Junior Wyatt Strahan has been up to 97 mph and will move into the Friday night role where Hubbs believes he can “really set the tone for the weekend.” Senior Bob Wheatley continues to play the crafty lefty role, baffling hitters with his four-pitch arsenal despite not having a dominant fastball. Former third round draft pick Kyle Twomey seems to be throwing with a renewed confidence after starting strong as a freshman and then struggling.

“He started as a ball of fire last season,” Hubbs said. “Sometimes that can be a disservice to a young kid. There’s no doubt he’s got over it.”

With more pitching depth, USC hopes to have guys fill particular roles rather than it be a coin-flipping exercise to decide who to pitch out of the bullpen.

On the offensive side, the Trojans hope a season of taking their lumps has given a young lineup the experience it needs to excel. Sophomore outfielders Timmy Robinson and Vahn Bozoian will look to anchor the lineup along with high school All-American Jeremy Martinez, who Hubbs is particularly excited about.

Seniors Omar Cotto and Jake Hernandez will try to finally live up to their talents while Dante Flores returns after a broken hand cost him much of last season.

USC will be without starting shortstop Blake Lacey to start the season. Lacey was flipped turning a double play in a scrimmage at Long Beach and was later diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back that stemmed from a previous injury. Freshman Frankie Rios will take over the duties up the middle until Lacey can return.

“We’ve got a lot more options, more experience and we think we have guys that are capable,” Hubbs said. “One of the things is getting the kids to understand that we’re chasing the other teams. They’re not going to give it to us. We have to go take it from them.”

2nd Base: Health Packs – Someone find the special level on the video game that has all the extra health packs. That’s what UCLA could use right about now.

Kevin Kramer won’t be throwing across the diamond this year.

The defending National Champions already were tasked with replacing stud starters Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig and defensive stalwart Pat Valaika. But the Bruins will have to try to make an Omaha run without the services of their best postseason hitter, Eric Filia, who it has been reported will miss the season after a labrum injury. Another key player that was going to be leaned on, Kevin Kramer, who originally was going to slide from third base to shortstop, could face the same fate as Filia, though he is going to try to DH.

More bad news? Yep. UCLA also is going to be without second baseman Kevin Williams, who returned to campus after being a 29th round pick in the MLB Draft, to begin the season. Highly touted southpaw Hunter Virant will likely also miss the season due to back issues.

What started as how can UCLA get back to Omaha may now be how can the Bruins make the postseason again. But if anyone can pull the right strings, it’s head coach John Savage.

The Bruins still have some strong pieces in new weekend starters James Kaprielian (Friday) and Cody Poteet (Sunday), the ever-reliable Grant Watson, All-American super closer David Berg and key hitters Brian Carroll, Pat Gallagher and Shane Ziele.

The decimated lineup (that struggled at times last season) will be challenged early as the Bruins face a Portland squad that returns an experienced pitching staff led by former Freshman All-American Travis Radke.

3rd Base: Aces Up – One of the best pitching matchups around this weekend will take place Friday night at Anteater Ballpark. UC Irvine junior Andrew Morales will face off with Fresno State right-hander Jordan Brink, a former two-way player that is now focusing on pitching.

Brink starter 42 games in the field last season and led the Bulldogs in triples to go along with two homers and 21 RBI, but after hitting .216, he’ll be stationed on the mound this year. The 6’1″, 200-pound righty impressed during the fall running his fastball into the mid-90s.

Morales came out of nowhere last season to be Irvine’s most consistent starter. The Rio Honda Community College transfer didn’t start the season in the Anteaters’ rotation, but worked his way up the chain for Mike Gillespie, dazzling with his fastball/changeup mix. He finished the season with a perfect 10-0 record and sported a sparkling 1.89 ERA in 17 appearances (13 starts).

This year, both Brink and Morales have new roles as staff aces. How will they fare with this new responsibility? We should find out real quick Friday night.

Tommy Cheek is LMU’s top returning hitter.

Home: Under the Lights – For the first time in Loyola Marymount’s 32 seasons at George C. Page Stadium, the Lions will play a night game at home.

LMU opens the season under the lights against Utah Valley. During the offseason, the Lions added lights to the field, giving an opportunity for the night shadows to be cast upon the Blue Monster in left field for the first time. The Lions will play a home-heavy schedule with 30 of their 52 games at home, including 19 that are set to be played under the lights.

Loyola Marymount enters with an intriguing team that has strong frontline and backend pitching, but is going to need young players to step in and mature quickly. Colin Welmon (5-4, 2.30 ERA) and Patrick McGrath (5-2, 2.43 ERA) will head the rotation while Bret Dahlson and Brandon Horth provide experienced arms out of the bullpen.

The Lions lost four of their top five hitters, leaving Tommy Cheek (.305, 18 RBI) and David Edwards (.256, team-high 26 RBI) to carry the load. The biggest question will be how quickly a strong freshman recruiting class can come to fruition. Four or five freshmen could start on Opening Day led by centerfielder Austin Miller and third baseman Tyler Cohen, who was picked by Baseball America as the preseason West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year.

Preseason Shotgun’s SoCal Squad:

First Team

C – Connor Joe (San Diego)
1B – Connor Spencer (UC Irvine)
2B – Tim Zier (San Diego State)
SS – Andrew Daniel (San Diego)
3B – Taylor Sparks (UC Irvine)
OF – Greg Allen (San Diego State)
OF – Brian Carroll (UCLA)
OF – David Andriese (UC Riverside)
DH – Kevin Kramer (UCLA)

SP – Thomas Eshelman (Cal State Fullerton)
SP – Justin Garza (Cal State Fullerton)
SP – Colin Welmon (Loyola Marymount)
SP – Andrew Morales (UC Irvine)
RP – Koby Gauna (Cal State Fullerton)
CL – David Berg (UCLA)

Second Team

C – Kolten Yamaguchi (Pepperdine)
1B – Tyler Kuresa (UC Santa Barbara)
2B – Dante Flores (USC)
SS – Joe Chavez (UC Riverside)
3B – Matt Chapman (Fullerton)
OF – Aaron Brown (Pepperdine)
OF – Louie Lechich (San Diego)
OF – Robby Nesovic (UC Santa Barbara)
DH – Francisco Tellez (UC Riverside)

SP – Michael Cederoth (San Diego St.)
SP – James Kaprielian (UCLA)
SP – Jerry Keel (Cal State Northridge)
SP – Wyatt Strahan (USC)
RP – Jimmy Litchfield (UC Irvine)
CL – Bret Dahlson (Loyola Marymount)

Notes:
- Newcomers were not included.
– UCLA, Fullerton & Irvine tied for the most players each (4) and tied for the most First Team members (3).
– Loyola Marymount, Fullerton, San Diego & San Diego State each had four selections.
– For the second year in a row, Long Beach State is the only school not represented. All 12 SoCal squads are represented multiple times except for the Dirtbags and Cal State Northridge.