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SoCal Weekend Preview: Retribution or Repeat

To get you ready for the second weekend of Southern California baseball action, we’ve got your Around the Horn preview of series to watch with a huge regional rematch, a southpaw showdown, two teams trying to make different types of statements and a couple of squads in dire need of some hits.

Where They’ll Be This Weekend:

In SoCal:

San Francisco at #2 Cal State Fullerton
#8 Oregon at Loyola Marymount
#22 Cal Poly at #10 UCLA
Long Beach State (LBSU Tournament – #19 Arizona State, Wright State, at UC Irvine)
UC Irvine (LBSU Tournament – Wright State, #19 Arizona State, Long Beach State)
North Dakota State at USC
Utah Valley at Pepperdine
Northern Kentucky at San Diego
West Virginia at San Diego State
Seattle at Cal State Northridge

On the Road:

UC Santa Barbara at San Jose State
UC Riverside at Texas State

All Eyes On:

Regional Rematch – How much can one fly ball change destiny?

That’s all it took last year in the Los Angeles Regional for UCLA to go from being “jumped on” and “mugged” to pulling out a two-run Day 2 victory and eventually leading all the way to a 10-0 postseason mark and a national championship in Omaha.

Nick Torres will seek redemption for last year’s fly ball.

“We were the better team,” Cal Poly outfielder Nick Torres told The Tribune two weeks ago.

Cal Poly led UCLA 4-1 in the sixth inning of a Los Angeles Regional matchup. But with the bases loaded and two outs, Torres lost a fly ball in the dusk sky. The ball landed just shy of the warning track, allowing all three runners to score. An inning later, UCLA scored the go-ahead run on a bases loaded slow chopper that the shortstop had no play on and added an insurance run en route to a 6-4 Bruins’ victory. A day later, Cal Poly was eliminated by San Diego and the Bruins swept away the Toreros to advance to the Super Regionals.

Junior pitcher Matt Imhof started that game for the Mustangs:

“What UCLA did the rest of the way after we got eliminated is actually a little confidence boost for me,” Imhof said. “The national champions, we had them beat if not for a fluke fly ball, and they ended up going out and beating all the teams and going undefeated throughout playoffs.

We were the closest team to knocking them off. In my mind, they should know they got lucky against us to get that win.”

Imhof, who is now the Friday ace for Cal Poly, dominated the Bruins’ predominantly left-handed lineup through the first five innings of that regional battle. It wasn’t until the eventful sixth inning that UCLA got its first hits against Imhof.

After the game, Matt Imhof thought the Bruins had picked up on something that was tipping his pitches to the hitters, but UCLA denied it had spotted anything after the game.

Cal Poly lefty pitcher Matt Imhof.
Matt Imhof had a no-hitter through five innings.

Imhof will get his chance for redemption and an opportunity to prove that the Mustangs are ready for the spotlight on Friday night when he faces off against hard-throwing righty James Kaprielian, who combined with closer David Berg for six strikeouts and no hits in the final three innings against Cal Poly last season.

After pitching in relief for the Collegiate Team USA this summer, Imhof has embraced the Friday night role for Poly. Against then-No. 18 Kansas State, Imhof pitched seven innings last Friday, allowing only three hits and ringing up 14 strikeouts.

Though UCLA lost only three starters (Pat Valaika, Brenton Allen and Cody Regis) from that day’s batting order, Imhof will only face three of the same bats with Kevin Kramer, Eric Filia and Kevin Williams all out with injuries. Without those three in the lineup, UCLA has struggled to score runs at times this season, losing 1-0 in the season opener, winning 4-3 in extra innings Sunday and having been in a 2-1 game with Cal State Northridge prior to blowing the game open in its last at bat.

The question for Cal Poly will be what kind of pitching can the Mustangs get after Imhof. Slater Lee and Casey Bloomquist pitched quite well last weekend as Larry Lee’s team shut down an experienced Kansas State lineup, allowing only three runs while striking out 33.

The Mustangs have a potent lineup that features three guys currently batting above .400 led by none other than Torres, who is hitting .500 with a homer and six RBI in the first four games. Veterans Jordan Ellis and Jimmy Allen are veteran hitters batting around Torres and Mundell, who will provide the pop in the lineup.

It will be a classic offense versus pitching matchup. Last season, for half a game, Cal Poly’s hitting dominated, but one little fly ball completely flipped the script.

Around the Horn:

1st Base

Statement Opportunity - Loyola Marymount freshmen David Fletcher, Austin Miller and Tyler Cohen are going to have their struggles this season, but head coach Jason Gill is relying heavily on them to carry the offense.

The Lions’ young lineup has to.

Tommy Thorpe will test LMU’s young bats.

Gone are seniors Matt Lowenstein, Joey Boney, Zac Fujimoto, Cullen Mahoney and Colton Plaia.  After losing nearly the entire top of the order, it is the freshman trio that is being asked to fill the void.

As the young bucks go, so will the team. That’s been the case so far. Cohen had a RBI double and picked up the save in the season opener against Utah Valley. In the second game, the Lions lost because of a late-inning throwing error from Cohen. Fletcher and Miller had six hits and five runs in Sunday’s rubber match.

The freshmen will get a chance to test their mettle early as LMU welcomes No. 8 Oregon to Page Stadium this weekend. The Ducks opened with a four-game sweep of Hawai’i on the islands, getting George Horton his 900th career victory on Monday.

Oregon brings a veteran pitching staff with seven upperclassmen that also features some high-end young talent, led by first round draft pick Matt Krook.

LMU starters Colin Welmon and Patrick McGrath should be able to hold their own on Friday and Saturday, but how will converted reliever Carlos Fuentes and his former bullpen mates fare this weekend?

This is a great opportunity for the Lions to show they are West Coast Conference contenders this year, but it’ll be up to the freshmen to display their talents and let the country know their capabilities.

2nd Base

Send Your Hits – At a time when both Long Beach State and UC Irvine could use some cupcakes on the schedule to boost their hitters confidence, they will face off with the talented rotation from No. 19 Arizona State.

Both teams are in need of some early-season victories. The Dirtbags are 0-4 after being swept by powerful No. 6 Vanderbilt and blowing an eighth-inning lead at Pepperdine Tuesday.

Irvine is in better shape with two one-run victories and a pair of extra-inning losses, but the ‘Eaters have struggled with the bats, hitting just .194 as a team. Preseason All-American duo Connor Spencer and Taylor Sparks are a combined 0-for-31 so far!

Connor Spencer is still looking for his first hit.

But instead of a directional opponent (cough…North Dakota State…cough…Northern Kentucky), it will be Arizona State and a front-of-the-rotation-heavy Wright State squad. The Sun Devils will start preseason All-Americans Ryan Burr and Ryan Kellogg while Wright State features a strong duo in preseason Horizon League Pitcher of the Year Travis Hissong, who struck out 12.4 batters per nine innings last year out of the bullpen, and senior Joey Hoelzel, who was the Horizon League Pitcher of the Week after beating Michigan State last weekend.

3rd Base

Veteran Southpaws – If you want to see some high-quality lefties, head down to San Diego State tonight. One of the most underrated pitching matchups this weekend will take place at Tony Gwynn Stadium when diminutive SDSU junior Mike RoBards squares off with West Virginia’s Harrison Musgrave, who was the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore last year.

RoBards moved into the Aztec rotation as a midweek guy midseason last year and became one of the most reliable pitchers on the squad. He won’t wow scouts with his stuff, but he knows how to pitch.

Musgrave compiled a 9-1 record with a 2.17 ERA last season besting No. 3 overall pick Jonathan Gray (10-3, 1.64 ERA) for conference Pitcher of the Year.

The redshirt junior returned after having 2012 Tommy John surgery and was lights out all season. Opposing hitters managed just 65 hits in 95.1 innings against Musgrave, and just 13 of those were extra-base hits.

Home

Riverside – After having to vacate eight wins due to paperwork issues with Eddie Young, who was ruled ineligible, UC Riverside’s season crashed to a 14-32 stop.

Joe Chavez has sparked the Riverside offense.

Starting 10-9, suddenly turned into 2-17. A strong start had been wiped away and the Highlanders never came close to recovering.

Riverside is trying to make last season a distant memory. The Highlanders take to the road this weekend, trying to build on a strong 4-1 start that includes a series win over a quality San Francisco squad and a midweek win over the Pac-12’s Washington State, who was coming off nearly winning a series at No. 1 Cal State Fullerton.

Led by Joe Chavez and his .556 average and .636 on-base percentage, the Highlanders have five batters hitting .400 or better. As a team, they are batting .365 and have 12 extra-base hits. Sweet-swinging lefty Francisco Tellez has four of those and has driven in 10 runs already.

The question for UCR remains on the mound where it doesn’t have anybody that is going to be popping 95 at the front of the rotation on Friday night. Last season’s Friday night starter, Dylan Stuart, has been moved to the bullpen. In fact, the pitching staff is so unnoteworthy, pitching isn’t even mentioned in the Highlanders’ game notes for this weekend.

Can the Highlanders go on the road and win? Last season, (taking away the vacated wins) they were 16-7 at home, but only 5-22 on the road. Away from the spacious Riverside Sports Complex, they batted more than 70 points worse with their on-base percentage dropping nearly the same amount.

An early-season road trip to Texas State, who similarly plays much better at home than the road, should be a good gauge to see if the Highlanders could be a surprise team that has fully recovered from last week’s rough season.