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SoCal Weekend Preview: Wheels Up

Several Southern California college baseball squads take to the road this weekend with teams flying to the Pacific Northwest, North Carolina, across the Pacific and even to the country’s heartland.

And those teams might be the lucky ones as Southern California is being beset with rain that threatens to wipe out several scheduled games around the area.

To get you ready for the Southern California baseball action, we’ve got your schedule and Around the Horn preview of series to watch highlighted by a top 10, familiar foe, face-off along with teams vying to return to the national spotlight and a team that won’t get to avoid one of the nation’s top pitchers any longer.

Where They’ll Be This Weekend:

In SoCal:

Utah at Loyola Marymount
San Diego (USD Tournament – UNC Wilmington, Baylor, Baylor, Cal, Cal)
#17 Cal Poly at USC
Princeton at UC Santa Barbara
Washington State at Cal State Northridge

On the Road:

#10 UCLA (Irish Classic in Cary, NC – Notre Dame, #8 North Carolina State, Michigan)
#9 Cal State Fullerton at #5 Oregon
Pepperdine at Hawaii
UC Irvine at Portland
San Diego State at St. Mary’s
Long Beach State at Wichita State
UC Riverside at Bakersfield

All Eyes On:

Familiar Foes – For the second year in a row, the Cal State Fullerton and Oregon Ducks will face off in an early-season marquee matchup between two of the West Coast’s top programs. Last year, Fullerton took the Top 20 matchup, winning the series 2-1 with convincing wins on Friday and Saturday.

This weekend, the two clubs will match up in a Top 10 battle as the No. 5 Titans take to the road to face the No. 9 Ducks. There will be plenty of familiarity between the dugouts. Besides last season’s series, the two also faced each other in the 2012 Eugene Regional and have a very extensive knowledge of each other’s coaching staff.

Oregon head coach George Horton spent 11 seasons as the head coach at Cal State Fullerton and credits an assistant by the name of Rick Vanderhook for the successful position he finds himself in now. Vanderhook, of course, made his journey from Fullerton assistant to UCLA assistant and back to Orange County as the Titans’ pack leader.

There are relationships amongst the assistants. There are high school teammates squaring off. There are even guys, like Ducks’ 1B/3B Mitchell Tolman, who were committed to one school but ended up at the other. In fact, there are 22 players on the Oregon roster from California, including several from Southern California.

George Horton Oregon

It’s undoubtedly a big measuring stick for both ballclubs and Horton isn’t going to downplay that:

“It isn’t just another opponent. It would be ludicrous for me to say that,” Horton said in a pre-practice interview Wednesday. “But like any other top 10 team, it’s exciting.”

Due to Horton’s influence, the teams both pride themselves on solid defense, strong pitching and taking advantage of the opposition’s mistakes. The team that makes less mistakes will likely find itself reigning supreme after the weekend is all said and done.

Last year, Fullerton was able to score eight runs on six hits to win the opener behind a four-hit complete game by Thomas Eshelman. Justin Garza followed with a 5-2 win on Saturday, going eight innings. On Sunday, it was Oregon’s freshman pitcher picking up the win as Cole Irvin led the Ducks to a 9-1 win.

Who will step up this year?

Scott Heineman’s availability is in question.

Oregon third baseman Scott Heineman didn’t play Tuesday and was limited this week after straining his shoulder on a swing at Loyola Marymount last week. If Heineman is unable to go, Horton likely will play Tolman at third and the inexperienced freshman A.J. Balta, a Valencia HS product, will man first base. Can the Titans take advantage of young corner infielders with some strong small ball?

After his complete game last season, Eshelman said the scouting report on the Ducks was they took a lot of fastballs. He mixed mainly fastball/changeup with great success.

Tolman said the Oregon offense has been working on a more aggressive approach that profiles perfectly against the strike-throwing Titans staff:

“We’ve been working on getting after pitchers,” Tolman told KEZI 9 TV. “If they’re going to throw strikes, lets go ahead and hit it.”

***Another matchup of familiar faces coaching will take place in NorCal at St. Mary’s where San Diego State will travel to face off against the Eric Valenzuela-coached Gaels. Valenzuela was the Aztecs’ pitching coach prior to taking the St. Mary’s head job during the offseason.

Around the Horn:

1st Base

 Rain, Rain Go Away – The water bangs through the gutters and clacks off the sidewalks outside as I write this. The rain continues to stream  down. There have not been the massive thunderstorms and lightening strikes I am accustomed to from my childhood springs and summers in Georgia, but the constant rain for the last 12 hours puts this weekend’s Southern California matchups in serious jeopardy.

Cal State Northridge tried starting its four-game series with Washington State with a doubleheader on Thursday to give the teams some leeway to play two games in three days, but even that was disrupted by the rain. The Matadors and Cougars were able to get one game in Thursday and hope they’ll be able to get the final three games in at some point this weekend. UPDATE: Friday’s matchup has been cancelled with no makeup date set currently.

Down in San Diego, the Toreros are hosting a four-team round robin tournament. They moved up their Friday matchup against UNC Wilmington to Thursday night without any issues. San Diego head coach Rich Hill said the next priority becomes getting Baylor’s games in.

Cal was already scheduled to stay through Monday (playing the Toreros that day) and fly out late Monday evening. UNC Wilmington has a Tuesday matchup at Pepperdine, so the Seahawks are flexible to play through Monday as well, but Baylor needs to get its games in by Sunday, so it becomes the priority. UPDATE: All three games scheduled for Friday have been cancelled and pushed back to Saturday. 

2nd Base

Baby Bruins Battle Big Boys – UCLA has shown glimpses…glimpses of the enormous talent still available at John Savage’s disposal. All-American closer David Berg said he thinks the team has the potential to be an even stronger team than the squad that won the national championship last season. However, the youthful Bruins have yet to put it all together.

UCLA doesn’t have a chance to lick its wounds after losing three straight in convincing fashion. The baby Bruins will be put to the test once again this weekend when they travel to North Carolina to take part in the Irish Classic that will pit them against Notre Dame, No. 8 North Carolina State and projected No. 1 overall MLB Draft selection Carlos Rodon, and Michigan.

Cody Poteet has to step up on Sundays.

The pitching staff that lost three-year starter Adam Plutko and fellow junior Nick Vander Tuig from the front of the rotation has been making mistakes up in the zone and the opposition has taken advantage. Cal Poly hit four home runs in its weekend series and UC Santa Barbara added two dingers on Tuesday night.

Opponents have also taken advantage of defensive lapses and mental mistakes the Bruins have had early in the season.

“Every mistake we make right now is coming back to get us, and that’s not a bad thing early in the year,” UCLA head coach John Savage said on Tuesday. “I kind of like it in some regards, in the sense that, when you do make mistakes at this level, you should pay for it. They’re learning on the job”

UCLA will not see Notre Dame’s top arm, Pat Connaughton, who is still participating with the Fighting Irish basketball team, but the Bruins won’t be able to avoid NC State stud lefty Carlos Rodon. The Bruins dodged facing Rodon on two occasions in Omaha last season, despite being in the same College World Series bracket.

3rd Base

Vying for Relevancy – It wasn’t all that long ago Long Beach State and Wichita State were two of the premier college baseball programs in the country, competing for national championships in Omaha. From 1988 to 1998, coaching legends Gene Stephenson and Dave Snow took the Shockers and Dirtbags to a combined 10 College World Series appearances.

But since 1998, neither team has returned to Omaha. Both Stephenson and Snow are gone now after Todd Butler took over for Stephenson this season. Snow’s former pitching coach, Troy Buckley, is at the helm of the Dirtbags for the fourth year.

Official baseball crusher, Casey Gillaspie.

Long Beach State comes in at 3-5, but owns a pair of wins over Pac-12 programs in previously ranked Arizona State and previously undefeated USC. Wichita State enters at 6-2 with superstar slugger Casey Gillaspie leading the way: .594 AVG, 7 extra-base hits with 3 HR, 15 RBI and 9 BB. Gillaspie has an otherworldly 1.721 OBS currently.

With a pair of strong fan bases, it would be great for one or both of these former powers to return to the national scene. If either are to do that this season, it will have to take care of the other this weekend.

Home

Who’s For Real? – Cal Poly has put together one of the most impressive starts to this young season with a 7-1 record and a pair of series wins against ranked opponents, sweeping Kansas State and taking two of three at UCLA.

USC is also off to a 7-1 start with the Cardinal & Gold Cardiacs winning four games in walk-off fashion — three times having to go into extra innings.

But who is for real? Either? Neither? Both?

Cal Poly has one of the most physical lineups on the West Coast. Nick Torres and Brian Mundell provide a potent 3-4 punch that Larry Lee believes is the West Coast’s best. Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis at Oregon State might have something to say about that, but Torres and Mundell are definitely baseball bashers.

How much production can the Mustangs get from the bottom of the lineup, though? And who is going to step up behind Matt Imhof in the rotation and before Reed Reilly in the bullpen? Freshman right-hander Slater Lee seems to be ready to shine in the Saturday role, but how long will he be able to keep hitters off-balance working off an 84-85 mph fastball?

Strahan — the power-throwing ginger.

On the other side, USC is a very young ball club that is still experiencing some growing pains on the offensive side, but has a stronger starting rotation led by junior Wyatt Strahan, who was touching 97 mph before the season, and senior Bob Wheatley, who like Lee is making it work without having an overpowering fastball. The Trojans are sporting a pretty 1.98 ERA and a .288 team batting average, but how will those numbers fare as USC takes on its first strong weekend opponent?

There are several questions this series may help us answer. None more imperative than ‘Who’s for real?’