Four SoCal squads take to the skies for major road trips this weekend with three teams traveling to one side or the other of the Red River. The Big 12’s Baylor and Oklahoma State get a pair of Southern California gems in No. 4 Cal State Fullerton and San Diego while a strong Sam Houston State squad will welcome Cal State Northridge.
Another quality squad from the Lone Star State will make its way to Los Angeles as Houston will make stops at USC, UCLA and Pepperdine as part of the Not-So-Dodgertown Classic (the name is explained below). The Big 12 will also send a team this way as West Virginia makes its second cross-country trip to Southern Cali to participate in the UCR Tournament with the Highlanders and Sacramento State.
But the biggest pepper test (baseball’s version of the litmus) will be UC Santa Barbara’s road trip to Tucson for Arizona’s Hi Corbett Tournament that will feature the home-standing Wildcats and No. 12 Mississippi State.
To get you ready for the Southern California baseball action, we’ve got your schedule and Around the Horn preview of series to watch.
Where They’ll Be This Weekend:
Northern Kentucky at Loyola Marymount
UC Riverside (UCR Tournament – Sacramento State, Sacramento State, West Virginia, West Virginia)
Utah Valley at Long Beach State
USC (USC/UCLA Classic – Houston, Pepperdine, #9 UCLA)
UCLA (USC/UCLA Classic – Pepperdine, Houston, at USC)
Pepperdine (USC/UCLA Classic – at UCLA, at USC, Houston)
Nevada at San Diego State
Gonzaga at UC Irvine (Sat-Mon)
On the Road:
UC Santa Barbara (Hi Corbett Classic in Tucson, Ariz. – #12 Mississippi State, #12 Mississippi State, Arizona, Arizona)
#4 Cal State Fullerton at Baylor
Cal State Northridge at #28 Sam Houston State
San Diego at #13 Oklahoma State
All Eyes On:
Champion Slayers? – Last season, UC Santa Barbara started 18-17 but came on strong at the end of the season, winning six consecutive series to conclude the conference schedule.
The Gauchos eked into the NCAA Tournament, ending a 12-year absence and produced a strong showing in the Corvallis Regional. They took their opener, 6-4, from Texas A&M before being eliminated after dropping a pair of one-run games to Oregon State and the Aggies.
But UC Santa Barbara and head coach Andrew Checketts have built on the experience, carrying the momentum through the offseason and into the beginning of the 2014 campaign where, unlike last season, the Gauchos are off to a hot 7-1 start.
“We’ve got to just keep getting better. That’s the goal for our program and our team,” Checketts said. “It sounds cliche, but that’s the reality of it. We’re really trying to stay off the scoreboard and off that monster and focus on getting better and improving. I think that takes the pressure off.”
UC Santa Barbara looks to be a contender in a strong Big West Conference that currently features a pair of top 15 teams in No. 4 Cal State Fullerton and No. 14 Cal Poly. The Gauchos could enter the top 25 discussion with a strong showing this weekend when they will get their first real weekend series.
UCSB travels to Tucson, Ariz. to face off twice with No. 12 Mississippi State and twice with Arizona. Checketts and company will quickly find out just how strong their offensive firepower is facing off with the many arms of the defending runner-up Bulldogs.
Joey Epperson and Peter Maris are firestarters at the top of the lineup. Epperson’s average statline so far is 2-for-4 with 1.6 runs scored, nearly a free pass (BB or HBP) every game, an extra-base hit every other game and an RBI every game. Epperson is also a perfect 5-for-5 swiping bases. Maris follows with a .333 average and great bat control and plate awareness, making him a great candidate for action plays in the 2-hole. He also has shown a mixture of power and speed, knocking one of the team’s five homers and stealing six bases.
“Petey’s kind of sneaky. He’s a little dude, got his pants down around his ankles and looks a little bit like a smurf, but he’s got some pop,” Checketts said last week. “He’s done a good job offensively for us.
“And Joey makes us go. He got healthy halfway through [last season] and our offense really changed when he showed up. He can run the bases. He has quality at bats. He can hammer a fastball. He can do a lot of things.”
The Gauchos also have pop in the middle of the lineup on both sides of the plate with lefty Tyler Kuresa and righty Robby Nesovic. UCSB enters with a .341 team batting average and a .929 team OPS, but that is with weekend series at San Jose State and against Princeton.
They did take a midweek game against defending national champion UCLA last week. With a couple wins this weekend, the Gauchos could have wins against both championship series participants from last year’s College World Series as well as wins against the last two national champions.
“We’re just trying to keep it simple about development and getting better…playing the game and not playing the opponent,” Checketts said.
Around the Horn:
Texas Trippin – For the fourth straight season and sixth time in seven years, Cal State Fullerton will head to Texas to face off with one of the state’s power programs. After recent trips to TCU and Texas A&M, the No. 4 Titans travel to Baylor this season. It is Fullerton’s first trip to Waco since 2001 when the Titans took two of three from the Bears, who were ranked No. 21 at the time.
The Titans started 2-3 this season, but after a 19-inning loss to open a series against San Francisco, Fullerton doesn’t have a blemish on its record, winning five straight. Included is quite possibly the most impressive series sweep of the young college baseball season when it went on the road and swept then No. 5 Oregon and former Fullerton head coach George Horton.
The middle of the lineup trio of Matt Chapman, J.D. Davis and Tanner Pinkston have carried the offense with Greg Velazquez adding in some RBI production, but Rick Vanderhook would love to get leadoff man Tyler Stieb (.174 average, .367 OBP) and Jake Jefferies (.167, .184, no extra-base hits) going.
Vanderhook expected Stieb to be a basepath havoc guy to help fill Richy Pedroza’s void and Jefferies was initially slated to be the team’s No. 3 hitter, but he has struggled mightily at the dish as he’s brought his defensive woes (.920 fielding percentage) to the plate with him.
Not-So-Dodgertown Classic – When the Dodgertown Classic was imagined by John Savage and Chad Kreuter in 2010, the major allure was playing in a Major League ballpark.
“The really special part of this is Dodger Stadium. It’s a special place in everybody’s hearts,” Savage told me in 2012.
But unfortunately, after two seamless Dodgertown Classics that featured high-profile programs Vanderbilt, Georgia and Oklahoma State there has been nothing but troubles the last three seasons.
In 2012, Baylor and Miami were scheduled to participate in the event, but monster trucks and conflicts ruined that. Here’s a snippet from an article about that season’s Dodgertown Classic in SC Playbook magazine:
In February, Dodger Stadium hosted the Advanced Auto Parts Monster Jam, but the groundskeepers couldn’t assure that the field would be prepared and safe for the players in time for the following weekend when the Dodgertown Classic was originally scheduled. Coordinating a change of weekend dates proved to be logistically impossible, but the coaches didn’t want to go a year without the event.
Rather than a weekend series with each of the four teams playing each other, the Dodgertown Classic will be a Tuesday doubleheader with UC-Irvine playing Pepperdine before the crosstown rivalry takes center stage for a night game.
Last season, the event attracted Oklahoma and Notre Dame, but Dodger Stadium remodeling forced the event to be played on campus. For the third year in a row, issues with Dodger Stadium have forced the event to be altered.
Dodger Stadium is once again under renovation, keeping the event from taking place in the historic stadium. Instead, this season’s field of Houston, Pepperdine and rivals USC and UCLA will again play all the games on campus. USC and UCLA will host the other squads for a single game on Friday and Saturday before playing each other at USC on Sunday. Rather than playing an early doubleheader at Dedeaux Field, Pepperdine offered to host Houston, so the Cougars will get an opportunity to play in front of the nation’s greatest stadium backdrop.
The issues with the Dodgers and Dodger Stadium irked the USC and UCLA programs enough that since there will again be no Dodger involvement with Dodger Stadium unavailable, this weekend’s event is no longer being called the Dodgertown Classic.
Dodgers’ scouting coordinator Trey Magnuson said in 2012 that the team agreed to participate after determining it was a great fit that would bring new teams and fans west to Los Angeles. He also said the event would “strengthen the Dodgers’ relationship with USC and UCLA,” but the event may actually be doing the opposite.
On the field, we’ll see a stout Houston (9-2) pitching staff that leads the nation in team ERA with an impressive 0.73 ERA after six shutouts in the first 11 games. USC will see Aaron Garza (3-0, 0.43 ERA) on Friday while UCLA will face Jake Lemoine (1-1, 0.42 ERA) on Saturday.
Prospect Showdown – The UCR Tournament may not seem like it has marquee matchups with Sacramento State and West Virginia coming to town to play a pair of matchups against each other and against UC Riverside. With a schedule change, flipping the Highlanders’ day of playing a doubleheader from Saturday to Sunday, UC Riverside will presumably miss West Virginia ace Harrison Musgrave, last year’s Big 12 Pitcher of the Year over No. 3 overall draft pick Jonathan Gray from Oklahoma.
After going 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA last season, the redshirt junior, Musgrave, is off to a slower start than his rotation mates Sean Carley and John Means. Musgrave is a strong 1-0 with a 2.33 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 19.1 innings, but Carley and Means have been lights out thus far, combining to allow only six earned runs in six starts. As a team, West Virginia has a 2.44 ERA and the offense is hitting .298 led by Billy Fleming’s .457 average and the power of Ryan McBroom (3 HR, 14 RBI) in the middle of the lineup.
The Mountaineers and Hornets will have to try to contain Riverside’s Nick Vilter, who went off last weekend, reaching 11 times and driving in 11 runs for the Highlanders. He is hitting .429 with six homers on the season. UCR has also been led by Francisco Tellez, who is hitting .370 with a team-high 16 RBI.
But the best matchup of the weekend may very well be Musgrave against Sacramento State’s sophomore Nathan Lukes and junior Rhys Hopkins. Hitting leadoff for the Hornets, Lukes is hitting .354 with a .458 on base percentage. Hopkins was on Baseball America’s preseason All-American third team. After popping 10 homers and driving in 53 runs as a freshman, his numbers slid last season and he hasn’t got off to a huge start this season, having already missed four games. However, he did have his best game of the year last weekend when he went 4-for-4 with a double and his first homer against San Francisco.
Cowboys and Bullfighters – No. 13 Oklahoma State will have an opportunity to potentially take the series lead on San Diego. Of course, the Pokes and Toreros have only played each other twice before. San Diego has won both of those contests, including a 7-2 win in 2008 when Brian Matusz struck out 12.
The Toreros will face a starting rotation led by Tyler Nurdin, who finished with a 1.89 ERA last season. But despite playing a softer schedule the starting pitchers have had their share of trouble. Nurdin has a 5.40 ERA. Neither Thomas Hatch (4.02 ERA) nor projected third starter Conor Costello (4.50 ERA) got through the fifth inning in their last start.
Tanner Krietemeier and Zach Fish are a formidable duo in the middle of Oklahoma State’s lineup, but San Diego has proven this season it is capable of slugging it out with most opponents. Krietemeier is only hitting .205 so far this season, but four of his nine hits have gone over the fence.
As was the case all last weekend for San Diego, the schedule has been affected by the weather. The Toreros and Cowboys will be playing a pair of games on Friday in a doubleheader beginning at 2 p.m. CST due to inclement weather that is supposed to sweep through Stillwater on Saturday.