Big West Baseball at a Glance
The teams are listed in predicted order of finish according to the Big West media:
(1) Cal State Fullerton Titans
The Titans were the overwhelming preseason pick to capture their third consecutive Big West Title under Skipper George Horton. Two years removed from winning the College World Series, the Titans are ranked fifth in the nation by Baseball America and have 20 of their position players returning from last year. The Titans will be led by closer Vinnie Pestano, currently on the Roger Clemens Award List, and last year’s All-Big West honoree, shortstop Blake Davis.
(2) Long Beach State 49ers
The 49ers are ranked 22nd in the nation by Baseball America and should challenge the Titans for the Conference Title. Hard-throwing right-hander Jared Hughes will be the ace of one of the Conference’s best pitching staffs, while preseason All-American shortstop Evan Longoria (unfortunately no relation to you-know-who) is one of the most complete players in the country and will likely become the MVP of the conference if he duplicates last season’s performance.
(3) UC Irvine Anteaters
If Head Coach Dave Serrano can build on the success he had in his first season, the Anteaters will be a major threat to make a conference title run this season. Having lost six players to the MLB draft, the Anteaters will look for leadership and strong performances from their workhorse starting pitchers, Justin Cassel and Glenn Swanson.
‘I think the team performs very well when these two are out on the mound because they provide leadership on and off the field,’ Serrano said.
Along with Cassel and Swanson, the Anteaters have great depth in the bullpen with hard-throwing right-handers and many situational lefties. Yet, the main factor in the Anteaters’ bullpen will be their closer.
‘A dominant closer in college baseball is very instrumental in the success of a team,’ Serrano said. Fortunately for him and the rest of the Anteaters, they have one of the best in the game. Closer Blair Erickson, currently on the Roger Clemens Award List, looks to replicate last season’s dominance in which he compiled a 1.80 ERA to go along with 10 saves. While Serrano stated that Erickson will be used strictly in the ninth inning, he did not rule out handing Erickson the ball earlier in situations if needed.
On the offensive side, the Anteaters will play a very aggressive style of baseball, according to the skipper. ‘We are going to steal, hit and run, and take the extra base. It is going to be an exciting brand of offense,’ Serrano said.
Given the pitcher-friendly dynamics of Anteater Ballpark, Serrano believes the Anteaters must utilize their speed and drive the ball into the gaps to be successful, rather than depend on the home-run ball. Shortstop Chad Lundahl and outfielder Brian Peterson will provide the Anteaters with tremendous speed at the top of the lineup as the Anteaters will ‘try to play for a run an inning,’ according to Serrano.
The biggest challenge for the Anteaters will be trying to split or come out ahead in their matchups against Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach, while taking care of the lower-ranked teams in the conference. Despite this, a sense of excitement has captured many of the players, as well as Serrano.
‘Our goals are set very high,’ Serrano said. ‘We are not going to worry about what the other teams do, but rather how we can improve each day. Our goal every year is to get to the big dance, but more importantly, to build excellence and tradition here at UCI.’
(4) Cal Poly Mustangs
The Mustangs are coming off their best season in the Big West Conference as they finished tied for second place a year ago. The Mustangs lost many of their All-Big West pitchers from last year and will look for the big bats in the lineup to carry them through the conference. Returning outfield sluggers Matt Cooper and Jimmy Van Ostrand are legitimate home run threats every time they come to the plate, and the Mustangs will look to pitcher Gary Daley to step up and become the ace of their starting rotation.
(5) UC Riverside Highlanders
The Highlanders’ strategy for the victory will be to try to outscore their opponents, as only one of their starting pitchers compiled a winning record last season. They will depend highly on their offensive firepower as they return four players who hit .300 or better a year ago: outfielders Aaron Grant and Brett Bigler, as well as catcher Nick Salotti and infielder Andrew Martinez.
(6) Pacific Tigers
With a good mix of seniors and freshmen, the Tigers are projected to have a steady season in which they should win about half of their games. The Tigers will be led by Jordan Seiber who finished last season with a team-high 41 RBIs.
(7) UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
The Gauchos will need former Big-West Freshman of the Year, infielder Chris Valaika, to put an injury-riddled sophomore season behind him and recapture his dominant freshman form if they hope to establish a winning record this season.
(8) CS Northridge Matadors
Third basemen Erik Hagstrom is the lone bright spot for the Matadors as the team looks to play the spoiler role in the conference. Even though Northridge was picked to finish last in the conference, other teams should not take them lightly as they opened the season with an upset victory against No. 12 Arizona State, 13-2.