Baseball in February
You gotta love it. Baseball in February. Early February. And I'm not talking Little League tryouts. Division I College Baseball has arrived. And not a day too soon.
I drove two miles to Blair Field to watch USC, my alma mater, play Long Beach State, my hometown team, on the day before the Super Bowl. Given the sub-zero temperatures in many parts of the midwest and northeast, I almost felt guilty going to the game and sitting outside in the sun (with the operative word being "almost"). Look, we live in Southern California for the great weather, not to support a pro football team. Maybe we take the sunshine for granted out here, but I'll take my baseball anyway I can get it - and in any month.
The game I attended was the second of three in a weekend series that has become an early-season tradition for two of the finest baseball schools in the country. After losing the opener on Friday night, Long Beach bounced back and won the Saturday and Sunday tilts.
While USC has captured twice as many NCAA titles (12) as any other university, Long Beach State didn't arrive on the national scene until former coach Dave Snow took over the program in 1989. The Dirtbags made four College World Series appearances (1989, 1991, 1993, and 1998) in the next decade but have been shut out of Omaha the past eight years despite producing 18 big leaguers and the fourth-most first round picks (Bobby Crosby, Jered Weaver, Troy Tulowitzki, and Evan Longoria) since 1999 (based on the research of Baseball America, the most authoritative voice in the land when it comes to college and minor league baseball).
USC and LBSU disappointed their faithful last year with neither school making it to the Regionals for the first time since 1987. Mike Gillespie, who guided USC to the 1998 CWS championship and five Pac-10 titles in his 20 years as head coach, retired and his son-in-law Chad Kreuter, the former major league catcher, took over the program. Kreuter had been USC's director of baseball operations in 2005 and manager of the Colorado Rockies High-A affiliate in 2006.
Looking to bounce back from their down years, Long Beach State and USC will face the two toughest schedules in the country according to Boyd's World. The Trojans and Dirtbags ranked 25th and 30th, respectively, in Collegiate Baseball's pre-season poll. USC reloaded with the third-best recruiting class in the nation (including Baseball America's 2005 Youth Player of the Year Robert Stock, who skipped his senior year of high school, and shortstop Grant Green, a 2005 AFLAC All-American and member of the U.S. Junior National Team). Long Beach, skippered by Mike Weathers since 2002, also features a young club, led by sophomores Danny Espinosa, the Big West Freshman of the Year, and Vance Worley, one of the top-30 prospects in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Although I got a taste of baseball the prior weekend at the Long Beach State-Pro Alumni game, I had anxiously awaited the Dirtbags' home opener on Saturday. Shortly after I settled into my customary location behind home plate, Long Beach's Jason Corder, a transfer from Cal, jumped on a Brad Boxberger fastball and deposited it over the left field fence to give the Dirtbags an early 2-1 lead.
Boxberger, a freshman out of Foothill High School in Tustin (CA), was making his debut at the college level. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound righthander was the Player of the Year in Orange County last season when he went 12-0 with a 1.17 ERA while leading his team to the CIF-Southern Section Division II championship.
His father, Rod, was the College World Series Most Outstanding Player in 1978. The elder Boxberger (12-1, 2.00 ERA) was drafted in the first round (11th overall) by the Houston Astros - ahead of future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Ryne Sandberg, as well as Steve Bedrosian, Mike Boddicker, Tom Brunansky, Kirk Gibson, Kent Hrbek, Steve Sax, and Dave Stieb. Rod began his career in Double-A, yet never pitched a single inning beyond that classification in a professional career that ended in 1983.
The younger Boxberger, who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 20th round last June, completed five innings on Saturday, allowing four runs (all unearned) on five hits with a walk and four strikeouts. With three throwing errors - two of them on pickoff attempts at first base - Boxberger would have fit in well with the Detroit Tigers staff last October. He hit 94 on the radar gun a couple of times in the early going but dropped down about 5 mph and was throwing mostly at 89 after the first few innings.
USC's Hector Estrella, a senior third baseman, slugged a solo home run off Manny McElroy in the top of the second to knot the score at two. McElroy, a junior college transfer, was pitching in his first game for the Beach. The 6-6, 220-pound righthander posted a 10-1 record with a 1.97 ERA while earning All-American honors for Bakersfield Community College last year. He showed good command of three pitches but needs to add some pop to his 85-87 mph fastball to become more than a fringe prospect.
Long Beach scored two more runs in the second to take a 4-2 lead that was never relinquished. Adam Wilk, a freshman lefthander from nearby Cypress HS (13-1, 1.17 ERA, with 118 SO and 11 BB in 84 IP), and sophomore Bryan Shaw, the team's new closer, pitched the final 2 2/3 innings to seal the victory for the Dirtbags. Wilk changes speeds well and throws a sweeping curve from a 3/4-arm slot, saving an occasional sidearm delivery for LHB. He works at 84-86 and has the frame (6-2, 165) to add a couple more mph to his fastball before he becomes draft eligible in 2009. Shaw was consistently hitting 92 and 93 on the gun after touching 94 the week before in the Pro Alumni exhibition.
I have no doubt that there were a few first- and second-round draft picks on display this weekend although no one from either side will go particularly high in this June's draft. As such, it was no surprise that there were fewer scouts in attendance than normal.
Paul Koss, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound righthanded reliever, returned for his senior year at USC after struggling as a junior (0-8, 6.28). He resurrected his prospect status in the Cape Cod League last summer, going 2-0 with 4 SV in 11 appearances without allowing a run. Matt Cusick was All-Pac 10 as a sophomore and a Cape Cod All-Star, hitting .304 with the highest OBP (.425) in the league while striking out only 12 times in 172 PA. I compared the Trojan 3B/2B to Bill Mueller last April. An overachieving type, Cusick has neither the body (5-10, 190) nor the tools to attract as much attention as his performance would otherwise suggest.
I haven't seen Corder enough to evaluate him properly but am intrigued with the 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior's power potential. I will have more on Espinosa and Worley as the season progresses but have no doubt that they will be highly ranked next year. The former displayed his defensive wizardry at shortstop on Saturday, ranging into the hole and showing off his strong arm on more than a couple of occasions. Known as a line-drive hitter, Espinosa went yard for the first time in his collegiate career to help lead the Dirtbags to a victory in the rubber match of the series on Sunday.
Long Beach State hosts Texas this weekend in a three-game set. I'll be there to bring you the action along with more scouting reports.
Notes: Senior Robert Perry, named to the initial list of candidates for the Wallace Award as the nation's top player, led the Dirtbags with 6 hits in 11 AB. I timed the 5-9, 183-pound lefthanded-hitting OF from home to first in 4.09 on a groundball to second base in which he was out on a bang-bang call...The fastest player on the field was Long Beach freshman T.J. Mittlestaedt, a LHB who ran a 3.86 on a drag bunt and 11.47 from home to third on a head-first triple...Had USC's Stock stayed in high school and made himself available for the draft this June, most experts figure he would have gone in the top 15. The lefthanded-hitting catcher and part-time relief pitcher will not be draft eligible until 2009. He went 1-for-4 on Saturday, hitting the ball to the opposite field every time (including a popout to short on a 3-0 fastball that earned the 17-year-old an earful from Kreuter when he returned to the dugout)...Green, Stock's freshman teammate, reminds me of Tulowitzki, the former Dirtbag who played 25 games for the Colorado Rockies in September. The 6-3, 180-pound shortstop has added about 15 pounds of muscle since being drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 14th round last June. He runs well, as evidenced by his 4.23 speed to first, a time that scouts would rate as a 55 or 60 for a RHB on their 20-80 scale.
Photo credit: Rob McMillin, 6-4-2.