After 20 Years of Dominance, Long Beach State Struggles To Return To Form
Blair Field, home of the Long Beach State Dirtbags.
Fans laugh and joke while standing in line waiting for a $6 beer. A collage of advertisements decorates the outfield wall. Staff members recruit children to play games on the field between innings.
Blair Field, home to the Long Beach State Dirtbags, has the ambience of a minor league ballpark, and over the last 20 years, the performance on the field has often been reminiscent of minor league talent. Under the tutelage of coaches Dave Snow and Mike Weathers, the Dirtbags enjoyed 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1989 to 2008.
Over those two decades, Long Beach State reached the College World Series four times and won eight conference championships. The Dirtbags made 17 trips to the NCAA tournament and finished with a stellar .633 winning percentage over the 20-year period. Their worst conference finish was a fourth place finish in 1990.
Recently the Dirtbags have fallen off though. Long Beach State has uncharacteristically been one of the weaker
teams in the Big West the last two seasons, finishing sixth
in the nine-school conference last year and experiencing its first losing
season since 1988.
"The [Big West Conference] has gotten better," UC Santa Barbara coach
Bob Brontsema said. "There's more balance across the league."
This season, the Dirtbags are again hovering around the .500 mark, reaching
11-11 only after winning both halves of a doubleheader Saturday.
Last week's games against Hawai'i and Oregon State highlighted the team's deficiencies.
Against Hawai'i, starting pitcher Nate Underwood gave up just three hits in 4.2 innings, but the offense couldn't produce runs and the bullpen couldn't stop the Rainbows from scoring. Long Beach State lost 8-2.
"We shoot ourselves in the foot," said Weathers, who has been at the helm of the Dirtbag program since 2002. "You can't play baseball like we're playing and be a good team. Most good teams haven't made the mistakes we're making."
On Wednesday, those mistakes included two runners caught stealing and another one picked off at second base.
The bullpen committed even more atrocious errors, allowing Hawai'i to break open a tight 3-2 ballgame with five runs in the final two innings.
Three of those runs came in the eighth inning. Hawai'i managed just one hit in the inning, but the Dirtbags' relief corps walked three batters and hit two more.
"The bullpen's got to get better. They just come out there and cause us problems," Weathers said.
The instability of the bullpen showed Friday on the road at Oregon State as well.
Instead of providing relief, the relievers added gasoline to the napalm. In four innings, they allowed 13 runs on 11 hits. The defense didn't provide any support either, committing an egregious five errors.
"After a [big] inning [for the opposition], we feel like we're out of it because we're not capable of hitting home runs," Weathers said. "We're just not capable of getting the extra base hits and driving people in."
But there are positive signs lurking amidst the mistakes the team has been making.
After the Dirtbags suffered their worst team ERA in 21 years last season, Troy Buckley was asked to return as associate head coach in charge of pitchers and catchers, the same role he occupied for seven seasons prior to joining the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization as the minor league pitching coordinator.
Weathers believes Buckley could be the key to the team returning to national prominence. He notes the decrease in team ERA this year as evidence. Opposing coaches agree.
"Troy's always been able to bring in some real good arms on the mound," said Larry Lee, coach of conference foe Cal Poly. "And he's always been able to develop those arms."
Brontsema and Lee said Long Beach State's recent struggles are an aberration rather than a trending decline.
"You're not always going to have a staff full of [National Player of the Year] Jered Weaver's," Brontsema said.
"They're good every year," Lee said. "The bar is set so high, a down year for them is a good year for most teams. I don't ever see them being down and staying down."