This story originally appeared on perfectgame.org
Much has been made about the dramatic turnaround Long Beach State made from the 2019 season to 2020. They endured an ugly, uncharacteristic season a year ago, going 14-41, a season in which it felt as though nothing could go their way. And while they were 10-5 through the first 15 games of the virus-shortened 2020 season, their wins included series wins over Cal, Xavier, Wake Forest and Mississippi State.
That turnaround is incredibly similar to the one the program enjoyed from 1988 to 1989 when Dave Snow – a descendent of Augie Garrido’s coaching tree – took over the program and the Dirtbags were born. That team rebounded from a 14-45 season to go 50-15 on their way to LBSU’s first-ever berth in the College World Series.
Three more trips to Omaha followed in the 90s (’91, ’93 and ’98), and they were one game away from another CWS appearance in 2017. The team has only had four losing seasons since 1988 and each of those occurrences happened in pairs (2009-10 and 2018-19) that also resulted in the program looking for a new head coach.
Eric Valenzuela is the newest skipper of the Dirtbags and appears to be a perfect fit. He’s only the eighth head coach in Long Beach State’s history, and for as surprising as the team’s turnaround appeared to be, it is less surprisingly considering the amount of success that has followed Valenzuela with each stop he has made, as both a player and as a coach.
During his first season at Arizona State as a player the Sun Devils advanced to Omaha. In his last year as a player at Pepperdine the Waves went 42-18 and captured the West Coast Conference title. He helped guide San Diego and San Diego State to success as an assistant coach prior to taking the head job at Saint Mary’s, where he led the Gaels to four straight 30-win seasons and their first-ever WCC title and Regional appearance in 2016.
A heralded pitching coach and recruiter, Valenzuela’s has worked with numerous successful young arms, including Brian Matusz at San Diego, Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State and Corbin Burnes at Saint Mary’s.
If the first game of the season could set the tone for the rest of the year that’s exactly what happened on February 14 as 2020 got underway. It’s what Coach Valenzuela called a dogfight, as the Dirtbags went into extra innings against Cal in a game tied 1-1. Cal tacked on a run in the top of the 13th only to have LBSU answer with two of their own in the bottom of the inning for the walkoff win.
It was a win that the players said they would have never won a year ago as nothing seemed to go their way. However, Valenzuela was quick to point out that the team itself really hadn’t changed.
“If you play at Long Beach State you’re a good player,” Valenzuela said during a recent phone interview with Perfect Game. “That’s where it begins. These guys were good players (before I arrived). Maybe the record last year and the year before doesn’t look very good, but that doesn’t mean the coaches didn’t recruit well. It just happens sometimes.”
Outside of one midweek game at San Diego State, Long Beach State’s 2020 schedule through the first 15 games was played at home. Sweeping an ACC and SEC foe – Wake Forest and Mississippi State – while shutting down two of the nation’s top offensive lineups was impressive, and certainly helped push the Dirtbags into the realm of the nation’s best as a Top 25-ranked team. However, they hadn’t been tested on the road yet.
That was up next, a three-game series against Tulane in New Orleans scheduled for March 13-15. Like Long Beach State, Tulane had entered the season without much fanfare. Travis Jewett was entering his fourth season at the helm, a noted recruiter hired away from Vanderbilt when David Pierce left to lead the Texas Longhorns. And more importantly, at 15-2, Tulane was off to one of the best starts of any program in the nation.
However, the coronavirus had already crept into the states and left many wondering how the virus, quickly escalating into pandemic status, would affect the 2020 season. On Thursday, March 12 the Long Beach State baseball team had an early flight to New Orleans out of Los Angeles. Not knowing why, when or how the season would be affected, LBSU took to the sky and headed East.
Valenzuela had been in touch with Long Beach State’s Athletic Director, Andy Fee, numerous times before embarking on their first road trip of the season. He also repeatedly contacted Jewett to make sure the two programs were on the same page. Valenzuela had even been in touch with Fresno State skipper Mike Batesole another program with a road series (against Oklahoma State in Stillwater) just in case each teams’ travel plans fell through.
The goal, after all, was to keep their players safe. Both Fee and Valenzuela did their due diligence with the LBSU President and the team physician to determine the safety of this venture. With an early morning flight and no official word on the status of the season, they decided to move forward as planned.
“They were hungry, they were ready to go,” Valenzuela said of his team and their travel plans. “It was our first road trip, we were ready to roll. We just didn’t want to not go out there and (other) teams were playing. Here we are and we’re missing a weekend, and it was an important weekend, two ranked teams, we’re going there, our first road trip, it’s going to make us better and then everybody plays and we don’t.
“I would rather it be how it happened. We went out there (and) it didn’t happen. We showed that we went out there, we wanted to play.”
Midway during their flight Valenzuela, his staff and the players had learned the Big West had suspended all athletic activities.
This announcement came one day before the NCAA effectively shut down the entire 2020 season. However, at the time Valenzuela’s mind wasn’t on the season but his players. He had the entire team and his coaching staff heading to New Orleans, and before their plane had even landed they were already planning for a return trip home. What they didn’t know when they touched ground was whether or not that flight home would be on the same day or the next, and whether or not the entire team would be able to travel together.
Losing the entire 2020 season obviously was a colossal disappointment on so many different levels. However, what makes it so much worse is when you start thinking about some of the specific teams and matchups that we don’t get to watch materialize in front of us.
Long Beach State at Tulane was definitely one of those.
It starts with the matchups, and it’s hard to think of many head-to-head pitching encounters better than Long Beach State’s Adam Seminaris toeing the rubber opposite Tulane’s Braden Olthoff. Both were off to incredible starts to the 2020 season, among the best of any in the nation.
Seminaris wasn’t the only member of the LBSU pitching staff enjoying a breakthrough season. Saturday starter Alfredo Ruiz also had some loud performances through the first four weeks of the season, which included seven shutout innings against Cal on the second day of the season. Freshman Luis Ramirez, the team’s Sunday starter, was also impressive in the early going, particularly making a strong impression with his poise and ability to do so many of the little things that make seasoned vets successful.
“I feel like one of my strengths is to really learn each of these guys individually, especially on the mound – what they like to do and what their strengths are,” Valenzuela said of his approach with his young players. “That’s what we do a good job of, realizing that everybody is different … and they have to pitch differently.”
For Seminaris much of his success was predicated on the development of his breaking ball. He enjoyed success in 2019, but he wasn’t racking up a lot of strikeouts, feeling he didn’t have a true swing-and-miss pitch to consistently miss bats with. He went to the Cape last summer and developed a really good curveball, along with a slider with cutter-like movement, to complement his upper-80s to low-90s fastball and already well-established changeup. And the results speak to that development with 36 strikeouts, and only three walks allowed, in 22 innings of work.
Ruiz needed more of a big picture change to his routine. It took a little more guidance, coaching him up on his breaking ball, fastball command, changing his grips and working on being quick to the plate, among other things. Again, similar to Seminaris, those teachings had clearly set in as the sophomore lefthander was 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA through four starts, with similar, dominant peripheral numbers.
As for Ramirez, the freshman, it was all about getting him accustomed to life in the Big West Conference at the Division I level. That requires a little more hand holding with more foundational instruction. And Ramirez quickly proved to be an excellent student with the ability to soak in that knowledge and adapt quickly, leading to a 2.73 ERA and a 27-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first 26 1/3 college innings.
Add in several notable improvements from key bullpen arms and you had a team with a staff ERA of 2.38 through the first four weeks of the season.
“I call pitches for these guys – I call them suggestions – they can shake anytime they want,” Valenzuela said of his in-game approach. “And I want them to. I always tell them ‘if I call a suggestions and you guys shake and give up a home run I will never say anything. That’s the pitch you want to throw.’ Plus it takes away the excuse factor too. You call a pitch and they give up a home run they can’t look in the dugout like ‘I didn’t even want to throw that pitch.’ They can’t do that in this system.”
The offense had enjoyed a similar turnaround. Valenzuela had brought associate head coach Bryan Peters with him from Saint Mary’s to Long Beach. Peters, who spent one year at Saint Mary’s with Valenzuela, had a long track record of success at several different schools in Florida, most recently guiding offensive juggernaut Nova Southeastern at the NCAA Division II level.
Under Peters’ tutelage it was clear the players had quickly adjusted to the new style of offense being taught to them. And it wasn’t just the same old West Coast offensive that is all about moving runners over and manufacturing runs. Valenzuela also knew he couldn’t make excuses for playing his home games at spacious Blair Field.
“Blair Field is just a great way for guys to make an excuse of why we can’t be successful offensively,” Valenzuela said. “We just refuse to believe that. We’re going to use it to our advantage. A big field means bigger fans and bigger lines and we’re going to drive baseball into those gaps, down the lines and over the fence. If the game calls for a bunt or a drag or a push or a ground ball to second base to move a guy over with nobody out, we’re going to do those things too.”
While the hitting numbers weren’t as gaudy as the pitching ones, four regulars were batting .290 or better. Blair Field had suppressed the power numbers, but the team was executing, getting on base and moving guys over to create more run scoring opportunities.
Redshirt freshman Connor Kokx, who missed most of 2019 due to injury, was batting .400 with five doubles. Calvin Estrada had six two-baggers while batting .290. Leonard Jones had two of the team’s three home runs while batting .327 with a team-leading nine RBI, 28 total bases and a .509 slugging percentage.
And the more you listen to Valenzuela talk you realize for as simple as the concepts he preaches are getting those concepts to translate into wins is much easier said than done. Getting back to the basics, playing good defense, throwing strikes, executing on offense and playing with an energy and passion are all things you’ll frequently hear him say. And when he says those things with the amount of passion that he does, it’s hard not to take him seriously.
“You’ve been punched in the jaw (already), moving forward nothing else can hurt you,” Valenzuela said. “Play with nothing to lose. The expectation on a higher level from the fans and everything else is huge, but at this point in time coming off of the season they had (in 2019) there’s no pressure at all. Let’s just go out there and have fun.
“Everybody wants to win. It’s just the question is how. You can win game simply by playing good baseball.”
Once the Dirtbags touched down in New Orleans Valenzuela knew his day wasn’t done. His initial thought was to get to the team hotel and grab a meal before trying to put together the pieces on their return trip. It ultimately was decided that they would fly back the very same day, making for an especially long and emotional travel day.
But before that happened he also wanted to make sure they made the most of their whirlwind one-day adventure, taking in some culture with some Po Boys and a stop at New Orleans’ most iconic location: Bourbon Street.
Once back in Long Beach the LBSU players, along with those across the nation, knew the season was over. Some held out hope that conference play would somehow resume, even if there was no College World Series to cap things off.
And while the Dirtbags didn’t get the opportunity to see if they could repeat the team’s magical turnaround and overall run from 1989, it’s clear that the program had re-captured the aura and essence that has made it unique for so many years.
“I want our fans and recruits to see that we’re definitely fundamentally strong,” concluded Valenzuela. “We’re tough and we’re going to play some good baseball.”