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January 16, 2008

Top 25 Countdown: No. 17 Long Beach St.

Head coach: Mike Weathers
Last season: 39-20, 15-6 in Big West
Postseason: The Dirtbags made another trip to the NCAA Tournament. After finishing second in the Big West, The Beach earned a Regional host. There, they were eliminated from the postseason with losses to Illinois-Chicago and UCLA.
2008 breakdown: Probable starters | Overview | Offense | Starting pitching | Bullpen | Outlook

Overview

Even with lowered expectations last season, the Dirtbags managed to surprise.

After finishing second in the Big West, the Dirtbags were awarded a Regional host. Though they were unable to get past Illinois-Chicago and UCLA, the stage was set for 2008.

The Beach enters the spring with high hopes.

The offense has some questions to answer, while the pitching staff is in great shape with Andrew Liebel and Vance Worley leading the charge.

LONG BEACH STATE DIRTBAGS
Junior shortstop Danny Espinosa leads an experienced offensive lineup.

Probable Starting Lineup
C Travis Howell
1B Shane Peterson
2B Jason Tweedy
SS Danny Espinosa
3B Brandon Godfrey
OF TJ Mittelstaedt
OF Chris Nelson
OF Jason Corder
DH Zach Barger/Rylan Sandoval
SP Vance Worley
SP Andrew Liebel
SP Tyler Topp/Jake Thompson

The Dirtbags are also led on the mound by veteran reliever Bryan Shaw and newcomer Nick Vincent, among others.

For the offense to be productive, key hitters Danny Espinosa, Shane Peterson and Brandon Godfrey must step up.

Like most teams, the Dirtbags have some questions to answer. However, they should be an Omaha contender if the pitching staff meets expectations and the offense improves.

Offense

The Dirtbags could use more overall production, but are still in good shape with Danny Espinosa, Shane Peterson and Brandon Godfrey leading the way.

Espinosa is one of the nation's most highly touted players and is coming off a productive sophomore campaign. In 2007, he batted .319 with seven homers and 38 RBIs. He also had a .519 slugging percentage and a .415 on-base percentage.

Peterson finished last season with a .327 batting average. He also hit four homers and knocked in 40 runs. Godfrey, who is making the move from first base to third base, batted .333 last season.

Besides the Big Three, the Dirtbags are looking for increased production from Jason Tweedy, Chris Nelson and Jason Corder.

Tweedy batted just .234 last season, while Nelson and Corder each hit under .281.

Also keep an eye on newcomers Rylan Sandoval and Zach Barger.

Sandoval had impressive numbers at Chabot CC last season, while Barger hopes to finally become a consistent contributor.

Starting pitching

Having a productive offensive lineup and a stable weekend rotation are the two most important factors of winning.

Long Beach State has both bases covered.

The Dirtbags still aren't sure who will start on Sundays, but the Friday and Saturday slots are in good hands with veterans Vance Worley and Andrew Liebel leading the charge.

Worley is outstanding when healthy and finished last season with a 1-2 record and a 3.64 ERA in 54 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 38 and walked 12.

Liebel was a reliever and starter last season. The right-hander went 9-3 with a 2.84 ERA in 101 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 59 and walked 19, while opponents hit .257 against him.

The Sunday slot has come down to newcomers Tyler Topp and Jake Thompson.

Topp is more experienced and is coming off a sensational sophomore campaign at Riverside CC. Meanwhile, Thompson has incredible upside and skipped his high school senior season to join the Dirtbags.

Bullpen

Teams that experience a wealth of success generally have deep pitching staffs. If history is any indication, Long Beach State is in great shape.

The Dirtbags have a talented weekend rotation, but the bullpen is their strongest suit.

The Beach is led by junior right-hander Bryan Shaw, who finished last season with 11 saves and a 2.39 ERA in 49 innings of work. He also struck out 44 and walked 21.

The Dirtbags are also eyeing newcomer Nick Vincent as a potential closer. Vincent finished last season with 77 strikeouts and 19 walks in 97 1/3 innings of works.

Besides Shaw and Vincent, the Dirtbags expect significant innings from Manny McElroy and Arizona transfer Brett Lorin.

McElroy battled an injury last season, but still finished the year with a 4.25 ERA in 59 1/3 innings of work. Lorin, a sophomore, allowed 14 hits in just 9 2/3 innings of work for the Wildcats.

Other pitchers to watch include David Roberts, Dustin Rasco, Adam Wilk and newcomer David Born.

Outlook with postseason forecast
After surpassing expectations last season with 39 wins and a Regional host, Long Beach State enters 2008 with more confidence. The Dirtbags have a few minor holes to fill, but welcome back an experienced lineup and a productive pitching staff. The Beach has a talented weekend duo of Vance Worley and Andrew Liebel. They also welcome back one of the West Coast's top closers Bryan Shaw. With the return of key players at almost every important position, the Dirtbags feel they have a great opportunity to get back to the CWS. Pitching depth could be what gets this team over the hump.

Shoes to Fill

Unlike many teams, Long Beach State enters the spring with few holes to fill.

Most importantly, the Dirtbags must adequately replace outfielder Robert Perry, second baseman Matt Cline and pitcher Omar Arif.

Perry was the table setter last season and ended the year with a team-leading .335 batting average with six homers and 52 RBIs. He also slugged .496 and had a .408 on-base percentage.

Cline, another veteran, hit .312 with 25 RBIs. He also had a .408 on-base percentage and was 9-for-13 in stolen bases.

On the mound, The Beach must replace talented left-hander Omar Arif. He finished 2007 with a 6-5 record and a 2.99 ERA in 78 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 40 and walked 23, while opponents hit him at a .275 clip.

Replacing Perry, Cline and Arif could be tough, but the Dirtbags don't have much to worry about.

Must Step Up

Long Beach State welcomes back talented hitters Danny Espinosa, Brandon Godfrey and Shane Peterson. But if they want to have one of the nation's most productive lineups, others must rise to the occasion.

The Dirtbags are looking for more production from TJ Mittelstaedt, Travis Howell, Jason Corder, Chris Nelson and Jason Tweedy.

Mittelstaedt finished last season with a .296 batting average and just eight RBIs, while Howell hit .283 with two homers and 24 RBIs. Additionally, Corder and Nelson each hit under .281.

Tweedy needs to step up the most. The senior second baseman - who replaces Matt Cline - hit .231 with a home run and 21 RBIs last season.

The Dirtbags have few question marks, but some offensive contributors must increase their production.

Impact Newcomer

The Dirtbags welcome back several players, but also look forward to having many newcomers in the mix.

With the return of a veteran offensive lineup, the Dirtbags don't need much help. However, JUCO transfers Zach Barger and Rylan Sandoval are expected to be immediate contributors.

Barger has had an interesting road. He began his collegiate career at Long Beach State, but transferred to Grossmont CC for his sophomore season. The junior then transferred back to Long Beach before being redshirted last season.

Sandoval brings an impressive resume to the table. The hard-hitting junior hit .396 with eight homers and 54 RBIs at Chabot CC last season. He also had an impressive .637 slugging percentage.

While Barger and Sandoval highlight the offensive newcomers, potential weekend starters Tyler Topp and Jake Thompson, and reliever Nick Vincent do the honors on the mound.

Topp had a 3.50 ERA in 105 1/3 innings of work at Riverside CC last season. He also has exceptional command of his fastball and can throw four pitches for strikes.

Another interesting story, Thompson skipped his senior season to enroll at Long Beach State. Thompson is somewhat inexperienced, but has great command of his changeup. He's also a power pitcher.

Vincent will also be a key contributor. The talented junior was a starter at Palomar CC last season, but will join returnee Bryan Shaw at the back end of the bullpen.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 25. Coming tomorrow: No. 16.