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NCAA baseball, Long Beach regional: Long Beach State Dirtbags preview

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The San Diego State Aztecs have had success against the Big West champs this season, but can they do it again?

NCAA Regional: #4 San Diego State Aztecs (41-19) vs. #1 Long Beach State Dirtbags (37-17)

WHEN: Friday, June 2 — 8:30 PM PT

WHERE: Blair Field; Long Beach, CA

HOW TO WATCH: ESPN2

There weren’t many people who gave the San Diego State Aztecs much chance to claim the Mountain West title last week, but coming out on top in the tournament pushed Mark Martinez’s squad to 41 wins and their fourth regional berth in the last five years.

Their reward? Square off with a top-ten Southern California power.

Long Beach State cruised to its first Big West baseball title since 2008, enabled manager Troy Buckley to win his first manager of the year award, and landed four players on the all-conference first team. Yet the Aztecs drew blood against this dominant team in the regular season, and history may give the MWC champs something to hold onto: The last time Long Beach hosted a regional, they hosted a 4-seed, Fresno State, that played their way to a national title.

To learn more about the Dirtbags, I reached out to J.J. Fiddler, who writes for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Mountain West Connection: Long Beach State has shown itself to be a formidable team throughout the spring, though I noticed that Baseball America ranked the Dirtbags just 20th in the preseason, while D1Baseball.com didn't rank them at all. How much of a surprise is their ascension, really, to the top ten nationally, and what's been the biggest reason why?

J.J. Fiddler: I'm never surprised that a west coast team is overlooked by the national media. It happens all the time. That made me more surprised when they made the top ten, which came mostly because of the non-conference sweep of Cal State Fullerton.

MWC: Good collegiate catchers are hard to find, but Long Beach State's David Banuelos (.303/.375/.509) has been one of the country's best. What most makes him a player to watch in this regional?

Fiddler: He's quietly consistent. He's not going to make very many "wow" plays, but he's solid in all facets of the game. He's been the most underrated Dirtbag for two seasons.

MWC: For as good as the Dirtbags have been, Long Beach State did lose to San Diego State and UCLA twice in their regular season games. Is it possible the Aztecs and Bruins have LBSU's number? What can go right for the regional favorite this time around that didn't before?

Fiddler: The Dirtbags have lived and died by their starting pitching, which isn't very deep. SDSU and UCLA haven't seen Big West Pitcher of the Year Darren McCaughan or senior Dave Smith, who leads the conference in ERA (1.55). Those two are the key to LBSU’s success, which is also why hosting at pitcher-friendly Blair Field is such an advantage.

MWC: The Dirtbags have one of the nation's best pitching staff, finishing among the top ten in team ERA, WHIP, and walks allowed per nine innings. Who is likely to face off with the Aztecs in the regional opener, and what can we expect to see from him on the mound?

Fiddler: McCaughan (8-2, 2.66, 94 strikeouts in 108 13 innings), back-to-back conference pitcher of the year, will start Friday. He's a ground ball pitcher, so it's easy to see if he's got good stuff early.

MWC: As the regional host, I imagine the Dirtbags have placed high expectations of themselves and their chances of a trip to Omaha. In your opinion, though, what would be a satisfactory result for the season as a whole?

Fiddler: LBSU hasn't made a Super Regional since 2004, when Jered Weaver was the ace. Getting past the Regional would be a huge step in the right direction for an accomplished program returning to prominence.