Long Beach State among regional hosts sent home early
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The Dirtbags found themselves in good company Sunday night.
The Long Beach State baseball team endured the sight of a UCLA celebration after a 7-4 win that culminated the sweep of the NCAA regional at historic Blair Field, but the Dirtbags weren't the only team to surrender the 2007 season on home turf in the opening weekend of the national tournament.
Joining that not-so-illustrious group were the final three national seeds: No. 6 Florida State, No. 7 Arkansas and No. 8 San Diego. And No. 4 Texas was losing 6-5 to UC-Irvine in the seventh inning before the game was suspended until Monday by rain.
If everything had played to form, the super regional round in southern California should have featured the Toreros against the Dirtbags.
Instead, both will be spectators.
Advancing from the Long Beach Regional were the second-seeded Bruins (33-26), who will be playing in the supers for the first time since 2000. They will face Cal State Fullerton, the winner of the San Diego Regional after a 13-2 victory over Fresno State on Sunday night at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
"We started off rough again, but we found our composure," UCLA coach John Savage said. "We did what we needed to do offensively and kept on going at them, and it was a great win for our program."
And one the Bruins hadn't been able to come up with during two regular-season meetings, when the Dirtbags outscored UCLA 18-2. But winning the first two games of the regional and not having to win two games Sunday just to stay alive were clearly the difference.
Long Beach survived its first elimination game Sunday afternoon by beating Illinois-Chicago 4-3.
The winning run came in the top of the sixth in classic Dirtbags fashion.
Second baseman Matt Cline fought off an 0-2 pitch and drove the ball to right field for a leadoff single. T.J. Mittelstaedt promptly sacrificed Cline with a bunt down the third base line. But when UIC third baseman Nick Rainwater charged the play in front of the mound and made the throw to first, Cline saw there was no one covering third and turned the simple sacrifice into a two-base advance.
Then Chris Nelson doubled down the right-field line and scored Cline to put the Dirtbags up 4-2.
A lot of people only remember the last game, but -- as I told the guys -- this season was incredible when we had so many new guys. Even though we came up short tonight, it was a great turnaround from last year.
From that point, UIC managed only one more run -- a leadoff homer in the seventh -- and the Dirtbags held on for the one-run win.
"Every pitcher has told our coaches that they can bounce back," starting and winning pitcher Omar Arif said after going six innings. "I told the coaches that if they need me [Sunday night against UCLA] that I'll be ready."
Long Beach coach Mike Weathers almost did.
The Dirtbags used seven pitchers to try to stop the UCLA attack but ended up surrendering 12 hits to the Bruins in the regional's deciding game.
Coming off the UIC win and with only an hour to prepare, it looked as though the Dirtbags were ready for the second challenge of the day.
Long Beach jumped to a quick 3-0 lead in the first inning and forced UCLA starter Tim Murphy to throw 31 pitches in the process.
"We had Murphy on the ropes early and really didn't get it done and get him out of the game," Weathers said. "And then he fell into a groove and we gave them a couple of runs on some missed plays."
Murphy grooved his way to an eight-strikeout, 140-pitch complete game -- the Bruins' second of the weekend -- and collected his fifth win of the season.
It was familiar territory for the sophomore lefthander, who threw 145 pitches in a 14-strikeout performance at Arizona State on May 12.
"I was definitely running a little low in the tank [at the end]," Murphy said. "My command was a little off [early on], but you can't think of that when you're out on the mound. You have to go out and compete, and I focused on one pitch at a time."
While Murphy settled down for a long night's work, Long Beach starter Shane Peterson couldn't get out of the fifth inning.
UCLA third baseman Jermaine Curtis, the Long Beach Regional MVP, led off with a homer to left to cut a 4-2 lead in half. That was followed by a single and a hit-batsman to finish Peterson's night. It took two more pitchers to get the Dirtbags out of the fifth, but not before UCLA picked up three more runs -- on the strength of a bases-loaded double by right fielder Gabe Cohen -- for a 6-4 lead it wouldn't relinquish.
Long Beach threatened in the eighth but left a pair of runners on (eight total), and in the end, couldn't convert against Murphy.
The Dirtbags finished the season at 39-20, and despite being nationally ranked in RPI (No. 7) and strength of schedule (No. 2), they find themselves still looking for their first trip to Omaha since 1998.
At least 2007 saw a return to postseason play after last season, when Long Beach found itself outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 1991.
"A lot of people only remember the last game, but -- as I told the guys -- this season was incredible when we had so many new guys," Weathers said of his club, which featured 21 newcomers out of 35 players. "Even though we came up short tonight, it was a great turnaround from last year."
Even so, the Dirtbags now find themselves like some other brand-name programs -- on the sideline for the rest of the 2007 season.
David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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