From the dugout, the injury looked bad. From the doctor’s office, the news was worse. Yet, from his office at Blair Field, Long Beach State coach Troy Buckley could still see the positives in his Dirtbags team despite the latest in a string of injuries to starting players.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Buckley said of the upcoming season, adding he is looking forward to it. “We just have to stay the course. We still have a lot of talent out there on that field and we will find a way. We have to. There’s no other option.”
The only recourse for Buckley is to find other players to step up and fill the voids. The Dirtbags lost their third pitcher this season after John Sheaks suffered a complete tear of his ulnar collateral ligament during last Friday’s intra-squad game. He will be out 18-20 months after having surgery, according to Buckley.
Sheaks had been tabbed as the Dirtbags’ Friday night starter and counted on to lead an already decimated pitching staff. Two other returners – Matt Fields and Connor Riley – both had similar surgery in October and will sit out this season.
“That’s 140 innings from last year’s team we have lost,” Buckley said.
If Sheaks’ injury wasn’t enough, the Dirtbags lost their newly installed catcher, Cole Joy, a transfer from Irvine Valley College, for 4-6 weeks after he broke his thumb Saturday sliding into first base. He was recruited to play first, but showed enough skills behind the plate to earn the starting job.
All of which adds up to a rocky start to a promising season that begins Friday with a three-game series against St.Mary’s at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field. Long Beach State had been picked to finish second in the Big West Conference after its strong postseason showing last season. The Dirtbags won the Big West title and reached the 2017 Super Regionals.
“We had some question marks going into last year, too,” Buckley said. “This year is a little different. I hate using the ‘injury bug’ because it’s not an excuse (for us), this is reality. There’s a difference between reality and an excuse and we are really decimated right now.”
Still, Buckley can point to a few bright spots in his roster. The Dirtbags return 20 players, including their middle infielders (Laine Huffman, Jarren Duran), a strong newcomer in center field and solid relievers who will move into the rotation. Left-hander Zak Baayoun and right-hander Eli Villalobos are expected to fill the pitching voids.
“We only have nine healthy pitchers right now,” Buckley said. “Usually we have 14 (or) 15, so that will be a little bit of a challenge. And with our schedule that will be fantastic.”
Buckley was being facetious because the Dirtbags’ nonconference schedule isn’t funny. After opening this weekend at home against St. Mary’s, the team faces always tough USC on Tuesday, then heads to Texas to take on TCU, ranked No. 7 in the preseason polls.
Before March is over, the Dirtbags will have played No. 16 Mississippi, No. 17 Vanderbilt, No. 10 Texas A&M and No. 11 Cal State Fullerton. The Titans stopped the Dirtbags’ run to last season’s College World Series with a tough regional victory at Blair Field.
“I think what we’re trying to do is focus on what we can control and get better every single time we get out there,” the coach said. “So that by the time we get to conference, we have a clear vision of our identity and obviously our roles on what we need to do.
“Hopefully, (by the time conference starts) we have been punched in the mouth, got knocked down and … been able to punch other people in the mouth, metaphorically, and knock them down and learn how to win at a high clip."
The Dirtbags schedule can be viewed here. Friday night home games will conclude with a fireworks show.