(Photo via Luke Ramirez)
The Big West Conference has had a representative in each of the last four College World Series, but 2018 has seen its prominent programs struggle so far. Multiple teams have been decimated by injuries and have had to limp their way out of tough non-conference schedules. It has become difficult to visualize a field of 64 NCAA Regional teams with more than the one automatic bid from the Big West.
The top four teams in the conference last season are now nursing losing records this year and are going to have to right the ship soon to avoid snapping a streak of five straight seasons in which multiple teams have made playoff appearances.
Long Beach State (11-18), who won the conference crown last season and hosted both a Regional and Super Regional, has only won two weekend series to date. The Dirtbags’ roster was picked apart by the 2017 MLB draft after seven players heard their names called and went on to sign. On top of that, LBSU has had to manage without its only returning starting pitcher, senior John Sheaks, who tore his UCL one week before the opener in February. Several other key players have spent significant time on the shelf which has its impact on a team who opened the first month of the season with series against three consensus top-25 teams (TCU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M). While the strength of schedule argument is applicable in Long Beach’s case, they have failed to take care of far less imposing teams throughout the season.
Cal State Fullerton (11-15) entered 2018 after toppling the Dirtbags in an epic Super Regional that punched its ticket to Omaha. The Titans were sent packing after two losses but retained a strong core of talent that helped them enter as a pre-season top-25 team. That accolade quickly vanished after dropping seven of their first eight games. CSUF wasn’t afraid of facing top-tier competition as well with three-game sets against Stanford, Houston, and Oregon State. Junior ace Colton Eastman has been the guy that makes them go, posting a 3-2 record with a 2.47 ERA and 44 strikeouts. Eastman threw the program’s fifth no-hitter on March 29 against UC Santa Barbara to open conference play. On the other hand, Fullerton’s offense is batting a feeble .243 and has been without its leader in batting average, senior Chris Prescott (.310), who broke his hand two weeks ago. Fullerton was picked to win the conference this season but went on to lose the opening series to Santa Barbara last weekend and will have to figure some things out before it is too late.
While two perennial powerhouse programs of the West Coast labor through mid-season setbacks, one team to keep an eye on is the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii (16-10). They are the only BWC team with an RPI in the top 100. Hawaii opened conference play with the school’s first series win over UC Irvine thanks to a 21-run burst of offense over three games. Sophomore Adam Fogel is the team’s leading hitter, slashing .347/.434/.592 with three home runs and a team high 18 RBIs.
The BWC and an automatic bid into the NCAA Regional is wide open this season due to widespread disappointment from programs that have become very familiar with Omaha. Because of the state that teams like Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State have found themselves in, what happens during conference play could determine which one team is in, and which eight are out.