Big West comes down to familiar foes

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Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine is one of the nation’s hottest rivalries, and it will heat up again this season with both teams expected to go the distance.

The Titans welcome back a talented pitching staff and enough key offensive cogs to have a productive campaign. The Eaters received a huge boost when Daniel Bibona decided to return for his senior season. Also, their offensive lineup will be solid and the pitching staff is in excellent shape if the bullpen rises to the occasion.

Outside of Fullerton and Irvine, Cal Poly and Long Beach State also are expected to reach the NCAA postseason this season.

Also keep an eye on UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara.

The Highlanders have some key arms to replace but coach Doug Smith always has his program ready to play. The Gauchos, meanwhile, had a disappointing 2009 season, but never underestimate the power of motivation.

The Big West is expected to have another solid campaign.

HOW THEY STACK UP

1. Cal State Fullerton – The Titans have another complete team and should expect nothing less than a trip to the College World Series.

2. UC Irvine – The Anteaters must establish more quality pitching depth but otherwise are in fantastic shape this season.

3. Cal Poly – The Mustangs could be very dangerous if their pitching rises to the occasion. The offensive lineup is one of the conference’s best.

4. Long Beach State – The Dirtbags welcome back several players from last year’s club. But on paper, the pitching staff definitely is a concern.

5. UC Riverside – Doug Smith is one of the more underrated coaches in America. Even with some tough departures, he will have his team ready to play.

6. UC Santa Barbara – The Gauchos won’t be a regional contender, but they also won’t finish at the bottom of the league with plenty of talent left from last season.

7. Cal State Northridge – The Matadors welcome back several key cogs both at the plate and on the mound. They could take a step forward this season.

8. Pacific – The Tigers welcome back several position starters, but the pitching staff must improve after finishing last season with a 6.36 ERA.

9. UC Davis – Just two seasons ago coach Rex Peters was a hot commodity. Now, we’re all wondering what has happened with the Aggies.

ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

C Francis Larson, UC Irvine

1B Steve Tinoco, Long Beach State

2B Matt Jensen, Cal Poly

SS Christian Colon, Cal State Fullerton

3B Ryan Goetz, UC Riverside

OF Gary Brown, Cal State Fullerton

OF Nick Longmire, Pacific

OF TJ Mittelstaedt, Long Beach State

DH Ronnie Shaeffer, UC Irvine

SP Daniel Bibona, UC Irvine

SP Daniel Renken, Cal State Fullerton

SP Noe Ramirez, Cal State Fullerton

RP Eric Pettis, UC Irvine

RISING STOCK

Cal Poly

The Mustangs made a statement last season with a trip to an NCAA regional. Now, they hope to establish some consistency with the return of seven position starters and several key pitchers. Cal Poly still has much work to do on the mound to take another step in the NCAA postseason. But it once again will have a potent offense. The Mustangs could be a top-20 club with a stronger pitching staff.

FALLING STOCK

UC Santa Barbara

It would be a surprise if the Gauchos made an NCAA regional. UCSB was expected to take a step forward last season with a postseason appearance. However, it finished Big West play with a losing record and only had an overall mark of 29-23 record. Now, the Gauchos hope to find a way to improve with only four returning position starters. Can the Gauchos finally surprise the Big West?

BEST PITCHER

LHP Danny Bibona, UC Irvine

Mike Gillespie’s biggest recruiting victory wasn’t a high school prospect. It was senior pitcher Danny Bibona. Bibona had an opportunity to sign a pro contract, but opted to return to Irvine for his final campaign. It’s huge news for the Anteaters. Bibona started 15 games last season, had a 12-1 record and had a 2.63 ERA in 106 innings. He also struck out 108 and walked 26 and limited teams to a .209 batting average.

BEST HITTER

SS Christian Colon, Cal State Fullerton

It doesn’t get much better than Colon. The talented shortstop has had a fantastic career at Fullerton thus far, and is poised to have another strong campaign as a junior this season. Colon batted .357 with 16 doubles, two triples, eight homers and 40 RBIs last season. He also slugged .529 and had a .442 on-base percentage. Additionally, Colon was 15-for-22 in stolen bases and broke even in strikeouts and walks with 24 each.

REGIONAL CONTENDERS

Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, Cal Poly, Long Beach State

There’s a decent chance the Big West gets five teams to the NCAA postseason. Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine are locks. Both teams also are expected to earn national seeds. Cal Poly is another team expected to make a regional. The Mustangs certainly aren’t capable of hosting a regional, but a No. 2 or No. 3 seed is in their future. Then, there’s Long Beach State. The Dirtbags will be improved this season, but how much is the question. LBSU should return to an NCAA regional. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone else rises to the occasion and nabs a regional bid.

QUICK HITS

• Cal Poly is in business if its pitching staff rises to the occasion. Much of the unit’s success hinges on the return of pitchers Steven Fischback and Frankie Reed. Fischback missed last season because of labrum surgery. The Mustangs have Fischback slated to be a mid-week starter to begin the season. The Mustangs also welcome back Reed, who missed the last two seasons because of Tommy John surgery.

• Cal State Fullerton has high hopes for Corey Jones and Carlos Lopez. Jones missed last season with a broken ankle and is expected to give the Titans a boost at the plate. Lopez is expected to do the same after missing last season with a knee injury. The Titans are in outstanding shape if Jones and Lopez meet expectations.

• UC Irvine enters the season with some question marks in the bullpen. However, pitching coach Ted Silva is confident the bullpen will be much better than expected. The Anteaters welcome back Kyle Necke and Nick Hoover. They also expect freshman right-hander Kyle Hooper to be an immediate contributor. Others to watch include Matt Whitehouse, Matt Summers and Evan Brock.

• Long Beach State’s pitching staff should receive a boost from the addition of Troy Buckley to the coaching staff. Buckley is best known for being the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator during the seasons with Jered Weaver, Jason Vargas, Cesar Ramos and Abe Alvarez. Buckley spent the last two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and is glad to be back with the Dirtbags. LBSU is glad to see him, too.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Feb 11, 2010