Jan. 30, 2007
LOS ANGELES - The 2006 baseball season was as good as it's ever been for the West Coast Conference. A one-division format for the first time in years brought a playoff bid for three teams and an unprecedented opportunity to host an NCAA Regional. The Lions were in the hunt for their third straight West Coast Conference Championship series appearance until the very end, being edged out on their final weekend of play.
With much of the same expected for 2007, the returning Lions have a hunger that they're hoping carries over into the 16 newcomers. LMU was once again predicted to finish fourth among its WCC opponents, a prophecy that the Lions are accustomed to proving wrong. Picked to finish fourth three of the last four seasons, LMU Head Coach Frank Cruz led the 2004 team to a conference-best 20-7 record and the Coast Division title. His efforts earned him his third career WCC Coach of the Year selection and the top place in the 2005 WCC preseason poll.
Similarly, the 2007 Lions have the talent that could help them shake up this year's predictions. With five of the conference's eight teams mentioned in preseason national polls (including the Lions), the battle for the conference championship will be a tight one. But the Lions are pointing to a few key factors that could make all the difference for them this season, including their defense up the middle, their pitching, and a competitive non-conference schedule that will prepare them for the WCC war.
When Cruz considers the team's strength up the middle, he highlights four key returning starters that will be a big part of the Lions' defensive and offensive attack. Catcher Sean Dovel, infielders Eric Farris and Michael Glomb, and center fielder DeAndre Miller return with a combined seven years experience as starters.
Dovel is a two-time All-WCC honorable mention recipient as a catcher, and he brings the top returning slugging percentage (.469) back to the Lions' lineup. "We expect Sean to be one of the top players in the conference, and definitely among the best catchers in the WCC," Cruz said.
Behind Dovel, the Lions are deeper at the catcher position than they have been in years. Junior college transfer T.J. Bernardy comes to LMU from Cosumnes River JC, where he threw out better than 75 percent of all attempted basestealers. In LMU's fall Crimson & Navy Series, Bernardy was awarded co-Defensive MVP honors for his work behind the plate. Also available for time behind the plate and in the bullpen are returner Brett Mendoza and freshman Marty Mullins. Mendoza will likely also see time as the Lions' designated hitter, as he finished his rookie campaign hitting .317 with a .488 slugging percentage. Likewise, Mullins' offensive potential impressed the coaches during the fall.
The middle infield will look familiar to Lion fans, as Farris and Glomb are once again slated to start at second base and shortstop respectively. Farris has been an All-WCC pick both of his underclassmen seasons, earning a second-team selection as a rookie and honorable mention recognition as a sophomore. He is the top returner in batting average (.332), runs scored (36), RBI (38), and total bases (87). On top of his offensive numbers, he turns heads defensively and was named MVP of LMU's fall Crimson & Navy Series. "Eric has been our team leader for two years now," Cruz said, "and hopefully, will be this year as well."
Glomb has been a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Lions as well, but has yet to have a full, healthy season. He hit .417 in conference play in 2006.
Last year was Miller's first season with the Lions after transferring from Fresno State. The top returner in on-base percentage (.416), the center fielder will likely be used as the Lions' leadoff hitter. In LMU's fall Crimson & Navy Series, Miller shared co-Defensive MVP honors with Bernardy.
"With Sean, Eric, Michael, and DeAndre, we feel like we're pretty stable in the middle," Cruz said, "and that's really important."
While the Lions will be noticeably strong up the middle once again, the team's hottest battle for playing time will be at the corners. The frontrunner for the first base job is three-year starter A.J. LaMonda. One of the top defensive infielders in the conference, LaMonda will also be needed for his power offensively. Last season, he hit .296 in WCC play.
The other corner will likely see a newcomer earn the starting job. Ryan Wheeler, with his physical, left-handed bat, impressed coaches in the fall and they've converted him into a third baseman.
For the first time in nearly 10 years, the Lions outfield will not be packed with returners and experience. Miller and Anthony Soto, a fifth-year senior left fielder for the Lions, will anchor the outfield, although each has only been a starter for a season. Soto, in addition to his speed in the outfield and on the basepaths, also gives the Lions a good bat. He earned Offensive MVP honors in LMU's fall Crimson & Navy Series.
The right field slot will likely go to freshman Angelo Songco, a newcomer coaches are especially excited about. Other returners will definitely see time in the outfield, including two-way players Brian Wilson and Ernie Cho and senior Elvis Herrera.
The job of designated hitter will likely be a rotating one, as Wilson, Garcia, and Mendoza will likely all see at bats. Newcomer Jeremy LaMell, who brings great speed to the program from Glendale Community College in Arizona, will also get a chance at the DH spot.
Another unusual occurrence for the Lions: LMU returns its entire starting rotation in Brad Meyers, Daniel Macias, and Andy Beal. Meyers, an All-WCC second-team selection in 2006, is one of Baseball America's top-50 prospects for the June draft. He was named to both the Roger Clemens Award and Brooks Wallace Award watch lists, awarded to the nation's top pitcher and player at the end of the season. Macias had a standout junior season that resulted in All-WCC honorable mention recognition in 2006. He carried that over into summer success in the Jayhawk League.
With Beal also returning, the Lions may opt to use him frequently out of the bullpen as they did his freshman season. "We're just not sure about Sunday," Cruz said. "Andy has always done anything and everything we've ever asked of him. He was our Sunday starter the second half of the season last year, but we might put him in the bullpen. Brian Wilson may start on Sundays this season."
As a pitcher last season, the freshman Wilson made 24 appearances and four starts, totaling 46.1 innings. In one of his starts, against top-ranked Cal State Fullerton on the road, Wilson carried a shutout of the nation's top team through the sixth inning.
This season, the Lions will also have a bullpen that the coaching staff feels comfortable to turn to. Returning relievers Lee Roberts, Blake Feaser, Mike Kenney, Ernie Cho, Melvin Blackmon, Nate Keadle, and Ezequiel Ruvalcaba will all see innings out of the pen. Roberts was a WCC All-Freshman selection after finishing WCC play with three saves and an ERA of 1.80 in 15 innings of work. Feaser has had a strong recovery from surgery and is expected to be game-ready in March, after serving a medical redshirt season last year. The returners will lead a group of newcomers in the pen that includes Xavier Esquivel, Kevin Hernandez, Tim Busbin, Steve Connolly, and Jeremy Burrell. In LMU's fall Crimson & Navy Series, the freshman Esquivel took home Most Valuable Pitcher honors and could serve as the Lions' closer in 2007.
"In terms of relief pitching, we feel like there are some people we could go to a little earlier than we've had in the past," Cruz said. "So that's something that we're excited about: a bullpen that could come in and throw some strikes."
Aside from the Lions' personnel strengths, among the most exciting aspects of this year's program is the schedule. The coaching staff has assembled a non-conference campaign that ranks among the top-15 in the nation in strength of schedule. Top-15 non-conference teams like 2006 College World Series participant Cal State Fullerton and Tulane, paired with Southern California's elite like USC (#25), Long Beach State (#30), San Diego State (#33), and UC Irvine (#38) will give the Lions 35 games against teams mentioned in the preseason national polls.
"We have a solid non-conference schedule," Cruz said, "that includes tough road match-ups at Tulane and Fresno State."
Things don't get any easier once WCC play arrives on March 30. Five teams are mentioned in those national preseason polls including 19th-ranked Pepperdine, 32nd-ranked San Francisco, 46th-ranked San Diego, and Santa Clara.
The tough match-ups both in and out of WCC play leave the Lions with the 21st toughest schedule in the nation. "We know a lot of teams in the West will be in the NCAA tournament come June," Cruz said. "We're working to be one of those teams."
But first things first. The Lions open the season this Friday when Sacramento State visits Page Stadium for a three-game series. Opening Day festivities begin at 1:45 p.m. Friday.