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Area’s Big West baseball programs face a new challenge

In a sport that has often seen Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine usually playing for a conference title or an NCAA tournament bid in late May, the season-ending three-game series that began Thursday night is unique for both teams.

There is nothing at stake.

UCI, the Big West champion in 2021 that battled Stanford into the final game of a regional, followed that 43-18 season, including a record 32 league wins, with a disappointing season and is fifth in the league standings (31-23 overall, 15-13 Big West) after losing Thursday’s opener at Fullerton’s Goodwin Field, 2-0.

Fullerton, the perennial league powerhouse dating back five decades, is finishing its second straight losing season (21-35, 13-15) and is in seventh place. Throw in Long Beach State (27-27, 15-13), currently sixth, and it’s just the second time since 2001 that all three will miss the postseason.

It happened in 2019, when UC Santa Barbara won the league title and runner-up UCI (37-17) was snubbed by the tournament selection committee.

This isn’t a referendum on the programs as much as changes nationally, heavily weighted in favor of nepotistic conferences like the SEC and ACC, and growing parity in the Big West.

UCI head coach Ben Orloff was an assistant in several seasons where the Anteaters had a solid record and resume but were passed over for an at-large berth in the 64-team tournament.

Orloff knows as much about the conference’s baseball history as anyone, having been an All-American player for UCI, but he’s realistic about modern patterns, to the degree that he went into this season convinced there would be no at-large bid for a Big West team.

“It’s just the way the game has changed,” he said. “You can look at the number of bids we’ve gotten and see that we’re now a one-bid league.”

From 2001 to 2011, at least two Big West teams made the postseason. Four teams made it twice and three teams reached June in four seasons. But since 2012, the Big West has received just its automatic bid four times, with 2022 expected to be a fifth.

Fullerton’s slump began in 2018, and with it went the league’s flag-bearer. Since 2012, UCI has made the postseason twice. Since 2009, LBSU has three appearances.

“The league has changed a lot since I was here the first time,” said Fullerton first-year head coach Jason Dietrich, who was the Titans’ pitching coach when they won 160 games during a four-year span (2013-16) that included two NCAA super regional trips and a College World Series berth.

“There’s more depth and more good programs. That’s great for the conference but it doesn’t mean it will get more postseason opportunities.”

LBSU coach Erik Valenzuela agrees and believes West Coast conferences suffered more from the COVID-19 interruptions than others.

“Teams had to change nonconference schedules,” he said. “We finished fast last season (2021) but struggled early because of a lack of practice time (following the pandemic-shortened 2020 season).”

The bottom line is that winning will be more difficult in the Big West. UCSB and Cal Poly will finish 1-2 this season. Hawaii took an 18-9 league record into the weekend and has athletic department resources from playing football that other Big West schools do not have. UC San Diego is a newcomer with the valuable UC crest and Cal State Northridge quietly has gone 31-21 in 2022.

Fullerton’s Tyler Stultz dominated UCI on Thursday night, going 8-1/3 innings while allowing six hits and striking out 11. He got out of a two-on, one-out situation in the eighth. Peyton Jones relieved Stultz in the ninth and got the save after the starter allowed two singles.

Caden Connor doubled in a run in the third against UCI starter Nick Pinto, and Damone Hale singled in a run in the seventh.

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