The calendar shows it’s almost time for March Madness. The big leaguers have taken to the fields of Florida and Arizona, and it’s only another month until the Masters descends on Augusta.
As America moves into one of the fine times of the sports year, and as Sacramento prepares for its annual visit from LeBron James, you might want to set aside a few moments to get excited about Sacramento State baseball.
Rain crimped the Hornets’ home-opening series over the weekend against South Dakota State, but nothing could diminish the glow of their return home last week after a 10-day visit to the Deep South. The trip put them on the national college baseball map.
Beating LSU was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. It was an overall team win like you’ve never seen before.
Vinny Esposito, Sac State first baseman
First, the Hornets visited the plains of eastern Alabama where they took two of three from Auburn, a team that made the NCAA Tournament last year. Next, they bused to the bayous of Natchitoches, La., where they handled Northwestern State in a one-game stopover. Finally, they went into Baton Rouge and stole a game from fifth-ranked LSU, the six-time NCAA champion coming off a fifth-place finish in the College World Series.
One of these years, college baseball is going to become a big deal around here. Sac State and UC Davis are geographically positioned to pluck from a bounty of local talent. Both teams earned spots in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, and sooner or later, one of them will make a run on Omaha.
UC Davis shocked No. 20 Michigan last week at Dobbins Stadium, but the 4-7 Aggies are picked by Big West coaches to finish last in the tough conference. For 6-3 Sac State, the time is closer to now.
“I think we’re a really, really good team, and I think we have a chance to beat anybody in the country any time,” Hornets coach Reggie Christiansen says.
Sac State’s 5-4 win over LSU on the recruiting-tool trip has to be put in context – it was sandwiched between two one-sided losses to the Tigers by scores of 6-0 and 11-1. Still, it ranks as one of the greatest victories in school history, right there with a 7-6 KO of No. 4 Oregon State two years ago at Raley Field and a 7-4 stunner over No. 6 Arizona in 2005 at Hornet Field.
Only this time, more than 11,000 fans watched the game at LSU’s stadium, and the Hornets had to come from behind with two runs in the ninth inning to win.
Vinny Esposito is Sac State’s sophomore first baseman with a power swing and an old-school ear for Dean Martin. Last year during home games, he stepped to the plate every time to “Sway.” This year, Esposito selected the cool “Mambo Italiano” for his batter’s box inspiration. Vinny won the most valuable goombah award for the LSU win by hitting a leadoff home run in the fourth and a sacrifice fly in the ninth to break a 4-4 tie.
“Beating LSU was the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Esposito said. “It was an overall team win like you’ve never seen before. The whole team just had this feeling. Every time we go to the dish, it was competitive. Every time we were on the field, it was, ‘We’re going to get three outs here.’ It was just a matter of going out and executing, and that’s what we did.”
Relievers Tanner Olson, Chad Perry and Tyler Beardsley tag-teamed for two scoreless innings each after LSU had taken a 4-1 lead in the third. Beardsley got the win with a one-two-three, 11-pitch ninth against the top of the order while the biggest crowd he’d ever played in front of shook the stands.
Beardsley stayed cool by focusing on his teammates cheering him from the dugout rather than the home fans who implored LSU’s hitters to turn him into a dish of crawfish etouffee.
I think we’re a really, really good team, and I think we have a chance to beat anybody in the country any time.
Reggie Christiansen, Sac State coach
“There’s definitely some adrenaline going, which fires me up quite a bit,” Beardsley said. “It was definitely a special thing for me and my teammates.”
The split of the six games against Southeastern Conference competition gave the Hornets a huge confidence boost, Christiansen said. The coaches in the improved Western Athletic Conference picked them to finish second, behind defending champ Grand Canyon. Sac State won the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles two years ago and beat Arizona State in an NCAA Tournament regional before being eliminated.
Christiansen thinks this year’s team can get there, too. His top pitcher, left-hander Sam Long, is the best in the WAC, according to the coaches’ preseason vote. Three community college transfers – third baseman Kody Reynolds, shortstop Trent Goodrich and left fielder Andrew McWilliam – add maturity to the lineup. McWilliam and Goodrich each drove in a run in the win over LSU and Reynolds had three hits in the game. Plus, Sac State has a freshman designated hitter, Matt Smith,who is leading the team in RBIs with 10.
“I’m very optimistic,” Christiansen said.
The Hornets play again Wednesday at 6 p.m. against Nevada at Raley Field. LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers meet the Kings at Sleep Train Arena that night, but there’s only one place in town where you’ll be able to sway to “Mambo Italiano.”