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Opinion: Sacramento State having a ball on diamond

Grand Canyon took two of three games from Sacramento State over the weekend to win the regular-season title. Now it’s time for the conference tournament that begins Wednesday in Mesa, Ariz., and the Hornets, seeded fourth, need to win this tournament to get back into the NCAA tournament and keep the momentum going toward becoming the college baseball kingpin of Northern California.
Grand Canyon took two of three games from Sacramento State over the weekend to win the regular-season title. Now it’s time for the conference tournament that begins Wednesday in Mesa, Ariz., and the Hornets, seeded fourth, need to win this tournament to get back into the NCAA tournament and keep the momentum going toward becoming the college baseball kingpin of Northern California. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Sacramento State’s baseball team proved over the weekend it can play with the best in its league, and the good news entering this week’s Western Athletic Conference tournament is the Hornets won’t have to play those guys again.

Grand Canyon took two of three from Sac State over the weekend to win the regular-season title. Now it’s time for the conference tournament that begins Wednesday in Mesa, Ariz., and Grand Canyon can’t play in it because the Antelopes are transitioning to Division I.

The Hornets, seeded fourth, need to win this tournament to get back into the NCAAs and keep the momentum going toward becoming the college baseball kingpin of Northern California.

Coach Reggie Christiansen is the main reason Sac State elevated to college baseball relevancy. He did it by shifting the recruiting focus to the youth and high school baseball hotbed that is Sacramento.

Of all sports played in this town, you can argue the third most significant is college baseball. After the Kings and the NBA, you’ve got major college basketball, even though you still run into folks around town who don’t understand UC Davis and Sac State play for the same rings coveted by Kentucky and Duke.

Thousands of Sacramento sports fans dig on minor-league baseball and soccer, which is fine, but let’s get something straight. Triple-A baseball is mainly about the big club’s agenda, with emphasis on individual players’ hopes and aspirations.

And no doubt soccer is the social event every time Republic FC takes to the pitch at Bonney Field. Plenty of us still feel the buzz from winning the USL championship last year. But third-division flags will not earn you a parade down K Street when they finally get that thing fixed. In the meantime, we wait to get past the bouncer guarding the door to Major League Soccer.

30-25, Sacramento State baseball team’s record this season

135-102, the Hornets’ record the past four seasons under coach Reggie Christiansen

Big-league college baseball already is here, as Sac State let us know last year when it made the NCAA Tournament. The Hornets shocked it a little bit, too, when they KO’d Arizona State, a five-time national champ that has produced an all-star lineup of alumni, from Reggie Jackson to Barry Bonds to Dustin Pedroia. Sac State didn’t make it to Omaha, but Warren Buffett will be on hand to greet them one of these years, if the Hornets stick with the path laid out by coach Reggie Christiansen.

He’s the main reason Sac State elevated to college baseball relevancy. He did it by shifting the recruiting focus to the youth and high school baseball hotbed that is Sacramento. His current roster includes 20 players from the six-county region, and the locals have helped Christiansen win at least 30 games four years in a row.

You saw at the end of Saturday’s loss to Grand Canyon why people like to play for Christiansen. For one thing, he really loves his players. In the postgame ceremony for the seniors, Christiansen’s voice cracked with emotion while he paid tribute to pitchers Brennan Leitao and Ty Nichols, shortstop Scotty Burcham and designated hitter/outfielder Kyle Moses.

“This group is special, no doubt,” Christiansen said, his eyes reddening again afterward in his office at the discussion of the stalwarts who helped turn a palooka of a program into a contender.

Sac State goes to Mesa with a 30-25 record. The Hornets were up and down all year and ended it down by losing two of three at home to Grand Canyon.

Defense hurt the club in the two losses. On Friday, first baseman Vinny Esposito from Granite Bay High School couldn’t handle a grounder in the eighth that led to the tying run in a game Grand Canyon won in extras. On Saturday, third baseman Dan Deely from Sonoma Valley High sailed a throw for an error that opened the door to a two-run first inning.

Esposito and Deely are freshmen who can hit, and hit with power, and their fielding is way more good than bad. Along with the first-year guy in center field, Bronson Grubbs of Pleasant Grove High, they are the cornerstones of Sac State’s future.

Esposito is tied for the team home run lead at seven. He also brings class when they play his theme music – Dean Martin’s “Sway” – when he walks to the plate. The tune represents relief from a musical lineup otherwise overly tinged in twang.

“I’ve made a lot of friends because of it,” said Esposito, who plays Dino’s hit as a tribute to his Italian heritage.

Musical taste won’t win many games in the WAC tournament, but pitching might, and Christiansen has lots of it in starters Leitao and Sam Long and starter/reliever Nichols. The Hornets entered the weekend with the 23rd best team ERA in the country at 3.06 and the fourth-best WHIP (walks and hits allowed per innings pitched) at 1.11.

“We’re feeling pretty confident,” said Leitao, a two-time All-WAC ace with a 6-4 record and 2.30 ERA. “We’re going to go down there and compete. We’re going to go for a little run.”

PLAY BALL

  • What: Sacramento State vs. Utah Valley in opening game of Western Athletic Conference baseball tournament
  • When: Wednesday, 3 p.m.
  • Where: Hohokam Stadium, Mesa, Ariz.
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