Under The Radar: Cal State Northridge

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Cal State Northridge coach Greg Moore isn’t getting ahead of himself. Sure, he’s pleased with his team’s 20-5 start, but he knows the Matadors still have to prove themselves. After all, their weekend series wins have come against 4-14 Northern Colorado (No. 261 in the RPI), 8-17 George Washington (No. 207) and 12-13 Houston Baptist (No. 165). But CSUN also has two quality wins against Connecticut (No. 77), one at Pepperdine (No. 81) and one against UCLA (No. 26). UConn is a talented, experienced club that projected as a regional team heading into the season, so CSUN’s two-game sweep of the Huskies at a tournament in Northridge was a defining moment for the Matadors in the first half of the season.

It’s still a work in progress — Northridge split a four-game series at Portland last weekend — but this team is in good shape heading into its first Big West series, a huge test at perennial conference heavyweight Cal State Fullerton.

“It’s exciting, but we’re not where we want to be,” Moore said. “We’re a good team. I don’t think we’re a great team yet, but I think we have the parts to be even better. I love this team — don’t get me wrong. The group of young men that we have, if you measure their proactivity, their character — it’s a special group of guys.”

Moore returned to that theme repeatedly during a conversation about his club — he has an unusually tight-knight, high-character group. He relayed the story of an 82-year-old donor visiting the clubhouse and later telling Moore, “It’s like walking into my living room,” because he felt so at home with the players. “They’re funny, they’re fun, they’re great to be around,” Moore said.

And all of that stuff really matters. They also have very good veteran leadership. The arrival of fifth-year senior Branden Berry, a graduate transfer from Washington, has made a huge impact in the clubhouse as well as in the lineup. Berry leads the team with six homers, 22 RBIs and a .621 slugging percentage while ranking second in batting (.345), but his impact goes far beyond the numbers.

“He has been a key, if not the key,” Moore said. “The presence, the steadiness. He has driven a lot of what we’ve done off the field. Our strength coach said to me the other day, ‘Even when Branden Berry is tired, I know he’s tired, he goes in there and makes sure everybody has a great lift.’ He’s like that whether he’s doing his internship on campus, in the cages — he’s got to be exhausted. It’s fun to watch an older guy who knows what leadership is.”

The other keys to the CSUN lineup are middle infielders Fred Smith and Yusuke Akitoshi. Smith, the team’s leading hitter at .363, has been a major spark plug at the top of the lineup while playing steady defense at second base. Akitoshi also stands out for his defense at shortstop, and he’s hitting .308 with 15 stolen bases in 16 tries.

CSUN's Yusuke Akitoshi (Shotgun Spratling)CSUN’s Yusuke Akitoshi (Shotgun Spratling)

“He’s hitting in that 2-hole, been able to steal some bases, partly because Berry’s hitting behind him, so he’s getting breaking balls to run on,” Moore said of Akitoshi, one of the few Japanese-born players in college baseball. “You can’t say he’s a five-tool player, but he kind of does a little in all the areas to contribute a tool. He gives to every part of our offense. He’s been very good defensively, made some outstanding plays and also done a good job with the routine plays.”

Then there’s third baseman Nolan Bumstead (.295), whom Moore dubbed the “quiet MVP of the team.” The Matadors lost third baseman Will Colantano to a dislocated shoulder early in the season, and Bumstead stepped right in and became a steadying force at the hot corner, providing quality at-bats, reliable defense and a calm presence. He’s another very hard worker who was recently named the department’s male student-athlete of the year.

Moore made his reputation as one of the West’s top pitching coaches during his days at San Francisco, and he has enjoyed working with this staff at Northridge even though it lacks overpowering arms. Even top pitching prospect Joe Ryan, who has flashed mid-90s velocity in the past, has worked more in the 88-91 range this year, but Moore said he’s really learning how to pitch, throwing his changeup to both righties and lefties and mixing in his power slurve. He’s worked as a starter early this year, but Moore suggested he’ll be used to strengthen the bullpen in conference play.

Northridge's Joe Ryan (Shotgun Spratling)Northridge’s Joe Ryan (Shotgun Spratling)

“The fun of this team is there’s not one guy who’s sitting above 90 — no 91-93 or 92-94 guy. But we have quite a few guys who just pitch, move the ball where they need to, cross-count, hold runners,” Moore said. “They’re doing the little things to make pitches and get outs.”

The return of lefthander Kenny Rosenberg, who redshirted last year with a back injury, has been huge. Rosenberg has settled in as the staff ace, going 4-0, 1.96 with 57 strikeouts and 10 walks in 41.1 innings. Moore said Rosenberg learned how to pitch when he was throwing in the low 80s in high school, but his velocity has climbed over the last couple years, and now he pitches at 86-89 with a very good changeup and a big, 12-to-6 Barry Zito-type curveball.

Righthander Conner O’Neil, who set the school record for saves last year, has been a force at the back of the bullpen again this year, posting a 1.91 ERA and five saves in 28.1 innings. But Moore said he’s mixing up O’Neil’s role heading into conference play; if he isn’t needed to close on Friday, he’ll get the start on Saturday. O’Neil’s bread and butter is his ability to locate his cutter to both righties and lefties, then mix in a big-breaking curveball to keep hitters off balance. If O’Neil does wind up starting more in the second half of the season, the bullpen still has a good anchor in Samuel Myers (1.37 ERA in 19.2 IP), a husky righthander with surprising athleticism and a very aggressive demeanor. He pitches at 86-88 and bumps 90 along with a slider, curveball and a changeup he can throw in any count.

That kind of pitchability is a recurring theme with this CSUN staff. Sunday starter Rayne Raven (1-1, 2.59) has battled a hip injury and worked to raise his arm slot back up to its usual low three-quarters, but when he’s on his sinker has good life at 86-87 mph, and he can mix in a slider and a changeup (which you don’t see too often from that low slot).

Maybe Northridge won’t match Fullerton’s power arms, but the Matadors carry a 2.76 ERA into the weekend, so they should be able to compete. The Big West looks very competitive this year, and Northridge’s improvement makes it even more interesting as conference play gets underway.

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