Monday, February 25, 2008

West Side Story

A few observations from up and down the West Coast during the first weekend of the 2008 season:

-- Top-ranked UCLA got solid outings from a pair of local products - Rancho Buena Vista graduates Tim Murphy and Gavin Brooks - in Saturday's doubleheader against Oklahoma. Brooks allowed one hit and one run in five innings of a 7-5 win. Murphy allowed five hits and two runs over six innings in a 3-2, 12-ininng loss. Neither left-hander figured in the decisions.

-- Cal State Fullerton wasn't included in Baseball America's preseason Top 25 rankings for the first time in a decade, but that didn't stop the Titans from taking two of three against a TCU team picked to win the Mountain West Conference. Fullerton's Erik Komatsu missed the cycle by a single in the season opener, driving in five runs in an 11-5 victory. TCU starter Seth Garrison was done after two innings after allowing four earned runs on five hits, walking one batter and hitting three others. TCU starter Steven Maxwell allowed four hits and two runs in seven innings in the Horned Frogs' lone win (4-2 on Saturday).

-- Two-time defending national champion Oregon State dropped two of three games (losing 8-1 to Vanderbilt and 11-0 to Arizona State while beating Miami, Ohio 8-3) at the DeMarini Invitational in Tempe, Ariz.

-- ASU swept its three games in the DeMarini, getting shutouts against Miami, Ohio and Oregon State. Sophomore Mike Leake, the pitching standout from Fallbrook High, got the win in an 18-6 victory over Vanderbilt, allowing seven hits and one earned run in six inning with four strikeouts and no walks.

-- USC, which visits SDSU on Tuesday night, completed a three-game sweep at Florida International with Sunday's 12-7 win. The Trojans scored 37 runs in the series, with first baseman Mike Roskopf (eight RBI) and outfielder Mike Buss (seven RBI) leading the way. USC homered eight times in the series.

-- Long Beach State came up short in its bid to sweep Rice, falling 3-1 in Sunday's finale. The Dirtbags won the opener 1-0 in 10 innings and took Saturday's game 3-2. The Long Beach State pitched staff compiled a 0.96 ERA in the series. The Dirtbags play host to USD on Tuesday.

-- La Costa Canyon High graduate Mike Kenney earned Loyola Marymount's first win of the season, going 5 2/3 innings in a 7-3 win at Sacramento State. The junior right-hander allowed nine hits and three runs with six strikeouts.

-- Wake Forest apparently ran out of pitching after splitting the first two games of its series at Pepperdine, getting pounded by the Waves 22-3 in Sunday's finale. Pepperdine had nine straight hitters reached base during a 10-run fourth inning in which the Waves assumed a 17-0 lead. It was scheduled to be a doubleheader (it probably still felt like it) but late-night rain on Saturday reduced it to one game because the field needed extra attention Sunday morning to make it playable.

-- UC Irvine's Scott Gorgen pitched six hitless innings as the Anteaters opened the season with a 6-0 win at Nevada. UCI followed that up with an 8-7 win Saturday. Sunday's game was cancelled because of snow. And here we thought the late start date was for all those schools in the Northeast.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

2008 Aztecs or 1927 Yankees?

San Diego State's offensive output was startling in the season-opening series against No. 11-ranked USD.

The Aztecs collected 45 hits and 37 runs in the three games(11-2 and 15-2 victories and a 17-11 loss). It didn't seem to matter who the Toreros put on the mound. It didn't seem to matter what the pitch was or where it was located. SDSU hit and hit and hit.

Most stunning was the pounding USD starters Brian Matusz, Josh Romanski and Matt Couch took. They allowed six, eight and 10 runs, respectively.

SDSU second baseman Garett Green has had the most impressive start, hitting .615 (8-for-13) with two homers and seven RBI. Returners Nick Romero and Troy Hanzawa and newcomers Cory Vaughn and Brett Tanos also have looked good at the plate, although everyone has hit up and down the lineup.

It's only three games, but you have to be impressed. USD coach Rich Hill sure is.

"This team is going to have a fun year," said Hill. "That is as good as a college lineup 1-4 (Tanos, Hanzawa, Romero, Green)as it gets. They've got a couple of those young guys in there, Vaughn and (Erik) Castro starts coming around. And then (Pat) Colwell and (Brandon) Glover. Offensively, those guys are scary.

"I've been very impressed with what Tony Gwynn and Mark Martinez have done with their hitters. Their approach has been very good."

Other observations over the weekend:

-- The Aztecs were struggling defensively behind the plate without starter Matt Parker, who is out for the season with a stress fractuce in his right ankle. Both Bubba Ruddy and Kevin Silvett were having problems blocking balls, and Ruddy was struggling simply to throw it back to the pitcher (he made an error that led to an unearned run in Saturday night's game when he threw it over Nate Solow's head). SDSU is already addressing the issue, trying Castro at catcher.

-- Vaughn hit a mammoth homer to straighaway center field in Saturday's afternoon game at USD, reminding people of the power his father Greg displayed when he hit 50 homers for the Padres in 1998.

-- Pitching is the primary concern for the Aztecs, but Stephen Strasburg was outstanding in Friday night's opener. That was to be expected. Even more encouraging was the efforts of Solow and J.R. Murphy, who combined on a three-hiter in Saturday night's win.

-- I don't believe the Toreros pitching staff has ever been hit this hard in three straight games during Hill's nine seasons as head coach. That's saying something when it's considered the Toreros have played some of the most demanding schedules in the nation the past few years. I also don't believe we'll see the staff hit so hard again this season. How could we? They'll be fine.

-- Not much to report yet on the newcomers USD will be counting on to support the offense. Freshman third baseman Victor Sanchez and outfielders Ryan Davis and Tony Strazzara each had two hits in the three games. First baseman James Meador was hitless.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Aztecs third in preseason MWC poll

San Diego State was picked to finish third in the Mountain West Conference this season in a preseason poll released today by the conference.

TCU was selected to repeat as conference champion in the vote of conference head coaches and selected media members. The Horned Frogs were followed by BYU, the Aztecs, New Mexico, UNLV, Utah and Air Force.

Three SDSU players were voted preseason all-conference — outfielder Brandon Glover, third baseman Nick Romero and pitcher Stephen Strasburg. BYU had four players and TCU three players on the 14-player all-conference team.

MWC play opens March 13 when the Aztecs play host to BYU.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Matusz and Romanski earn preseason All-American recognition

USD juniors Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski were recognized as preseason All-Americans today on the teams released by Baseball America.

Matusz, a left-hander from Cave Creek, Ariz., was one of five pitchers who were first-team selections.

Romanski, a left-hander from Corona who starts in center field when he isn't pitching, was a second-team pick in the utility spot.

Joining Romanski on the second team was Wake Forest junior first baseman Allan Dykstra, a Rancho Bernardo High graduate.

The Baseball America teams are compiled after considering input from major league scouting directors. The story said Matusz could be considered for the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, which is owned by the Tampa Bay Rays. San Diego County has produced the draft's first pick on two occasions — Eastlake's Adrian Gonzalez in 2000 and Mission Bay's Matt Bush in 2004.

"I like him better than any of the pitchers in the draft," one scouting director said in the Baseball America story. "He's a big left-hander with power and pitches. He was good in high school and he's gotten better in college."

Matusz has good command of a fastball that reaches into the mid-90s, has a good curveball and a changeup that Baseball America calls "the best in this year's draft." Matusz went 10-3 for USD last season with a 2.85 ERA and a school-record 163 strikeouts. A similar effort this season would give him the school's career strikeout mark.

Romanski was the Toreros' most valuable all-around player a year ago, going 9-1 with a 3.05 ERA on the mound while batting .335 with three homers and 30 RBI.

Matusz and Romanski played together over the summer for the U.S. National team.

Other pitchers on Baseball America's first-team squad were Misouri right-hander Aaron Crow, Pepperdine right-hander Brett Hunter and Arizona right-hander Ryan Perry. All three will accompany their teams to San Diego this season.

Matusz and Romanski also were named preseason All-Americans by and Collegiate Baseball, as was sophomore right-hander A.J. Griffin. All three were first-team selections by Collegiate Baseball. made Matusz a first-team pick and placed Romanski and Griffin, who was 6-2 with a 2.70 ERA and 11 saves as a freshman last year, on the second team.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Catching up with the Aztecs

The new year — the new season — took a month longer to get here than it has in the past, but it finally arrived today.

San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn was sitting in the dugout during the first practice of the season, delayed because of the NCAA's new uniform starting date this season, watching his Aztecs go through their paces.

"I'm excited," said Gwynn. "Every time the season gets ready to start, you're excited.

"We have an interesting team in that position-wise we have a lot of guys coming back. Pitching-wise I have a lot of guys coming back, but they were all in the bullpen. Now they're going to be starters."

Sophomore right-hander Stephen Strasburg was the Aztecs' closer last season. Now he's the staff ace. I watched Strasburg come into his own last season and followed his progress from near (observing some fall practices) and far (taking note of his opportunity to play for Team USA over the summer) in the months thereafter. His stock is soaring. More on that in the next few weeks.

Sophomore left-hander Nate Solow and senior right-handers Shane Kaufman and J.R. Murphy also will be in the Aztecs' rotation to open the season.

"We've got a chance to be pretty good," said Gwynn. "It all depends on how long it takes our starters to find themselves as starters and how long it takes to get our bullpen in order."

SDSU's strength will be with the return of third baseman Nick Romero, shortstop Troy Hanzawa, second baseman Garett Green and outfielders Cameron Johnson, Brandon Glover and Josh Chasse. Fallbrook's Erik Castro, a bounce back from the University of Arizona, appears to have the inside track at first base.

Several freshman — Brett Tanos, Cory Vaughn, Zach Babitt and Torrey Pines' Kevin Silvett — also will push for playing time. Silvett's hitting will get him into the lineup, but he may see more time behind the plate than he would have since sophomore catcher Matt Parker is out for the year. Parker was on crutches because of a stress fracture in his right ankle, an injury that will require surgery.

"Veteran guys. Senior leadership. Guys who have been around the program," Gwynn said, listing off some of the reasons he is optimistic for the season.

"We open with USD, so you know right away you're going to see quality pitching and a team that executes," added Gwynn. "You can't afford to make mistakes . . . So we're going to have to play quality baseball from the beginning."

Catching up with the Toreros

The USD baseball team opens practice each season with a weekend trip to the campground at San Elijo State Beach, about 25 miles north of the school's Alcala Park campus.

"It brings everbody together," said USD coach Rich Hill, in his office Thursday afternoon tying up loose ends just hours before practice officially begins for the 2008 season. "It's not a comfortable situation as far as camping when it's freezing cold and you're in a four-man tent. The ground is hard and wet. There's trains going by. There's all kinds of things going on that weekend. It's going through something tough together . . .

"Guys have to get to know each other. There has to be a level of trust within the family. Guys have to want to succeed and above all else they have to want the group to succeed. I think this accomplishes all that."

The Toreros are coming off the most successful season in school history, albeit one that ended abruptly with two straight losses (to Fresno State and Minnesota) in the NCAA Regional they hosted at San Diego State. USD rose as high as No. 4 in the nation last year. The Toreros are among the elite again coming into 2008, ranked No. 5 by, No. 7 by Collegiate Baseball, No. 9 by USA Today/ESPN and No. 11 by Baseball America.

"The anticipation level this year is as high as it's ever been," said Hill.

Much of the attention is focused on a pitching staff ranked top-to-bottom as the best in the nation. The weekend rotation with Brian Matusz, Josh Romanski and Matt Couch returns intact. Closer A.J. Griffin is back as well. There are other experienced returners in the bullpen and talented freshmen who will be pushing the veterans.

The question facing USD is on offense where the Toreros must replace the bats of catcher Jordan Abruzzo, second baseman Justn Snyder and right fielder Shane Buschini. Logan Gelbrich, who hit one of the more dramatic home runs in school history last year in the regional against Minnesota, replaces Abruzzo behind the plate. Senior Kevin Hansen is penciled in at second base. Vanderbilt transfer Ryan Davis will be in the outfield. In addition, the infield likely will have freshmen at the corners with Steven Kaupang at first and Victor Sanchez at third.

We'll see how quickly it comes together, but there is a noticeable difference around Cunningham Stadium compared to five or six years ago. Back then, the Toreros were still trying to break into the Top 25. It's expected now.

"We talked about a paradigm shift," said Hill. "We're much more comfortable being the team with the target on our chest. These teams like Fullerton and Long Beach State, USC back in the day, they're always going to the NCAA Tournament, always winning their (conference) championship.

"We look at ourselves like that . . . The bar has been raised. We walk out there with that attitude like, 'We're going to get it done, and this is how we're going to go about doing it . . .'

"This team has that swagger a little bit."