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."

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