The Mountain West Conference was created 10 years ago and over the past decade it has never received an at-large berth to the NCAA Regionals in baseball.
In fact, the conference didn’t even get an automatic berth when it debuted in 2000. And guess who would have gone to the playoffs that season?
San Diego State.
The Aztecs won the inaugural MWC tournament championship, but the NCAA didn’t give automatic berths to first-year conferences. Figures.
SDSU has been outside looking in ever since. It’s been one thing or another — porous defense, subpar pitching , sluggish offense, take your pick — that has dashed the Aztecs’ postseason hopes.
A generation has now passed since SDSU’s most recent postseason appearance in 1991.
SDSU coach Tony Gwynn thinks about it all the time.
“Every day,” said Gwynn, whose team went 31-28 last season. “That’s never going to change. Obviously, that’s what you want to do. That’s your goal.”
The Aztecs take the first step toward that goal this afternoon when they open the 2009 season against Bethune Cookman at the MLB Urban Youth Academy Invitational in Compton.
Junior right-hander Stephen Strasburg, the nation’s top-rated pitcher, will be on the mound for SDSU .
“Obviously, having a guy like Strasburg on your staff is a huge thing,” said Gwynn. “But he’s got enough pressure already. We’re just asking him to lead our young guys and give us a chance to win.
“Everybody points the finger at Stephen being the saviour, but we have to get production from everybody.”
Pitching should be the team’s strength. Junior left-hander Nate Solow, who would be the ace of many staffs, is the Aztecs’ No. 2 starter. Senior right-hander Jon Berger also is an experienced starter. Freshman right-hander Ryan O’Sullivan figures to get weekday starts, but could pitch himself into the weekend rotation. And sophomore right-hander Addison Reed acquitted himself well in the closer’s role last season.
“We feel like our strength is our pitching,” said Gwynn. “Offensively, you just don’t know until you play somebody.”
Senior C/3B Erik Castro (.25, 5 HR, 29 RBI), junior OF Pat Colwell (.313, 3 HR, 25 RBI), INF/OF Brandon Decker (.325, 23 RBI) and sophomore OF Cory Vaughn (.243, 6 HR, 28 RBI) are returning starters.
Highy-regarded freshmen O’Sullivan (Valhalla High) and Brandon Meredith (Montgomery High) have earned starting spots at shortstop and first base, respectively.
Others must step up, however, if the Aztecs are to end the stranglehold TCU has held on the MWC title since the Horned Frogs joined the conference three years ago.
In a preseason coaches/media poll, TCU was selected to win the MWC once again. The Aztecs were picked for second place.
“We’ve come out of the gate playing pretty good baseball the last couple of years,” said Gwynn. “We just haven’t been able to finish.
“So if we’re going to struggle, I’d rather struggle early and play good late.”
— The offense went AWOL in the closing weeks of both the 2007 and 2008 seasons. A search party has been dispatched. It will report back in May.
— Middle defense has been a strong suit the past two years, but the core up the middle — shortstop Ryan O’Sullivan, second baseman Mitch Blackburn and center fielder Pat Colwell — is all new.
— O’Sullivan, a freshman from Valhalla High, is positioned to make quite an impact as the team’s starting shortstop, No. 4 starting pitcher and key offensive contributor.