Pitchers Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski led USD to a national profile the past three years, particularly last season when the Toreros came within a win of reaching the NCAA Super Regionals.
Nearly half of the Toreros’ school-record 44 victories in 2008 came with either Matusz (12-2) or Romanski (9-1) on the mound. Romanski also was one of the Toreros’ top hitters.
Now that the left-handers have moved on — Matusz with the Baltimore Orioles organization and Romanski with the Milwaukee Brewers — it is time for someone else to take the ball and throw with it.
“You can’t replace those guys,” said USD coach Rich Hill. “The other guys are going to have to take the opportunity to step up.
“In a tradition-rich program — look to USC football as the model — somebody’s ready to step in every single year. At a private school with limited resources like us, it’s difficult to do. . . . We’re not deep. We have a small roster where we pour our scholarship money into a few guys and roll with it.”
Sophomores Sammy Solis, a left-hander from Arizona, and Kyle Blair, a right-hander from Northern California, were eased into the mix a year and responded well. Ready or not, Solis and Blair will be front and center this season.
The Toreros, ranked No. 11 in Baseball America’s preseason rankings, open the 2009 season on Friday against Southern University at the MLB Urban Youth Academy Tournament in Compton. Solis (3-1, 3.83 ERA, 42 SO/49.1 IP in 2008) will be on the mound against Southern. Blair (8-4, 3.86 ERA, 99 SO/74.2 IP) follows the next day against Bethune Cookman.
“They are quite large shoes to fill, but I think everyone here is up to the task,” said Solis. “Obviously, without Matusz and Romo there are some doubts. But not with us. I think we’re stronger than we were last year, and we’re excited to get out there.”
Blair, staying with the shoe analogy, wants to take it one step further.
“Not just fill the shoes, but make that shoe size a little bigger,” he said.”If Matusz wears an 11 1/2, hopefully, I’m going to wear a 12. . . . I don’t feel any pressure at all. You just go out and do your thing.”
The load won’t be shouldered entirely by Solis and Blair. Not with the return of two other talented sophomores — Matt Thomson and Darrin Campbell — as well as senior Matt Couch (recovering from Tommy John surgery) and All-American junior closer A.J. Griffin.
But all eyes will be on the Toreros’ No. 1 and No. 2 starters to watch their development. Hill and USD pitching coach Eric Valenzuela will do their best to mold Solis and Blair. But much of it is up to the players themselves.
“Michelangelo used to look at a slab of marble and see the sculpture inside it,” said Hill. “That’s how every kid is. They are that sculpture inside that marble and they’re very unique.
“We all get in trouble when we start comparing Kyle Blair to player X, or Sammy Solis to player Y. They’ve just got to be their own person and do their own thing.”
— The schedule is front-loaded with home games (31 of the first 40 are at the Toreros’ Cunningham Stadium), so a strong start is not only important it’s expected.
— Power will not be the offense’s strong suit, so the Toreros will have to showcase their speed. Shooting for the school record (105 SB in 1980) would be a good goal. CF Kevin Muno led the Toreros last season with 21 SB. Freshman LF Bryan Haar, who swiped 17 last season at Grossmont High, could challenge him this year.
— Junior closer A.J. Griffin, another Grossmont High alum, set a USD record with 14 saves last season. The All-American could see some starts as well this year, perhaps in midweek games or on Sundays when he hasn’t appeared in a weekend series.