Saturday, March 21, 2009

USD battles injuries as well as opposition

The injury bug has bitten USD so badly in recent weeks that it even extended to a Toreros batboy, who went down in the first game of today's doubleheader against Brown.

With USD batting in the bottom of the seventh, the Toreros' Chris Engell laid a perfect bunt down the third-base line for a two-out single. All eyes were focused on Engell beating out the bunt and teammate Tony Strazzara coming home from third base before everyone noticed a batboy down just beyond the USD on-deck circle. The kid was running out to retrieve Engell's bat when he was inadvertently hit in the chest as USD's James Meador took a practice swinging in the on-deck circle.

The boy's mother and father came down from the stands and joined a Toreros trainer and Meador, who came to his aid.

The batboy apparently just had the wind knocked out of him. He was back on his feet after a minute or two, got a high five and a fist pump from a couple Toreros players and a big hand from the crowd.

If only USD's other injuries could be overcome so quickly. Such is not the case. The list of the more prominent players who are missing in action:

— Starting pitcher Sammy Solis, who is out for the season with a herniated disk in his back. Solis looked strong in a season-opening victory over Southern at the MLB Urban Youth Academy. It was shoulder tendinitis that made Solis miss his second start. Then the back flaired up. He didn't look the same in a loss to San Diego State. Solis should heal with rest rather than surgery, according to USD coach Rich Hill.v"He will be fine next year," said Hill. "It was something that started coming on in the fall. He didn't participate in any fall drills at all. The thing got better. He was good. Seeing a chiropractor and was 100 percent healthy."

— Leaoff hitter and center fielder Kevin Muno, who is out for 6-8 weeks after breaking the third and fourth metacarpals in his left hand after being hit by a pitch last week at Rice. "We're hoping he's there for the WCC Championship Series and NCAA Regionals," said Hill.

— Catchers Nick McCoy and Steven Chatwood, who are battling knee and groin injuries, respectively. McCoy was due for an MRI to learn the extend of his injury. Preliminary diagnosis was meniscus damage, which means he could be back. Chatwood appears day-to-day depending on how he respondes to treatment.

This is all on top of early-season injuries to first baseman Jose Valerio (thumb), outfielder Bryan Haar (hamstring) and closer A.J. Griffin (shoulder). Valerio has been used as a defensive replacement but isn't swinging a bat. Haar has been eased into the lineup. Hill said Griffin, who had a cortisone shot a few weeks ago, is good, and who can argue after Griffin tossed eight innings of shutout relief last week in a win at Rice.

With injuries to some comes opportunity for others.

Freshman outfielder Jon Hotta (Oceanside High) and junior catcher Brian Farris have made the most of their chances in the starting lineup. It means the Toreros will have more depth, be more tested, when the games that make or a break a season arrive. Hotta is batting .286 (4-for-14) and could give the Toreros a big boost on the base paths. He stole 24 bases last season for the Pirates. Farris was pretty much a spectator before the injuries to McCoy and Chatwood. Now he's started five games and he was hitting .304 (7-for-23) coming into the second game of today's doubleheader against Brown.

The loss of Solis, one of the Toreros' top two starters, can be overcome on a pitching staff that is among the deepest in the nation. Especially with the impending return of senior Matt Couch, who is expected back from Tommy John surgery next week. That's just in time for USD's West Coast Conference-opening series against Pepperdine.

Kyle Blair, Matt Thomson and Griffin are expected to form the Toreros' weekend rotation. Darrin Campbell and Couch will be the first relievers called upon.

"Thomson, A.J. and Blair are obviously our go-to guys," said Hill. "We could go with A.J. for an inning on Friday, start Thomson on Saturday and A.J. on Sunday. Or we could close Thomson, He's a could candidate for the one inning deal, and start him on Sunday.

"We haven't really figured out what we're going to do, but it's going to be something like that. It's going to be seventh game of the World Series. Every game's an elimination game.

"The real key to this thing is going to be Couch. We'll throw him right into the fire. . . . Probably to close."

The schedule is accommodating USD to some degree.

The Toreros fell out of Baseball America's Top 25 after two losses in three games at Rice that dropped their record to 8-9. But Columbia came to town at the beginning of the week with only one win on the season. Three games later, the Columbians departed, still with just one win. Brown is here now. The Bears also came to town with just one win. They took USD to 10 innings today before losing 4-3. The Toreros are now 13-9 with three games left against Brown and a game Tuesday against Long Beach State before Pepperdine comes in to open WCC play.

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