Tuesday, April 21, 2009

USD's call to arms

Pitching injuries have hit USD especially hard, costing the Toreros their entire weekend rotation at various points this season.

USD opened the year with senior Matt Couch still mending from last year's Tommy John surgery. Sophomore Sammy Solis was lost three weeks into the season with a herniated disk. And sophomore Kyle Blair has been sidelined in recent weeks with biceps tendinitis.

Couch, who had a cortisone shot recently to ease shoulder pain, is expected to be back for this weekend's West Coast Conference series against Portland. Solis is out for the season. Blair is expected to rest for another week with the hope that things will have calmed down enough to return to the mound the first week of may at Loyola Marymount.

Junior right-handers A.J. Griffin (6-2, 3 SV, 3.10 ERA, 54 SO in 49.1 IP), an All-American as the Toreros' closer the past two years, and Matt Thomson (5-2, 4.91 ERA, 68 SO in 62.1 IP) have stepped into the breach, along with relievers Scott DeNault, Tyler Fick and Matt Hauser.

"Credit goes to A.J. and Thomson, who have really been willing to tax their arms," said USD coach Rich Hill.

Griffin, who today was selected USD's male Athlete of the Year, is nothing short of amazing. He emerged as the school's closer as a freshman two years ago and earned All-American recognition after going 6-2 with 11 saves in 34 appearances. He made 29 appearances last season, set a school record with 14 saves and earned a spot on the U.S. National team.

Hill toyed with the idea of using Griffin starting and relieving this season, but kept him in the 'pen until the injuries mounted and forced his hand. Griffin's pitch eight shutout innings in his first collegiate start, an 8-0 win at Rice that marked the turnaround for a team struggling to get over .500.

So, in fact, the injuries haven't all been a bad thing.

"A lot of creativity has been borne out of it," said Hill.

Sophomore Zach Walters has been a hitter in search of a position the past two years at USD. He bounced around the infield for more than a year before finding a home in center field after starter Kevin Muno suffered a broken hand at Rice earlier in the year. Walters has been so good that Muno may have to move to left field now when he's healthy next month.

USD may uncover some hidden pitching talent, too.

Toreros coaches recently asked position players to raise their hands if they were interested in taking the mound to show off their arms. Several players volunteered. A couple showed some promoise. Freshmen outfielders Bryan Haar and Austin Green may even get a chance to pitch in tonight's game at Cal State Fullerton. Hill was especially impressed with Green, who hit 90 mph with his fastball and showed a good curve.

I knew Green had a strong arm (he put it on display from right field two years ago at the San Diego Showcase, a local high school event hosted that year by USD), so it will be interesting to see what he can do on the mound.

USD (25-15) has battled through the injuries and still has an opportunity to make this a memorable season. Despite losing series at Gonzaga and Saint Mary's the past two weekends, the Toreros are tied with LMU atop the WCC standings at 8-4. The top two teams in the regular season play for the conference's automatic NCAA Regionals berth. USD, with an RPI that is still in the 20s, also could be in line for an at-large berth.