College baseball’s regular season was wrapped up this past weekend. Now, the Mountain West squads prepare to descend on Beiden Field in Fresno in order to begin the conference tournament, the winner of which will earn a berth in the NCAA tournament and entertain dreams of a trip to Omaha.
Local writers in each of the six communities were gracious enough to provide insights on their teams ahead of the tournament. Kirk Kenney of SDSU Baseball covers the Aztecs, who will open the tournament against Air Force beginning on Wednesday, May 22.
1. The Aztecs will finish the regular season right around the .500 mark. Is that in line with your expectations for the team before the season began?
Expectations coming into the season were for the Aztecs to challenge for the Mountain West Conference title, although New Mexico was viewed as the team to beat (and perhaps a cut above the other teams in the conference). The Lobos proved themselves as things played out on the field. San Diego State's pitching and defense were solid, but the offense had its struggles much of the time and probably prevented the team from finishing 8-10 games over .500.
2. Where does Tony Gwynn rank among the MWC managers? What is the community’s perception of Gwynn’s tenure overall?
Gwynn's status as a Hall of Fame player created high expectations when he became SDSU's head coach in 2003. He is the first to admit that the task has been more challenging than he anticipated. The public, while disappointed that the Aztecs haven't won more games and made more NCAA Tournament appearances, will seemingly always be in Gwynn's corner. And fans and boosters are no more disappointed than he is that the Aztecs haven't experienced more success.
3. SDSU possesses the best team ERA in conference play despite its record. What pitchers should we keep an eye on?
The Aztecs held junior right-hander Philip Walby (3-3, 3.60 ERA) out of this past weekend's series against New Mexico in order to save him for Wednesday's MWC Tournament opener against Air Force. Walby and sophomore right-hander Michael Cederoth (3-7, 3.87 ERA) are both power pitchers who can dominate any team, especially when they keep walks to a minimum. Cederoth is expected to start the team's second game, which, barring an upset, will be against No. 2 seed UNLV. It is an opportunity for college baseball fans to see a pitcher who touches 100 mph and is expected to be a first-round draft pick in 2014.
Senior right-hander Ryan Doran (7-2, 2.78 ERA) was the team's most effective pitcher and would get the start against No. 1 New Mexico if things play out as planned. Doran does not have the velocity of Walby and Cederoth, but he knows how to pitch and the results speak for themselves. Sophomore left-hander Mike RoBards (3-1, 3.47 ERA) emerged as a midweek starter and adds depth to the tournament rotation.
Right-handers Ethan Miller (4-3, 3.76 ERA) and Justin Hepner (1-1, 3.82 ERA) are the key middle relievers who will be called upon to build the bridge between the starters and freshman closer Bubba Derby (3-3, 3.82 ERA, 10 SV). Derby emerged during the season-opening sweep of cross-town rival USD, saving two of the three games in the series. He is mature beyond his years, goes right after hitters and is among the nation's top young closers.
4. The Aztecs also lead the MWC in team fielding percentage, so are there any defensive wizards worth watching?
Three players stand out on defense, catcher Jake Romanski, shortstop Evan Potter and center fielder Greg Allen. Romanski calls a good game, blocks the ball well and he has a strong arm and quick release, which is the primary reason opponents attempted only 77 stolen bases this season and were successful only 39 times (roughly 50 percent).
Potter displays a range and knack for getting to the ball that had many players shaking their heads on the way back to the dugout after he made a play to prevent a hit and/or save a run. Allen, the team's best all-around player, uses his speed to cover a tremendous amount of ground in center. He is equally adept going to the wall to make a grab or running in for a diving catch.
5. On the flip side, what will the offense have to do to keep up with the likes of UNLV and New Mexico? Does the lineup have any particular strengths or weaknesses?
As mentioned above, the offense has been the biggest reason for the team's .500 season. The players batted a collective .264 and produced five runs a game. Most critical was the lack of timely hits, especially in some early-season pitching duels where one hit may have made the difference between winning and losing.
The team scored three runs or fewer its first 11 losses and 22 of 28 losses overall. The offense did have its moments and, if it gets hot this week, could take the team to the tournament title. There is not a lot of power (just 13 home runs), but good speed (79 stolen bases). Key hitters in the lineup are second baseman Tim Zier (.333, 37 RBI, 14 SB), first baseman Ryan Muno (.321, 4 HR, 39 RBI), Romanski (.316, 27 RBI), Allen (.283, ), third baseman Ty France (.263, 3 HR, 27 RBI) and DH/catcher Brad Haynal (.236, 3 HR, 24 RBI).