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Aztec Baseball Preview Part IV: The Bullpen

Justin Hepner recorded five wins and seven saves with a 2.94 ERA last season.
Justin Hepner recorded five wins and seven saves with a 2.94 ERA last season.

Feb. 14, 2013

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -
(Part IV of a five-part on the 2013 San Diego State baseball team)

There have been times over the past decade where San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn has watched one -- or more -- of his pitchers struggle on the mound, but had few options to remedy the situation.

Too many injuries or not enough depth have tied Gwynn's hands when the situation called for a call to the bullpen.

That won't be the case this season. The Aztecs will be relieved.

"We've got arms. We've got arms," said Gwynn. "I'm thrilled about that. It's a happy problem.

"The leash is going to be a little shorter this year. If you're out there walking the yard, or struggling to throw strikes, we can go get somebody else."

Aztecs pitching coach Eric Valenzuela is pleased with the mix of veterans and newcomers.

"We're in a good situation because we have a lot of guys who deserve to get innings," said Aztecs pitching coach Eric Valenzuela. "I haven't been in this situation the past three years. I think everybody's ready from top to bottom.

"We have some older guys who have some experience and we have some young guys who are deserving of some innings We're going to see how it all shakes out."

One of the young players who has emerged is freshman Bubba Derby. The right-hander from LaSalle High has earned the job as closer.

"Derby has really come along as the guy we want at the end of games," said Valenzuela. "He's a freshman, inexperienced at this level, but he's pitched in a lot of big games in high school and done some really good things.

"He's just very tough. We're not afraid to throw him into the fire immediately. He has the stuff to win innings -- whether it's one or two or three innings -- and he has the mentality of doing it."

Derby is looking forward to the challenge.

"It doesn't matter what spot I'm going to be in, there's going to be pressure," said Derby. "It's just a matter of being able to block that out and just do what I do.

"I've pitched for good teams and I've pitched in front of a lot of scouts before, so I've really learned to block everything out. It's just me and the catcher."

Setup roles are expected to be filled by seniors travis Pitcher (El Dorado High) and Ethan Miller (Ayala High) and juniors Justin Hepner (Scripps Ranch High) and TJ Kendzora (El Toro High). The right-handers also will be the first candidates for spot starts in weekday games.

Gwynn said senior Bryan Crabb, a right-hander from Coronado High "has become a 3/4 guy now and he's getting a lot of movement and getting outs. He's going to be a factor down there, too."

Hepner had the most success among the returners, posting a 5-3 record with seven saves, a 2.94 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 52 innings over 22 appearances (three starts).

"The key for success for the team as a whole is to just keep doing things right and rely on each other and believe in ourselves," said Pitcher. "This season is going to be a lot of fun. I'm really looking forward to it."

As for the bullpen, Pitcher said: "We look great from top to bottom and we didn't really lose much from last year as far as players and talent go. Our expectations for ourselves are high."

Three left-handers junior Mitch Bluman (El Camino Real High) and sophomores Mike RoBards (Oceanside High) and Brandon Thomas (Knight High) will fill key situational roles. Bluman also has been swinging the bat and could be a good left-handed option off the bench.

Freshmen looking to make their mark include right-handers Mark Seyler (Agoura Hills High), Zack Oakley (Yuba City High), Dylan McDonald (Eastlake High), Cody Thompson (Alemany High) and Tyler Sapp (Yucaipa High) and left-hander Collin Orellana (San Marcos High).

Oakley is among those making his first trip around the block, but he already has a good sense about the staff.

"We've got some flamethrowers who are going to be tough to beat," he said. "We also have some finesse guys who teams think they should hit, but will walk away scratching their head."

Added Oakley: "I really feel like we've come together as a group and our team chemistry is great. When you have a group of guys out there playing with their friends and pulling for one another, it makes the game fun and a whole lot simpler. I'm very proud of this group."