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Baseball Gearing Up For Start Of New Season

Nick Romero, an first-team all-MWC selection in 2007, will be one of the leaders of the Aztec offense this season.
Nick Romero, an first-team all-MWC selection in 2007, will be one of the leaders of the Aztec offense this season.

Feb. 18, 2008

SAN DIEGO - With the approach of a new season, two areas of concern loom over the 2008 San Diego State baseball team. Can the offense rebound after struggling over the final portion of the 2007 campaign? Will SDSU have enough pitching to replace four starters, who were the mainstay of the staff a year ago, along with five relievers?

Late last season, SDSU found itself 10 games over the .500 mark and appeared ready to build momentum going into the MWC postseason tournament. The team, however, managed to hit just .260 over the final four weeks, winning only two if its final 15 contests to finish the year one game under .500 and prompting an early exit from the conference tourney.

"When the hitting slumped at the end, it wasn't just a couple of guys," noted head coach Tony Gwynn. "When we went bad, it was everybody. I think the year of experience our returning players got last season will really help them this spring. We really worked hard in the fall on trying to get into position at the plate and being confident in our ability to swing the bat."

Prior to the beginning of the 2007 campaign, pitching was touted to be the main team strength and that opinion was validated from opening day. The staff's 3.97 earned run average last year was the best for the Aztecs since 1996, but the down side of that success came in the form of draft day when four starters and a pair of relievers, including five juniors, were selected and signed by Major League clubs. The four starters included Donnie Hume, Steven Hirschfeld, Lance Sewell and Bruce Billings.

In addition, two of the team's other primary relievers, both juniors, did not return. All told, those eight pitchers accounted for 23 of SDSU's 29 victories.

"No doubt we lost a lot of pitching at the end of last year," said Gwynn. "This year's staff will be relatively young in terms of Division I experience, but we have some good arms returning who did well in relief roles in 2007. A number of those returning guys will move into the starting rotation along with one or two of the new players. The bullpen will have almost an entirely new look this season."

There is some good news for Gwynn and his staff in that a number of productive veterans who were solid a year ago are back and looking to improve on last year's results. That group includes first-team all-conference third baseman Nick Romero along with pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a freshman All-American and MWC Co-Freshman of the Year in 2007.

Joining Romero in the infield are second-team all-MWC shortstop Troy Hanzawa and second baseman Garett Green, the team's leading returning hitter. Also returning is center fielder Brandon Glover along with three other outfielders (Cameron Johnson, Josh Chasse and Pat Colwell) whose seasons were interrupted by injuries which kept them out of action for varying lengths of time.

"Overall it's going to be a young team without a whole lot of experience at this level," commented Gwynn. "I do think we have some good talent, both among the returners and the newcomers. We have some freshmen and transfers who are going to have an impact on this club. Players who were here last year are finding out just how good some of these guys are as they're being pushed by the newcomers."

With the late start to the season now mandated by the NCAA, the Aztecs will play the same number of games over a shorter time frame. In 2008, SDSU will play five games in a week on four occasions, whereas previously that situation arose usually no more than once a year if at all. That will necessitate more pitching, and for that reason the Aztecs begin the year with 18 hurlers on the roster.

Leading the SDSU mound corps this season will be sophomore Stephen Strasburg, who emerged as one of the top closers in the west last year with seven saves and a 2.43 earned run average. The second-year right-hander will move into the role of No. 1 starter in 2008, and be one of four members of last year's bullpen who will likely be in the starting rotation. Other expected regular starters include Nate Solow, Shane Kaufman and J.R. Murphy, all of whom toiled primarily out of the pen in 2007.

A number of candidates could also see an occasional starting assignment including James McLaughlin, a hard-throwing right-hander from Palomar JC, and Craig Rasmussen, a freshman who was an all-section honoree at Hilltop HS in nearby Chula Vista.

"With our new starting rotation, one of the keys to our success is going to be rebuilding the bullpen," said Gwynn. "With the number of games we'll be playing each week, the pen will be a big factor this season. I'm not so concerned about the starters; I think they'll be fine. The bullpen is my main concern because of the lack of experience there."

A pair of left-handed returnees will lend an amount of experience to the SDSU bullpen this season in senior Brandon Pullen and sophomore Travis McCracken. Pullen made 13 appearances a year ago with McCracken seeing action in three contests. The Aztecs also welcome back three others who were members of the team in 2007, but did not compete. Both George Snyder and Brandon Villalobos missed the year while recovering from surgery while Trevor Clausen redshirted as a freshman.

Several newcomers join the pitching staff and are expected to see action in relief roles. Jon Berger (8-3, 1.79 ERA at College of Southern Nevada) is one of four junior college transfer among the new faces. Lefty Chase Thomas earned a spot on the roster as a walk-on last fall after playing two seasons at Fresno City CC. Eric Martinez (Southwestern JC), who may be redshirted after undergoing shoulder surgery last fall. Other candidates for middle relief duty are freshmen Michael Dixon, an all-district selection from Texas, and Parker Adame, an all-league hurler out of Villa Park (Calif.) HS.

The role of closer could go to a number of pitchers with the leading candidates being freshmen Addison Reed and Brett Miller. Reed was the Inland Valley player of the year as a senior at Los Osos HS in Ranch Cucamonga. Miller, who could also see middle relief duty, was drafted last June by Tampa Bay.

The loss of Frank LoNigro and Chris Anderson leaves sophomore Matt Parker as the Aztecs' lone returnee behind the plate. After an excellent fall, Parker was slated to be the starter on opening day before being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot that required surgery. He will miss at least the first six weeks of the 2008 campaign, so the SDSU coaching staff will look at other options at catcher.

Leading the way in preseason workouts was freshman Kevin Silvett, a second-team all-state honoree out of Torrey Pines HS in San Diego. A former league player of the year, he hit .423 as a senior with 12 doubles and seven home runs.

Challenging for playing time behind the dish will be a pair of JC transfers and another true freshman. Juniors Bubba Ruddy and Jason Schaniel were teammates at Cypress Junior College the past two seasons. The former batted .265 with 10 doubles in 52 games last season while the latter hit .311 with seven doubles over 50 contests. Joining the catchers is frosh Mark Nesbit, who batted .352 and earned second-team all-league honors at Deer Valley HS in Antioch, Calif.

Three veterans return in the SDSU infield, while a new face will occupy the first base position this season.

Erik Castro, who spent the 2007 season as a freshman at the University of Arizona after signing as an all-state selection out of Fallbrook HS, is the leading candidate for the first base job. A power hitter with excellent defensive skills, Castro was a third baseman who is adapting well to a new position. Incoming freshmen Cory Vaughn, son of former major league Greg Vaughn, and T.J. Thomas, a two-time all-league selection from Long Island, could see playing time here as the season wears on.

JC transfer Marco Martelli is another option at first base after impressing the coaching staff with his offensive skills in the fall. The trio of Vaughn, Thomas and Martelli could also see action in the outfield if needed. Freshman Grant Allgire, an all-league player at La Costa Canyon HS in Encinitas, is another possibility here. Also available at first base is senior Mike Willeford who has seen action at first, second and third during his previous two seasons.

At second base, Garett Green is the incumbent and is expected to retain a starting role that he had a year ago. Brandon Decker, who doubled as an outfielder during his freshman season of 2007, could play here if needed. Also in the running is freshman Zach Babitt, an all-league player in high school and the son of a former major leaguer.

The shortstop position will be anchored by senior Troy Hanzawa, who started every game in 2007 and was the team's top defensive player while hitting also .307. Adding depth here is freshman Brett Tanos, a highly-regarded prep player who was an honorable mention All-American and league player of the year as a senior at Cypress (Calif.) HS.

Third base will be occupied by junior Nick Romero, a two-time all-conference selection who batted .319 last season while leading SDSU with 47 RBI. Others who could be utilized here included Willeford as well as Erik Castro, who played third base as a prep player and last season at Arizona.

"Romero, Green and Hanzawa will make up the heart of the infield," noted Gwynn. "All three played just about every game last year, but they're also being pushed by new guys who are trying to get playing time. We have some depth and should be solid at all four positions."

The only certain starter in the outfield heading into the season is that Brandon Glover will be patrolling center field as he did in every game last year. Glover was a second-team all-league choice and was drafted last June by Pittsburgh, but decided to return for his senior season.

Although the starters in left and right field haven't been officially determined, chances are that those spots will be filled from the returning trio of Josh Chasse, Pat Colwell and Cameron Johnson. All three suffered injuries in 2007 that kept them out of the lineup for an extended period. Cameron and Chasse began last season as the starters in left and right respectively, with Colwell moving into Chasse's spot when he was injured. Two of the three will likely be starters on opening day 2008, but all three will see plenty of time in the outfield over the course of the year.

Among the others vying for playing time are sophomore Brandon Decker, who was in the outfield in 20 games last season, and freshman Dom Johnson, who helped his St. Augustine HS team to a runner-up finish at the San Diego CIF tournament, will add depth in left and center. In addition, Martelli, Vaughn and T.J. Thomas could also see action in the outfield if needed.

"We should be pretty solid both offensively and defensively in the outfield," commented Gwynn. "We have a good deal of experience there and some good talent among the new faces. We'll be able to move some players around as well as in and out of the lineup without a big drop in production."

A glimpse at the 2008 Aztec roster might be a bit misleading. Of the 40 players, 17 are upperclassmen. However, eight of the team's nine seniors are only entering their second year at SDSU, while seven of the eight juniors are playing Division I ball for the first time. "It's going to be a young team, a young rotation," commented Gwynn, "maybe not in terms of class year, but in terms of playing time at this level. I think we're a bit deeper than we were a year ago, at least position-wise. I like our defense, and team speed should also be a plus.

"I feel that our offense will be better and we'll able to put some runs on the board. We don't have a lot of power, but we have four or five guys capable of hitting the ball out of the park. If the players can just trust what they do, we'll be successful. Our newcomers have been pretty impressive and the guys coming back have done well in the preseason. I'm optimistic that offensively we're going to be able to do some things that eluded us last season.

"The main concern is pitching, especially the bullpen aspect just because we haven't seen what a lot of the new hurlers can do in game situations yet. The bullpen just doesn't have a lot of experience at this point. I think it will all come together once we get a few games under our belt and we see exactly what we've got."

San Diego State will face 11 teams that appear in Collegiate Baseball's preseason top 40 (plus four others receiving votes), beginning with seventh-ranked San Diego to open the season. Among the others on the schedule are Arizona, Missouri, UCLA, Oklahoma State, Cal State Fullerton and Cal along with defending national champion Oregon State.