Aztecs Ready for Next Rung on Ladder of Success
May 29, 2015
By Mick McGrane
SAN DIEGO -- If the once-fateful fortunes of San Diego State baseball puzzled the public, they were no less a mystery to Mark Martinez.
In a part of the country that turns out baseball players like Dunkin' Donuts does holes, Martinez quickly realized that no less than a razing was in order if resignation was ever to give way to resolve.
"When I came here my first thought was that this is a gold mine," said Martinez, who was enlisted as an assistant by late Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn in 2005. "At the same time I thought, `Why aren't they winning?' But there are a lot of things that go into making a winning program. If you're someone on the outside looking in, you don't really know about the inner workings or know what the culture of a program is all about."
Not that such logic deterred the cacophony of critics, who couldn't believe that a local collegiate baseball program couldn't recruit the occasional blue-chipper from a region with enough talent to ignite the lousiest of lineups. Nor were detractors willing to forgive losses in a league hardly hailed as Ruthian, or the losing seasons that piled up like scrap heaps in a junkyard.
This was San Diego, where baseball doesn't take a backseat. This was San Diego, where being mired in mediocrity in a game so familiar to the landscape was simply counter-culture.
Which, at SDSU, was very much part of the problem.
"When I first got here 10 years ago, the one thing that Coach Gwynn, (former pitching coach) Rusty Filter and I talked about was changing the culture of the program," Martinez said. "That's not something that happens overnight. You have to get through at least a couple of recruiting cycles. You have to make sure you identify kids who are going to make a commitment to the ideals and values of the program.
"The No. 1 thing for us was to focus on the academics of the program and find kids who were willing to grind out four years of college and graduate on time. Finding those kids took us awhile. We had a little glimmer of it in 2009 when Stephen (Washington Nationals pitcher Strasburg) was here, but we still had some hangovers as far as the (junior college) guys. We still didn't have a lot of four-year kids that were committed to the academic piece of it, but we finally started turning that over with a couple of recruiting classes where kids were graduating on time. In turn, we started having more success on the field and it created a mental toughness. If they're willing to grind out school and graduate in four years, it's going to translate to the baseball field."
And so it has. Under Martinez, who was tabbed to succeed Gwynn in August, the Aztecs have strung together consecutive 40-win seasons for the first time since 1990-91.
SDSU, which will face UC Santa Barbara in an NCAA Regional game at The Diamond in Lake Elsinore on Friday night, earned the berth after pocketing its third straight Mountain West Tournament crown last week. Opting to do it the hard way, the Aztecs took their customary approach of scaling a ravine in roller skates, dropping into the losers' bracket before winning five straight games.
A program that did not make a single NCAA Tournament appearance from 1991-2009 after making eight such appearances from 1979-91, now finds itself in the postseason for the third consecutive season.
"Talent -wise, I think we can compete with any team in the country," said Aztecs junior pitcher Bubba Derby, who is scheduled to start on Friday. "We just haven't gotten into the spotlight yet. We haven't made it to (the College World Series). But I think it's definitely an up-and-coming program. From the time that I got here until now, we've made extremely long strides.
"I'm so proud of this program. I love wearing this logo every day and I know that all of the rest of the guys do, too. Kids love signing with a program like LSU or some other big-name program, but for me it's all about helping to (build) this program. It's an accomplishment to do that."
So, too, is winning in the postseason. Despite its recent run of success, SDSU has yet to advance to an NCAA Super Regional, the launching pad for college baseball's annual World Series in Omaha. Ascending such a stage at this point may still prove a sizable hurdle for the Aztecs, but if you never dream, you'll never do.
"When I got here my freshman year, getting to the postseason wasn't even really talked about," said junior outfielder Seby Zavala, who was named the National Player of the Week by Collegiate Baseball magazine after hitting .435 (10-for-23) in SDSU's six Mountain West Tournament games. "But after that, getting (to the postseason) became something that we wanted to do consistently. We've done that, and now it's time to start winning in the postseason."
All the while continuing work on the foundation of a program that no longer settles for passable and instead seems bent on making a run at remarkable.
"The culture here has changed," Martinez said. "We have great leadership now with the kids that we brought in four or five years ago. Winning three conference tournament titles in a row is a real testament to their determination to make this program a national program. We know we have a long way to go and we still have a lot of hay to put in the barn as far as winning (postseason) games, but we're happy with where the program is at.
"We feel very fortunate that we have an opportunity to play in a regional again, but we want to take that next step and become a national program. And the only way we're going to do that is by winning. I think the recruits that we now have coming into the program have their eyes on the national prize, just as the kids that we have in the program right now believe we can compete at the national level. We feel like we belong in the (national) discussion every single year and we're not ashamed to say that."