Part one of a three-part series on the 2021 San Diego State Aztecs baseball program.
Aztecs baseball is upon us.
San Diego State opens the 2021 season against the University of San Diego this Friday. The Toreros will make the short trip down Interstate 8 to renew their rivalry with the Aztecs at Tony Gwynn Stadium. SDSU is expected to win the Mountain West (MW) and be one of the West Coast’s top schools.
Pitching is the strength of this team led by preseason All-MW selection Troy Melton and USD transfer Kohl Simas. On offense, the Aztecs are paced by a pair of preseason All-MW selections in outfielders Matt Rudick and Jaden Fein. While the program’s ambitions begin with winning the Mountain West Title, they extend much further. Will this be the year where the elusive trip to the program’s first Super Regional is finally realized?
Throughout the spring, the East Village Times will provide coverage for one of the more unique seasons in program history. We begin our coverage with the off-the-field storylines worth following.
The Effects of COVID – 19
Every game played in the Covid Era is cause for celebration. It is a sign of the teams’ relative health and the culmination of months of work behind the scenes. San Diego State continues to be one of the least impacted athletic departments nationally.
“We’ve leaned heavily on our school, our university, our administration,” head coach Mark Martinez explained in an exclusive interview with the East Village Times last Thursday, “to put us in a position to have an opportunity to practice first and, obviously, be able to start cranking up the season next Friday. Kudos to the people who have put us in this position. …”
“I got to say. Our administration: JD Wicker, Bobby Smitheran, Chuck Lang, our training staff, our equipment staff, everybody has done a phenomenal job of getting our kids to understand how important it is if we want to compete. The proof’s in the pudding. You look at our football team. They didn’t have to pause. Both of our basketball teams have not had any hiccups – knock on wood. Other programs have, but I think the plan that was put in place put us in a position to compete.”
“It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of people getting on board. All hands on deck, so to speak. I’m just very thankful and very humble that we get an opportunity to play next week.”
Of course, the administration, the coaches, and the trainers are called the “support staff” for a reason. Their work supports the truly heavy lifting done by the players. Imagine their situation.
The 2020 season was cut short and canceled. Months of uncertainty away from the field in the summer gave way to more months of uncertainty on the practice field in the fall. Many local students even moved back in with their families to protect their teammates should one of them contract the virus.
On January 15th, they returned to prepare for the upcoming season. Each week, they practice, undergo testing, and submit to stricter social distancing protocols than the general public. All in the hope to play the game they love, but knowing that at any moment, through no fault of their own, it can be taken away.
“It’s been a challenging year for everybody around the country.” Coach Mark Martinez said. “You get your season stripped from you last year. A huge thunderbolt throughout college baseball, and of course, in our program is a very difficult deal. Mentality wise, we’ve spent the last seven or eight months trying to figure out how are we going to get an opportunity to play. That has been the number one thing. …”
“At times, it has been very cumbersome, trying to figure out protocols, making sure all our guys are falling in line, doing the right things – not only while they are at the athletic department, but when they are not here. It is a huge commitment from our kids.”
“We talked about this even in the summer. ‘When you decide to come back to school and participate in baseball, we’re going to ask a lot of you. We’re going to ask you to not be a social person.’ Asking an 18 – 22 person to not do social things is a huge commitment, and then, to follow those protocols.”
“The mentality then, first and foremost, is to get past that. That cumbersome piece: you have to fall in line. Do the right things day to day in order to just have the opportunity to practice. That is a mental wear and tear we went through this fall. Once we got used to it, the back end of the Fall started to feel more like a Fall of past – getting to run some interquads.”
“Same thing coming back this Spring. Repopulating; understanding you had to do certain things in order just to be able to practice. A little bit of a mental grind. Once we’ve been through it – we started on the 15th of January – now we’re cranked up and rolling day to day.”
New Weekly Scheduling and Canceling the Mountain West Tournament
In addition to the team’s challenges, the entire baseball season has undergone major changes, which should give the season a new look and feel for the longtime fan. In order to lessen the tremendous burden on their players, San Diego State will not play any midweek games as it typically does.
“We’re set.” Coach Martinez definitively stated when asked if he was looking to schedule additional games. “We’re pretty much weekend to weekend throughout the year. 36 conference games. We have UCSD, USD, and then later in the year, we have Dixie State coming in for the non-conference on an off weekend.”
“Not having midweek games is more my decision. Based on the fact it would be very cumbersome to play in the midweek with the protocols and testing to be in place just to play on a Tuesday. Our guys have been through so much this whole year. I looked at that and said, ‘Let’s try and get through a weekend. Make sure we’re all healthy, and then let the week play out so we can play the next weekend.”
The three non-conference series Martinez mentioned are the opening series with USD, next weekend against UCSD, and from April 23 – 25, the Aztecs will host Dixie State. Each of their non-conference series is scheduled to be played Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
The conference schedule will also only be played only on the weekends. Instead of a Friday to Sunday series, the conference decided on Saturday doubleheaders and a single game on Sunday.
“A doubleheader is a big deal,” Martinez explained. “Eighteen innings in one day is definitely a stressor – not only on your team in general but on your pitching staff.”
“(Beginning on) the third weekend of the year, we’re going to play eighteen innings on (Saturday). The first thing we have to do is make sure our guys are prepared and understanding that your treat each game as its own little deal and worry about the second game at that point. Figure out how to map that out. That’s definitely different.”
“I think you’re going to see less and less throwing twice in a weekend. In the past, a guy might finish a game on Friday and come back on Sunday. I think you’re going to see less and less of that, depending on their fitness level and endurance level at that time.”
With the shuttering of Boise State’s baseball team, the MW is back down to seven teams, so SDSU will play a true round-robin schedule. They will play each team in the league once at home and once on the road. There will be no conference tournament. The regular-season champion will represent the conference in the postseason.
Tony Gwynn’s Legacy
With so much canceled this year due to Covid, the local college baseball programs would not have been blamed if they had postponed the Tony Gwynn Legacy Tournament one year. However, it was too important to SDSU and USD to honor the memory of the greatest sports icon in San Diego history. On February 26, 27, and 28, while SDSU is hosting UCSD, USD will host Cal State Fullerton in the sixth annual event.
“The one thing I will tell you about The Tony Gwynn Legacy,” Coach Martinez said, “My mission, while I’m the head coach at San Diego State, is that’s going to be a tournament that lasts forever. In honoring Tony, everything he did not only for the Padres, but San Diego State and the city of San Diego. I think it’s important to continue to carry on his legacy and make sure generations understand what type of person he was, what kind of man he was, what kind of father he was. Absolutely, that’s going to continue (this year). … ”
“In the future, it will be held the second weekend of the year. I talked to Mrs. Gwynn a couple of weeks ago about expanding the tournament and including UCSD as a (host) site – trying to expand it to twelve teams. Honestly, that was the vision of Coach Gwynn. He wanted to have a big tournament at the front end of every college season. Bring in premier programs. Obviously, have the local programs that are Division One – now UCSD is – a showcase with a San Diego baseball feel to it. That’s the mission.”
“Mrs. Gwynn and myself and Anthony – Little Tony – we’re all on board to expand it to a three-site deal. I don’t know if it’ll happen this next year. We’re hoping it will, but definitely in two years, expand the tournament to twelve teams and have a premier college tournament on the front end of the year to celebrate baseball. The amount of teams that want in on this deal is a long list. It’s coaches that understand the importance of celebrating Tony’s legacy throughout that week.”
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.