The second edition, in a three-part series on the 2021 San Diego State Aztecs baseball program.
Baseball returns to San Diego Friday with a matchup of crosstown rivals. The Toreros of USD will challenge the Aztecs of SDSU at Tony Gwynn Stadium. Opening Night is being streamed live on www.themw.com. The three games this weekend will be the 138th, 139th and 140th games played between the schools. Game one was played in 1962. The Aztecs lead the all-time series 76 – 58 – 3.
This is the second article previewing the upcoming baseball season for the Aztecs. The first detailed the off-the-field storylines to follow this year. The focus of this article is the overall outlook for the team.
If the Aztecs are to have the barrier-breaking season they are hoping for, it will be on the back of a pitching staff that is deep, talented, and will be competing with each other for innings. Troy Melton and Kohl Simas have already pitched their way to being two of the three starters in the rotation. How the rest of the staff shakes out will be determined over the first couple of months of the season while the pitchers build up their endurance.
“Right now, it looks like Mike Paredes will probably end up (starting) on Sunday.” Coach Martinez said at Monday’s press conference. “Back end of the bullpen will likely be Tre Brown as we enter the weekend. Trying to maintain and manage (the pitching staff) is very critical based on the fact our kids have not had the same level of training, so we’re going to be very careful with it.”
“We could say that Tre’s going to be our closer, so to speak, but I don’t know if he’ll throw twice in a weekend this early in the season. It could be a committee as we move through the first couple or three weekends before we really kind of settle into a cadence throughout the year. Right now, it would be Tre Brown, but you’re going to see a host of other guys finishing games as well.”
Whoever eventually nails down the rolls of the third starter, seventh-inning reliever, set up man, and closer, the pitchers around them will have plenty of opportunities. With doubleheaders scheduled for each weekend, it is doubtful many players will be able to pitch more than once in a weekend. Add to that the Coors Field type games the Aztecs play throughout their conference, and the depth Martinez is boasting will be put to the test.
How the staff pairs their relievers with the starting pitchers will be key to watch. Do they pitch their best relievers with the starter of the first game of the doubleheader to give those relievers more time to rest so they can pitch on Sunday? If so, do they pitch Melton the second game of the doubleheader because he should give them more innings? There are many questions yet to be answered, but there should be no doubt that the Aztecs have many excellent pitchers to choose from.
“The one thing I’ve told our pitching staff all year long is they’re the ones who will carry the mail for us this year.” Coach Martinez said at an exclusive interview with the East Village Times. “We feel good where we are at pitching staff wise, and I think we have plenty of healthy bodies…”
If the pitching is going to carry the team, the offense almost by default becomes the question mark coming into the season. Wondering if the team will hit enough to make another regional; however, does not mean there are not key pieces returning. The Aztecs are led by preseason All-Mountain West selections Jaden Fein and Matt Rudick. Fein was also named the pre-season Mountain Offensive Player of the Year by Baseball America.
Additionally, three seniors from 2020, Mike Jarvis, Ryan Orr, and Jacob Cruce, are back. Jarvis is a career .284 hitter. Orr and Cruce were having their best seasons as an Aztec before the season was cut short. In total, seven of the top nine hitters from last season return. Talented freshman, transfers, and other returning players round out the roster that should have the Aztec faithful dreaming.
“Guys that come into our program understand that there’s one rule in our program offensively,” Martinez said. “It is very simple: swing the bat. There’s also another word in between there, but ‘swing the bat’ is our mantra.”
“My philosophy is we’re still a training ground for guys who might have that opportunity past college. The only way you can learn who you are is by swinging the bat and understanding that. Tony (Gwynn) and I would talk about that all the time. There’s no other way to do it. You’re not going to learn what type of hitter you are unless you use the bat.”
“If you’re a guy who continues to swing at the inside pitch and you keep rolling it over to the second baseman or shortstop, at some point, you’re going to go, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t swing at that pitch anymore.’ You can start to understand what type of hitter you are.”
“We do allow our guys a lot of freedom. We swing the bat; we’re very offensive. We also upgrade our offense by running. Every guy in our lineup has a green light. We want them to go. We want them to run. We want them to be smart about it, but at the same time, they are never punished for going.”
The Aztecs were picked to finish first in the Mountain West and earn the conference’s automatic bid to the postseason. If they fulfill the preseason predictions, it will the first time SDSU has won a regular-season title since the 2004 season. Coach Martinez, for one, does not put much stock in the preseason poll.
“Really, that’s based on past history. Nobody really saw us play last year,” he said. “I think you kind of look at (the fact that) we’ve won some conference tournament championships and played in postseason recently. It’s nice to be thought of that way, but I think it was kind of the choice you did have to make just based on past history, not really anything off of last year.”
Fresno State, UNLV, and New Mexico, the three teams chose immediately behind the Aztecs in the preseason poll, are scheduled to come to San Diego during the first half of the conference schedule. SDSU will likely need to build a cushion in the standings because they travel on the road to face those same schools in the second half of the Mountain West slate.
If this team pitches as well as is expected and their offense can fulfill its potential, 2021 – already one of the more successful in program history off the field – can be equally as successful on it.