SDSU Baseball in first place and rounding into form

Irwin Weems has started the season strong for SDSU. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

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OF Shaun Montoya has been a revelation on the season. He is hitting .318 and scored 27 runs this season. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)
UConn wins 10-3

With March Madness finishing Monday night, attention is shifted over to the Aztecs baseball team.

SDSU is in first place in the Mountain West after completing the series sweep against the University of New Mexico on April 2. The Scarlet and Black, who were picked in the preseason to finish third in the preseason coaches poll, now hold a half-game lead in front of San Jose State (6-3). 

The Aztecs have won all their conference series on their way to a league-leading 7-3 record. They started MW play by winning two out of the three against UNLV, including a 28-8 win over the Rebels on March 4, recording a season-high 25 hits, 23 RBIs, and eight strikeouts from the bullpen.

SDSU lines up for the National Anthem with the Air Force Academy. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Their following series against San Jose State was postponed due to weather conditions. After a few non-conference matchups, the Air Force Falcons came into Tony Gwynn Stadium and lost two games to the Aztecs, an 11-0 shutout and 13-1 the next game. San Diego State lost the last contest of the series (6-12) after senior pitcher Jonny Guzman gave up five runs at the start of the first inning. A deficit that SDSU would not overcome. Playing from behind has been one of their biggest struggles this season. The Aztecs are 0-6 when their opponents score the first three runs of the game. 

San Diego State beat New Mexico on the road by scores of 5-3, 3-1, and 19-8 in eight innings in the first weekend of April. In that last game against UNM, the Aztecs got out to a quick five-run lead by the fourth inning, courtesy of the efforts from TJ Fondtain, Cade Martinez, Poncho Ruiz, and Shaun Montoya that brought the points on the board for SDSU. 

New Mexico did not fold when they got down; they brought home seven runs by the sixth inning of the game. With the Aztecs down 7-5, Caden Miller singled to right field to bring home a run in the seventh inning. That run was the start of the end for New Mexico as San Diego State put ten runs on the board in the seventh with hits from Fondtain, Ruiz, and a three-run bomb to center field from Brady Lavoie. The Aztecs brought in three different pitchers during that sixth inning until Eldridge Armstrong III finished the game and sealed the win for SDSU. 

Pancho Ruiz applies the tag on a successful pickoff attempt from catcher Evan Sipe. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

On Tuesday night, a familiar opponent visited San Diego when UC Riverside challenged the Aztecs’ hot streak. The Highlanders took the first contest earlier this season with a 3-1 victory at Riverside. A lot has changed since the two teams met.

SDSU is still without their star player, Cole Carrigg (out with an arm injury); Coach Martinez stated that “Cool part about [Carrigg being out] it’s a next guy up mentality, and hopefully these guys can bridge that gap when he’s healthy and ready to come back.” The Aztecs look to keep the ball rolling heading towards the middle of the season. A win Tuesday would put San Diego State two wins away from .500 on the season. 

The Highlanders started hot from the first pitch, getting their first four batters on base. SDSU’s starting pitcher Ricky Tibbett, gave up four base hits before he got the Aztec’s first out.

Tibbet would end the inning with a strikeout on UCR’s Alfredo Capacete. San Diego State trailed 3-0 after the first inning as they looked to change their narrative when down this season. 

The third inning began with Aiden Russell taking the mound for San Diego State. Tibbett finished two innings giving up two K’s and five hits. It did not take long for the Highlanders to adjust to the new pitching from the Scarlet and Black. The second batter Russell faced cracked a homer to right field, making the score 4-0 in favor of UC Riverside. 

Veteran player Caden Miller kicked the third inning off for SDSU with his fifth double of the season to right field. TJ Fondtain made the crowd gasp with the sound of the ball that left his bat. He added his fifth light show over the right field wall, which cut the deficit in half, 4-2. 

Johnny Guzman throws in a loss to Air Force. (PJ Panebianco)

“I knew they were going to go in, attacking with fastballs.” Fondtain said, reflecting on his bomb in the third that brought his team within two runs, “I wanted to hunt for something that was up so I can elevate it, and I fortunate enough, they gave me a fastball right down the middle, and I was able to drive it.”

During the preseason preview, Coach Martinez mentioned Fondtain for having “pro-like” power behind his swing and what he has shown as a batter aside from his talent on the mound. Fondtain reacted by stating, “It’s amazing, it’s an honor; I’m very appreciative that he thinks of me that way, and again, we have outstanding individuals here, so I’m happy to see where this season takes us.” 

The Aztecs were not done after that as center fielder Shaun Montoya drilled a ball down the right field line, his seventh double of the year. Still with no outs, starting catcher Poncho Ruiz brought Montoya home with a single towards the shortstop. Ruiz has had a terrific year bringing home his teammates, leading the team with 26 RBIs off 96 hits.  “I just feel I need to help my teammates and my team to get some runs every time I see them on the base; I just try to bring them in,” Ruiz told EVT. 

“He’s in a really good spot with some guys setting the table for him.” Coach Martinez talked about Ruiz at the plate with runners on base, “Guys are getting on base in front of him, and he’s the right guy to have the plate in those moments, especially right now.” 

During the next at-bat, a tough scene occurred when UCR’s pitcher Cruz Barrios tried to catch Ruiz sleeping on first. Ruiz was struck in the helmet by the ball, forcing him to leave the game to be evaluated by the athletic training staff. EVT asked how Ruiz was feeling after the game on Tuesday, “It hurt in the beginning, then it was fine after; my ear was just a little ringy.”

The Aztecs got on base five times during the third inning and made this a game, determined to change the narrative when they have trailed early in ball games. “Tonight we were down 4-0,” Coach Martinez spoke about being down early in the game Tuesday, “I think that experience we had on Sunday allowed us not to panic, manage our at-bats, so it was a good night for our guys to respond, getting down early and found a way [to win].

After Russell contained the Highlanders from stepping on base in the fourth inning, Maddox Haley homered for his first time this year off a 1-0 count over the centerfield wall. The shaky start by San Diego State did not phase them as they tied the score at four each bullpen. 

UCR got their fifth run in the fifth inning after a failed pickoff attempt by Isaac Araiza that advanced Anthony Mata to second, who eventually stole third and scored off of a ground out during the next at-bat. 

SDSU celebrates a Pancho Ruiz homerun. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

There is something about runners on base this year that gives Ruiz some fuel this season, as he brought home Montoya that tied the contest at five in the fifth inning. With the bases loaded, Martinez walked, giving the Aztecs their first lead of the night at 6-5. The hot-hitting did not end, with two outs, Miller cleared all bases as he looped a double over the third baseman’s glove, which gave the Scarlet and Black a four-run lead, 9-5.

Another wild pitch in the sixth by UCR granted San Diego State their 10th run Tuesday night.

During the seventh inning, Miller got his third hit of the game and fourth stolen base on the season. The Aztecs definitely changed the narrative as they got their first win of the season when they were down 3-0 early. Fondtain brought home Martinez and Miller when his ball slashed through the center field for a two-RBI base hit. 

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The Highlanders, who once led 4-0 in the third inning, trailed 14-5 at the end of the seventh. After going hitless in his first four at-bats, Tino Bethancourt became the seventh batter in SDSU’s starting lineup that got on base at least once Tuesday night with an RBI single that drifted up toward right field. With a large lead headed to the eighth, the Aztec’s pitching decided to go with Senior LHP Brian Leonhardt to close this ballgame out. The vet struck out his first batter in five pitches, the next one in four pitches, and gave up a double towards the right field wall before the Highlander’s Ryker Billingsley grounded out to Leonhardt.

San Diego State went to their bench towards the end of the game, giving Jaron Nevarez an at-bat. Nevarez walked. Martinez followed with another walk in the eighth. Irvin Weems singled on his plate appearance, then advanced to second on a throwing error by Anthony Mcfarland of UCR. The Highlanders made one last effort in the ninth, but the Scarlet and Black put up too big of a margin for many teams to chase. 

“We’ll see!” Coach Martinez is yet to find out if his ball club is turning the corner at the right time by stating, “I think this is why you schedule these series, knowing you want to test yourself with ASU, UConn, and now USC, it’s an opportunity for us to kind of gauge where we are in a critical part of the season, and hopefully, we can play well over there and get on the road to go play a really difficult conference series the following weekend in Fresno.” 

“I’m looking forward to it, and we love going up there to play, especially me; I love going to USC and playing. Hopefully, they can feel some of that energy, too; it’s a great place to go play baseball, a historical program; they have the most national championships of all of college baseball. It’ll be a lot of fun and hopefully, our guys don’t get intimidated by it, but we’re looking forward to going up there and having a great weekend.” 

With winning efforts in the fifth inning that started this big rally for the Aztecs, Isaac Araiza picked up his first collegiate victory. San Diego State baseball is now 11-13 on the year, with a weekend series up the I-5 in Downtown Los Angeles, the third-best team in the PAC-12 University of Southern California, series beginning April 6 and running through April 8. 

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