In a season with no Mountain West championship, each and every regular-season game comes with even more importance. Coach Mark Martinez has described conference matchups as playoff games. To his point, he is correct. Getting to the College Baseball Tournament means they were the top team in their conference all season, not just in a short stint.
Dixie State represented their last non-conference matchup until the tournament if they get a bid. This meant it was their last opportunity without playoff-like pressure. Even without as high of stakes, the Aztecs have shown they are passionate about winning. Two of the games are nail bitters that went into the 9th and 10th innings with tie games. It’s easy to accept a loss in one of them, but they didn’t. They won both of those games on Saturday’s doubleheader, then went on for a more comfortable win on Saturday.
Coach Martinez did use this series to experiment a little bit. Across the board, there were changes to the lineup. Matt Rudick, the team’s typical #2 batter and centerfielder, sat out for most of this series. His only appearance was in the bottom of the 9th inning of game one when he would eventually score the winning run. Cole Carrigg started all three games in his place.
This series featured three different left fielders. Orr was healthy and eligible to play. The problem is his hitting. His .600 OPS is the lowest among the starters on the team. As a result, TJ Fondtain and Xavier Carter started over him for two of the games.
Carter certainly took advantage of his first career start. In his first at-bat, he launched a home run that hit near the Tony Gwynn picture in right field.
— East Village Times (@EVT_News) April 25, 2021
Another player to get some reps in left field was MW player of the week, Wyatt Hendrie. This is the second time SDSU’s starting catcher was seen playing left.
“We caught Poncho Ruiz, and we put Wyatt Hendrie in left field. He definitely has played outfield before, so it wasn’t a flyer. He’s done it before, and it allowed us to plug in a really good bat with Poncho, who is a good catcher”, coach Martinez when asked about that.
Hendrie overall had an amazing series despite missing portions of two games. In the first game, a wild pitch hit him right in the Adam’s apple. After struggling to breathe, he left the game and wouldn’t appear until the 7th inning of the second game in the doubleheader. The good news is that he was back behind the dish in the third game, and Martinez indicated he will continue to catch.
He still was 5-10 with a double, and three RBIs are on the weekend. This performance was enough for Hendrie to earn the MW player of the week award for the second time this season. As the MLB draft creeps closer, it’s expected that his name will come up in those conversations.
Hendrie also found himself moving around in the lineup, which is very rare. The lineup had pretty much been set in stone all season. Even if a backup was in, they would hit in the same spot of the order. The only change that had happened was Brian Leonhardt switching with Jacob Cruce and taking his four spots in the lineup.
In the final game, Hendrie had moved up to the two spot and Jaden Fein to the four spot. This is a huge change in line with more modern thinking of lineup creation. Get your best hitters higher in the order so they will have more at-bats. It matters less and less about the role they fill in the lineup.
Think about the San Diego Padres. Fernando Tatis Jr is the best hitter on the team. When he is first in the lineup, he doesn’t have any big RBI opportunities out the gate. The benefit is he will have more at-bats, and later in the game, there may be runners on base for him to score.
This applies to both Hendrie and Fein. Hendrie has a 1.041 OPS on the season, meaning he brings pop and on-base skills every time he is at-bat. Fein has a crazy high .510 on-base percentage. The more these two players are at-bat, the more opportunities they will have to do damage. That was reflected in the 9-1 victory on Sunday.
The pitching front was not immune to the changes Martinez made for this series. Troy Melton was back on the mound for the first game of the series, just as he did to begin the season. The biggest change came when Brian Leonhardt served as an opener for the game. He pitched two innings, then Michael Paredes, the typical starter, came in and pitched five innings.
“We’re going to keep doing it. Again, we’ve talked a little bit about our pitching staff. The critical innings are kind of where we’re breaking down, the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. What we thought we could do was get an experienced guy like Brian; he can open and get us through two innings. Then we were hopeful that Michael Paredes could pitch those critical innings, and that’s kind of what we’ve been getting, about a five-inning stint from him”, explained Martinez in a press conference today.
Martinez went as far as to say that an opener could be used for Melton too. The key for him is finding a relief pitcher that can handle facing the top of the order out of the gate. If he finds another pitcher he is comfortable with, then expect an opener for Melton’s starts.
The next series is perhaps the biggest challenge for SDSU. They will have a doubleheader on Friday and a single game on Saturday in their series against Nevada. Nevada is the only team to win a series against the Aztecs, and that was in San Diego. A road series will bring even more challenges.