Three storylines for SDSU baseball

SDSU gathers in the outfield. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

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Shaun Montoya (left) and Cade Martinez will be counted on in 2024. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)
SDSU wins 4-2
TJ Fondtain and Pancho Ruiz hit HR’s

The San Diego State Aztecs begin their 2024 baseball season this weekend, hosting a three-game series against Portland.

Friday’s season opener is scheduled for a 5 pm start in head coach Shaun Cole’s first game as a head coach.

After sharing the Mountain West regular season title with San Jose State with an 18-11 conference record in 2023, the Aztecs will not only aim to win the conference outright this year but improve on a 6-18 non-conference record. 

The league’s seven head coaches voted the Aztecs to finish fourth in the conference in the Preseason Poll released last week.

To Cole, the goal is to win the Mountain West conference, but with an understanding that 2024 is part of the extended journey. 

“I’ve been saying more and more to just our staff about this (being) a foundational year,” he elaborated on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “2026, 2027, that’s when we should be making a run at Super Regionals and Omaha. So, there are steps in the process. I hope that this group really really takes us as far as they can this year, but I think they’re in a good place for us to at least be in a great position to win the Mountain West, win the conference tournament, and then get into a regional and get hot at the right time and we’ll see where they take us.” 

Here are three storylines to watch as the season unfolds. 

Offensive Balance

Throughout the conversation with coach Cole, the word ‘balance’ repeatedly came up as a main theme he and his staff have preached to the players. 

Shaun Montoya at the plate in 2023. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

“I learned from Andy Lopez at Arizona to keep the game simple,” he said. “Play catch on defense, put the ball in play on offense, and throw strikes on the mound, and usually good things work out. So we’re just seeking balance all the way across the board, behind the dish, on the dirt and in the outfield and just play catch. Don’t miss your cuts, don’t make mistakes basically. So those are the things that we are preaching right now, and we’ve been working on.”

For a team that excelled in pitching but struggled offensively in 2023, the Aztecs hope the offense transcends upward. The team batted .249 with 34 HRs and 260 runs scored last year. 

“You got to be able to hit singles,” Cole stated. “You got to be able to take the extra base. You got to be able to steal bases, and if you’re able to do those things and create chaos on the bases, that’s when it usually opens up for the home run to show up. If we’re going to have guys on base, and we’re able to distract the pitchers a little bit, then that’s when location starts to get sacrificed, and balls get up in the zone, and then we just can’t miss those pitches, and we got to be able to knock them out of the park.”

Under the tutelage of new assistant coach Tony Tarasco, the offense’s identity involves being aggressive but smart on the base paths. 

The Aztecs stole 72 bases in 106 attempts last year. With Cole Carrigg (team-high 17 stolen bases) off to play in MLB, Shaun Montoya (16 of 23) and Irvin Weems (11 of 15) will aim to continue the success on the base paths. 

“I think that’s something that coach Martinez established a long time ago, and we’re looking to carry that forward,” Cole explained, while adding that aggressive base-running doesn’t just include stolen bases. 

“I’ve seen a bunch of guys going hard out of the box, going for doubles, and we’ve had some first to thirds and guys running on dirt balls, so we’re definitely going to be aggressive on the bases, and that’s going to be a part of our identity as a team.”

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Starting Rotation

The Aztecs have led the conference in ERA in each of the last two seasons and will look to continue their strong pitching in 2024.

Cole announced junior Chris Canada, junior Omar Serrano, and sophomore Xavier Cardenas as the starting pitchers in that order for this weekend’s series. Canada and Serrano are two of the 13 players named to the Preseason All-Mountain West team and the only Aztecs of the group. 

Canada finished 3-5 with a 5.69 ERA last season, but was second in the conference in fewest hits allowed, tied for fifth in strikeouts and eighth in opposing batting average. 

Serrano had similar misfortune as Canada, finishing 1-5 with a 5.43 ERA while leading the conference in fewest hits and runs allowed and second in opposing batting average. 

Xavier Cardenas in 2023. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

“I always lean toward resumes and experience, and I think the natural progression always was for (Canada) to be the Friday guy,” said Cole when asked about his weekend rotation. “He has been the Sunday guy, has been the Saturday guy. Same with (Serrano). He did a great job with Sunday last year. So move him up to Saturday.”

Cardenas, who Cole said he believes has top 5 MLB Draft abilities during an interview on Episode 86 of The SDSU Podcast, could be in line for a breakout year after a 1-0, 2.08 ERA in 13 innings pitched as a true freshman in 2023. Although he was not recognized by the league’s Preseason honors, Cardenas was named on Perfect Game’s Preseason All-Mountain West team and named Preseason Mountain West Pitcher of the Year by 

“(Cardenas) has pitched well enough to argue that he should be the Friday guy, but I don’t forget that he’s not far removed from high school,” Cole explained for not moving up arguably his most talented pitcher to earlier in the rotation. “I just don’t want to push the gas too fast with (Cardenas). Plus, if our older guys do what they’re supposed to do on Friday and Saturday, it sets us up really well with a really good Sunday guy.”

Freshman Hometown Hero

The Aztecs brought in a large freshman class in 2024. 19 of the 21 newcomers are true freshmen, with only two incoming transfers. 50% of the entire 38-player roster are freshmen. 

Jake Jackson (SDSU Athletics)

“I’ve kind of looked at the transfer portal as a free agent market, and we’re going to sprinkle in areas of need, but we’re going to stay true to player development … and growing local homegrown talent,” Cole responded when asked about the gap between 19 high schoolers and 2 transfers. “You gotta have that good foundation and base, I believe, for culture and for your team and your program, and you got to be able to develop guys. 

The leader of this year’s freshman class is OF Jake Jackson from Madison High School in San Diego. Perfect Game named Jackson the preseason Mountain West Freshman of the Year. 

The three-sport high school star also received football offers from Hawai’i and New Mexico State after earning all-CIF San Diego Section honors for catching 28 passes for 477 yards and seven touchdowns as a WR. 247Sports rated him as a three-star recruit and the 270th-ranked player in California.

Jackson also averaged 22 points and nine rebounds on the hardcourt for Madison in his senior season.

Jackson hit .369 with a 1.01 OPS in high school, earning Western League Player of the Year his junior and senior seasons. Perfect Game ranked him as the 14th-best outfielder and 93rd-best overall player in California in his class. 

Cole described Jackson as a super athlete who could slot in and play CF immediately if it wasn’t for Montoya and Weems already manning that position. Jackson will likely begin his Aztec career playing a corner outfield spot. 

“We’re happy to have him in the program, and I think he’s going to impact our lineup every day,” exclaimed Cole. “I’m excited to see him go through the course of his season, and I’m excited for him to have a big freshman year.” 

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