Monday, May 25, 2009

Look Who's Hanging Out With The Hottie!

You know you've seen it a thousand times, yet it still doesn't make sense. Some average-looking guy -- maybe even a bit frumpy, unshaven and generally unkept -- is walking hand-in-hand with the most beautiful girl you've ever seen.
How in the world did that happen? (You say as you snort, pick some lint out of your ear and wonder why it can't happen to you.)
That's kinda the way I feel about the Padres just-completed 9-0 homestand.
You talk about a shot out of nowhere! The odds were better of snow last week in Pacific Beach.
Now that's it done, it's still hard to believe. Exactly how is it that a baseball team batted .209 over a nine-game stretch and won every game? (How can a team bat .209 over a nine-game stretch under any circumstances?)
But that's our lovable Friars. The ones with a face only a mother can love.
Look at the many blights on display:
Leading off, a guy with only one hit all season, Tony Gwynn Jr.
Batting second, hitting .226, David Eckstein.
Once those Ty Cobb's set the table, it's time for the .170-swinging Brian Giles, currently earning about $500,000 for every RBI.
The 5-6-7 guys -- the meat (?) of the order -- are all future stars (or so they tell us). Nick Hundley (.250), Chase Headley (.229) and Kevin Kouzmanoff (.236).
Ready to fill-in should any of these '27 Yankees falter are a who's-who of who's that's: Drew Macias, Chris Burke, Josh Wilson, Henry Blanco and any other guy with a glove who comes to the ballpark.
On the pitching staff are Jake Peavy (an ace to be sure, but right now seemingly just auditioning for his next team), Chris Young (a 4.76 ERA for the season with Petco as his home park?) and a bunch of castoffs who I think last pitched for the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.
The bullpen names are completely unrecognizable to even the most ardent baseball fan.
Yet, there they are, with a nine-game winning streak in the bag -- representing the longest winning streak by any team in the National League this season.
Of course, there are some concerns about these misfits once they hit the road, which they will do this week playing at Arizona and Colorado. The Padres have lost 11 straight away from the friendliest confines in all of baseball.
But that hardly matters. Because no matter what happens from here on out -- I mean, surely the beautiful girl will be moving on to some lawyer or doctor type once she realizes her mistake -- the Padres can say they (somehow) pulled off the unthinkable.
Nine. Wins. In a row.
I'm getting my skis and heading for Pacific Beach as we speak.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Not Yet

FORT WORTH, Tex. -- For now at least, the championship dreams of the San Diego State baseball team have been put on hold.
That's because the Aztec bats were held down Friday night by two All-Conference pitchers from the University of Utah.
Right-hander Jordan Whatcott, pitching with just two days rest, allowed only three hits in six innings. Another righty, Brian Budrow, pitching with just one day of rest, allowed only two hits in three innings of relief.
Thus, despite a gutty seven-inning effort from Tyler Lavigne -- also pitching on two days rest --the Aztecs fell, 4-1, spoiling their first opportunity to claim the Mountain West Conference title at TCU's Lupton Stadium.
SDSU will get another chance today (11 a.m. PDT, coverage on when it meets the upstart Utes again -- this time in a winner-take-all championship final.
The Aztecs (40-20) will hand the ball to freshman right-hander Ryan O'Sullivan with All-American Stephen Strasburg -- who pitched 7 2/3 innings Wednesday afternoon against New Mexico -- looming as a possibility in relief.
Utah, which came into the tournament as the No. 6-seed after an 8-16 conference finish, will try to complete a remarkable run, which has already included two victories over top-seeded TCU and now one over SDSU. The Utes (25-29 overall) eliminated the three-time defending champion and tournament hosts, 6-4, Friday afternoon.
Whatcott finished off that victory, retiring the final two TCU hitters with the tying runs on base in the bottom of the ninth inning. Then after a one-hour rest between games, Whatcott went back to the hill to start against the Aztecs and struck out five of the first nine batters he faced to set the tone.
The Utes provided him a 2-0 lead in the third when, after Lavigne hit back-to-back batters, left fielder Tyler Yagi grounded a ball up the middle for a two-run single. Lavigne, who had thrown 116 pitches on Tuesday night in a tournament-opening victory over UNLV, held his ground from there, pitching on guts and fumes into the 8th.
But the Aztecs, who had scored 72 runs in their previous eight games, were unable to get their offense untracked, scoring only in the 4th on an Eric Castro double, a wild pitch that sent him to third, and an RBI ground-out by Cory Vaughn.
SDSU had other chances to score, but left nine runners on base and went 0-for-7 batting with runners in scoring position. Meanwhile, Utah put the game away with single runs in the eighth and ninth off reliever Andrew Leary.
That San Diego State and Utah are meeting for a Mountain West championship should surprise no one, despite the two teams' seedings. SDSU and Utah played in both the women's and men's basketball championship games in March.
Utah won both of those encounters. Now it's up to Tony Gwynn's baseball nine to reverse those fortunes -- and the fortunes of Friday night -- this afternoon.
Game notes: Whereas the Aztecs will have a fresh Ryan O'Sullivan -- who hasn't pitched in the tournament -- available to start today's finale, it's anybody's guess as to whom Utah will turn. All four of the Utes starting pitchers -- Andrew Wilding, Bryn Card, Whatcott and Budrow -- have pitched in the last 24 hours....Aztecs CF Pat Colwell had two hits Friday night to extend his hitting streak to 10 games. Castro's double in the 4th extended his hit streak to nine games....Utah's Corey Shimada hit a solo homer in the ninth, the first allowed by SDSU pitching in the tournament. The Aztecs have yet to hit a homer.....If SDSU wins today, it will claim an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, clinching its first post-season appearance since 1991....Most feel the Aztecs would still be in line for an at-large berth should they lose, but they'd have to wait until Monday's bracket unveiling to be sure.

-- Ello

Chargers Spring Report -- Running Backs

With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp recently concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position heading into Summer. Chargers Training Camp gets underway for real in July.

May 1st:Cornerbacks
May 4th:Safeties
May 6th:Outside Linebackers
May 8th:Inside Linebackers
May 11th:Defensive Ends
May 13th:Defensive Tackles
Friday:Offensive Line
Monday: Tight Ends
Wednesday: Wide Receivers
Today: Running Backs

Monday: Quarterbacks


LaDainian Tomlinson, 9th yr., T.C.U.: Just happen to be in Fort Worth, Tex., where L.T. played his college ball and where he is still loved, unconditionally. Strangely, my notion is that all of San Diego no longer feels the same way.

Sure he's a Hall of Famer and probably the greatest player ever to wear the Lightning Bolt, but what have you done for us lately? Last year's yardage total (1,100 yards) was the lowest of his career. Yards per carry (3.8) the lowest since his rookie season. Ditto for TD's (11). And then there's that small matter of the injuries that caused Tomlinson to miss last year's playoffs and almost all of the '07 AFC Championship Game.

Not everybody was thrilled when No. 21 agreed to re-structure his contract during the off-season in order to stay with the Bolts. 


First, let's remind everybody that L.T. hasn't been close to 100-percent since that gloomy January day in New England when he was forced to be a spectator as the Pats denied San Diego a shot at the Super Bowl. Second, when he finally returned to full-strength, he once again showed his brilliance in the regular-season finale, burning Denver for 3 TD's and carrying the Bolts to the division championship.

Another off-season to rest his weary toes, ankles, knees, shoulders, groin and whatever else has caused him to look like a mere mortal the past 18 months should be just the tonic Tomlinson needs to get back to his rightful place as the spiritual leader of the Chargers. Plus, in '09 he has something to prove.

Sure, there may never be another record-breaking 31 TD season like he had in '06, but c'mon people! Is there really anybody else you'd rather have carrying the mail?

Mike Tolbert, 2nd yr., Coastal Carolina: OK. So Tolbert was no Lorenzo Neal. Few are. But it's not like his rookie season was an abject failure. Tolbert played well until a shoulder injury in late November against Indianapolis basically took him out for the season.

When he was in there, he was solid. But he lacked the experience to get completely in sync with the blocking patters of the offensive line and the running style of L.T. behind him. Now with a year under his belt, Tolbert can stop thinking so much out on the field and just concentrate on clearing paths for the running game. 

Don't judge a career on one rookie season. Tolbert could take a big step forward in '09.


Darren Sproles, 5th yr., Kansas State: Probably to most popular Charger of them all, the little guy with the wide smile and bigger heart was spectacular as a returner in '07 (making the Pro Bowl) then had a breakthrough season last year out of the backfield.

In a Week Two loss at Denver, he piled up 317 combined yards rushing, receiving and returning, the 7th-highest total in NFL history. And, of course, who could forget his remarkable performance in the playoff against Indianapolis when he ended the night with 328 total yards (3rd-most ever in a postseason game) and ended the game with a 22-yard TD run in overtime?

Sproles was tagged as the Chargers' franchise player and cashed in with a lucrative one-year contract extension. Nevertheless, the question remains whether or not the 5-foot-6 Sproles is durable enough for the long haul. Despite his electrifying play, he handled the ball only 90 times from scrimmage (61 rushes, 29 receptions) last season.

If L.T. is struck by the injury bug again, Sproles may get a chance to prove he can be an every down back. And if he does, everybody will be rooting for him. If he doesn't become a full-timer, he'll still bring the fans out of their seats on the downs he does play.

Jacob Hester, 2nd yr., L.S.U.: The overriding assumption is that Hester was a disappointment in his rookie season, more than anything else because the Chargers moved up the pecking order to select him in the 3rd-round of the '08 draft.

But once he got a chance to play, Hester was a solid contributor down the stretch. Not flashy, but solid. After Tolbert's injury in late November, Hester gained 92 yards on 17 carries (5.4 avg.) and caught 12 passes with 2 TD's over the team's final six games. More than that, he proved himself as a blocker in front of L.T. -- and then in the playoffs, Sproles.

Hester may never be an All-Pro type headliner, but as a guy who only wants to contribute in any way he can, his rookie season proved that he's well on his way to becoming a more-than-capable NFL player.

Michael Bennett, 9th yr., Wisconsin: Acquired as an insurance policy late in the season off waivers from Tampa Bay, Bennett came through with some key carries (4 for 24 yards) in the playoff win over the Colts. 

But unless injuries crop again in '09, it's hard to see Bennett getting much playing time. If he does get in there, however, don't forget that this is a speedy runner who once gained 1,296 yards in a season with Minnesota (although that was back in '02 before injuries sidetracked his once-promising career).


Gartrell Johnson, Rookie, Colorado State: Many wanted the Chargers to take a running back with their first selection in the '09 draft. But with Tomlinson and Sproles already in the fold, that strategy made little sense. Instead, the Bolts smartly waited until the 4th-round to grab Johnson, a battering-Ram of a runner from CSU.

Johnson averaged 5.3 yards per carry in each of final two collegiate seasons, and finished off his career with an all-time Bowl game record 285 yards rushing against Fresno State in last season's New Mexico Bowl.

Skeptics say Johnson lacks the speed to be a great NFL runner, but some of those same skeptics said the same things about Tomlinson many years ago (not to mention Jerry Rice and many other superstars).

Will Johnson one day be a superstar? Of course, nobody knows. But with the tandem of accomplished runners ahead of him, he should get at least a season or two to find his way and get established.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Mountain West Conference Tournament Preview

"Aztecs Are In It To Win It"


Fort Worth, Tex. -- For now, the focus for Tony Gwynn's San Diego State baseball team is the five rivals they must defeat here beginning today in the 2009 Mountain West Conference postseason baseball tournament.
But in the back (or, actually the front) of Gwynn's mind is only this: will his Aztecs
(37-19 overall, 15-9 MWC) be among those chosen next Monday when the NCAA Tournament field of 64 is announced?
If SDSU qualifies, it would mark the first postseason appearance for Aztec baseball in 18 years. And for Gwynn, it would validate the vow he made to return the Red and Black to prominence the day he took the job seven seasons ago.
The road back to respectability has been far more difficult to traverse than the Hall of Famer thought it was going to be. But the longer he has chased it, and the longer is has remained elusive just out of his reach, the more it has begun to mean to him.
The Aztecs can clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA's by winning this week's postseason party, played on the campus of regular-season MWC champion TCU. But in order to accomplish that, SDSU is going to have to play above its No. 4-seeding and most likely defeat solid clubs like BYU, New Mexico and 10th-ranked TCU along the way.
The double-elimination tournament begins today with No. 6 Utah meeting No. 3 BYU, followed by No. 5 UNLV vs. No. 4 SDSU (webcast on, beginning at 5 p.m. Pacific Time).
No. 1 TCU and No. 2 New Mexico have first-round byes.
Should the Aztecs come up short at Lupton Stadium, where TCU has run off with the championship trophy in each of the last three years, they would have to rely on receiving an
at-large berth to the Big Dance.
Gwynn obviously would like to not have to sweat it out. But with his ballclub squarely on the bubble if it fails to earn the automatic bid, chances are he may have a few more gray hairs by the time the NCAA Tourney pairings are announced.
What are the chances SDSU wins the MWC Tournament and helps to ease the concerns of its coach? Here's a look at the six squads competing:

No. 1 T.C.U. (35-14, 15-5 MWC)
Aztecs record vs. Horned Frogs: 3-3
All-Conference Selections (7): RP Trent Appleby, RP Taylor Cragin, C Bryan Holaday, 1B Matt Vern, SS Taylor Featherston, 3B Matt Carpenter, OF Chris Ellington
The team to beat for several reasons, not the least of which is that the tournament is being played on their home field...The Horned Frogs have a veteran lineup, featuring four seniors -- something no other team in the conference can claim. And all of that experience has done nothing but experience winning...The key to the pitching staff is Appleby and Cragin, both of whom are long relievers who can come into a game and shut down the opposition if the starting pitching struggles (which it rarely does)...As good as TCU is, however, SDSU's Stephen Strasburg beat them twice this season, and Strasburg will be the first pitcher they face in the tournament -- if, as expected, the Aztecs and Horned Frogs meet Wednesday in the second round.

No. 2 New Mexico (37-18, 15-8 MWC)
Aztecs record vs. Lobos: 1-2
All-Conference Selections (6): SP John Hesketh, C Rafael Neda, 1B Kevin Atkinson, 2B Mike Brownstein, OF Brian Cavazos-Galvez, OF Max Willett.
Led by Brownstein, the conference's Player of the Year, New Mexico is the most dangerous offensive team in the conference. The Lobos, taking advantage of the smaller dimensions and altitude in their home ballpark at Albuquerque, scored in double-figures 26 times this season....However, after starting the season 22-3, New Mexico limped home 15-15 the rest of the way....Hesketh may be the second-best starting pitcher in the conference to Strasburg (SDSU beat UNM, 1-0, when the two dueled in April), but after him the staff is thin....If the Lobos can hit close to what they're capable in TCU's pitcher-friendly ballpark, they'll win the title...But they only scored eight runs in three games there during the regular season.

No. 3 BYU (28-22, 15-9 MWC)
Aztecs record vs. Cougars: 1-2
All-Conference Selections (5): SP Blake Torgerson, RP Jordan Muir, 3B Steve Parker, OF Stetson Banks, UTIL Kent Walton.
When BYU took two-out-of-three from the Aztecs the second weekend of the conference season, many were surprised because few expected the Cougars to be a serious contender for the conference title this season. But former major league infielder Vance Law's team proved to be built for the long-haul....Torgerson gave them an ace starter, and Muir was the key component out of the bullpen.....The hitting was consistent, and a difficult non-conference schedule that produced a 13-13 record toughened up the Cougs for MWC competition....BYU also was the only team all season to win a game in which Strasburg started, rallying for a 4-2 victory at Tony Gwynn Stadium after the Aztec ace left the game.

No. 4 San Diego State (37-19, 15-9 MWC)
All-Conference Selections (6): SP Stephen Strasburg, SP Tyler Lavigne,
RP Addison Reed, 1B Brandon Meredith, OF Cory Vaughn, UTIL Eric Castro.
The Aztecs will open the tournament with Lavigne pitching against UNLV, and then if all goes well, have Strasburg ready to face TCU in round two....Wins in both games would seem essential because once its two all-conference starters are used up, SDSU no longer will have a pitching advantage....The old adage says that pitching and defense win championships, and the Aztecs led the conference in both categories....But the hitting was inconsistent all season long. The good news: SDSU bats exploded for 50 runs and 70 hits over the last five games of the regular season....That kind of output in Fort Worth will give Gwynn the NCAA berth he covets.

No. 5 U.N.L.V. (26-30, 9-15 MWC)
Aztecs record vs. Rebels: 5-1
All-Conference Selections (2): SS Anthony Morel, OF J.J. Sferra.
On paper, the Rebels hardly match up well against SDSU in today's first-round game. However, these two clubs met in a first-round game last year when the Aztecs were seeded No. 3 and UNLV was No. 6 -- and UNLV won, 6-2....Vegas finished second in the conference in batting behind New Mexico, and has at least one decent starter in right-hander Tanner Peters, who pitched well in two starts against the Aztecs during the regular season.....But the Rebels come into the tournament having lost seven of their last eight games.

No. 6 Utah (21-28, 8-16 MWC)
Aztecs record vs. Utes: 2-1
All-Conference Selections (3): SP Jordan Whatcott, SP Brian Budrow,
2B Corey Shimada.
Despite being the lowest seed in the tournament, Utah is hardly a pushover...The Utes beat TCU twice this season, and also had a non-conference victory over No. 1-ranked UC Irvine....Along with SDSU, Utah is the only team in the tournament with two all-conference starters in Whatcott and Budrow....They also have the conference's freshman of the year, catcher C.J. Cron -- who's at least dangerous enough to have been the only player all season to get three hits off Strasburg in one game....Defense and the bullpen are the Utah achilles heels and probably the main reasons why they can't win the tourney....But they're certainly capable of pulling off an upset or two.

Chargers Spring Report -- Wide Receivers


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
May 6th:
May 7th:Safeties
May 8th:Outside Linebackers
Monday:Inside Linebackers
Tuesday:Defensive Ends
Wednesday: Defensive Tackles
Thursday: Offensive Line
Friday: Tight Ends
Today: Wide Receivers
Tomorrow: Running Backs


Vincent Jackson, 5th yr., Northern Colorado: So let's just state it up front: I'm not the world's biggest Vincent Jackson fan. I've interviewed him several times and have enjoyed our conversations. But as a player, not my kind of guy.
Apparently, though, he is the Chargers kind of guy -- although I'm a bit surprised he's still around after his second brush with a DUI charge back in January. The off-field stuff speaks to Jackson's immaturity...and -- at least to me -- his immaturity also shows on the field.
Statistically, of course, Jackson had his finest season in '08, with a career-best 1,098 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns. But there were also dropped passes and stretches where he disappeared.
One such stretch lasted three games, a mid-season run against Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Atlanta (all losses) where Jackson caught a total of only four passes (none against the Falcons).
Jackson sometimes acts as if he wants to be the next T.O. or Chad Johnson -- a lot of wild celebration, look-at-me kind of stuff. But he's not consistent enough yet to be put in that category.
If he can grow up some -- and show up each Sunday -- maybe one day I'll like him better.

Chris Chambers, 9th yr., Wisconsin: Now, here's a guy I do like. Solid. Fast. Big-play guy. Goes up in a crowd and makes a play for you. Quiet. Just does his job without needing any extra attention. A former Pro Bowler with the Miami Dolphins.
But where in the world did he go last season?
Chambers caught five touchdowns in the first five games of the year...then missed a couple of games with an ankle injury...then returned for the final nine games of the year...only he really wasn't there.
Chambers stats over the last nine games in '08: only 22 catches (including bagels in games against Kansas City and Oakland) and not a single TD. He caught 8 for 129 yards in the two postseason games combined, but really wasn't the force he's capable of being.
Maybe it was the injury. But whatever it was, the Bolts need the real Chambers to re-emerge this season. Otherwise that trade of a second-round pick to Miami for him a season-and-a-half ago no longer looks like the steal it once did.


Malcolm Floyd, 4th yr., Wyoming: With Chambers hobbled, Floyd finally got his big chance last season. And although he didn't necessarily put up startling numbers, he did prove to be a dependable man on the outside, with 27 receptions for 465 yards and 4 TD's.
More importantly he showed a great desire to go up along with defenders and come down with the ball (a trait I'm pretty sure the Chargers would like to see more of in Jackson).
His heart was never more on display than in the Week 15 save-the-season win at Kansas City, when he caught five passes late in the fourth quarter and scored a touchdown that eventually helped lead to a 22-21 victory.
Unfortunately, Floyd suffered a collapsed lung in the game and missed the rest of the season. The heart, however, is still there -- and Floyd, if given the opportunity, could be a breakout player in '09.

Legedu Naanee, 3rd yr. Boise State: Be honest. You love to say his name. Legedu Naanee. Legedu Naanee. Lay-geh-due. Nah-nay. See? Fun, isn't it?
Some would like to see the Chargers call his name more often. Naanee caught only 8 passes last season, the same number he grabbed in his rookie season of '07. Of course, with all of the offensive talent on the field around him -- when he does get in there -- it has been hard for Naanee to really shine.
But one gets the sense that if he ever made it as a full-timer -- or at least as a third receiver in the slot -- he would be capable of doing some damage. Perhaps, even though it's great to have as much depth as possible, there are other teams who see the same possibilities in Naanee as we do.
Not that I'd like to see him go, but is it possible Naanee could be dangled as part of a trade package to help acquire another player at a position where the Bolts could use more help?
Just asking.

Buster Davis, 3rd yr., L.S.U.: Under the category of "nobody's perfect," you can put General Manager A.J. Smith's selection of Davis near the end of the 1st-round of the '07 draft.
At least for now. We'll all find out this season if Buster turns out to just be a longer form of the word "Bust."
After a decent rookie campaign (20 catches, 1TD), the injury bug that bothered Davis throughout his college career at LSU struck him down after Week 5 last season, and a groin problem landed him on injured reserve for the remainder of the year.
Davis will probably get one last chance to prove he belongs in '09. Few think he'll ever be an important contributor, based on his lack of production when he's been healthy.
But you never know. Every now and again, a forgotten high draft choice finally finds his stride and solidifies the faith the was originally showed in him.


Demetrius Byrd, Rookie, L.S.U.: It's not often you can get the 13th-rated wide receiver in the draft with a 7th-round pick. But after suffering severe head injuries in an automobile crash just days before the '09 selections, Byrd was lucky to be drafted at all -- if not just lucky to be alive.
Byrd, who had a fine senior season at LSU (513 yards receiving and 4 TD's), and helped lead the Tigers to the National Championship as a junior, crashed on April 19th when he lost control of his car and smashed into a utility pole after a tire blew out.
His agent, David Dunn, said Byrd would make a full recovery and that his injuries would not affect his future in football. Nevertheless, teams stayed away from him and he fell from being a probable second- or third-round pick all the way to the Bolts at the 224th selection.
It's possible the Chargers' gamble will pay off, and Smith will have himself another late-round gem. More than anything else, though, those in the organization simply hope Byrd will regain full health and perhaps help the team down the road.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

High-Flying To Fort Worth

Chris Ello, the radio play-by-play voice of San Diego State baseball, is with the Aztecs as they prepare for the start of the 2009 Mountain West Conference Tournament on Tuesday in Fort Worth, Tex...Today: a look at how SDSU finished up the regular season...Tomorrow: a preview of the MWC Postseason Tournament.

"He just hit a (bleepin') three-run bomb!" screamed Willie Judd, San Diego State's Academic Advisor, into the walkie-talkie cell phone.
"He just hit a (bleepin') three-run bomb!"
On the receiving end of the thrilling communique was Aztecs head baseball Coach Tony Gwynn, excited too, but also concerned about the group that had crowded around him.
"Hey, Willie, that great!" Gwynn said. "But watch what you're saying because I'm in the hotel lobby...and there's a bunch of other people here with me."
What Gwynn was doing in a hotel lobby as Aztec shortstop Ryan O'Sullivan's two-out, ninth-inning home run sailed deep over the left field fence to tie the score, 7-7, in Saturday's regular season finale against Utah...we'll get to in a moment.
But suffice to say -- as SDSU now gets set to begin play in the 2009 Mountain West Conference Tournament in Fort Worth, Tex. -- it has been a season worth yelling about for the Aztecs. With a 37-19 record (the best in Gwynn's seven seasons), SDSU figures to receive an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in 18 seasons when the 64-team field is announced next Monday.
The Aztecs can claim an automatic NCAA berth by winning the conference tournament, but host TCU (ranked 14th in the nation), along with solid clubs at New Mexico and BYU, may have something to say about that.
No team, however, is heading into the tournament on a bigger high than the Aztecs, who following O'Sullivan's dramatic blast, would go on to win, 10-9, in a marathon game that took 12 innings and 5 hours, 3 minutes to complete.
(O'Sullivan, who saved the game in the ninth with his home run -- his second of the game -- also came in to pitch with the bases-loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 12th, retiring the final hitter to pick up, well, the official save...Calling it the most exciting game he has ever played in, you can hear all of his postgame comments below).
Gwynn, meanwhile, had been ejected from the game in the bottom of 7th-inning for arguing a call made by the home plate umpire that he (correctly) felt had cost his team three runs. Utah's Austin Jones, batting with the bases loaded, hit a ground ball down the third-base line (foul by four or five feet it appeared) which was shockingly ruled fair. After all three runners scored to increase Utah's lead to 7-3, Gwynn came out of the dugout.
He pleaded his case for several minutes, went back to the dugout, asked pitching coach Rusty Filter to change pitchers, stewed some more, and then when he felt the umpire was trying to bait Filter into an argument, yelled a little bit more -- and was given the heave-ho (for only the second time in his career, by the way).
Jones, the batter, told Aztec infielders during the pitching change that he was so sure the ball was foul that he stopped running -- and only started up again when he surprisingly heard the "fair" call. Filter called it one of the "five worst" calls he had ever seen.
Gwynn, whose easy-going demeanor has always endeared him to San Diego fans, said he never argues calls that are questionable. "But this one was so obviously wrong," he said.
But now what to do? With no clubhouse available to retreat to, Gwynn had to find someplace to go after he was ejected. (Baseball rules don't allow an ejected coach to simply go and sit in the stands -- or press box).
So he began a rather frustrating walk across the street to the Aztecs' team hotel (lucky, in this case, because the Aztecs normally stay much further from the ballpark when they're on the road).
Only, being that he's Tony Gwynn, he couldn't even get that far.
"Some lady came racing up behind me as I was crossing the street, and wanted me to sign a Wheaties box for her," the Hall of Famer said. "I told her that this was a hell of a time for her to be asking me. She said she knew it wasn't a good time, but that she had run all the way over. So I signed it for her."
(See Mr. Ump? You kicked one of the greatest guys ever out of that game).
Gwynn finally reached his destination, ran upstairs to his room for a quick shower, then back down to the lobby to call Mike Sweet, the Aztecs Director of Baseball Operations, to find out what was going on in the game -- a game he was certain his team had lost.
Sweet, sitting in the stands behind home plate with Judd, charting pitches and using a radar gun to time the speed of SDSU's hurlers, informed his coach that the game wasn't quite yet over, but that things were looking rather grim.
Busy with his other duties, Sweet handed the walkie-talkie phone over the Judd, along on the trip to help oversee Aztec players who had Final Test Exams to deal with while away from campus.
Judd, a big lovable guy, and ex-football player at Weber State and Iowa State, grabbed the (microphone?) and started doing his best play-by-play impressions for the coach, who had settled into a lobby chair across the street.
Moments later, the big guy erupted as O'Sullivan's homer improbably tied the game.
"Sorry about the language, coach," Judd said. "It's just that I tend to get a little excited."
He wasn't the only one.
As the epic struggle continued for another hour-and-a-half, Judd passed along pitch-by-pitch updates to Gwynn ("Not always the easiest to figure out what he was saying," said the coach)...and Gwynn did his best to help his team (Filter and bench coach Mark Martinez had taken over the actual coaching duties after Gwynn had been dismissed).
When the Aztecs put two runners on in the top of the 12th -- with the game still tied and slugger Eric Castro coming up -- Gwynn told Judd to yell out to Castro to take a deep breath before he stepped into the batters box. Judd yelled out to Castro, who took a deep breath...and then came through with a tie-breaking single.
Later, after it was finally over, Coach and Academic Advisor-turned-radio guy shared a laugh or two back at the hotel. Then they shared the laughter with everybody else. And deep into the night it went.
On Sunday, with the team traveling from Utah to the MWC Tourney in Fort Worth, Judd stood up on the team bus and reminded all the players to check in with him so he could make sure their exam work was up-to-date.
He didn't need a walkie-talkie cell phone to make the announcement....but nobody would have been surprised if he had.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bad Day All The Way Around

Two good seasons. One bad day.
Now the question: what's next for San Diego State's baseball and softball teams?
On the baseball diamond, in Ogden, Utah, SDSU -- which has been carried all season by pitching and defense -- neither pitched nor played defense in a 15-5 loss to Utah. The Aztecs allowed 27 baserunners and (a rather embarrassing) 8 unearned runs to cost themselves any chance of a second-place finish in the Mountain West Conference regular season standings.
Second-place not only might have clinched an NCAA Tournament berth for SDSU, but it also would have earned them a bye in the first-round of next week's MWC Tournament. Now, with fourth-place likely SDSU (36-19 overall, 14-9 MWC) will have to take the long road to the tournament championship.
As for softball, a 5-0 loss to defending national champion Arizona State in the first game of the NCAA Tournament at Tempe, Ariz., wasn't necessarily unexpected. However, Kathy Van Wyk's team (33-19) practically gave this game away, stranding all kinds of baserunners and handing ASU three runs on a bases-loaded walk, a bases-loaded hit by pitch, and a passed ball.
The Aztec women left seven runners on base -- five in the first three innings -- and did not come up with a single hit in 14 tries with runners on base.
Adding to their misery was a blown call by the umpires that probably cost them two runs in the top of the 2nd-inning and what should have been a 2-1 lead. Shortstop Jen Wisneski laid down a bunt with two runners on, and a wild throw down the first-base line allowed both runners to score. However, umpires rules (incorrectly) that Wisneski's bunt landed foul rather than fair -- negating the two runs.
There was no such controversy in the baseball game, where the Aztecs committed five errors behind a quartet of pitchers, none of whom got the job done in the season's most important game to date.
Utah's Austin Jones was a one-man wrecking crew with a home run, two doubles, a single and 7 RBI's. Eric Castro homered for the fourth-straight game for SDSU, but his solo shot in the eighth was far too little, too late.
Neither loss Friday was a death knell for the Aztecs' boys and girls of spring, but now the margin for error has nearly closed shut.
The softball team will need to win twice on Saturday to keep their double-elimination first-round regional hopes alive. Then they'll have to win twice on Sunday in order to advance. A tall order, indeed.
The baseball team will finish regular season play Saturday against Utah, then head to Fort Worth, Texas, where they'll need to win at least four games in six days in order to assure themselves of Coach Tony Gwynn's first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Tyler Lavigne will start the MWC tourney opener on Tuesday, likely against UNLV, and then All-American Stephen Strasburg will take the hill Wednesday, probably against top-seed TCU. Wins in both games will be all but mandatory for the Aztecs to have a shot at the title.
Neither team will be gong anywhere, however, if they suffer any more days like Friday.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Strasburg Not Dominant, But Plenty Good Enough

OGDEN, Utah -- Here's how good SDSU All-American pitcher Stephen Strasburg is:
His outing Thursday night here against the Utah Utes (7.0 innings-6 hits-2 runs-1 walk-10 strikeouts) would have to be considered rather pedestrian up against some of the dominating performances he has turned in throughout this season.
Coming off his first-career no-hitter last Friday night against Air Force -- when he struck out 17 in his final home start-- Strasburg allowed two runs in the first inning to fall behind for only the second time all season. But he didn't allow anything more after that, and the Aztecs rolled to an
11-2 victory.
SDSU (36-18 overall, 14-8 in the Mountain West Conference) kept alive its hopes of a second-place finish in the conference, pounding out 14 hits for the third consecutive game. If the Aztecs win two more here against the Utes (20-27, 7-15), they'll earn a bye in the first round of the MWC Tournament, which starts next week in Fort Worth, Tex.
Meanwhile, Strasburg improved his record to 12-0, despite the fact he had to pitch out of jams in the 4th and 6th innings -- and in allowing two runs, saw his ERA rise from 1.24 to (oh, no!)
"The thing I liked is that Stephen had to pitch through some trouble tonight," said SDSU Coach Tony Gwynn (see full postgame interview below). "He didn't just cruise through this game. But when he got into trouble, he pitched his way out of it."
The Aztec offense created plenty of trouble early in the game, but failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded chance in the first and went hitless in its first six at-bats with runners in scoring position.
In the fifth, catcher Eric Castro snapped a 2-2 tie with a two-run homer, his 10th of the season, and SDSU was finally on its way. The Aztecs added two runs in the 7th and five more in the 8th to reach double-figures in runs scored for third-consecutive game.
Freshman designated hitter Jomel Torres had three hits and two RBI's, while right-fielder Cory Vaughn added three hits and three RBI's for SDSU.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Tight Ends


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Friday: Cornerbacks
Saturday: Safeties
Sunday: Outside Linebackers
Monday: Inside Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Ends
Wednesday: Defensive Tackles
Yesterday: Offensive Line
Today: Tight Ends
Tomorrow: Wide Receivers


Antonio Gates, 7th yr., Kent State: For most tight ends, a season with 60 receptions for 704 yards and 8 TD's would be called a career year. But for Antonio Gates, such a season in '08 had some skeptics wondering, "what's going on with his career?"
What's going on is that Gates is still probably the best tight end in the game.
But -- in part due to a toe injury suffered during the '07 playoffs -- Gates' numbers last season fell far below his totals from '03 to '07 when he made five consecutive Pro Bowls.
His 60 receptions were 11 fewer than any year since his rookie season. His 704 yards were 220 fewer than his low-water mark of 924 yards in '04 (again, excluding his rookie season).
The drop-off should motivate Gates to return to the off-the-chart numbers he posted prior to getting his big toe stuck in the Qualcomm Stadium turf during the '07 first-round playoff against Tennessee.
Those who don't think he can do it should be reminded that Gates has 5,066 receiving yards in his career and has scored 51 TD's. He reached the 5,000-yard mark the second-fastest in NFL history (only former Charger Kellen Winslow was faster), and he reached the 50-TD mark faster than any tight end who has ever played the game.
The big toe should finally be fully healed for '09, and as a result, Gates should reclaim his rightful place atop the tight end heap.


Brandon Manumaleuna, 9th yr., Arizona: Along with the fact that it's hard to spell or pronounce his last name, and along with the fact that he's a solid force blocking for the Chargers' running game, Manumaleuna provided some key catches for the Bolts in '09, his third season with the team.
Among his 15 receptions, six were good enough for first downs and two went for touchdowns. In his three Chargers seasons, he has scored a total of six times. Not bad for a guy who plays second-fiddle to Gates and is usually an afterthought in the passing game when he is on the field.
Mostly, though, when he's in there, the Chargers are going to run -- and Manumaleuna (6-2, 288 pounds) is considered one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the game.
Bottom line: when it comes to backup tight ends, few teams in the NFL can boast a talent as dependable as -- well, maybe it's just easier to call him Brandon.


Kory Sperry, Rookie, Colorado State: Signed as an undrafted free agent, Sperry has the size (6-foot-5, 238 pounds) and skill to provide a little more depth at the tight end position.
Some may remember Sperry dominating San Diego State in a game last season at Qualcomm Stadium when he caught 5 passes for 61 yards and 3 touchdowns. In his career at CSU, Sperry grabbed 141 passes for over 1,700 yards and scored 20 TD's.
Despite his eye-popping stats -- and size -- Sperry went undrafted because many NFL scouts aren't sure whether or not he'll be a capable run-blocker out of the three-point stance (well, that's what they said anyway).
However, Sperry could fill a role at the H-back position, if Norv Turner and company can figure out a way to incorporate him.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Offensive Line


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Saturday: Safeties
Sunday: Outside Linebackers
Monday: Inside Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Ends
Yesterday: Defensive Tackles
Today: Offensive Line
Tomorrow: Tight Ends


Marcus McNeill, 4th yr., Auburn: I remember asking Marcus McNeill once what he was planning to have on his dinner table for Thanksgiving. The turkey, he said, was going to be deep-fried, Southern style. Well, of course it would.
Anything else? "Well, there is one favorite of mine that I just can't do without," the big fella said. "I gotta have my deep-fried cranberry sauce, too."
Deep-fried cranberry sauce? Yeah, I'd never heard of it, either. But it was at that moment I realized that this 6-foot, 7-inch 336-pound mountain of a man was going to be a solid fixture at left tackle for the Chargers for years to come.
Sure he missed out on the Pro Bowl last season for the first time in his career, but that had more to do with a slow start (he missed the first two games with a neck injury) and an 8-8 season more than anything else.
All the Chargers need to do in '09 is throw a little deep-fried (well, anything) in his direction during training camp, and Big Mac should once again be ready to roll.

Kris Dielman, 7th yr., Indiana: Maybe the biggest compliment given to Kris Dielman last season was when he was thrown out of a game in Kansas City for throwing a phantom punch. Dielman never did punch anyone, and the call by the officials was truly horrible, but the ejection spoke to the nasty reputation Dielman has cultivated over the past few seasons (including a Pro Bowl season in '07).
The thinking by the refs was: if Dielman was involved in a skirmish (even an imagined one), he must have done something illegal.
I don't know about you, but that's what I people thinking about my starting left guard. The pits is no place for pansies. And Dielman's mean streak is one of the reasons why the Chargers have had one of the best offensive lines in football for the past half-decade.
Last year, of course, the offensive line was sometimes maligned because L.T. had trouble finding his usual running room. Let's just hope that Dielman felt maligned as well.
Because it's an angry and nasty Dielman that will serve the Bolts best in '09.

Nick Hardwick, 6th yr., Purdue: In a lot ways, it's totally unfair to look at a team's offensive line player-by-player. Because, more than any other area of a football team, the O-Line is really a group effort.
The Chargers' group began last season without its leader, as Hardwick missed the season's first three games while recovering from off-season ankle surgery. And though Hardwick returned to play the final 13 games, it seemed as if the big boys up front never really got it completely together.
And that was understandable. The work of the O-Line is a carefully choreographed routine that requires precise movements and an unshakable understanding of the actions of those lined up next to you. Without their maestro -- at least at the beginning -- it was if the Chargers' orchestra was slightly out of tune.
Hardwick may have never been 100-percent healthy last season (although he'd never say so), but he should be a full-strength for '09. If so, the center who has made two Pro Bowl squads in five seasons should have the Bolts humming along again.

Kynan Forney, 9th yr., Hawaii: A solid contributor for several years (and a Pro Bowl alternate in '05) on an Atlanta Falcons offensive line that paved the way for one of the NFL's top running attacks, the Chargers hope that Forney perhaps has a couple of seasons left in the tank.
Let go by Atlanta just prior to last season, the Bolts immediately signed him then never used him in '08.
Now with Mike Goff gone, Forney figures to be a key guy in '09. On paper, he would seem to be a perfect fit. Normally, guys with eight years of NFL experience who join a veteran line are able to blend in nicely.
Unless somebody younger steps up, the Chargers better hope so.

Jeromey Clary, 3rd yr., Kansas State: Yeah, yeah, we heard you. Everything that was wrong with the Chargers' offense last year was Jeromey Clary's fault. He allowed too much pressure on Phillip Rivers. He didn't get enough push on running plays and the Bolts couldn't run to the right side.
Only...that notion is absolutely ridiculous. As mentioned earlier, no offensive line either succeeds or doesn't based on the play of one player. Furthermore, to throw Clary under the bus when he was just a second-year player and first-year starter is just plain unfair.
In most cases, the young players on an O-Line need help from the veterans to find their way. Unfortunately, the Chargers' veterans had injuries (and other problems) to deal with. As a result, Clary may have been asked to play too large a role.
This season, he ought to able to settle in and show the improvement most third-year players tend to show.


L.J. Shelton, Brandyn Dombrowski, Scott Mruczkowski, Corey Clark: Shelton, in his 11th year out of Eastern Michigan, is a good guy to have around and started twice last season.... Dombrowski, from San Diego State, has good size (6-5, 323) and now a year under his belt...Mruczkowkski has been a solid backup at either guard or center ever since he was picked in the 7th-round of the '05 draft....Clark was a stud at Texas A&M and got some experience with the squad last year, but was never active for a game.


Louis Vasquez, Tyronne Green: Vasquez -- a 6-4, 330-pound guard -- was drafted in the 3rd-round of this year's draft out of Texas Tech where he helped protect and serve for the nation's highest-flying pass offense. Since the Red Raiders mostly threw, skeptics wonder whether or not Vasquez has enough experience to run block effectively....Green -- also a guard (6-1, 309 from Auburn) -- went to the Bolts in the 4th-round...Both players will have an opportunity to compete for key playing time, especially at the right guard spot which was vacated when Goff departed.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Padres Hitters Need Only One Thing: Steroids!

Watching the Padres bats continue to flail away over the weekend in Houston (I mean, one run against Brian Moehler in that ballpark??), I think I came up with the solution to their ongoing hitting woes.
That's right. Steroids. There. I said it. Now all the Padres have to do is start using them. must be obvious to everyone by now that every player in Major League Baseball is still cheating in one way or another (today it's Manny, tomorrow it'll be someone else), so why not the Padres?
Well, you may answer, steroids are against the rules. And using performance-enhancing drugs sets a bad example for our nation's youth. But if baseball doesn't care about its ever-dwindling public image, why should I? Why should the Padres?
The disclosure late last week that the Dodgers' Manny Ramirez (formerly the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation) tested positive for whatever the hell he tested positive for is just further proof of something I have believed all along.
And that is that no matter how much MLB says it's clamping down the performance-enhancing issue, no matter how much the players association says it's trying to clean things up, no matter how many players look you in the eye and say "I'd never do it," the fact remains that there's just too much at stake for these guys not to try and cheat.
I mean, why wouldn't they? Do you really think that Ramirez is the only player in the big leagues currently cutting corners? Of course, you don't (and, of course, I don't either).
What that means is that almost all of the players who are currently cheating are...well, they're getting away with it.
It's kind of like speeding on the freeway. Most everybody does it, but only a very small percentage of us ever get caught. You do it even though you know it's "wrong" because you know if you take the necessary precautions (a glance or two in the review mirror normally covers it) chances are pretty good you'll get away with it.
Baseball players see the very same landscape. They see everyone else doing it, they take precautions to lessen the chances they'll get caught (all of the masking agents), and then they pull a card from a deck that is stacked clearly in their favor.
So Ramirez got caught. Cost him 50 games and over $7-million in salary. Big deal. He's still going to get to play in 100 games, and he's still going to pocket nearly $17-million by season's end.
Would you risk $7-million if you knew that even if you were caught, you'd still make $17-million? Do I have to answer that for you?
One of these days, instead of putting all the blame on the McGwire's and Sosa's and Bonds's and Clemens's of the baseball world for ruining the integrity of our national pastime, we'll all realize that it was the man who looked the other way for so many years that is at the heart of this national tragedy.
Bud Selig (and his baseball cronies -- along with owners and front-office execs) have cashed in handsomely the past two decades while the steroid craze -- and all of the home runs that came along with it -- put baseball squarely back into the spotlight.
Of course, they did nothing about until Congress stepped in and (at least tried) to force them to do something. Over the past five or so years, baseball has done the minimum to try and present the illusion that it has cleaned up its act.
But we all know different.
How can we even begin to believe that the sport cares when every time one our heroes accomplishes something mind-boggling, it turns out that he was just messing with our minds?
From Palmiero to A-Rod and now to Manny (and all of the others in-between), it must be clear to all of us by now that the cheaters will continue to prosper.
Sure their legacies will take a hit, but that's nothing compared to all of the hits (and money) they get while they're still playing.
The only ones, it seems, not getting the hits are the Padres.
So until baseball really does something to wipe out steroids for good (a lifelong suspension for a first-offense would do it), then the Padres need to be using steroids just like everybody else.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Another Magical Strasburg Moment

On Oct. 7, 2001, over 60,000 fans packed into Qualcomm Stadium for an otherwise meaningless baseball game between the Padres and Colorado Rockies.
The fans were there to see only one thing: to see if Tony Gwynn -- Mr. Padre -- could deliver just one more hit.
He had already delivered 3,141 of them in his glorious career, and Padre fans had enjoyed every single one. But on this, the final day of Gwynn's final season, they had come out for one final tribute.
The stage was set in the bottom of the 9th-inning as Gwynn strode to the plate for his final
at-bat against Rockies closer Jose Jimenez. Forgotten at that moment was the score
(14-5 Rockies), the situation (the final game of the season between 4th-place San Diego and
last-place Colorado), and even the fact that history had already been made earlier that afternoon (when Rickey Henderson recorded his 3,000th-career hit).
The 60,000-plus rose to their feet to cheer the legendary outfielder one last time. And then they roared as Gwynn...grounded out to short.
Oh, well. That's the way it usually goes in baseball. You can set up the moment all you want, but most of the time it doesn't exactly play out the way it does in the movies.
Unless you're Stephen Strasburg.
On Friday night at Tony Gwynn Stadium (that last ground-out didn't exactly ruin the legend) on the campus of San Diego State...a standing-room-only, record crowd of 3,337 turned out to see the Aztecs' pitching phenom in one last appearance before he likely becomes the first pick in next month's Major League baseball draft.
They came out to see if the greatest pitcher in college baseball history (according to many scouts) could deliver one last memorable moment on his way to the big leagues.
Of course, with all the hype and all of the anticipation, Strasburg couldn't possibly....well, chances are, you know by now he exceeded even the wildest of dreams.
A no-hitter. And 17 strikeouts. A 5-0 victory over Air Force. In his final home game. An almost unbelievable finish to what has been an unbelievable career.
Call Hollywood.
"He's been pitching like that all year," said his head coach, the very same heroic outfielder who bounced out that gray October day against Jimenez. "It's almost like I'm not really surprised. But it is fitting."
How about remarkable? Amazing? Monumental?
Not the no-hitter, necessarily. Because those do happen from time-to-time. But they're not supposed to happen under these circumstances. Endings just aren't supposed to be this happy.
Michael Jordan made his final shot for the Chicago Bulls, and with it, won his 6th NBA championship. But he ruined the perfect ending by playing another couple of years for the Washington Wizards.
Brett Favre finished his Hall of Fame career for the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. Then ruined that by coming back as a New York Jet (and now maybe again as a Minnesota Viking).
Ted Williams homered in his final game for the Boston Red Sox, and Cal Ripken homered in his final All-Star game.
But a no-hitter the last time you ever take the field in front of the (lucky) fans who have watched you develop into a college sensation? That's off-the-charts.
Unless you're Strasburg.
Among all of the amazing things he has accomplished this season -- an 11-0 record and 1.24 ERA for starters -- the most amazing thing about Strasburg is that he has been expected to do something special every time he has taken the mound.
And special is exactly what he has delivered without fail. Strasburg has started 12 games this season and struck out at least 10 batters in 11 of them. The only game he didn't win this season, he pitched 7 innings, allowed just 2 hits and struck out 15. The only reason he didn't win that game was because the bullpen allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away after he left.
He leads all of college baseball in strikeouts (164), has walked only 17, and has averaged better than 17 strikeouts per every nine innings pitched.
And now this. Against Air Force, Strasburg retired the first nine batters -- and struck out seven of them (including six in a row). He allowed a leadoff walk in the fourth and the sixth and that was it. He retired the final 12 batters of the game, and just to go a bit beyond Tinsletown, he struck out the side to finish off his no-hitter in the 9th.
Eric Castro caught the final pitch and then -- in a moment of exuberance -- tossed the ball haphazardly into the air. It landed to the right side of the mound as Strasburg danced off the left side flinging his glove to the grass in celebration.
The crowd, as they did the day Gwynn returned to the dugout after his final swing, screamed and leaped and roared the remarkable achievement they had just witnessed.
In Gwynn's case, they had cheered a Hall of Fame career.
For Strasburg, they cheered another magical moment. The ultimate case of an athlete rising to the occasion -- and then rising above even that into the stratosphere.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Defensive Tackles


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Sunday: Safeties
Monday: Outside Linebackers
Tuesday: Inside Linebackers
Yesterday: Defensive Ends
Today: Defensive Tackles
Tomorrow: Offensive Line


Jamal Williams, 12th yr., Oklahoma State: If you're looking for reasons why the Charger players voted Williams as the team's Defensive Player of the Year in '08...well, there's about 348 of them. That would be one for each pound that lines up over center each week and becomes an immovable object for enemy offenses.
Valuable, indeed.
And while a season was threatening to come apart around him, Williams stood his ground and had another stellar season (though he fell short of a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl nod).
The nice thing about being huge is that age isn't as much of a factor as it is for, say, players who need to keep their speed. Sure Williams just turned 33 a couple of weeks ago, but it's not like he has gotten any smaller.
Of course, stamina is an issue with the big fella, so it will be important for the Chargers to find somebody to step in from time-to-time. But when he's in there, expect that opposing teams will have trouble finding any running room up the middle.


Ian Scott, 7th yr., Florida: At a mere 302 pounds, Scott is a veteran still looking to find his niche. Drafted by Chicago in the 4th-round of the '03 draft, he had three relatively solid seasons with the Bears from '04 through '06, playing in 43 games and making 96 tackles.
Since then, he has bounced around through the Philadelphia and Carolina organizations before finally landing last season in San Diego, where he played in four games.
If the younger players drafted to take his place don't come through, Scott could wind up sharing some time with Ryon Bingham (see: defensive ends), backing up Williams.


Vaughn Martin, Rookie, Western Ontario: For those wondering why the Bolts would take a flyer on a 23-year-old player with no experience in American Football (and just two years of college ball in Canada) with their 4th-round pick last month, here's the answer: because not even the great Vince Lombardi could teach size.
And this youngster has plenty of it; he's 6-foot, 4-inches tall and weighs in the neighborhood of 330 pounds.
Not only that, but most who have seen Martin play say that it is his athleticism that surprises them the most. In other words, this isn't just a big guy who can't move.
He is, however, a big guy who's going to have a lot to learn if he's going to contribute much this season. There's simply no other way, being as Martin played just one year of high school ball before attending Western Ontario.
Will he be able to learn defense with 11 players on the field rather than the 12 that play in Canada? Will he be able to deal with NFL offensive linemen when all he's ever seen is Canadian collegians?
The answers will come once training camp and the exhibition season get underway. One thing's for sure, though: watching Martin try to make the big jump to the NFL from the Great White North will be interesting to follow.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Defensive Ends


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Sunday: Safeties
Monday: Outside Linebackers
Yesterday: Inside Linebackers
Today: Defensive Ends
Tomorrow: Defensive Tackles


Luis Castillo, 5th yr., Northwestern: It's seems almost too simple to say that Castillo performed like a "fat-cat" last season. Sure we've seen the drill before -- young player proves himself, gets huge contract, gets too comfortable, and his play tails off. Nevertheless it's hard for me to believe that this really happened with a guy like Castillo.
The day he signed his big ($14-million) extension prior to last season, I interviewed Castillo and asked him if he might be able to start taking things easy. "There's no way (Maria) would let me do that," he said.
Maria is his mother. And his number one inspiration.
My guess is that it was just one of those seasons for Castillo. A season where his numbers were down across the board and his impact was felt far less than usual.
The good news is the Castillo has something to prove this season. Gotta find a way to quiet the "fat-cat" critics. And keep Maria in his good graces.

Jacques Cesaire, 7th yr., Southern Connecticut State: With Igor Olshansky gone, Cesaire is the logical choice to step up and replace him (easy joke here: it shouldn't be too hard for anyone to replace Olshansky).
The Haitian-born veteran should be up to the task. Originally signed as an undrafted free-agent by the Bolts in '03, and then re-signed by San Diego in '05, this is a guy who has had to work his up from the bottom. These kinds of guys usually sparkle when their full-time opportunity finally comes.
Cesaire started two games last year and got plenty of playing time while Olshansky played his way out of town. Cesaire will play a lot more this year if he can take advantage of his big chance.
If he can't, look for No. 1-draft pick Larry English to spend a lot more time at defensive end than he does at rush linebacker.


Ryon Bingham, 5th yr., Nebraska: There isn't a team in the league that doesn't need a player like Bingham, who fills in nicely for the Chargers at both defensive end and defensive tackle. The guess is, this year, he'll play more end while the Bolts try to develop 4th-round pick Vaughn Martin to play behind Jamal Williams.
At either spot, Bingham isn't going to grab many headlines...but he's never going to hurt you either. Don't forget that Bingham had a big year in '07 when given the chance -- a career-high 58 tackles which earned him a pair of starts.
Don't forget, also, that Bingham qualifies as another gem discovered by A.J. Smith -- picked in the 7th-round of the '04 draft....and still contributing five years later.

Keith Grennan, 2nd yr., Eastern Washington...Andre Coleman, Rookie, Albany State...Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Rookie, Michigan State: Three young guys who have one game of NFL experience among them (Grennan played in the regular-season game last year against Indianapolis).
Also three guys to keep an eye on. Both Grennan and Coleman opened some eyes during the '08 preseason and could get a longer look this year. Nwagbuo is a 6-foot 4-inch 290-pounder who played in the Big 10. He's also a local favorite, having played his high school football at Mount Miguel in Spring Valley.
At a position that is rather thin, don't be surprised if one (or more) of the three sticks.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Inside Linebackers


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Saturday: Cornerbacks
Sunday: Safeties
Yesterday: Outside Linebackers
Today: Inside Linebackers
Tomorrow: Defensive Ends


Stephen Cooper, 7th yr., Maine: With everybody's attention on the season-ending injury suffered by Shawne Merriman, many forgot that the Chargers had to play their first four games last season without Cooper. After his breakout year in '07 when he led the Bolts in tackles, Cooper was suspended at the start of last season because he violated the NFL's policy on steroids and related substances.
Sure the Bolts managed a 2-2 start without him, but once he returned they promptly lost six of eight. Blame Cooper? Absolutely. Even though he spent much of '08 as a tackling machine, it had to be difficult for the defense to come together while its man in the middle was on the sidelines for a month.
Hopefully, for Cooper, lesson learned. He worked hard to make it into the NFL after being undrafted in '03. He worked even harder to become a starter after the Chargers re-signed him in '05. Another mistake like last year, and he could throw it all away.
Assuming that doesn't happen, the Chargers should be able to feel confident in at least one of their inside linebackers in '09.

Matt Wilhelm, 7th yr., Ohio State: Listed as a starter here, but one can imagine that there are few Charger fans who hope he stays as a starter. Regardless of what goes wrong with the Bolts on defense, Wilhelm always seems to get the blame. In a lot of ways, Wilhelm has taken over the "most-hated" mantle from CB Quentin Jammer.
The weird thing is that this veteran is a very smart player who has all of the tools to be a success in the NFL. Unfortunately, most in the organization say that Wilhelm simply thinks too much -- rather than just reacting.
Assuming Wilhelm is sharp enough to realize that his job in squarely on the line in '09, maybe he can clear his head and just go out onto the field and start knocking heads.
If he doesn't, a scenario in which Wilhelm doesn't even make the opening-day roster isn't out of the question.


Tim Dobbins, 4th yr., Iowa State: Many may have forgotten by now, but it was Dobbins who perhaps made the biggest play of the '08 season for the Chargers, sacking Peyton Manning with the Bolts out of timeouts and forcing the punt that set up Nate Kaeding's game-tying field goal in the playoff victory over the Colts.
For a fifth-round draft choice, this is a guy who has performed rather capably for the Chargers the past three years. He has done solid work on special teams, and with Wilhelm struggling last season, Dobbins filled in admirably.
The question is whether or not he did enough last season to make anybody believe he can be a regular starter in the NFL. Put another way: was Dobbins starting last season because he deserved to start, or was he starting simply because Wilhelm was playing so poorly?
Year number four of a young player's career is usually about the time we all start finding out.

Brandon Siler, 3rd yr., Florida: So maybe A.J. Smith doesn't hit a home run with all of his draft selections, but the Bolts' GM could have done a whole lot worse with his 7th-round selection in '07. All Siler did his rookie season was earn All-Rookie honors for his special teams play from both Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers.
With that to build on, Siler was excellent on special teams again last season, and even contributed a couple of key goal-line stops when given the rare opportunity to line up on defense. Unfortunately, a foot injury kept him out of the regular-season finale against Denver and the playoff win over Indy.
Certainly, Siler figures as an afterthought at the linebacker position heading into this season. But remember, this is not exactly a position of strength for the Bolts. A guy like Siler takes a couple of big steps forward and he could wind up becoming a key contributor.


Kevin Burnett, 5th yr., Tennessee: Prior to last season, the Chargers inked veteran Derek Smith to bolster their inside linebacker corp. Unfortunately, Smith's tank proved to be on empty and he was released by midseason.
This time around, the Chargers have gone quite a bit younger, signing the former Dallas Cowboy Burnett as a free agent. Twice an All-SEC selection at Tennessee, and a 2nd-round pick in the '05 draft, Burnett never really gained his footing in Big D.
Though he played in all but three games his first four seasons, Burnett spent most of his time shuffling in and out of the lineup, averaging about 2 1/2 tackles per game.
The Chargers, of course, are hoping that Burnett's career will take off now that he is being provided with a change of scenery in San Diego.
Sometimes, players do flourish with a new team. And other times, a new team discovers why players didn't flourish the first time around. One thing's for sure: Burnett's college pedigree and high draft status indicate that he has the talent to make a big splash.

Chargers Spring Report -- Outside Linebackers


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Yesterday: Safeties
Today: Outside Linebackers
Tomorrow: Inside Linebackers


Shawne Merriman, 4th yr., Maryland: What do you get when you combine one the NFL's most disruptive defensive forces with anger? The Chargers hope they get a 20-sack, Pro Bowl season from Merriman -- before they show him the door.
Actually, there's no guarantee that this will be Merriman's last season in San Diego, but the writing does appear to be on the wall -- and not in erasable ink. While others with less talent have been signed to long-term deals, "Lights Out" has been left out in the dark. Add to that the drafting of pass-rushing linebacker Larry English (see below), and it seems that this may be the last go-around for Number 56.
To his credit, Merriman says he welcomes English and looks forward to another dominating season. Of course, in order to do it, he'll have to prove that he's fully recovered from the knee surgery that cost him all but one game last season.
He'll also have to overcome whatever doubts he must have about his future in America's Finest City. Message to Chargers fans: Enjoy him while you can.

Shaun Phillips, 6th yr., Purdue: Most feel that Phillips can only flourish with Merriman lined up on the other side. But that's not exactly a bad thing. Scottie Pippen made it onto the list of the NBA's 50-greatest players riding the coat-tails of Michael Jordan.
Without Merriman, Phillips was limited to 7 1/2 sacks a year ago (which led the team), but few realize he had only one sack more than that the year before with "Lights Out" in the lineup. Regardless of who plays the other rush end, the Chargers would like to see a repeat of '07 when Phillips had 11 1/2 sacks and was named a second-alternate for the Pro Bowl.
Interestingly, most see English as the future replacement for Merriman, but don't be surprised if the rookie becomes the current replacement for Phillips -- who's still a valuable player, but has dropped a notch or two the past couple of seasons.
Phillips, of course, can quell the replacement talk by returning to his disruptive form of three seasons ago.


Jyles Tucker, 3rd yr., Wake Forest: So who would you rather have locked up to a long-term, big-money deal? Merriman or Tucker? Well, of course, it's Tucker who figures to be here for the long haul.
As a result, it's time for Tucker to step up and become a force. Filling in for Merriman last season, Tucker was steady but nowhere near spectacular. He missed three games due to injury and had two or fewer tackles (with no sacks) in six other games.
The good news is that he had one of his finer games in the playoff win over Indianapolis with a season-high six tackles.
Not every NFL player bursts onto the scene during his first couple of years. But the Chargers are obviously banking on the fact that Tucker is about to become a star. If they're wrong, they're going to wind up spending too much money on an ordinary player.

Antwan Applewhite, 2nd yr., San Diego St.: Under the category of local kid done good, you can place Applewhite, who worked his way up from the practice squad to contribute steadily during what turned out to be his rookie season.
Applewhite is the kind of player -- at least at this point -- who doesn't make many waves out on the field, but doesn't hurt you out there either.
With Merriman returning, and the drafting of English, there may not be as many opportunities for Applewhite this season, but don't be surprised to see him contributing some on the defensive line -- which is where he made his mark at SDSU.


Larry English, Rookie, No. Illinois: It wasn't like every draft-nik had English being drafted in the first round, but since when did draft-nik's know more than A.J. Smith? This is a kid who became the only defensive player in MAC history to twice be named the conference's player of the year...Not only that, but No. Illinois has been good to the Chargers in the past (see Michael Turner).
As good as English is rushing the passer, his greatest contribution to the Bolts may be in his ability to stuff the run (not exactly a strength of Merriman or Phillips).
Of course, in order to make his mark, he's going to have to find his way onto the field, something that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera swears will happen.
If Rivera makes good on his promise (as a coach), and English makes good on his promise (as a player), this will be a No.-1 draft choice worth shouting for. If English can't find a spot...well, then, everybody will just be shouting.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Safeties


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp underway, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Yesterday: Cornerbacks
Today: Safeties
Tomorrow: Linebackers


Clinton Hart, 7th yr., Central Florida CC: Without question, Hart is one of the great stories in the entire NFL...passing on college football scholarship opportunities to stay home and take care of his family after his father was jailed, Hart took the longest road possible to reach his NFL dream.
From the Arena 2 league, to Arena Football, to a free-agent tryout with Philadelphia, to NFL Europe, to joining the Chargers on special teams in 2004...and now to becoming a solid starter. Amazing. Not many guys could have done it.
The former 32nd-round pick of baseball's Anaheim Angels, Hart hasn't necessarily hit a home run with the Chargers, but he has without question been a solid contributor. Unless somebody comes along and shows a big-play, game-changing ability (something the Bolts lack at this position), Hart continues in his starting role.

Eric Weddle, 3rd yr., Utah: It's not that Weddle has been a failure in any way...but he simply hasn't yet lived up to the hype surrounding an All-American who was selected in the 2007 draft only after A.J. Smith gave up four draft picks to get him (2nd, 3rd picks in '07...3rd, 5th picks in '08).
Too often last season Weddle was the guy in the Monday morning sports page photo standing next to the opposing receiver who had just caught the game-winning pass.
Nevertheless, it may be a bit too soon to give up on this two-time Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year. Weddle still has the big-play ability this team needs, and his smarts figure to serve him better in his second year as a starter.
Just a guess...but if the Chargers are to make a serious Super Bowl run, this is one player who will have to help lead the charge.


Steve Gregory, 4th yr., Syracuse: Don't know about you, but Gregory was one of my favorite players on the '08 can summon whatever statistics you want, but this is a guy who always seemed to be around the ball.
Whether in the dime package as a 6th defensive back, or filling in as an occasional starter, Gregory delivered some hard hits and some key plays. He should be used more this season, and perhaps push Hart for more playing time.
Gregory, like Hart, is a player you can root for...undrafted out of Syracuse in '06, he was signed to the Chargers practice squad and has worked his way from there into the regular defensive rotation.
Safety is all about instincts and intimidation...and this street kid from Brooklyn has a burning desire to get the job done.

Paul Oliver, 3rd yr., Georgia: Not necessarily in a bad way, but Oliver is almost the exact opposite of Gregory...A much-ballyhooed prep star who was rated as a No.-1 college recruit coming out of high school, Oliver had all of the combine numbers that make scouts drool: 4.32 in the 40, a 37-inch vertical leap, etc.
However, when he made an interception in the playoff win over Indianapolis, I was surprised -- because I wasn't sure he was even still on the team. That's how little impact he has had so far.
Chosen by the Bolts in the '07 supplemental draft (costing them a 4th-round pick), Oliver is the kind of talent who should be about ready to blossom.
It will serve him well if he heads into this season realizing that this might be his final chance to make his mark.


Kevin Ellison, Rookie, USC: To me, never a bad idea in the 6th-round of the draft to take a chance on a talented player who fell on the board because of injury...And Ellison certainly has had his share: including three knee surgeries during his college career with the Trojans.
When he was on the field, however, Ellison played well, earning All-Pac 10 honors in each of the last two seasons (he made it last year despite missing five games).
Ellison is viewed as a good run-stuffer who goes for the hard hit in the secondary (not to necessarily compare the two, but the Bolts haven't had an intimidating safety since Rodney Harrison left).
His bloodlines are solid as well...his brother Keith played one year at San Diego State and eventually was drafted by Buffalo as a linebacker out of Oregon State. Keith was drafted in the 6th-round and has played three years for the Bills. Hmmm....6th round, you say?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Chargers Spring (Training) Report -- Cornerbacks


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp underway, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Tomorrow: Safeties


Quentin Jammer, 8th yr., Texas: In my mind, he was the Bolts' defensive MVP last season (although the players voted for Jamal Williams)...Perhaps the team's most vilified player by fans during his first four seasons, Jammer has blossomed into the shutdown corner the Chargers envisioned when they selected him with the 5th pick in the 2002 draft (don't believe me? Ask Randy Moss in the Sunday night game against New England last season).
More impressive than his pass coverage, though, was Jammer's ability in '08 to come up from the corner and make jarring tackles on running plays. He finished with 75 solo tackles, some of which knocked loose a few teeth (hey Jeff Garcia, remember?).
Signed through 2012, Jammer should be among the least of the team's concerns for the next several seasons.

Antonio Cromartie, 4th yr. Florida St.: At the head of the list of the team's concerns for '09 and beyond should be the enigmatic Cromartie, who suffered through a miserable season in '08...After electrifying the league with 10 interceptions in '07, Cromartie managed just two picks (both against the Jets in Week 3) last season. After the Jets game, he rarely even laid a hand on a pass, was beaten up-and-down the field constantly, and tackled as if he were Deion Sanders.
Cromartie blamed his poor performance on the fact that he played the entire season with a broken hip, suffered in Week 2 at Denver when the Broncos' Brandon Marshall embarrassed him with 18 receptions. Hopefully, for Chargers fans, that was the case.
Even if healthy, Cromartie needs to grow up. By anointing himself as the next Sanders and predicting an NFL-record 15 interceptions prior to the season, he put a target on his back and was riddled repeatedly.
“I'm feeling real good, a whole lot better," said Cromartie on the opening day of mini-camp. "I just want to shut up the critics. I'm getting healthy. I feel a lot more explosive than I have in the past two years.”
Hopefully, he'll say no more. And just start getting the job done again.


Antoine Cason, 2nd yr., Arizona: For last year's No. 1-pick (27th overall), a grade of "incomplete" in his rookie season...Incomplete because nobody is yet sure whether the former Jim Thorpe Award winner will become a star in the NFL or not.
Overall, though, Cason did a steady enough job last season -- and if nothing else, he at least picked off as many passes as Cromartie did. He didn't yet look ready for full-time duty in
man coverage, and several teams picked on him when he came into games as a nickel-package cover guy.
One must remember, though, that rookies struggling some at the cornerback position is not exactly a surprise. Many make a big jump between years one and two, and the Chargers can feel at least somewhat confident that Cason will do the same.
He'll have to make a big jump if Cromartie doesn't return to his '07 form.

Cletis Gordon, 4th yr., Jackson State: Gordon had a few chances to shine in '08, but frankly he never really took advantage of the opportunities...New Orleans picked on him pretty good in the game at London, and by season's end -- despite playing in 14 of 16 games -- he was credited with just one pass deflection.
Not to give up on a guy's career too early, but I imagine the Bolts will be looking to see some big improvements during training camp. Gordon may be playing to save his job (and Chargers career) during the exhibition season.


Brandon Hughes, Rookie, Oregon State: Selected by A.J. Smith with the team's 5th-round pick a couple of weeks ago, Hughes it would seem could make the opening day roster with a strong camp and preseason. He was twice named All-Pac 10, and he made 40 career starts with former Chargers coach Mike Riley's Beavers.
Some may be concerned with his size (5-foot-10, 182 pounds), but there are many great cornerbacks over the years smaller than Hughes who have gotten the job done. Not only that, but Hughes brings a reputation for playing tough against the run (maybe he can help Cromartie) and bothering receivers with solid bump-and-run coverage.
On paper, the feeling is that Hughes at least challenges Gordon for the fourth-cornerback spot.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Aztec softball post, Sat. May 2nd


To some, the San Diego State softball team's season was over even before it started. That's because the Aztecs -- in trying to win their fifth Mountain West Conference title in the past eight years -- would have to do it without their ace, All-American pitcher Christina Ross, who graduated after leading SDSU into the NCAA Tournament last season.

Nobody told coach Kathy Van Wyk's team the news, however.

Behind emerging pitching stars, sophomore Samantha Beasley (Steele Canyon HS) and freshman Bailey Micetich, the Aztecs overcame a slow start (5-8) to put together winning streaks of seven and nine games and put themselves in position for yet another conference crown.

Certainly, though, the dream was going to die for good Friday night against conference-leading BYU. Needing to beat the first-place Cougars in all three games this weekend at the SDSU Softball Stadium to have a chance at repeating, SDSU was down to its final out in the series opener, trailing, 4-0.

Once again, the gutty-little Aztecs failed to get the message. Improbably rallying for four
two-out runs in the 7th-inning to tie the game, SDSU stayed alive on Jessica Camello's
game-winning single in the 8th-inning, beating BYU, 5-4, and snapping the Cougars' 16-game win streak in the process.

The two teams meet again today (Saturday) in a 1 p.m. double-header. BYU (35-18, 8-1 in conference) still has the inside track to the title. But two more wins today by the Aztecs
(32-16, 9-3) would pull them even in the loss column and give them the leg-up on another championship.

None of it would even be possible were it not for a rather impossible rally Friday night.

Held to just two hits through 6 2/3 innings by BYU's Christie Zinanti, SDSU had the bases empty with two outs in the seventh. One more out, and the MWC title would change hands.

But freshman pinch-hitter Ashley Rose singled. Shortstop Jen Wisneski followed with a single, and center fielder Brittany Knudsen was hit by a pitch, loading the bases. Another pinch-hitter, Chrstine Kulick, walked to force in a run and make it 4-1.

Catcher Erin Floros, an All-American for SDSU two seasons ago as a sophomore, drilled a
two-run single...and when BYU center fielder Angeline Quiocho bobbled the ball, pinch-runner Felicia Reifschneider (Morse HS) came around all the way from first and tied the game, 4-4.

After Micetich retired BYU in the top of the eighth, left fielder Tonye McCorkle reached on an error to start the bottom of the eighth. McCorkle stole second, went to third on a wild pitch, and scored the winning run on Camello's (Temecula HS) one-out single.

The comeback complete, the Aztecs live to fight another day. A day in which they must win two more. Don't anybody tell them they can't do it.