"Aztecs Are In It To Win It"
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW
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 goaztecs.com, 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.
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