The University of San Diego baseball team’s final home series of the season, a three-game weekend set against West Coast Conference foe Loyola Marymount, begins at 3 p.m. on Friday.
The only thing USD pitcher Paul Sewald likely focused on in the above statement is the word Friday.
“Friday’s the most important game because a win gets us off to a good start in the series,” said Sewald, a senior right-hander (8-1, 1.99 ERA) who will start for the Toreros. “Winning a series is our goal. It’s a big spotlight starting Friday and I enjoy the challenge. LMU is a very good team. I know I have to come out with my best stuff and we have to play well.”
The series, which continues with 1 p.m. games Saturday and Sunday and serves as the final games in the current Cunningham Stadium (which will be renovated and reopened as Fowler Park and Cunningham Field in 2013), showcases the WCC’s first-place Toreros and second-place Lions. It’s no surprise that 14th-year Head Coach Rich Hill and his Toreros are in the thick of the WCC title race, but Sewald’s focus for a Friday game indicates a season-long approach for all players on a Hill-coached team.
“Do you remember as a kid when your parents took you to a carnival? There’s the booth that has the milk bottles and the goal is to knock them all down? Your parents give you a dollar, you try to knock them down, but when you don’t, you ask your parents for another dollar and you get to do it again,” Hill said. “Our mindset is that we get a dollar and that’s it. You get only one chance that day. We fill out the starting lineup, ‘our dollar,’ and we focus on that. Every day’s a one-game season. We want to play our best Friday against LMU.”
That mantra will repeat on Saturday and Sunday and in four remaining regular season games at UC Irvine (May 15) and at Pepperdine (May 25-27). It’s worked well for the 18th-ranked Toreros (37-11 overall, 13-5 WCC) so far. The chance to win a fourth WCC title in six seasons and earn USD’s seventh NCAA Tournament bid in the last nine years loom, but Hill does all he can to keep those “attachments to the task” at bay.
Hill earned his 800th career win as a college coach (Cal Lutheran, University of San Francisco and USD combined) earlier this season, but his greatest satisfaction comes from directing a program the right way, with quality assistant coaches, key administrative support and competitive student-athletes who can stay and play in the moment.
“Every year you coach is another year of experience,” he said. “When I stepped into the third-base box at Sam Houston State for the first game this year, you just don’t know what you have until you play. The team’s handled success well and when there’s been adversity, when we’ve had cold water thrown in our face, they’ve responded.”
USD has a solid pitching rotation of Sewald, Calvin Drummond (8-4, 2.90) and Dylan Covey (6-3, 3.27), a dominant closer in sophomore right-hander Michael Wagner, whose nation-leading 19 saves is a USD team record and a WCC single-season record. Getting the ball from the starters to Wagner (pictured, left) has been a bright spot, too. Lefty relievers James Pazos (1.12 ERA, 51 strikeouts, 24 appearances) and Max McNabb and freshman Drew Jacobs, key an effective bullpen.
Wagner, who took on the closer’s role this season, has a 1.96 ERA in 27 appearances and 42 strikeouts. He’s earned a spot on the midseason watch list for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the nation’s best college baseball player. Though he’s thriving, Wagner looks at his role as part of something bigger.
“Individually, it hasn’t meant too much,” he said. “I’m just having a lot of fun being part of this team. I’ve never been part of a team that’s this good.”
And then there’s the offense. The Toreros’ prowess was on full display in a three-game road sweep of WCC newcomer BYU last week. USD scored 39 runs, hit .402 (51 for 127) with 14 doubles, a triple, four homers and 36 RBI. The Toreros’ season batting average (.322 through May 6) ranks fifth among all NCAA Division I teams.
Much of the spotlight shines on corner infielder Kris Bryant, the 2011 WCC Co-Player of the Year as a freshman. Bryant hasn’t slowed down as a sophomore. He earned his third WCC baseball player of the week honor this season with an 8-for-15 (.533) performance at the plate with three home runs and seven RBI against BYU.
“The biggest thing I wanted to do this year is cut down on the number of strikeouts,” Bryant said. “(Associate Head Coach Jay) Johnson widened my stance out and I’m seeing the ball really well.”
Bryant’s 13 home runs this season accompany his .372 batting average — second only to senior Corey LeVier’s .382 — a .689 slugging percentage and team-high 52 RBI. Bryant, who was recently named to the USA Baseball National Team roster, is also on the Golden Spikes watch list.
Bryant and Wagner lead a talented group of young Toreros, including juniors Dillon Haupt, A.J. Robinson, sophomore outfielder Louie Lechich and freshman shortstop Andrew Daniel. The latter, in his first season of college baseball, is hitting .348 with 16 doubles and 39 RBI and was recently added to the watch list for the Brooks Wallace Award, given to the nation’s top shortstop.
“I was excited to come to a program that already had good players in place,” Daniel said. “I’ve come in, practiced hard and listened to the coaches. They’ve helped me develop. It’s a great honor to be recognized, but I know I need to keep improving.”
Daily improvement isn’t limited to the baseball field for a USD baseball player. Hill’s teams participate fully in charity events, work with San Diego’s Miracle League players, host youth baseball skills clinics and for the last few years, pose for a team photo after each home win. The photo is then sent to a USD baseball supporter as a personalized “thank you.” It’s this kind of commitment that produces winning results beyond just games.
“It gives me a sense of calmness,” Bryant said. “I have the luxury of getting to play a game I love, but when we’re out helping kids who are less fortunate or if we’re participating in a charity walk, it’s a really cool thing to do. More people should be a part of that. I’m thankful Coach Hill does this because it makes us better people.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of scottphoto.net