It’s been a year of firsts for the University of San Diego baseball team. The program had the grand opening for Fowler Park and Cunningham Field in February. Junior third baseman Kris Bryant is the program’s first player to hit 30 home runs in a season, breaking two team records (including the all-time mark). He’s the national leader in the home run category, too, also a USD first.
So, really, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s something else new in 2013. The inaugural four-team, double-elimination West Coast Conference Tournament opens Thursday, running through Saturday’s title game, at the Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton, Calif.
“We’re excited about being in it,” said USD Coach Rich Hill. “It’s great for the conference. It will be a postseason atmosphere with the four teams who are in it. All four are worthy teams. It’ll be a dogfight.”
The Toreros, with a 32-22 overall record, enter as the tournament’s second seed. They’ll face No. 3 seed BYU in a 7 p.m. first-round game Thursday. Top seed Gonzaga, the regular-season WCC champion, plays fourth-seeded San Francisco at 3 p.m. Thursday.
From there, the two winners meet at 3:30 p.m. Friday. Thursday’s losing teams meet in a noon elimination game Friday. The winner of that contest advances to a 7:30 p.m. game Friday to determine who will play the lone unbeaten team for the WCC Tournament championship at 7 p.m. Saturday. The title game will be televised by ESPNU.
The tournament, at first glance, may seem to take something away from Gonzaga’s regular-season run in conference play, but USD players, such as sophomore first baseman Connor Joe, are excited to play after a nine-day layoff due to final exams.
“I think it’s going to be a really fun weekend,” he said. “It seems like a cool place to play and the atmosphere will be good. It doesn’t matter where we play as long as we just go out there and play our game.”
The Toreros’ game plan revolves around solid offensive production and combining it with effective pitching. Thursday’s scheduled starter, freshman lefthander PJ Conlon (9-0, 1.54 ERA, 62 strikeouts in 76 innings pitched) looks to continue his strong season when he faces the Cougars. Bryant, meanwhile, is USD’s centerpiece hitter, but it’s equally important for players around him to contribute.
Joe (pictured, at left) is among a group who’ve surrounded Bryant, a Golden Spikes Award contender with not only the 30 homers, but also a nation-leading 61 RBI and 57 walks, 72 runs scored, a .338 batting average in 201 at-bats, 12 doubles and three triples.
Joe (.322 in 202 at-bats, 7 HR, 40 RBI, 11 doubles), A.J. Robinson (.339 in 165 at-bats, 34 runs, 8 doubles, 5 triples, 27 RBI), Austin Green (5 HR, 11 doubles, 31 RBI), Dillon Haupt (10 HRS, 17 doubles, 44 RBI), among others, have produced at the plate.
“We’re an offensive-minded team, we have a power lineup. It’s not just one person,” Joe said. “When you take the pressure off of yourself and you play for others, that’s when it’s good. You don’t have to think as much about it. Everyone contributes.”
Hill believes USD’s pitching staff is getting better and is ready to go heading into postseason play. After Conlon, the Toreros have several starter options among a group that consists of Michael Wagner, Max Homick, Dylan Covey, Max McNabb and Louie Lechich. Homick, Wagner, McNabb and Trevor Bayless each have a few saves this season.
The Toreros are also shoring up their defense, Hill said. “The difference is night and day. Everyone has settled down.”
The team as a whole seems quite comfortable with each other, too, but a post-game team meeting after a tough 10th-inning 9-8 WCC loss at San Francisco in late April removed any doubt.
“Our season has changed course since then, we’re a different team now,” Hill said. The Toreros won six of seven WCC games after the meeting. “We stress to our players about playing in the moment. They all know the goal. You need to have a fire in the belly to win a championship.”
The WCC Tournament will determine the conference’s automatic bid into the 64-team NCAA postseason tournament. The Toreros, who have a 6-1 record against teams with a top 50 RPI and 18 wins against those in the top 100, have plenty to play for in Stockton. The Toreros swept BYU conference play at Fowler Park, but lost two of three games each against Gonzaga and San Francisco. Hill expects all four teams to battle as there won’t likely be four NCAA spots available for WCC teams.
The NCAA Tournament’s 16 four-team regional brackets will be announced at 9 a.m. (PDT) on Monday, May 27 on ESPNU. If USD can get into a regional, the next goal is to win it, something that would be a first in Hill’s 15 seasons as USD’s head coach.
Joe said he’s confident about the Toreros’ chances, both this weekend and beyond.
“I believe our team’s potential is still ahead of us,” he said. “I feel we haven’t hit our peak yet and that’s a really good thing for us. I’m excited about our chances. It’s going to be fun.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of USD Athletics