Baseball team off to slow start
MATTHEW ROBERSON | SPORTS EDITOR | @mroberson22
Baseball is a sport that is riddled with inherent failure. Even the best hitters to ever play the game don’t reach base every single time they step up to the plate. In fact, no one ever comes close to doing anything like that. If you only get a hit three out of 10 times that you step into the batter’s box, you’re still considered an excellent hitter.
Three out of 10 times, just 30 percent, or an F if you’re taking an exam. In a sense, failing in school is equal to getting in the hall of fame for a baseball player.
These individual failures are part of the game, and a team must navigate the slumps and bad outings that plague every group to turn poor performances from individuals into team victories. The University of San Diego baseball team is currently coping with an early season slump that has largely been a product of slow starts by several key members of the team and a schedule stuffed with top flight competition.
A three game sweep at the hands of the Vanderbilt University Commodores to open the season was a sign that the Toreros needed to improve their game if they were to have any hopes of making the College World Series appearance they so openly dream of.
After coming back to Southern California and earning a second place finish in the Tony Gwynn Classic, parlayed with a ninth inning rally to beat the neighboring San Diego State University Aztecs, the Toreros looked to be gaining momentum before another litmus test series against the Oregon State University Beavers.
The Beavers arrived at Fowler Park with the No. 4 spot in several national rankings and a 7-1 record. When they left, they did so without any doubt that they are deserving of their seat at college baseball’s big boy table. In the two games played on March 4-5, Oregon State outscored USD 14-4 thanks to a staggering 13 walks issued by Torero pitchers.
Head Coach Rich Hill was optimistic about the direction of his pitchers despite their early wildness.
“The pitching is a work in progress,” Hill said. “Injuries are playing a part in who we are running out there. We are finding our way however.”
The walks have already become one of Hill’s team’s most pressing issues of the young 2016 season. USD pitchers have walked 61 hitters in the team’s first 11 games, while Torero hitters have drawn just 45 free passes of their own. This has resulted in a troubling trend of empty bases when the Toreros are batting, and cluttered base paths when the Toreros are on defense.
USD has a collective on-base percentage of just .330 while their opponents reach base at a much steadier .440 clip. This number has also been lowered by the recent absence of sophomore shortstop Bryson Brigman, who required surgery for a hernia prior to the pair of games against Oregon State. Hill mentioned that there is no timetable for his return yet.
A huge part of Hill’s approach to run scoring is centered around sacrifice bunts and moving runners, something that is obviously impossible to do when no runners are out there to be moved. He noted that the collective youth of his typical starting lineups has played a role.
“We are starting four freshmen position players most games,” Hill said. “There’s a learning curve that’s taking place, especially against pitching staffs from Vanderbilt and OSU [Oregon State].”
On top of the walks, another ingredient in the struggle soup has been the lackluster performances by several freshmen. While no one was expecting any players in their first year of collegiate baseball to immediately mash prodigious home runs or hit 98 mph on the radar gun, the poor beginnings by a handful of freshmen has undoubtedly contributed to some of the losses.
Freshman outfielder Kevin Collard has started 10 of the Toreros’ first 11 games but registered just five hits versus 14 strikeouts. He did, however, hit a homerun in his first at-bat at Fowler Park during the Feb. 26 game against the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Freshman second baseman Brhet Bewley has also been bitten by the strike out bug. The Winchester, CA native has been punched out 16 times in his first 47 at-bats as a Division I baseball player.
Sophomore relief pitcher Matt Kirk says many of the freshmen are simply trying to do too much.
“Our freshman at the plate have been very aggressive,” Kirk said. “To settle in they just need to swing at more strikes and take the balls. They need to trust their hand eye coordination in the box rather than out thinking themselves.”
On the mound, freshmen pitchers Paul Richan and Nick Sprengel have been greeted to college baseball hitters with a rude awakening. The duo has surrendered 23 earned runs over 18.2 innings of work. That adds up to an ugly 12.12 ERA. The entire pitching staff has been relatively roughed up by the fierce competition they’ve been facing.
Kirk offered his ideas on why the Torero pitchers haven’t been missing many bats so far.
“As a staff we need to keep the ball down,” Kirk said. “We have some great arms but when we leave it up balls get hit hard. Also we need to allow less free bases. When we challenge hitters we’ll do just fine because we have good defense.”
Of course there are bright spots among this mostly dim start to the season. Sophomore catcher Riley Adams is flaunting a robust .486/.596/.811 slash line that has given merit to the early season hype he received from prospect rankings and draft experts. Adams has also launched two home runs in the season’s early going. first baseman Ryan Kirby has provided more than adequate support behind Adams in the lineup. Kirby’s .333 batting average and sweet left-handed swing are a nice complement to the right handed bats of Brigman and Adams.
Junior pitcher Nathan Kuchta has impressed in his first year since transferring from Cypress Community College. The right hander has posted a tidy 3.38 ERA and fanned 10 hitters in his first 13.1 innings as a Torero. Like many of his teammates, control has been his downfall. Kuchta has walked seven batters and uncorked four wild pitches already.
For USD to right their ship, they would benefit from a strong showing in Waco, TX. From March 11-13 the Toreros will be there for two games against the New Mexico State University Aggies and one against the Baylor University Bears.