West Coast Conference Preview

Strong pitching staff should keep San Diego ahead of the pack


Feb. 14, 2008


 
 

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

 

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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The WCC has - arguably - been at the top of the mid-major food chain, especially when it comes to the amount of talent that the MLB raids each June. But 2007 was a season of ups and downs, including another NCAA regional hosting slot for the second straight year (San Diego) and also the bad snubbing of second place Gonzaga not getting an at-large spot. But the conference's David whipping Goliath image took a shot to the ego with both USD and Pepperdine going 0-2 in the Big Dance. Of course, with the non-conference games these teams schedule, redemption is never far away. Looks like 2008 will see the WCC get back to its earthshaking ways. And it may also be time to see the conference make those waves in Omaha.

 

Favorite: San Diego

Contender: Pepperdine

Darkhorse: Santa Clara

 

 

Gonzaga (33-25, 15-6)

 

The Good News:

Wins over Oregon State, UC Riverside and weekend series wins over Pepperdine and San Diego, proved their worth. New ace Brandon Harmon (6-8, 4.45, 6CGs) is a horse to build around and has Jeremy Stumetz (4-2, 3.86, 4svs) and C.J. McClure (3-0, 5.06, 2svs) to back him. OF Shawn Wayt (.341) and 1B Ryan Wiegand (.328) are built like Defensive Tackles and OF Bryan Winston (.324) should produce huge.

 

The Bad News:

This team, more so than Troy or Memphis, should've been in the NCAA tournament field. Exited staff ace Clayton Mortensen was chiefly responsible for wins over UCR, Pepperdine and game one in the WCC finals over USD. Top hitter Darin Holcomb, C Dustin Colclough and SS Aaron McGuiness are huge holes to fill. Leadoff hitter Evan Wells (.274) was unstoppable early on and needs to avoid a late season fade.

 

The Intangible:

That double-whammy.

 

The Zags have to deal with the stigma of both the WCC and Northwest baseball being undervalued. Obviously, those two myths are going away with what's happened the last few years. But Gonzaga needs to make good on recent promise.

 

Schedule Note:

The Zags get the tough stuff out of the way early, with Pepperdine and San Diego being the first two WCC series of the season.

 

Loyola Marymount (22-33-1, 9-12)

 

The Good News:

There is strength up the middle with C Sean Dovel (.244-6-28), SS Michael Glomb (.283) and WCC Freshman of the Year OF Angelo Songco (.321). The pitch staff still has RHP Nathan Keadle (3-2, 6.37) and reliever Andy Beal (2-1, 7.33, 5svs) to rebuild around. Watch for the V-Boys: Frosh RHP Martin Viramontes was an 11th-round pick of the Angels and OF Joe Viera was a 49th-round pick of the Devil Rays.

 

The Bad News:

LMU had only three winning seasons in the new millennium, the last one coming in 2005. Lots of losses to the roster, including all three weekend starters on the mound and also the offensive heart-and-soul, Eric Farris, takes his .349 average and 33SBs to the pros.

 

The Intangible:

Hard to tell.

 

LMU can year-in, year-out be labeled a "mystery" team due to the fact that there is always a number of pro prospects on the field, but the death-march schedule is a brow-beater, often masking the true potential of the team. This year is no different.

 

Schedule Note:

You may question his sanity, but you can't question coach Frank Cruz's bravery as he'll take his rebuilding Lions into games with Cal, Oregon State, Oklahoma State and Arizona State away from the friendly confines of Page Stadium and that beauty of a Blue Monster left field wall.

 

Pepperdine (35-22, 14-7)

 

The Good News:

Like rival LMU, look for the Waves to pick up plenty of RPI-boosting wins with its tough slate, but add a few more talented returnees. There may not be a gun good enough to clock RHP Brett Hunter (6-5, 3.94), one of the hardest throwers in the country. He'll be joined by RHP Robert Dickmann (6-4, 3.96) to head the rotation. Some viable bats return in Chase d'Arnaud (.331) and a pair of OFs, Donald Brown (.328) and Eric Thames (.320), who turned down the Yankees (40th round pick) last June.

 

The Bad News:

The post-finals blues hit in late April and the Waves were never the same, going 5-9 down the stretch and 0-2 in the NCAAs. Ace Barry Enright, fleet-footed Adrian Ortiz and top hitter Danny Worth all took their game to the pros. The need to find a viable saves-man to replace Jason Dominguez will be of the utmost concern.

 

The Intangible:

Location, location, location.

 

I am convinced that an earthquake will have to shake the Malibu campus into the ocean before there is a lack of talent headed to coach Rodriguez's program. What can a recruit NOT like about this picturesque campus with incredible-looking coeds? In fact, true to form, this year's incoming class was ranked No. 13 by Baseball America, and featured three draftees who spurned the pros and ended up coming to the 'Dine.

 

Schedule Note:

Though their schedule is chock-full of great matchups (ahhhh, Pepperdine NEVER disappoints in schedule rigor), the most intriguing weekend could be when Oral Roberts visits in mid-March, in a matchup of two of the best mid-majors in the country.

 

Portland (21-30, 7-14)

 

The Good News:

Improvement is imminent in the Pilots based solely on the fact that only five players off last year's team are missing with seven starters and two weekend pitchers back. A pair of strapping lefties returns in David Gruener (3-5, 3.51) and Ari Ronick (2-4, 3.05) off a staff that sported a good 4.94ERA. 1B Chase Powell (.321), OF Cory Wiltshire (.280) and 2B Brandon Howard have potential for even bigger seasons.

 

The Bad News:

Powell was the only hitter with a .300+ average as the team hit a lilty-soft .250 - easily the worst in the WCC. Power struggles (just 15 home runs, 76 doubles) need to be addressed. And the growing specter of behemoth big brother Oregon State seems to be casting a large shadow over the Portland program and the entire state.

 

The Intangible:

If only they emphasized it like soccer.

 

I've been to the Portland campus. I've seen the ultra-premium soccer facilities that the nationally ranked men's and women's team play in. It's immaculate. Now if only coach Sperry's baseball program got such emphasis, it could compete better with in-state OSU and the rest of the WCC.

 

Schedule Note:

It's got a "classic" feel, to say the least. The Pilots will play in the Coca-Cola (Tempe, Arizona), River City (Sacramento) and Pepsi Johnny Quik (Fresno) "Classics" in the pre-conference. Eitzel Stadium, where the DiMarini bat commercial was filmed, will host only 19 home games.

 

Saint Mary's (21-29-1, 3-18)

 

The Good News:

The Gaels may have finished in last place, but they were third in team batting (.289) and fifth in team pitching (4.90) last year. Not bad. Wallace Award candidate Anthony Aliotti (.320 and 6-4, 4.44) will have the double-play combo of SS Joel Staples (.311-6-35) and 2B Randy Wells (.354) as a pair of solid gloves to back him. A second starter, RHP Brandon Berl (4-5, 4.35) gives Saint Mary's hope to be more than just competitive.

 

The Bad News:

This is still a program with just one winning season (2006 at 26-25) in 18 years. Lots of youth still on this team will mean they're still a year away. Coach Jedd Soto will have to lean heavily on Texas Tech transfer Geoff Byrns, who hit .308 for the Red Raiders. Eric Cattoni, the firestarter on offense (.303, 28SBs) will be a huge hole to plug.

 

The Intangible:

If only the season ended on March 18th.

 

This may be a glimpse into the greatness that will come, but SMC started 2007 at 16-8-1 before WCC play. That included a win over national champion Oregon State, two over Nevada and a pair of one-run losses at LSU. Those losses prompted Tiger coach Paul Mainieri to tell the Baton Rouge Advocate, "A lot of people don't realize that Saint Mary's is a pretty good team." (Not sure if the Tiger fans agreed, but...)

 

Schedule Note:

This slate gives the Gaels hope for a winning record in '08. Sure there are trips to UCLA and Miami, but the Gaels will also play teams like Towson, Milwaukee, Fairleigh Dickinson and San Francisco in the non-conference.

 

San Diego (43-18, 18-3)

 

The Good News:

Man! No wonder coach Rich Hill always seems to be in a good mood. Look at what he's got coming back! Possibly the best starting rotation in the nation returns in All Americans LHP Brian Matusz (10-3, 2.85, 163Ks) and LHP/CF Josh Romanski (9-1, 3.05, .335, and a diving-catch specialist in CF), along with Sunday starter Matt Couch (9-2, 3.60) and Frosh Al- American A.J. Griffin (6-2, 2.70, 11svs). They're freakin' scary good. C Logan Gelbrich (.316) 2B Kevin Hansen (.316) and SS Sean Nichol (.300) provide great gloves and leadership. With all this talent back in the fold, it is, indeed, a good time to be a Torero.

 

The Bad News:

Nobody saw the Toreros' quick exit from the '07 regionals coming. They need to vanquish that memory come this June. Hitters like Justin Snyder, Shane Buschini and Jordan Abruzzo were three of the top four hitters and 25 of the 37 home runs hit by USD last year. It's a good problem to have, but great googily-mooly! There's a lot of talented pitchers on this staff, and just one ball to go around out there.

 

The Intangible:

Even the new blood is un-Godly good.

 

Think USD is going away sometime soon? Pshaw! Listen to this, three Freshman-to-be's, 3B Victor Sanchez (who has the body of a major leaguer and made a number of great bare-handed plays at 3rd in fall exhibition games with Long Beach), RHP Darrin Campbell and RHP Kyle Blair, all made Baseball America's Top 10 prospects list in various summer leagues. Sanchez and Blair were Nos. 1 and 2 in the well-respected Northwoods League, too.

 

Schedule Note:

Lots of good, tough non-conference competition, including Long Beach State, Missouri, Fresno State, Cal, Oregon State, Oklahoma State, Hawaii-Hilo (insert scratched record coming to a sudden halt here!). Hawaii-Hilo? Oh my, it looks likec Coach Hill's addiction to surfing has landed them with four games against the Vulcans. Good vacation, sure. But what if that series acts as an RPI anchor come June when USD is fighting for a national seed? Just something to file away for now.

 

San Francisco (27-28, 9-12)

 

The Good News:

The best fielding team in the WCC returns most of its infield with 1B Mitchell Bialosky (.345-5-40), 2B Tavo Hall (.239, 13SBs) and SS Joe Railey (.329, 22SBs), also the firestarters at the dish. Bialosky also started seven games on the hill (1-4, 4.80) and has RHP Brian Anderson (0-2, 4.91, the No. 6 prospect in the Cal Ripken Summer League) to build a new staff with.

 

The Bad News:

After the raging success of 2006 (NCAA Regionals, eliminated Nebraska), last year's losing mark was a drag. All three weekend starters and four of the six .300+ hitters from last year have hit the bricks.

 

The Intangible:

Let's hear it for the four four-year guys.

 

OF Kyle Morgan (Long Beach State), OF Drew Johnson (Nevada), LHP Evan Fredrickson (Virginia Tech, No. 10 pro prospect in the Cal Ripken Summer League) and C Sam Wiley (Tulane) all shipped into Fog City and will be counted on heavily this spring to fill some gaping holes in the lineup card.

 

Schedule Note:

It's no April Fools. Coach Giarrantano has arranged once again for a game to be played against Cal in the Giants' AT&T Park. This year's game just off the Embarcadero will take place on April 1st.

 

Santa Clara (27-29, 9-12)

 

The Good News:

Every pitcher of note returns for 2008, including starters Matt Wickswat (7-5, 3.41) and Donald Brandt (4-2, 4.12). Saves specialist Jeff Lombard (3-5, 4.06, 10svs) is there to put the clamps on.  Wallace candidate C Tommy Medica (.373), senior 2B Gabe Alcantar (.343) and junior OF Evan LeBlanc (.302) will pace the Broncos in '08.

 

The Bad News:

The Broncos have put together winning marks in both WCC and overall play in the same season just once (2003) in the last 10 years. Pen needs to ratchet up the intensity as Santa Clara went 1-6 in extra inning games last year. In WCC play, the Broncos hit a paltry .258. The time for Coach Mark O'Brien to have a break out year is beginning to fade.

 

The Intangible:

Summer studs making big leaps this spring.

 

Baseball America rated 3B Jon Karcich (just .228 last year) as the No. 8 pro prospect of the Cal Ripken Summer League. Also look for middle relief sophs Steve Kalush (1-2, 3.13, 53Ks) and Alex Rivers (2-2, 3.35) to get expanded roles in 2008.

 

Schedule Note:

SCU has the unenviable task of playing at the two toughest road assignments in the WCC, at San Diego and at Gonzaga, this year. The Broncs do get the break of playing nine of their last 12 WCC games at home, including Saint Mary's and Pepperdine coming to Scott Field to end the campaign.

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