USD's up and down start to West Coast Conference play took a definite downturn in San Francisco this weekend when the Toreros lost two straight games to USF.
The Toreros could have moved into a tie for first place with USF if they somehow managed a sweep. But being swept? That would have pushed USD six games behind USF only nine games into the conference schedule.
The Toreros were staring at just such a possibility on Saturday when they arrived at Benedetti Diamond.
Adding to the concern was the absence of junior left-hander Nick Sprengel, Saturday's scheduled starter. Sprengel was unavailable after suffering a concussion on Friday when he was hit in the head during batting practice.
Freshman right-hander Gabriel Ponce started in Sprengel's place. He combined with junior left-hander Anthony Donatella to pitch a five-hit shutout that provided USD with a 5-0 win, avoiding a sweep while ending a four-game losing streak.
The Toreros dropped the first two games on 8-4 and 4-2 scores, but Ponce got things turned around against the Dons by allowing just three hits while striking out eight over 5 1/3 innings.
USD first baseman Shane McGuire provided all the offense the Toreros needed with a two-out, two-run double in the fifth inning that broke a scoreless tie.
USD (13-15, 4-5 WCC) is in a three-way tie for fourth place with Gonzaga and Santa Clara, four games behind the pace set by USF (18-9, 8-1). Loyola Marymount (13-14, 6-3) is in second, followed by Saint Mary's (15-10, 5-4).
Coming up: Tuesday vs. UC Irvine, 6 p.m.; Friday-Sunday vs. Loyola Marymount, 6 p.m./5 p.m./ 1 p.m.
UC San Diego remained within 1½ games of first place in the California Collegiate Athletic Association by taking three of four games over the weekend against Cal State East Bay.
UCSD (19-10, 15-9 CCAA) concluded the home series with an 11-1 win over East Bay (14-16, 11-13), leaving the Tritons tied for second place with Cal State Los Angeles. Cal State Monterey Bay (23-7, 17-7) leads the conference.
The Tritons totaled 19 runs over the last three games of the series, which still didn't add up to the output in Thursday's 25-2 win in the opener. That game included six UCSD homers, including grand slams by Tyler Durna and Zander Clarke.
Durna finished the game with eight RBIs, tying the school's single-game record (Division II) set by Justin Rahn in 2014. Durna was 6-for-15 in the series with 10 RBIs and 10 runs scored.
Coming up: Friday-Sunday at Chico State, 6 p.m./12 p.m. (DH)/11 a.m.
It's been a decade since San Diego State has seen the dominance displayed on the mound this season by junior right-hander Garrett Hill.
Hill allowed just three hits and one run — which scored after he had left the game — over 8 1/3 innings Saturday afternoon to lead SDSU to a 3-2 Mountain West win over New Mexico at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
It was a crucial victory for the Aztecs (18-9, 7-4 MW), who were in danger of being swept after the Lobos (12-13-1, 6-6) won the first two games of the series. SDSU remains in second place behind Nevada (15-9, 9-3).
Hill ended those thoughts by allowing just three singles over eight shutout innings. He was relieved with one out in the ninth after allowing a walk. Reliever Jorge Fernandez then allowed a two-run homer before finishing off New Mexico.
"We needed that," SDSU head coach Mark Martinez said. "We had a real poor pitching performance (in Friday's 9-5 loss). Something like 13 free bases. Walks, hit batters. We gave up five hits and nine runs. So we needed a great pitching performance. We also needed someone who could rest our bullpen."
Hill checked both boxes.
"He threw all of his pitches in all quadrants of the zone and kept them off-balance," Martinez said. "He's hard to see the ball out of his hand. His velocity was good early and what I really appreciated as he got through the game was he pitched, he located everything."
Hill, a junior college transfer from Petaluma, is two years removed from Tommy John surgery. He throws in the low 90s, but what sets him apart, Martinez says, is pounding the strike zone.
"I never thought it would be this good," said Hill, who is tied for the national lead in wins. "I just trust in what I'm doing and keep going, doing the same thing, and it's working.
"I'm just throwing strikes. That's all it is. If you throw strikes and hit spots, it's going to force weak contact. That's what you want. … Just keep on riding it."
Such pitching success hasn't been seen since a fellow named Strasburg toed the rubber at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
SDSU great Stephen Strasburg opened the 2009 season by going 6-0 through seven starts with a 1.49 ERA in 48 innings. Hill is 6-0 through seven starts with a 1.28 ERA in 42 1/3 innings. There is a notable difference in dominance between the two pitchers, however. Strasburg had 94 strikeouts (10 walks) at this juncture. Hill has 45 strikeouts (15 walks). Strasburg got to 13-0 before losing in the NCAA Regionals.
Hey, it gives Hill something to shoot for in the coming weeks.
Coming up: Monday vs. Washington, 6 p.m.; Tuesday vs. Long Beach State at Lake Elsinore, 6 p.m.; Friday-Sunday at Air Force, 1 p.m./12 p.m./11 a.m.