It's Been a Bullish Season This Far for the Toro Nine

Times Staff Writer

So far, it has been an honorable season for Cal State Dominguez Hills baseball.

The Toros had the honor of being chosen the fourth-rated team in the country in Division II in a preseason poll. Then they had the honor of opening the season at the University of Arizona, a Division I powerhouse. The Toros took two of three games.

Now comes the honor of playing in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn., which boasted five of the nation's top 10 Division II teams in a recent poll. The fourth-ranked Toros, off to a fast start at 11-5-1, even got to open with the top contender, second-ranked Cal State Northridge, last Friday. They lost, 4-0.

"The Lord's been real good to us," said Toro Coach Andy Lopez before taking on Northridge. "We're real happy to be included with the Northridges and (UC) Riversides and (Cal Poly) Pomonas. It's an honor as a coach to be there (in the CCAA)--I hate it and and I love it.

Rarely a Breather

"I hate it because you play five games a week against top-10 teams and you have to be ready every day. I love it because coaching against these guys you have to get better. Or you get beat up real good."

That's life in the CCAA--rarely a breather in the schedule and not a soft touch in the eight-team bunch. The Toros came close to the crown last year, have added some pitching through recruiting and, based on the season so far, should be in the title hunt. "The last two years we've been there. Hopefully this year we can jump 'em," Lopez said.

The big surprise so far has been the Toros' power hitting, particularly from shortstop Craig Grebeck (5 home runs, 15 runs batted in) and third baseman Fred Hanker (3 homers, 15 RBIs). The team's top batters, first baseman Kevin Whalen (.373), second baseman Mike Brocki (.393) and outfielder Jon Beuder (.371, 20 RBIs) all have slugging percentages above .500, and the team has a slugging average of .440.

Back-up shortstop Eric Mihkelson has slugged two homers and five doubles off the bench. He and Grebeck are the smallest players on the team. Whalen had hit in 16 straight games this year and in 22 of the last 24 going back to last season before being blanked by Northridge. Center fielder Mike Strong chips in with three homers and a .292 average. The Toros have outscored their opponents 114-82.

Surprised by Power

"I honestly didn't think we'd have the pop we have," Lopez said. "I was concerned we'd have to go to more of an action game."

The Toros can do that, too. Brocki, who has a .522 on-base percentage, has stolen 14 bases, and Beuder has 8.

While the offense has been slugging, three pitchers with two or more decisions have perfect records and junior college transfer Brian Ayers is 3-1. Senior Bill Anderson, junior Mike Asprey and senior Pat McEachin are 2-0. Ayers has a 2.30 earned-run average. The Toros also return the CCAA pitcher of the year, Jim Pena (1-1). Lopez also feels he has a solid bullpen with the addition of Dennis Brady to back up Don Spadoni.

Most of the Toros are veterans of last year's conference race. One of the exceptions is Chris Plank, who is batting .310 while doing most of the catching. The only unsettled position is left field, where freshman Joe Pardo is competing with senior Raymond Grant and transfer Garrett Tekely. One may emerge or the three may alternate, Lopez said.

The Toros play host to the University of San Diego at 2 p.m. Friday, then travel to San Diego for a 1 p.m. game Saturday. The Toros also play at home at 2:30 p.m. Monday against The Master's College. Conference play resumes on Wednesday against Chapman.

The conference winner, Lopez said, "is going to be the team that puts together the most consistent 30 games. And stays healthy."

Otherwise, as he pointed out, you can get beaten pretty good. That's life in the CCAA.

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