Jim Dietz, San Diego State baseball coach, has a pitching problem as he prepares for his 17th Aztec season, which begins today with a game against UC Irvine at 5 p.m. on SDSU’s Smith Field.
Of 17 returning lettermen for the 50th anniversary of SDSU baseball, only two are pitchers.
Gone from last season’s 32-28-1 club are six pitchers, including last year’s leaders in victories, James Campbell (eight), and saves, Matt Haar (five). Four of the six were juniors who were drafted by major league teams.
The Aztecs also lost a second-team All-American outfielder, Bob Parry (.417, 42 RBIs), a senior last season who also was drafted.
“We don’t have a lot of experience among our pitchers, but we have a lot of depth,” Dietz said of the 15 pitchers listed on his preseason roster. “It’s a big staff--the average size is 6-foot 4-inches. It’s a strong staff with above-average arms.
“The staff will probably start slow. We’ll rely on five or six kids in the beginning--three or four starting and the others in relief. As we get in shape and become game-ready, we’ll phase in the others.”
Despite the lack of pitching experience, Dietz is pleased with the overall picture for 1988.
Except for the pitchers, SDSU will field an experienced team, including five starters from last season.
Leading the group are shortstop Steve Montejano, SDSU’s defensive standout, and third baseman-designated hitter Nikco Riesgo, who batted .413 last season.
Still, Dietz is not sure what to expect. Because of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s 26-week rule, which limits the number of weeks a college baseball team can play during the year, the Aztecs have not played any games this winter. They usually play local schools in scrimmages before the regular spring season begins.
“I’m a little apprehensive,” Dietz said. “I think we’ve got some talent, but we haven’t played a lot because of the new rule. I’m sure there will be some surprises. Kids react differently when there are people in the stands.”
With no preseason games, Dietz has been able to do something he has wanted to do for years--place more emphasis on conditioning. Every other day, the coach has sent his pitchers to the beach and the rest of the team to the mountains in Descanso, where each group runs four to five miles. On other days, the players have run sprints up Mt. Helix.
The conditioning seems to have resulted in keeping the Aztecs healthy. SDSU will open the season without major injuries.
A look at the Aztecs, position by position:
First base--Junior Harry Henderson, whose .336 batting average ranked third among SDSU starters last season, is being challenged by sophomore Chuck McInnis.
Second base--Dietz was set to name junior Kasey McKeon as the starter, but a late switch has brought outfielder Jeff Barry into the picture. McKeon, who played in half of SDSU’s games last season at second base, batted .297. Barry, a freshman, also has some experience at shortstop.
Third base--Junior lettermen Riesgo and Lance Pinnell are competing for the starting spot. Riesgo, who spent 1987 as a left fielder and designated hitter, led the team in hits, triples, home runs, total bases, runs batted in and game-winning RBIs. He set an SDSU record with 10 triples. Pinnell saw action at third base in more than half of SDSU’s games in 1987.
“It’s a real dogfight between them,” Dietz said. “They’re both playing some of the best baseball of their lives.”
Shortstop--Montejano, a senior and a four-year letterman, is looking to rebound from an injury that limited his play to 25 games last spring. So far, he’s been impressive.
“He’ll be hard to dislodge from the job,” Dietz said. “He’s our stabilizing effect out there. He’s consistent.”
Outfield--The starting three will come from a pool of six: sophomore John Anderson, who spent last season primarily as a catcher and batted .357; sophomore Billy Miller, who played in 39 varsity games as a freshman and batted .253; junior Brian Lutes, a redshirt in 1987; junior Danny Brown, a transfer from San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton; sophomore Bobby Livingston, who did not make an error in 53 chances in center field last season and Barry, who may split time between second base and the outfield.
Catcher--Newcomers Jeff Champ and Eric Christopherson are battling for the starting job, and Dietz thinks this combination will give the Aztecs their best catching in years. Champ, a junior, transferred from American River College in Sacramento, and Christopherson is a freshman from Huntington Beach. If they don’t work out, sophomore Danny Martinez, who caught 50 games in 1987, will be waiting.
Designated hitter--More than one of the Aztecs will play the DH role, particularly either Riesgo or Pinnell, one of the outfielders or Martinez.
Pitcher--The starting rotation is not set, but there are plenty of choices. Top candidates are sophomore John Hemmerly, 4-3 in 1987 with an ERA of 6.25; senior Greg Page, 2-1, 4.13; junior Rob Brown, a transfer from Tacoma Community College in Tacoma and junior Don Mossette, a redshirt last year after transferring from Fresno City College.
Other possible starters include sophomore knuckleballer John Lawrence, who arrives at SDSU after playing baseball in Holland from April through August; junior John Marshall, a transfer from Cerritos College in Norwalk; and junior Dave Riddle, who had only two appearances last season because of illness.
Dietz does have a corps of solid relievers. He would like to use senior right-hander Scott Webb in the middle innings of every game. Webb’s long-relief partner will be sophomore Rusty Filter, another right-hander. Junior right-hander Jim Gibbs and freshman left-hander Erik Plantenberg will be counted on for short relief.
If SDSU’s pitching solidifies, Dietz thinks the Aztecs can contend both in the Western Athletic Conference and for a spot in this year’s College World Series in Omaha.
Unlike years past, when the WAC baseball teams were aligned into two four-team divisions, all eight conference teams are grouped into one division this spring. The Aztecs open the conference season March 25 against Brigham Young at home. The top four WAC finishers will advance to a postseason playoff in Hawaii.
The Aztecs, who have 13 consecutive winning seasons, will be looking to qualify for the WAC playoffs for the 9th time in 10 years.
“I’m not going to say we’ll walk away with the league championship,” Dietz said. “But we’ve got a chance to be a good team. We’re much stronger defensively than we were a year ago, and we’ve got more pitching. The only thing we don’t have is experienced pitching.
“Anything is possible with this team. It could be one of the best I’ve had or one of the worst.”
Dietz will begin to find out which this afternoon.