San Francisco Chronicle
May 11, 2006
The Diamond Dons' long wait might be drawing to a close.
USF is a series away from advancing to the West Coast Conference championships, in which an automatic berth in the NCAA regionals is at stake. If this year's team makes the field, it would mark the first postseason appearance since then-St. Ignatius College began playing baseball in the 1890s.
"It would mean the world to our program," coach Nino Giarratano said.
USF is tied with Pepperdine for first place in the WCC at 12-6 with one conference series remaining. The Dons host Loyola Marymount in three games this weekend, and Pepperdine plays three at St. Mary's. San Diego is right behind at 11-7; the Toreros host Gonzaga.
The top two teams in the conference play a three-game series, May 26-28, with the winner securing the automatic berth. By virtue of tiebreakers, the Dons would host a series against Pepperdine or San Diego if USF finishes tied for first with either of those schools.
The Dons also were close last year, but finished out of the league playoffs, a game behind Pepperdine in the West Division. This year, the conference dropped the two-division format.
USF also could be in position for an at-large bid if the team fails to win the conference.
"Last year when we didn't get in, we were disappointed, but we figured if we could put it together two years in a row, they'd have to start looking at us," Giarratano said. "That's the position we're in right now."
The Dons have made steady improvements under Giarratano, in his eighth year on the Hilltop. Last year's 38-18 finish was the best since 1971 and is the most wins in school history. They've earned a second straight 30-plus-win season, going to 33-19 after Tuesday's 9-5 win at Cal.
This year's team, like last year's, thrives on pitching. The staff is anchored by Patrick McGuigan, who is 9-2 as a starter, with a team-leading four saves and an ERA of 3.26. He worked out of the bullpen last weekend and saved all three games in a series sweep at St. Mary's. He'll be in the 'pen again this weekend, with Giarratano saying McGuigan will start Sunday if he's not needed in relief.
Left-hander Scott Cousins is 4-2, with a 3.03 ERA, and lefty Aaron Poreda is 6-4, 2.25.
Fielding is another matter. Last year, the Dons ranked in the top five nationally in fielding percentage. This year, Giarratano has had to move around some players because of injuries and the Dons' fielding percentage is lower.
First baseman Ben Summerhays sustained a back injury six games into the season and is still out. Andrew Smith, a three-year starter at third, was set to move to second, but he broke a hand in the preseason and didn't return until mid-March, when he went to shortstop -- a move forced when all-conference shortstop Tavo Hall also broke a hand.
"We've never played with the defense we set out to play with," Giarratano said. "If we can find that consistency defensively, we can play closer to what we're capable of."
Giarratano said the Dons have been "hot and cold" offensively.
Outfielder Stefan Gartrell has been hot. As the Dons went 4-0 last week, Gartrell hit .500, with a double, two home runs and seven RBIs. He is hitting .346 with a team-leading 57 RBIs and a team-best six homers for the season.
Even with the injuries and the inconsistencies in the field and at the plate, this team might have the Dons' best shot at that elusive berth in the postseason.
"It's pretty remarkable stuff," Giarratano said.