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WCC Free-For-All

April 8, 2008

Baseball America's Aaron Fitt features WCC baseball in his April 2 mailbag entry

Staying on the West Coast, let's go to the mailbag:

I personally feel the West Coast Conference is underrated and underappreciated in the college baseball world. Obviously San Diego and Pepperdine receive national attention, but the rest of the league is snubbed . . . What do you see the final conference standings being in the WCC? Obviously San Diego is favored for No. 1 and Pepperdine No. 2 but otherwise how do you play it out?

Am I wrong in suggesting that maybe, at least maybe, the WCC should be highly considered for three bids into the tournament? It happened in 2005, and I think the conference just keeps improving. Let me know if I am wrong.

Aaron Roche
San Francisco

To answer the last part of your question first, I thought the West Coast Conference deserved three bids a year ago, when Gonzaga was the most egregious regional snub, in my mind. The league is brimming with quality teams this year, which means there are plenty of regional contenders, but there's also a good chance that they all beat each other up, leaving San Diego and Pepperdine as the lone regional participants again. Heading into last night's action, the WCC and the Big 12 were the only two conferences with no teams that had sub-.500 overall records. After one weekend of conference play, neither the Toreros nor the Waves sit atop the conference standings, but rather 3-0 Loyola Marymount, fresh off a sweep of Portland (which fell below .500 last night with a loss to Washington). Santa Clara and San Francisco are both 2-1 in conference play, ahead of Pepperdine (1-1) and San Diego (1-2).

Even after they dropped two out of three to Santa Clara this past weekend, I still believe the Toreros are the favorites to win the WCC, but it's hardly a slam dunk. At the moment, USD is dealing with some significant injuries, most notably to senior righthander Matt Couch, who will miss the remainder of the season with Tommy John surgery (he hopes to redshirt and return for his fifth year). Outfielder Anthony Strazzara was hit on his right hand by a pitch last week against Harvard and sustained a hairline fracture that will keep him out another two to three weeks. Freshman phenom Victor Sanchez, who leads USD with nine homers, eight doubles and 30 RBIs, left Saturday's game against Santa Clara after aggravating his shoulder on a swing, and freshman lefty Sammy Solis left the same game after taking a line drive off his hand, causing a lot of swelling but no broken bones. Both are day to day and could be return this weekend.

Pepperdine has the most offensive talent in the league, but so much will depend upon whether Brett Hunter can make a strong return this month from forearm soreness. Nate Newman and Scott Alexander have excellent arms and are weekend-caliber starters, but neither is a legitimate Friday ace yet.

Those question marks mean the league is wide open, and the three teams at the top of the standings have the best shot at capitalizing. I like Santa Clara the best of that bunch, thanks largely to deep, talented, experienced offense. The Broncos wear out the gaps, leading the conference (and ranking fifth in the nation) with 2.74 doubles per game. Junior outfielder Evan LeBlanc (.379/.425/.573 with three homers, nine doubles and 18 RBIs) has been a revelation in his second year since transferring from Yavapai (Ariz.) JC, and he has help in the lineup from sophomore catcher Tommy Medica (a member of Team USA last summer) and a slew of solid veterans.

"They're very good," said one coach whose team has played the Broncos. "They have a bunch of veteran position players who continue to get better with experience. It was like, `OK, do you walk this guy to pitch to this guy?' It was never a no-brainer, because they have seven guys at the top of the lineup taking quality at bats right now. They all have a good approach, they were all there last year, and they've all improved tremendously."

Santa Clara lacks power arms in its weekend rotation, but Friday starter Nate Garcia throws his fastball and breaking ball for strikes and competes in tough spots. And freshman righthander Thain Simon (6-0, 0.90 with two saves and a 27-6 strikeout-walk ratio in 20 innings) has been a dynamo at the back of the bullpen, thanks to his deception and ability to locate a quality fastball and slider down in the strike zone. The rest of the staff is filled with strike throwers, but the Broncos have a 5.78 team ERA and might not have enough pitching to win the WCC title.

Loyola Marymount has similarly been led by a freshman on the mound. Six-foot-5 lefthander Martin Viramontes has slid right into the Friday starter spot and gone 2-2, 4.03 with a 37-11 K-BB ratio in 29 innings.

"Viramontes, he's good. If he stays healthy, I think we'll see that he turns into one of if not the best pitcher to have pitched at Loyola since (coach) Frank Cruz been there," one opposing coach said. "I think he'll turn into a good draft pick. The breaking ball is legitimate, the fastball is plenty firm enough. Whether he pitches at 90, I don't know, but it's upper 80s, he'll flash the 91s, 92s. As he matures, he'll be one of those guys in the 90s."

Like Santa Clara, LMU's strength is its lineup, which has gotten strong starts from first baseman Ryan Wheeler (.353/.415/.510) and DH Andy Preston (.341/.429/.534). Preston, a transfer from Purdue, has beefed up the lineup, and shortstop Kyle Spraker, a transfer from California, has shored up the infield defense.

"I think he's given them real good consistent, college defense, and probably has hit better than they expected," the second coach said of Spraker. "The guy that will make a big difference for them when he breaks out is (catcher Sean) Dovel, because he's physical, has hit in the past and hit for some power in the past. And Wheeler is real dangerous. They're physical, and they can hit. Their question was pitching, and I think they feel better about it now."

San Francisco is the darkhorse. The Dons have recovered from a sluggish start, when they split four games at Hawaii, were swept at UC Irvine and lost a series at Houston. Since then, they've won nine of 10, bookended by midweek wins over Fresno State and yesterday's 5-1 win over No. 7 California. Quixotic lefthander Evan Frederickson, who has one of the best arms in college baseball but was plagued by terrible command and control the last two years at Virginia Tech before transferring to USF, struck out 13 over seven shutout innings against the Golden Bears. If he can build upon that momentum, he could form a formidable pitching core with lefty Matt Baugh (3-2, 3.52), sophomore righty Chase Tigert (0-0, 0.00 through six innings), freshman lefty Matt Lujan (3-0, 1.88) and righthander/first baseman Mitchell Bialosky (1-3, 4.00).

"I thought they were a team that could compete with anybody, and really compete within their league," said a coach whose team has played the Dons. "I think that's a league that people are going to beat each other up. There's really nobody that's a gimme, and nobody that's going to run away with it."