Highlanders Stay Hot

SAN DIEGO–I’ve seen some pretty hot teams in my five days on the West Coast, including UCLA, San Diego and UC Irvine. But UC Riverside is as hot as anybody. The Highlanders won their sixth in a row Tuesday at San Diego State, a businesslike 7-1 affair on a cool evening at Tony Gwynn Stadium. As if the Highlanders didn’t already have pitching coming out of their ears, they got a strong performance from 6-foot-7 righthander Stephen Penney, a redshirt sophomore making his first career start. Penney was impressive, running his fastball up to 93 mph early, but it was obvious he hadn’t started before because his velocity dipped to the 86-87 range by the fourth inning. Still, he was able to get outs with his fastball, slider and split-finger–Riverside coach Doug Smith only hoped to get three innings out of Penney, but he lasted four, allowing just one unearned run on four hits while striking out four.

Then the Highlanders brought in a couple of other very intriguing arms. Junior lefty Dan Runzler worked two scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and racking up five strikeouts thanks largely to a lively fastball up to 91. Sidearmer Taylor Bills followed with two more scoreless frame on two hits. He’s got some deception and good arm speed for a sidearmer, running his fastball up to 88 tonight. It helped the pitchers that UCR’s offense produced three home runs, tying a season high. The Highlanders had won their previous four games by scores of 3-1, 3-2, 3-0 and 5-4. UCR does have some juice in the lineup, but the bats have been inconsistent. Perhaps this is the start of a hot offensive streak heading into a weekend series against Pacific. If Riverside’s bats catch up with its arms, this team is very capable of making a deep postseason run.

San Diego State, meanwhile, has lost five straight games, and the swoon couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Aztecs were hanging around in the Mountain West Conference race until this weekend, when they were swept at first-place Texas Christian. SDSU coach Tony Gwynn said the problem has been timely hitting–the first two games against TCU were very winnable one-run games. The Aztecs’ only hope of making the NCAA tournament is to win the MWC tournament, because their Ratings Percentage Index is 120, thanks in large part to six wins against No. 293 Air Force. But Gwynn thinks his team is capable of winning the conference tournament thanks to a fairly deep pitching staff. Even without ace lefthander Donnie Hume, who is likely out for the year with a bone spur in his elbow, the Aztecs can trot out six quality arms capable of starting if necessary. Tonight’s starter, redshirt sophomore Charles Nolte, has pitched sparingly the past two seasons because of Tommy John surgery, but he pitched well against Long Beach State last week, and he showed flashes of his considerable promise tonight, running his fastball up to 93 mph.

“He’s got electric stuff,” Gwynn said. “A good fastball. He’s still working on his curveball and changeup. He can get his fastball up into the mid-90s, but he can be erratic in the zone. Last week he was right there in the zone all night–I was proud of him.”

His command did lapse at times against Riverside, and he wound up allowing five earned runs on six hits over four innings, though he struck out five. With the Aztecs falling behind in the first few innings, I didn’t get a chance to see SDSU freshman closer Stephen Strasburg, who has posted a 2.83 ERA and seven saves in 29 innings this season. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Strasburg flashed a nasty slider and threw his fastball in the 93-95 mph range this weekend against TCU, according to Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle, and Riverside coach Doug Smith raved about him before the game as well.

“Oh, my lord, he’s massive,” Smith said. “He’s a huge man. He blots out the sun, he’s so big. The last time we saw him he was 92-93 with some sink, and he’s aggressive.”

With Strasburg at the back of a pitching staff stacked with good arms, the Aztecs at least have a chance to make a run in the MWC tournament. Maybe they could even play a home regional, with San Diego as a No. 1 seed, if the two schools can get together and make a bid materialize. This facility is one of the best on the West Coast, and the NCAA would likely relish the opportunity to put a regional here. But if the Aztecs don’t make the postseason, it might be difficult to sell the SDSU alumni base on the idea of letting the rival Toreros borrow Tony Gwynn Stadium.