Three Strikes: USD Looking to Finish, Ivy League Strength, Midseason Tidbits
San Diego Looks to Write Revised Script in 2022
The story that San Diego is writing this year sounds fairly familiar, at least in how it starts.
It has a talented team that was thought of in the preseason, on paper, to be among the top challengers for the WCC title. It has backed up those expectations early with impressive non-conference wins, including winning three of four against Oregon to begin the season, playing close with Dallas Baptist in a series loss and taking a series on the road against Grand Canyon on the way to a 16-7 record.
With a 5-1 record after two weekends of conference play, the Toreros are also off to a quick start in the WCC. Long story short, both in terms of talent and results, they look the part of a postseason team through six weeks of action.
“You can see it as a coach, but now it’s starting to kind of all click together a little bit and trend in the right direction,” San Diego coach Brock Ungricht said of his team’s performance so far.
The trick for USD now is writing a different ending for the story, because it has started seasons similarly in the past but fallen short of the postseason.
In 2019, the Toreros went 3-0 in the Seattle Baseball Showcase with wins against Coastal Carolina, Minnesota and Indiana, and followed that up with a midweek win over Texas Christian, after which it was 13-4.
But from there, USD finished 14-13 in WCC play and missed the conference tournament, so it goes without saying that it was out of the at-large discussion.
The 2017 team opened the season by taking a game from Vanderbilt, got wins against Southern California and UCLA as part of the tournament those teams hosted in Los Angeles, and swept Tulane in four games on the road. It even went 18-9 in the WCC, but again, it was left out of the conference tournament and the at-large discussion.
San Diego has often been good and has occasionally been excellent in the last nine years, but believe it or not, it has been that long since it has been in the postseason.
Finishing as strong as it started and remedying that in 2022 isn’t a focus for USD per se, but it is what it hopes to accomplish by doing what it's been doing for six weeks now.
“That’s where it’s not getting caught up in the moment, (and) it’s not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” Ungricht said. “It’s where it’s keeping a happy medium and focusing on our process.”
To be fair to the Toreros, most of the evidence presented so far suggests that this season is poised to have a different outcome.
On the field, this team appears uniquely balanced between being able to put up runs in bunches and get the job done on the mound.
What is relatively unchanged from previous San Diego teams is that this group can really hit. As a team, it's hitting .293/.386/.439 and with 24 home runs it's just four away from eclipsing the 28 homers it hit in 2019 and eight away from passing last year’s total of 32.
The lineup is a mix of longtime productive veterans like fourth-year junior catcher Caleb Ricketts (.315/.364/.539), established younger players like sophomore outfielder Jack Costello (.347/.387/.510), who hit .338 as a freshman last season, and players who have taken big steps forward this season like third-year sophomore second baseman Chase Meidroth (.382/.500/.562) and sophomore first baseman Kevin Sim (.333/.423/.678), who were both role players until breaking out in 2022.
“Believing in themselves and getting an opportunity,” Ungricht said of the catalyst for Meidroth and Sim making a jump. “Chase Meidroth is a third-year sophomore, but dealt with some arm issues last year, (and) we had a really good team last year as well, so it was hard for him to find a way to get in the lineup. The guy is uber talented, defensively and offensively, and he’s been making the most of his opportunity.
“And then Kevin Sim, you get a guy that’s a high school All-American who needed to get at-bats under his belt and learn to have an approach at the plate. That just comes with experience and time.”
What’s improved over past seasons is the quality and the depth of the pitching staff. After struggling to get consistent length from its starting pitchers last season, San Diego has gotten precisely that from the duo of fifth-year senior righthander Garrett Rennie (1-2, 2.65) and third-year sophomore lefthander Brycen Mautz (5-1, 3.11), the latter of whom has struck out 60 batters in 37.2 innings.
Both of them average just over six innings per start and have lasted at least five innings in all 12 of the combined starts between them.
That type of length helps keep the bullpen fresh, which in turn allows that unit to be as effective as it has been. Sophomore righthander Ivran Romero (0.63 ERA, 14.1 IP), sophomore lefthander Cole Colleran (0.87 ERA, 10.1 IP) and fourth-year junior righthander Ryan Robinson (2.35 ERA, 15.1 IP) all have impressive numbers, and third-year sophomore righthander Conner Thurman (3.24 ERA, 16.2 IP) appears to have found his calling at the back of the bullpen.
This season, 37 of the 50 outs Thurman has recorded have come via strikeout, and opponents are hitting him at a .150 clip. His full-time transition back to the bullpen after a 2021 season spent splitting his time between the rotation and relief work came out of a frank conversation he had with the coaching staff before the season.
“As soon as Flo (assistant coach Matt Florer) and I knew we were coming back to USD, the first thing we did is sit down with Conner and said ‘hey, we respect the hell out of you, we’ll give you every opportunity to do what you want to do because of what you’ve done for this program so far. So whether that’s being the Friday night guy or being a closer or being the first guy out of the pen or the Saturday (starter), whatever you feel like you are going to be the best version of yourself and you feel the most comfortable with, we support you 150%,’ ” Ungricht said. “So having that conversation with him, kind of putting the ball in his court, I think it allowed him to really figure that out over the fall.”
After some feeling out time throughout the fall, Thurman got some clarity.
“It was in December, he sat down with us and said ‘hey, you know, I’m best coming out of the pen. That’s my mentality. That’s how I tick. That’s what I want. Give me the ball, I’m going to go with the game,’ ” Ungricht recalls.
If that group can keep USD near the top of the WCC standings and prevent the Toreros from falling short of the WCC Tournament with its particularly stringent four-team format, which has hamstrung USD's ability to get into the postseason in the past, its resume promises to almost certainly stack up nicely with those it will be compared to.
Its RPI currently sits No. 6 in the country as of Wednesday morning, and while that perhaps won’t last as the season rolls on, it does bode well for USD’s ability to stay above water in the metric.
Its three wins against Oregon (RPI No. 3), one against DBU (RPI No. 1) and two against GCU (RPI No. 29) also give it six total wins against teams inside the RPI top 30, with a home series against Gonzaga (RPI No. 4) to end the regular season currently slated to give it three more cracks at high-end wins.
That schedule is tough not by coincidence or by way of some happy accident. It was a strategy, learned by Ungricht at a previous coaching stop, that seems to have broken in USD’s favor in a big way.
“It’s not an exact science,” Ungricht said. “When I was at Stanford as an assistant, Coach (Mark) Marquess was so big about RPI. He was so big about scheduling Vanderbilt, Texas, Rice, Cal State Fullerton year in and year out, but the one thing that he would always say is it’s no guarantee, but you want to put yourself in a position to play the best teams possible.”
Simply put, USD has already done a lot of the legwork it needed to do in order to put it in position to make the postseason, and if it finishes as strong as it started, it’s not likely to be left out like USD teams have been in the past.
Could Ivy League Baseball Have a Moment in 2022?
Given that its member teams hadn’t played since March 2020, save for the 14 games Pennsylvania played against local competition last season, it was understandable that expectations were modest for Ivy League baseball in 2022.
But so far this season, the Ivy League has come to play and has along the way blown those preseason expectations out of the water.
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The aforementioned Penn began its season by winning a series against Texas A&M, and has since run up a 14-7 record. Harvard has taken a game against both Miami and UCLA, and was a one-run loss in each case from winning both of those series. Columbia won a game against Baylor and was a 10-inning loss away from winning the series. Yale won a game against Auburn and lost another by one run, and the Bulldogs also split four games with Washington. Dartmouth won a game against Louisville in its season-opening series as well.
In and of itself, that’s pretty notable because few would have predicted so much success for Ivy League teams right away, particularly against power conference competition. But what makes it even more notable is what it has done for the Ivy League in terms of RPI.
Currently four teams sit inside the top 70 in the metric—Harvard at 25, Yale at 42, Columbia at 59 and Penn at 67—and that’s worth examining.
It’s not uncommon for an Ivy League team or two to stick around the upper echelon of the RPI as the midpoint of the season approaches. At this stage, these teams have typically played almost exclusively on the road, which helps, and at least one team will have played a daunting schedule.
But then the rest of the season follows a familiar script. Conference play gets underway, the team or teams that had good RPIs early fall back more in line with the rest of the league and the Ivy League ultimately ends up being a clear one-bid league.
This season, could—extra emphasis on could—be different. Four teams with top-70 RPIs is very different from one team having an RPI in that range. It means that those four teams could end up playing nine conference games, plus potentially a handful more in the Ivy League Tournament, against teams with top-100 or even top-50 RPIs.
It’s worth noting that while there isn’t modern precedent for the Ivy League being a two-bid league, there is precedent for the selection committee valuing the league’s auto bid teams as something close to at-large-quality.
Three times the committee has awarded the Ivy League champ with a three seed rather than a four seed—Yale in 2018 with an RPI of 47 and Columbia in 2015 and 2014 with RPIs of 72 and 77, respectively. And while safe money is on those three not having been at-large teams had they not won the automatic bid, the committee saw them as being not all that far off.
With the way the numbers have looked so far in this year’s Ivy League, it’s not inconceivable for a team, or even multiple teams, to end up with an RPI inside the top 50, and by definition that at least puts a team in the discussion.
At a bare minimum, the Ivy League has shown its strength this season with a whole host of impressive non-conference wins, but don’t discount the chance it has to show its strength by getting two teams into regionals.
Don’t Look Now, But…
Here’s a collection of under-the-radar tidbits that catch the eye as the midway point of the regular season approaches. Some of these might be instructive about what to expect moving forward, while others may end up being red herrings.
- Cal Poly’s Brooks Lee is quietly putting up another monster season. Through Tuesday’s midweek game against Santa Clara, he’s hitting .432/.534/.726 with 14 doubles, four home runs and 22 walks compared to six strikeouts. And by the way, fellow Collegiate National Team alum Drew Thorpe is having a similarly successful season for the Mustangs. He’s 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA and a 66-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42.1 innings.
- The American Athletic Conference is toying with being a one-bid league. Last season, South Florida winning the auto bid instead of East Carolina gave the AAC a second regional team, but as it stands now, some team is going to have to make a run to give the conference any viable at-large candidates.
- One season after hitting .250 as a team with 32 total home runs, Missouri State is hitting .303 and already has 39 home runs, largely with the same core of players.
- Of all of the talented freshmen who arrived as part of UCLA’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class, righthander Thatcher Hurd has had the best season so far. In 33.2 innings, he has a 1.07 ERA, 48 strikeouts and a .139 opponent batting average.
- A 2.78 team ERA for Davidson has been a big driver in the Wildcats racing out to a 19-5 record, which puts them in position to challenge the program single-season record for wins. Currently, the record is 35 wins by the 2017 team that advanced to super regionals.
- Texas Southern has played a lot of games against non-Division I competition, but the idea that it has already stolen 119 bases as a team against any level of college competition is wild.
- Connecticut dropped nearly 50 spots in RPI week over week, all because it lost one game in a road series win over Rhode Island and dropped a midweek game to Boston College at home. With no obvious resume-building wins left on the schedule in front of it, that serves to illustrate how narrow UConn’s path to an at-large bid is should it not win the auto bid in the Big East.
- It’s been a tough season for San Diego State, perennially one of the better mid-major programs around. The Aztecs are 5-18 overall and 0-9 in Mountain West play. Speaking of the Mountain West, Nevada-Las Vegas is out to an 8-1 start in league play, and perhaps the Rebels are ready to challenge for their first conference title since 2014 and first outright title since 2005.
- Virginia Tech’s team offensive numbers are impressive—it has a .327/.426/.612 slash line—but outfielder Jack Hurley’s numbers jump off the page. He’s hitting .470/.521/.928 with nine doubles and nine home runs.
- Rutgers is off to a 16-6 start, putting its first 30-win season since 2014, the one stopover year in the AAC between its time in the Big East and Big Ten, well within its grasp. The Scarlet Knights are also looking for their first .500 or better finish in Big Ten play since joining the league.