On Friday, February 15th, the University of San Diego Toreros officially opened the doors (turnstiles?) to Fowler Park. Padres Public was on hand to root root root for the home teams, with one writer providing the unique perspective of being a proud USD alumnus, and the other as…well…a San Diegan who likes collegiate baseball.
If you’ve ever sat on the cold, hard metal benches at Cunningham Stadium or watched uniformed players climb the hill in search of foul balls, you know that the place was due for an upgrade. Thanks to the generosity of Ron and Alexis Fowler, that upgrade is now a reality.
Given the ballpark’s geography, I kept my expectations low. There is only so much you can do with that space, but I’ll be darned if they didn’t do it. The seats were comfortable and roomy, and although I didn’t visit the concession stands or restrooms, the fact that those are now viable options made Fowler Park feel like a real, Division I baseball stadium.
Night games? At USD? That’s crazy talk!
Mark Grant did a great job as MC, and Ron Fowler understands the value of brevity in ceremony. Like the rest of us, he seemed to just want to watch a ballgame.
Heck, we even saw the ballpark blessed by a priest. So now I can cross that off my bucket list.
Dylan Covey started badly, allowing two first-inning runs, and never recovered. He spun a few nasty breaking balls but couldn’t command the fastball. He fell behind in counts and then got hammered when guys were looking for numero uno up in the zone, out over the plate.
Positives: Covey fielded his position well and showed a nice pickoff move. Still, he’ll need to develop more consistency with the fastball if he’s to succeed. Hopefully this was just a combination of adrenaline from opening a heavily hyped new ballpark and not having pitched in a game for a while.
The offense couldn’t get anything going all night, although much of that is due to SDSU right-hander Michael Cederoth. Even as a work in progress, he’s a tough customer. The only real threat came in the fifth, when the Toreros scored their lone run but failed to push across any more despite having the bases loaded with nobody out.
Kris Bryant, an All-American projected to go in the first round of the 2013 draft, had an uneventful evening. He walked on five pitches, hit two towering pop fouls off first base, and flied out to deep left field on a ball hit off the end of his bat. The three outs all showed his strength, but his timing was off.
Bryant, who is listed at 6’5”, 215 lbs., looks like a third baseman in the sense that Dave Kingman and Mark McGwire once did. He was charged with an error in the sixth when he boxed a grounder. Bryant recovered, and his throw appeared to beat the runner at first, but the umpire ruled otherwise. If the ball is fielded cleanly, the umpire doesn’t have to think about it.
Shortstop Logan Davis had a perfect night at the plate, going 3-for-3 with a walk and collecting half of his team’s hits. He was less perfect in the field. Davis took too long to make a throw to start the game, which helped open the floodgates in the first. He air-mailed another throw in the second.
Davis wasn’t the only who had trouble on defense. First baseman Connor Joe’s footwork around the bag was sloppy, while Dillon Haupt struggled behind the dish. He was charged with a passed ball and generally had trouble receiving the baseball.
All in all, this was a disappointing effort from a team that entered the season with high expectations. That USD got swept over the weekend made it that much worse. But it’s only February, and if the Toreros are as good as evaluators think they are, this should be a blip on the proverbial radar.
As for Bryant, maybe we’ll see him in a Padres uniform one day. Although probably not at third base.
The Aztecs scored early and often, in large part due to the trio at the top of the lineup. Sophomore center fielder Greg Allen (4-for-5, SB) was especially impressive, showcasing his speed as he started off the game by beating out a soft grounder to SS, hit the ball to all fields, and – although having a lack of chances – looked comfortable ranging to both sides in his new defensive home. Tim Zier (3-for-5, 2B), the Aztecs’ junior second baseman, is a solid defensive contributor who will play a vital cog in San Diego State’s impressive up-the-middle defense. He also got the Aztecs off to a quick start when he ripped a Covey fastball just over third base to rattle around in the corner, scoring Allen for the game’s first run. Brad Haynal (3-for-5, 2 2B, 3B, SB) had a monster offensive game, beginning with an opposite-field drive over the right fielder’s head in the first inning, resulting in an RBI double and what would prove to be the decisive run. His ability to drive the ball to both fields against quality pitches was easily the most impressive offensive showing of the evening.
But I was here for Aztecs’ ace sophomore starter, Michael Cederoth, and while he didn’t showcase the same explosive stuff he had when he struck out the side during these two teams’ exhibition matchup back in late October, he was fascinating to watch. His showing is best described as easy velocity with a compact delivery, coupled with bouts of wildness. The fastball is an easy mid-90s offering, and while the curveball has decent shape, he often telegraphs it – throughout the night he showcased several breaking pitches to the point where the whole stadium knew what was coming and looped several more high out of the zone. Cederoth’s biggest issue on Friday night was his impatience out of the windup, as his quick pace was often interrupted by the hitter, umpire, and – on a couple occasions – by his own battery mate. He showed the ability to bury his mistakes with a big pitch and, much to our delight, would oftentimes show his disgust by crossing the first base chalk cursing at himself under his breath.
I haven’t watched him enough to know if this is a common occurrence, but his impatience and tendency to overthrow out of the windup was oddly juxtaposed by a Zen approach out of the stretch. His pace slows considerably, allowing him to breathe (in some cases, literally) and deliver each pitch on a consistent downward plane with far less fury. This was never more evident than the way he overmatched USD first baseman Connor Joe with two strikeouts in his first two at-bats – the second of which was a knee-high, called third strike on the black. Senior catcher Jake Romanski didn’t even flinch.
Speaking of Romanski, the guy just loves…throwing…the…baseball. He showed off with a strong arm, mature approach, and quick release; keeping balls in front of him and allowing USD to run into mistakes on the base paths. Even what would be considered poor throws came with good footwork and plus velocity to shut the Toreros down on three separate occasions. All in all, a solid showing on all sides of the ball as the Aztecs used all fields and were aggressive on the bases, adept at reading the pitcher and getting a good jump (although their aggression allowed Covey and USD reliever PJ Conlon to make easy work of them on pickoffs). It will be interesting to see if this is genuine improvement from a young team, or simply a mirage on the big stage.
Getting the Friday night start for Opening Night in a cross-town rival’s new ballpark is no easy ticket, but the San Diego State Aztecs seemed to be comfortable in the Toreros’ beautiful new digs. When I had the chance to see these two teams during the Aztecs’ Alumni Weekend in late-October, despite an exhibition setting that was more situational hitting than actual game time conditions, the Toreros looked to be the more mature and talented club. However, youth and athleticism tipped the scales SDSU’s way during Opening Night and throughout the weekend, as they swept the three-game set. Greg Allen and Tim Zier will be fun to watch all season long, whether as offensive threats at the top of the lineup or up the middle on defense. Watching Michael Cederoth continue to develop as the staff ace is equally exciting, as he showed nothing that disagreed with Aaron Fitt’s belief that he’s a potential Top 5-10 pick in the 2014 draft.
Speaking of scouts, they will continue to line up for USD’s Kris Bryant as well as starters Dylan Covey and Michael Wagner, especially as the calendar moves closer to the June draft. And rightfully so – despite a slow start, there’s plenty of talent to appreciate there. The Toreros might have looked flat and overmatched during their opening series, but they were a unanimous Top 25 preseason pick for a reason. While the series sweep drops them out of the Division I rankings for the time being, it could just as easily have been due to the surprising strength of the previously unranked San Diego State Aztecs – who received several votes and actually cracked Collegiate Baseball’s Top 30 ranking at No. 22.
While the two teams aren’t scheduled to face each other again this season, don’t allow a lopsided contest and disappointing series for USD dissuade you from going to the beautiful Fowler Park. The stadium is gorgeous and the team has several unmistakable star players that are worth the price of admission. If anything, just think of the Aztecs and their up-and-coming squad of talented young players making it that much more difficult to choose which home team to root for.