New year for SDSU baseball means no fans and newcomers

Here’s what to expect from the unusual 2021 season

San+Diego+State+baseball+players+look+towards+the+field+from+the+dugout+during+the+Aztecs%27+4-1+win+over+Iowa+on+Feb.+21%2C+2020+at+Tony+Gwynn+Stadium.

Luis Lopez

San Diego State baseball players look towards the field from the dugout during the Aztecs’ 4-1 win over Iowa on Feb. 21, 2020 at Tony Gwynn Stadium.

by Reese Savoie and Jenna Meyer

The future is bright for San Diego State baseball. 

With opening day just around the corner, the Aztecs have garnered a lot of attention, recognizing their talent and promise for the upcoming season. 

For a third consecutive season, SDSU came out on top in the Mountain West Conference preseason coaches poll. 

Additionally, redshirt junior outfielder Matt Rudick, redshirt sophomore outfielder Jaden Fein and pitcher Troy Melton received preseason all-Mountain West team honors. 

Melton was also named to the D1 Baseball College Top 150 Prospects list for the 2021 Draft, while Baseball America predicted him to win Mountain West Pitcher of the Year. 

Here are a few observations headed into the 2021 campaign.

1. Fresh faces

The Aztecs added nine new faces to their roster, eight of whom are freshmen ranking amongst the country’s top 500 players by Perfect Game. 

Head coach Mark Martinez said he’s looking forward to seeing the talent brought by the slate of newcomers. 

“A couple of those freshmen that are on campus now were also ticketed to be drafted in a normal year,” he said. “They ended up on campus, and so we get that bonus as well, so we’re very excited about that.” 

This incoming recruiting class has contributed to an expanded roster, totaling up to 42 men. 

With the allowance of only 35 active players, this increased roster and an influx of talented freshmen have created healthy competition within the team. 

Martinez said this would be a driving force in terms of keeping his athletes motivated. 

“They’re fighting for time, fighting for an opportunity to play,” Martinez said. “It’s made us a better baseball team. Not all of them are going to be out on the field playing right away, but a lot of them are going to contribute throughout the season, and so I’m really excited about this recruiting class.”

2. Leadership within upperclassmen 

With the 2020 season having been cut short due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the majority of last year’s roster return to Tony Gwynn Stadium for the 2021 campaign. 

Three of those familiar faces include super senior IF/OF Mike Jarvis, OF Ryan Orr and 1B/RHP Jacob Cruce. 

Martinez said that the leadership brought to the diamond by these three athletes has been crucial. 

“Having some guys that have been around and experienced the Division-I grind, so-to-speak, and then you pile on the COVID protocols and regiments that we’ve gone through every single day just in order to practice, having great leadership…it’s been great,” Martinez said. 

Jarvis said that serving as a role model for the newer players has helped him grow as a leader. 

“I’m trying to develop as a leader, personally. With all the (COVID) protocols and stuff, I’m trying to lead by example,” Jarvis said. “I’ve always liked to consider myself as a hard-working guy. I want to give the example of, regardless of what’s going on, just keep working. Don’t stop.” 

This growth expands beyond Jarvis and the other returning seniors’ leadership qualities. 

Martinez said it has contributed to their development as student-athletes as well. 

“All three of them have just stepped up unbelievably,” Martinez said of Jarvis, Cruce and Orr. “What’s cool about it is that they’ve grown in their leadership, but their game has gotten better. All three of them have just gotten to be better players.

“I don’t actually do anything,” he added with a laugh. “These guys kind of run the program.” 

Melton is also stepping up to the plate, making a name for himself as another prominent leader on the field. 

“It’s kind of funny because I still feel like a younger guy,” Melton said. “It’s kind of weird to be an upperclassman now.”

Melton recognizes the difficulty of being a college freshman having to cope with an unconventional college experience.

Similar to Jarvis, Melton aims to set a positive example for the younger players heading into the season. 

“It’s kind of a different season to be a leader, but still a good experience and learning how to teach the guys how to do things the right way without being able to do the full thing that freshmen normally have to do,” Melton said. “It’s different, but it’s fun and it’s a good experience.”

3. No fans, no friends, no problem

Tony Gwynn Stadium will be looking a lot different than in previous years. 

Rather than faces filling the stands, the field will instead be surrounded by a sea of empty red seats and, of course, cardboard cutouts. 

With the ongoing pandemic and the continuation of active cases across the state, the Scarlet and Black will not have friends, family or the community to cheer them on in person.  

Although it may seem disadvantageous at first glance, Martinez said that the lack of fans might actually serve to benefit the Aztecs this year. 

“I think just taking a page out of what Major League Baseball went through this past summer and understanding that it’s doable,” he said. “I think that the hyperfocus will be a jump in level of play because you’re definitely focusing on one thing, and you’re not worried about if your girlfriend got in or if your mom made it. That’s a big win.” 

Jarvis agreed.

“It’s going to be super weird,” he said. “It’ll definitely be an interesting experience playing with nobody in the stands, but I don’t see that being too big of a problem after the first couple games.” 

Melton said that although fans will be missed, the team should have no problem keeping the energy on the field high. 

“We’ve been playing baseball forever. It’s kind of the same game, but just a little bit of the excitement is taken away, but you know we can create our own energy and excitement,” he said. “I’d rather have the fans there, but I don’t think that should be hindering our performance in any way.” 

In addition to no fans in attendance, the team has also had to adhere to strict COVID protocols to make this season a reality. 

“We have to follow stringent protocols, whether it’s temperature checks, coming in every day, making sure that we bring our guys in at different times during practice, making sure that they’re spaced out,” Martinez said at a press conference Tuesday. 

Although the team has had to make sacrifices, Martinez acknowledged that his players understand that the pros outweigh the cons. 

“It’s actually working inside a box that sometimes can get cumbersome, especially when you’re dealing with young people who are very social and want to be next to their teammates and people,” he said. “That’s part of their training: they understand how important it is to kind of maintain all those protocols in order to have the opportunity to practice and compete.”

4. An unusual schedule

The Aztecs will kick off the season, facing local, nonconference opponents such as the University of San Diego and UC San Diego. 

These will be the only traditional three-game series the team will play all season.

The remainder of their campaign looks a bit strange, with the Scarlet and Black slated to play a doubleheader every Saturday followed by a single game on Sunday for the next three months. 

This leaves five days between each competition. 

“Our job as a coaching staff is really to manage those in-between days. The games will take care of themselves,” Martinez said. “We have to be really smart about how we’re practicing and what we’re doing in those five days leading up to our next opportunity.” 

Although 18 innings in one day and a five-day stretch between games can be daunting, Jarvis said the team is prepared. 

“I think if we need to, we can swap guys in and out from a lot of different positions, so I think we’ll be able to handle whatever comes our way. We have a solid team, a lot of guys that can move around, which definitely helps with that whole situation,” he said. 

Aside from USD, UCSD and a quick mid-conference series against Dixie State, the Aztecs’ schedule will be jam-packed with familiar Mountain West Conference opponents.

Another difference in the 2021 schedule is the cancellation of the conference tournament at the end of the season. 

As a result, the regular-season champion will get an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. 

Though not ideal, Martinez understands those tough decisions must be made to have a successful campaign.

“When they made (the decision), all the coaches in the conference were not happy. You start looking at it long-term, and I think it’s 100% the right decision to make sure that hopefully you get through a season and play the majority of your games,” he said. “If you add a tournament on the back end, you’re not just managing two teams but managing 14, and that becomes very cumbersome.” 

“Our job is to go out and win the regular season conference tournament or conference for the first time since 2004,” Martinez added.

Despite the oddities in scheduling, Melton said he’s happy to have the opportunity to play.

“Anytime we can get to play baseball is fine with me. As long as we get to play and there’s a season, it doesn’t really matter when we’re playing,” he said. “As long as we’re playing, it’s fun.”

The Aztecs’ home opener is Friday, Feb. 19 at 1 p.m. against USD.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email