Baseball Looks to Build on Record-Setting 2010 Season

BASEBALL — Six All-Americans. Defensive Player of the Year. Coach of the Year. The accolades rolled in by the dozens for UCSD baseball last year, but one accomplishment was just short of what the team was aiming for.

NCAA Division II Runners-Up.

The Tritons had their most successful year in program history in 2010, winning the CCAA title, NCAA West Regional Title and setting program records in wins, runs and team batting average. The squad set a total of 19 program records in 2010 including individual marks. The Tritons finished the season 54-8 and advanced to the NCAA Division-II title game.

In his 14th year at the helm, UCSD alum Dan O’Brien is by far the program’s most successful coach. O’Brien was awarded his second consecutive Division II Coach of the Year last season, and has led his squad to back-to-back D-II College World Series appearances.

This year, the senior-laden squad has every chance of returning to the heights of last season, and is the early-season contender for the national title. The team was the unanimous coaches’ pick to take the CCAA title again, and ranked No. 2 nationally in the Division-II preseason coaches’ poll. Southern Indiana, who defeated the Tritons 6-4 in the 2010 Title Game, begins the season with the top ranking.

The Tritons return with many of the top players from last year’s squad, and look poised to make another run to the College World Series in Cary, N.C. Ace Tim Shibuya returns, and will look to continue his dominating form from last year. The senior produced a school record of 13 wins with a 13-3 overall record, struck out 77 batters in 124 innings and threw five complete games. Fellow senior right-hander Guido Knudson also returns, after going 10-3 with a 3.87 ERA and four complete games last year.

In the field, the Tritons return six starters, with third baseman Evan Kehoe leading the way. The senior hit .351 last season, with eight home runs and 63 RBIs. Left fielder Aaron Bauman also returns after leading the team with a .553 OBP last season, while hitting .413 with eight home runs. Fellow returning starters Kyle Saul, Aaron Bauman, Kellen Lee, Danny Susdorf, Michael Benton and Grant Bauer provide a fearsome lineup for any opposing pitching staff.

But the Tritons have some significant holes to fill. All-Americans Vance Albitz and Brendan Gregorich have departed, along with starting pitchers Matt Rossman and Kirby St. John. Gregorich set a school record by hitting a ridiculous .452 last season, and Albitz won consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards from his shortstop position.

“As far as position players, yeah we lost two or three guys but we have six guys coming back,” Kehoe said. “It’s good to see younger guys fit in. You can look at it two ways: You can say they have some holes to fill, or you can say they have six guys returning and they’re just going to be even better.”

Last season, Rossman and St. John combined for a 21-1 record on 199.1 innings pitched, and the Tritons will need to find a way to fill their spots in the rotation. Righty Daniel Simmons and lefty Taylor Austin appear set to step up.

“I think our pitching staff is deeper than it’s ever been,” Kehoe said. “Just watching our staff the first two games, they’ve been amazing. They’ve been dominating the other teams.”

But the Tritons have more than just personnel change this year. Over the offseason, the team and the UCSD Athletics Department embarked on a campaign to have lights installed at Triton ballpark, and — thanks to a slew of donations from alumni — were able to have the lights installed in January, in time for the 2011 season. The lack of lighting disqualified UCSD from hosting playoff games in the past, even when the squad should have hosted based on record and ranking.

The Tritons hosted their first night game on Saturday, Jan. 29 in an exhibition game against Point Loma Nazarene. Over 250 attended the “Light It Up” celebration before the game, with former player Sean Greer flipping the switch to light the field.

“It’s just a huge occasion,” Kehoe said. “It’s kind of a watershed moment for our program. It’s been one of our goals for a few years now. I didn’t really think it would manifest itself until after I was gone. It just shows that our program is headed in the right direction.”

The growth didn’t come without growing pains: The lights were on a timer and shut off promptly at 10 p.m. in the middle of the ninth inning. Facing a 15-minute warm-up time to get the lights back on and playing only an exhibition, the game was called short.

Nevertheless, O’Brien agreed that the lights mean a lot to the program.

“It was an electric night,” O’Brien said. “It was just an incredible night — from the alumni, the place was packed, the music was loud, everyone was having a great time. It was a really special night.”

On the field, the Tritons defeated Point Loma 5-0.

“This was the first time where you could see the team start to realize how good they could be,” O’Brien said. “I think things are starting to fall into place.”

UCSD has won all three of its preseason exhibition games, with 2-1 and 3-2 wins over San Diego Christian College.

The Tritons will open their regular season at home with a four-game series against Western Oregon. The first game is on Friday, Feb. 4 at 6 p.m., followed by a doubleheader on Saturday beginning at noon. The series wraps up on Sunday with an 11 a.m. game.

Readers can contact Liam Rose at [email protected]