Sunday, February 10, 2013

Meet the Aztecs: Part II — The Infield

Shortstop Evan Potter and second baseman Tim Zier are veterans now.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — It has been said that the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. The Aztecs have discovered it’s even better when they get to be juniors.
Catcher Brad Haynal recalls looking out from behind the plate during a game two years ago and “everyone in the infield, including the pitcher, was a freshman. We were playing like the No. 5-ranked team in the nation. It was overwhelming.”
Inexperience in the infield made for some long days. There were games where it seemed more balls were kicked   than caught and as many plays were muffed as made.
“When you play as a freshman, like they did, you have to expect that there’s going to be mistakes,” said Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn.
It’s a much different story this season, where junior shortstop Evan Potter (Grossmont High) and junior second baseman Tim Zier (Escondido High) are now three-year starters.
“I think the strength of our club is up the middle with Zier and Potter there,” said Gwynn. “They work really well together.”
Said Potter: “We are very sound defensively. I hope to become a leader and an example for the younger guys on how to play the game right.”
Zier, who batted .318 with 32 RBI and 10 stolen bases last season, was among those selected to the Mountain West Conference preseason all-conference team.
“He’s a solid offensive guy,” said Gwynn. “He’s going to hit second. He can do everything. He’s your prototypical No. 2 guy.”
Potter is in the lineup for his defense, although Gwynn said Potter is “coming along” at the plate after batting .190 with 12 RBI a year ago.
“I’d like to see him be a little more consistent with his approach,” said Gwynn. “He’s working at it and trying to get better. We need him to be a threat.”
Ryan Muno
One of the biggest threats in the lineup is expected to be sophomore first baseman Ryan Muno (Mission Viejo High), who hit .308 with four homers and 19 RBI in his debut last season.
“He has a terrific bat,” said Gwynn. “He’s probably going to hit third for us because he’s our best hitter. He’s got some power.
“What I’m trying to get him to do is just slow down. He knows he’s got a pretty good stroke. You have to wait sometimes to get something to hit. He wants to hit everything. He’s learning, ‘Hey, I have to be a little more patient.’ ”
Muno is learning his way around first base after playing third last season, but no one needs to tell him how important defense is to the Aztecs.
"The infield play is extremely vital to our team," said Muno. "We're not necessarily a team that's going to hit a ton of home runs, so it's really important to play defense behind what I think is one of the premier pitching staffs in the country."
A two-year youth movement is over. When a freshman cracks SDSU’s starting lineup now it is because of ability, not out of necessity.
That’s why freshman Tyler France, from South Hills High in West Covina, will be starting at third base.
Tyler France
“He’s pretty polished over there,” said Gwynn, who sees France hitting anywhere from fourth to sixth in the batting order.“I thought he could step right in and have some success.”
France may be young, but he understands one key to success: “Infield play is extremely important because our defense is what is going to win us games.”
Gwynn said France earned the start at third with “his consistency on the defensive side. He’s got good hands and for a freshman he doesn’t get rushed. He’s always under control.
“He’s making it look easy. That bodes well for us for the future. He could be there for the next three years.”
Potter pointed out the infielder’s depth as well, saying “we have guys who are very versatile and can play any position on the infield.”
Sophomore Tanner Reibenspies (Chaminade High) provided the best example of that versatility, starting at all four infield spots last year. His availability is in question, however, because of an arm injury. Reibenspies hit .320 in limited at-bats last season.
The infielders’ versatility is being put to the test coming into the season. Sophomores Matt Munoz (San Dimas High) and Steven Pallares (Santiago High) are auditioning in the outfield to fill a void created by injury.
Both Munoz, who was among the team leaders last season with a .301 batting average and 19 RBI, and Pallares are likely to get some starts in left field while serving backup roles in the infield.
Senior John Spirk (Fountain Valley High), who hit .234, 4 HR, 21 RBI, will get some chances at first base. Freshman middle infielder Danny Sheehan (South Hills High), who displayed some clutch hitting in the fall, also will get an opportunity.
Zier put the past and the present into perspective: “Our freshman year we had no older guys to watch how it’s done. Our freshmen this year can see, now that we are older, how it’s done. It’s like a calming effect for all the new guys on our team.”

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