|Bubba Derby (closer) — Justin Hepner — Michael Cederoth — Philip Walby — Ryan Doran|
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Let’s get it started.
The Aztecs return nine pitchers who started 53 of the team’s 60 games last season, making it one of the program’s most experienced groups in years.
That total includes 29 starts combined from the three pitchers who comprise this season’s weekend rotation — sophomore right-hander Michael Cederoth (Steele Canyon High), junior right-hander Philip Walby (Scripps Ranch High) and senior right-hander Ryan Doran (Servite High).
“I love our starting rotation,” said Aztecs pitching coach Eric Valenzuela. “I don’t know how many programs are blessed to have two power arms at the top like we have with Cederoth and Walby and our strike-thrower, Greg Maddux-type of Sunday guy with Doran is pretty neat.”
Cederoth (4-4, 4.14 ERA, 62 SO in 67.1 IP) is among the hardest-throwing pitchers in the country. He was clocked as high as 101 mph last season and his fastball sits in the 95-96 mph range.
He is eager to take the next step in his development, which means being more consistent with his pitch location. It also includes leading the staff as the team’s Friday starter.
“It’s a great opportunity, especially with the group we have right now,” said the 6-foot-6 Cederoth. “It’s an honor because the talent we have on this team is ridiculous.
“And to be the No. 1 starter on this team is really cool. To start it off every series on a high note is a big responsibility, but I think I’m up for it.”
Walby (1-3, 5.60 ERA, 15 SO in 36 IP), with a fastball that ranges from 92-96 mph, has improved vastly over a year ago. His performance in the fall, which included improved command, earned him the Saturday role.
Doran (3-6, 4.50 ERA, 53 SO in 88 IP) returns in the Sunday spot after leading the team in starts (13) and innings last season. He doesn’t throw as hard as Cederoth and Walby, but puts the ball where he wants it better than anyone.
“It’s going to give teams trouble after what they’ve seen for two days,” said Valenzuela, “with a completely different kind of pitcher on Sunday where he can get them to swing the bat. He throws a lot of strikes and mixes up his pitches.”
There are several candidates for weekday starts, but that will be dependent on how things unfold during the weekends.
“If weekend starters can get deep into games,” said Valenzuela, “you’re going to be left with a lot of innings out of your bullpen for Tuesday games.”
Ideally, the Aztecs would be successful enough in a series that they can get by without taxing a potential Tuesday starter much and he can concentrate on being a Tuesday starter.
Junior right-hander Justin Hepner (Carlsbad High) had the best numbers — mostly out of the bullpen — among the returners, going 5-3 with seven saves, a 2.94 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 52 innings over 22 appearances. Hepner made three starts and could be in line for more this year.
Other candidates for spot starts include senior right-hander Travis Pitcher (El Dorado High), who made 10 starts last season, junior right-hander TJ Kendzora (El Toro High), who started seven games, and senior right-hander Ethan Miller (Ayala High), who started twice.
With several new pitchers on the staff, it’s possible another candidate emerges as well.
The weekday situation will shake out as the season progresses. It all comes down to how well Cederoth, Walby and Doran do when they’re handed the ball.
“Our rotation is prepared to be the leaders of our team,” said Doran. “Pitching and defense wins championships, right? And that is what we are after. ...
“I haven’t been around a staff before that’s as tough, as talented and as competitive in my four years of playing college baseball.”