Despite losing 5-2 to Cal on Monday in the final game of the rain-soaked USD Tournament, the San Diego Toreros are off to an 8-2 start this season. The key to the Toreros’ early-season success was a question mark entering the season.
After losing two catchers to the Draft and seeing the departure of three outfielders and two middle infielders that made significant contributions last season, San Diego was supposed to be struggling offensively. Oh yea…they also lost this guy too.
But even without the Golden Spikes Award Winner, Kris Bryant, the Toreros offense continues to roll along. Through Sunday, USD sported the top team batting average and second best slugging percentage in the nation. It was in the top five in on base percentage, home runs per game and were first in scoring after racking up five consecutive double-digit run performances. Granted four of those big offensive outbursts were against Northern Kentucky. But San Diego’s aggressive offensive approach both at the plate and on the bases has resulted in an exciting brand of baseball and success.
Head coach Rich Hill credited the continued development of the returning veterans, including juniors Andrew Daniel and Connor Joe and senior Louie Lechich — who all are currently hitting .395 or better with a combined 17 extra-base hits (8 home runs).
“It’s been the returners busting out of their bubble,” Hill said. “Those guys have really done well and taken the next step.”
Andrew Daniel entered the week ranked in the top 6 nationally in batting average, runs and stolen bases. Connor Joe, who has seamlessly made the transition to becoming the team’s primary catcher after playing first base last season, has reached base 24 times in the first 10 games.
Louie Lechich is trying to bounce back after a disappointing junior campaign saw his run and RBI production dip and his average drop nearly 50 points. Lechich was overstriding at the plate last season, according to Hill, and it began to affect him mentally because of his competitive nature.
“He’s one of the most competitive kids I’ve coached,” Rich Hill said. “He played football in high school and had some [Division I] offers. He brings that football mentality to baseball.”
Lechich is off to a strong start, hitting .455 with eight extra-base hits and he is currently tied with Joe for the team-lead with 16 RBI — just nine shy of his RBI total all last season. He also has a 3.18 ERA and a 2-1 record on the mound despite taking the loss against his former team yesterday.
“Louie Lechich has just been invaluable. You can bust all of the adjectives out,” Hill said. “He’s really emerged as a leader.”
While the offense has slowed the last week (0 HR in last four games), San Diego is slightly ahead of its home run pace last season when Kris Bryant launched a BBCOR-bat-era 31 taters. The Toreros have 11 home runs through 10 games, led by Lechich and Joe’s three each.
“Every guy’s just locked in, trying to win every pitch, hit the ball hard,” Andrew Daniel said. “You know we have a great lineup one through nine. Everybody can hit the ball. Everyone’s locked in and it’s paying off. It’s great to see.”
They aren’t plodding around waiting for a three-run homer, though. San Diego is making moves on the base paths with an ultra-aggressive style. Hill said during the off-season the team placed a strong emphasis on “advancing” — whether that be going first to third, second to home by reading outfielders’ angles better or by taking bases on balls in the dirt. When on base, the Toreros are reading the angle of the pitch, getting strong secondary leads and taking off on anything the catcher isn’t able to come up with cleanly.
In one of the matchups with Northern Kentucky, Daniel singled, stole second base, stole third base and then got such a tremendous read on a breaking ball in the dirt, he hustled home and dove in head first ahead of a tag attempt despite the catcher blocking the pitch well and it bouncing in front of the plate where it never left the dirt of the home plate circle.
“‘Advance to win’ is what we call it,” Rich Hill said. “It’s always been a priority, but this year we doubled up on that effort.”
During all of the team’s fall and spring intra-squad scrimmages, runners on base were forced to take off on any ball in the dirt. If the runner was thrown out, he simply returned to the previous base with no penalty while a failure to attempt to advance resulted in docking of points for the offending player’s team.
It has resulted in the opposition being charged with 29 wild pitches and San Diego being 19-for-23 in stolen base attempts, including Daniel’s perfect 9-for-9 start this season.
The combination of speed and pop in the lineup has made the San Diego Toreros a more balanced lineup that doesn’t have to rely on Kris Bryant and Dillon Haupt homers to bail them out. Whether they are sweeping Northern Kentucky, taking two of three against UNC Wilmington, Baylor and Cal in the USD Tournament or going on the road against a quality Oklahoma State team as they’ll do this weekend or at rival San Diego State tonight, the Toreros offense is locked and loaded.
“It doesn’t really matter to us who we play. We’re trying to play the best baseball that we can, together as a unit,” Andrew Daniel said. “It’s just all our guys against the baseball.”