Normally, the way it works at one of these NCAA baseball sub-regional sites is a smattering of fans turn out for the first game matching out-of-town teams and the stands gradually fill in as host school fans await the first pitch of the second game featuring their team.
But that won’t be the case at 4 p.m. Friday when San Diego State and Virginia meet at UC Irvine’s Cicerone Field before the nationally No. 1-ranked host Anteaters face defending NCAA champion Fresno State at 8 p.m.
It will be the second day of the double-elimination tournament, but not the first day when San Diego State junior Stephen Strasburg takes the mound. The projected first pick of the 2009 draft will fill the stands with Aztecs fans and curious Southern Californians.
The presence of Strasburg, the national leader in strikeouts with a
100-mph-plus fastball, no doubt helped the Aztecs secure an at-large berth in the 64-team NCAA tournament. It’s the first time SDSU has advanced to the NCAA tournament since 1991.
“Oh, there’s no question,” SDSU head coach Tony Gwynn said of Strasburg’s influence on the selection committee. “That’s a big factor since he’s the best player in the country. People want to see him. That’s kind of like our ace in the hole.”
Unranked SDSU (40-21) is seeded third and 9th-ranked Virginia (43-12-1), which won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, is the No. 2 seed.
Fourth-seeded and unranked Fresno State (32-28), the defending NCAA champion that won the Western Athletic Conference tournament title, faces No. 1 seed and No. 1-ranked UC Irvine (43-13), which won the Big West Tournament title.
Amplifying Strasburg’s impact was SDSU was the third Mountain West Conference team to earn a tournament bid from a conference that had never before had more than one entry.
Baseball, of course, is a different situation than basketball since Strasburg, as a pitcher, only plays one game in the sub-regional. But do you think SDSU’s men’s basketball team would have been left out of the NCAA tournament (they were believed to be the last team eliminated from the at-large selection process) if the Aztecs’ roster included the projected first pick of the NBA draft?
That’s not to say SDSU baseball doesn’t deserve its NCAA bid. The Aztecs had an RPI rating of 44 and had been on the bubble of the national top 25 rankings. But considering the lack of national respect for the strength of the MWC, that’s why there was so much nail-biting and hand-wringing before their selection was announced.
The MWC never had advanced more than it’s tournament champion, with the automatic berth, before sending not just two but three teams this year.
SDSU was the third team since Utah, a sixth-place team in the regular-season, upset 14th-ranked Texas Christian and then SDSU to win the tournament title and automatic berth.
TCU, traditionally a nationally ranked team, earned a bid as a host team for a sub-regional on Sunday before the bracket was announced on Monday.
“I felt like we would get in,” Gwynn said. “It’s just a matter of where we were going and who we were playing. And now we know that. It’s a nice feeling. It’s been a long time since we’ve been there. The fact that our conference got three teams is a plus.”