College baseball weekend: Aztecs open Mountain West play against UNLV

San Diego State played one of the most demanding schedules over the first three weeks of the season to prepare for this moment — the start of Mountain West Conference play.

UNLV (6-7) comes to Tony Gwynn Stadium for a three-game series that begins Friday evening.

SDSU (4-8) opened the season at the MLB4 Tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the competition included TCU, Houston and Cal, in what resembled an NCAA Regional setting. There were a pair of contests against three challenging opponents — UC Irvine, Hawaii and Utah — as well as a three-game series against well-regarded Arizona State.

In only two of those games — a 13-3 loss at UC Irvine and a 13-5 loss to ASU — did the wheels fall off.

“The rest of the time we competed our tail off,” SDSU head coach Mark Martinez said. “With a young group, that’s what’s been really encouraging for me.

“None of it was easy. … Those experiences are invaluable. Even though we’re not getting it done, that’s part of growth and development.”

Did it provide enough preparation for conference play? It’s time to find out. SDSU was picked for third place (behind Nevada and UNLV) in a preseason coaches poll.

For whatever that’s worth, the coaches picked San Jose State for last place, probably because the Spartans went 6-30 last season. Though it’s still early, San Jose State (9-4) is the only team in the MW with a winning record at this juncture.

UNLV leads all MW teams with a .325 batting average, 15 home runs and 8.1 runs a game, although the Rebels pitching staff is second to last among the conference’s seven teams with a 6.18 ERA.

Conversely, SDSU’s offense is last in the MW with a .214 batting average, four home runs and 3.6 runs a game, although the Aztecs pitching staff is second in the conference with a 4.50 ERA.

“That bodes well for a really interesting matchup,” Martinez said. “We’re facing an opponent that is going to give us vicious at-bats and test our pitching. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

SDSU’s pitching gets a boost this week with the return of junior right-hander Troy Melton, who has been out since experiencing offseason arm soreness. Melton will start Friday, employed more as an opener because of a limited pitch count in his debut, before giving way to sophomore left-hander TJ Fondtain (1-1, 1.88 ERA).

SDSU sophomore right-hander Kelena Sauer (1-2, 4.41 ERA) and senior left-hander Jacob Flores (1-1, 4.70 ERA) are scheduled to start the other two games of the series.

this week: Friday-Sunday vs. UNLV, 6pm/6pm/1pm

Toreros update

USD (6-5) plays its first road series of the season after three straight weeks at home. The Toreros travel to Arizona for a three-game series at Grand Canyon (8-5), which has won six of its past seven games.

The Toreros opened the season with three straight victories, but have not been able to win successive games since. They come into the series following a 2-0 home win Tuesday against UC San Diego.

Grand Canyon’s success can be pinpointed to a pitching staff that has been more than two runs better than opponents — 3.90 ERA vs. 6.00 ERA — through the early going. The Antelopes offense is averaging 7.5 runs a game.

The question “What will he do next?” applies to USD sophomore left-hander Brycen Mautz (2-1, 5.50 ERA), who has struck out 12, 9 and 15 batters in three starts this season. Mautz will start the middle game of the series.

this week: Friday-Sunday at Grand Canyon, 5pm PT/5pm PT/11am PT.

Triton’s update

UC San Diego (6-8) added a pair of games this weekend against UC Santa Barbara (8-4) that will be played at Lake Elsinore’s The Diamond. These are nonconference games for the Big West foes, who will meet in a three-game conference series next month at UCSD.

The Gauchos were a preseason top 25 team on the strength of a pitching staff that sports a Big West-leading 3.32 ERA.

Tuesday night’s 2-0 nonconference loss at USD was the sixth straight defeat for UCSD, which has been shut out twice during the stretch while averaging but 2 1/2 runs a game.

this week: Friday-Saturday vs. UC Santa Barbara at Lake Elsinore, 6pm/4pm

Sea Lions update

Point Loma Nazarene (17-1, 3-1 PacWest) steps back into conference play against Hawaii Pacific (10-8, 4-3) after completing a four-game nonconference sweep of Concordia with a pair of victories on Monday.

PLNU continues to lead the PacWest in both hitting (.320 BA, .507 SLG, 23 HR, 8.2 runs/game) and pitching (2.29 ERA, 201 SO/44 BB).

Sea Lions sophomore third baseman Otto Kemp leads the conference in slugging (.689), home runs (6) and runs scored (26) and is among the top three in three other categories. Teammate Baxter Halligan leads the conference in wins (4), ERA (1.24) and strikeouts looking (13).

Hawaii Pacific is averaging seven runs a game, but the Sharks have had to produce offense by leading the conference in triples (12) and stolen bases (48) since they have but five home runs.

this week: Monday-Tuesday vs. Hawaii Pacific, Noon (DH)/Noon (DH).

Cougar’s update

Cal State San Marcos (6-8, 2-2 CCAA) opened California Collegiate Athletic Association play by splitting a series against Cal State Los Angeles with Monday’s 21-18 victory.

The Cougars had five RBIs apiece from second baseman Luke Reece, third baseman Kevin Van Linge and first baseman Ethan Rivera. They certainly would welcome similar production this weekend at Cal State Dominguez Hills (10-8, 5-3), which has the CCAA’s second-rate pitching staff (4.16 ERA).

The series is expected to hinge on how well the Cougars pitch. They are last in the conference with a 7.84 ERA.

The CS Dominguez Hills lineup includes former Helix High standout Eric Smelko, a sophomore outfielder who is batting .314 with three homers and 12 RBIs.

this week: Friday-Sunday at Cal State Dominguez Hills, 2pm/11am (DH)/Noon.

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