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Tony Gwynn's signature season

2/21/2013

When at-bats boarded an Amtrak for hell, which every man's share will do in a 20-year career, Tony Gwynn rode them the opposite way.

There was no panic in being behind in the count, no fear, as that green pasture out beyond shortstop, his safe place, always existed. Gwynn would wait on a tough pitch, whack it the other way and cackle down to first base with another single, one more of his 3,141 career knocks.

"I always knew I had the ability to let the ball get deeper," Gwynn says. "And no matter what happened, I could always hit it to left field."

If you want to understand something about Gwynn, you ask him about hitting. He is hitting. Large portions of his life, from Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High School to San Diego State to a Hall of Fame career spent entirely with the Padres, have been defined by the odd physics of a meeting between cylinder and sphere.

Hitting made Gwynn an All-American Aztec. Hitting made Gwynn a big leaguer. Hitting made Gwynn "Mr. Padre." And for 11 seasons now as San Diego State's head coach, Gwynn has been doing what he's done all his life: riding pitches the other way, taking his singles.

But what happens when, even in a seemingly relaxed place like San Diego, people start wanting a little more? What happens when university officials and boosters and fans ask for some of those singles to turn into doubles? And maybe, occasionally, some of those doubles to turn into triples and dingers?

San Diego doesn't love Tony Gwynn; it adores him, reveres him. And in his first 10 seasons, Gwynn's Aztecs made one NCAA regional appearance, coming in 2009 with pitcher and No. 1 MLB draft pick Stephen Strasburg. There's an uncomfortable marriage between those two things.

Eventually, winning underscores everything in sports. Even for the idolized and beloved, days on the job run dry once the wins do. Gwynn's life has been sports; he knows this.

"No question, you feel the heat," Gwynn says. "I do. I want to win. We're trying to win. And at some point you have to win. But it ain't just that easy."

Gwynn's name hangs on the ballpark in which he coaches, and this provides him a deep reservoir of pride. He has a contract to coach through the 2014 season, and despite summer television work with the Padres and two surgeries in the past three years to treat cancerous tumors in his mouth, he says he's more committed than ever to coaching the Aztecs.

Yet, there's a sense Gwynn needs a signature season, a breakout for his program, soon. The Aztecs opened the 2013 season last weekend by sweeping No. 18 San Diego on the road, giving Gwynn and others hope that this season could be it, the one in which San Diego State builds on its 2009 success and moves forward, ascending into a higher class.

"I'm hoping this is that year," Gwynn says. "We have the right mix of talent, depth in the pitching staff. But you realize there's more to it than W's and L's. There's more to this job than just baseball."

Gwynn is right, of course. Nobody would say unequivocally that coaching college sports is solely defined by the cold truths spelled out by scoreboard lights.

But at some point ...

That's one of the lessons Gwynn has learned in his decade-plus at SDSU. There have been many of them. He was announced as Jim Dietz's successor before he even played his final game for the Padres in 2001. He had talked with his brother Chris about becoming a coach for years before that, and he went from a big league diamond to a college one without even dusting his uniform off. He anticipated what his new job would be like and then quickly realized he had undersold the challenge.

"I thought it was going to be easier than it has been," Gwynn says. "I thought kids should know more than they know. Little things: how to bunt, how to run the bases. After a couple years, it dawns on you that you have to work with them like they don't know anything. You have to teach them the things you want them to know. That was a shock to me coming from the major league game."

It took even longer for Gwynn to understand perhaps a coach's most critical job: recruiting. He didn't lack intelligence or an eye for talent, of course. He didn't lack hustle. His rug was pulled out from underneath by his own inexperience.

"It wasn't until five or six years ago did I understand what we needed to do," Gwynn says. "You need to find the right formula. At first, I thought we just needed to go out and get the best guys. But then the draft comes and you're left holding an empty bag."

Gwynn believes the recruiting work he and his staff have done is now beginning to pay off. He believes in the direction his Aztecs are headed. "We're getting good kids in here," Gwynn says. "I think we're on the right path."

But at some point ...

Healthy and energized, Gwynn is able to talk about his team and his tenure with self-awareness. He tells you what he learned about himself from fighting cancer. How it reminded him baseball flows unburdened through his veins, how it reinforced his appetite for teaching, how purely satisfying it feels to be called "Coach" again after being away from his team while undergoing treatments.

"I don't take that for granted," Gwynn says.

He also tells you about the stakes of this season, the expectations of his job. He's acutely aware of both.

No. 14 Oregon State comes to Tony Gwynn Stadium this weekend, and Gwynn giggles at the opportunity for his club to prove there's something real here, something tangible building off the San Diego shore.

Yes, at some point, Gwynn's Aztecs need to win consistently, and it's impossible to predict whether that trend is beginning. And it's impossible to predict what will happen if that trend doesn't surface soon.

Tony Gwynn is fine with all of that. Because here he stands, more than a decade into the gig, still believing a good pitch to hit is on the way.

Tennessee's lesson in pounding the zone

In Tennessee's bullpen in Knoxville, a string runs in front of home plate, set at a height a little above an invisible hitter's knees. It's something head coach Dave Serrano did at Cal State Fullerton, and he brought the practice with him when he took over the Volunteers last season.

"It shows the guideline of pitching at the bottom of the strike zone," Serrano says. "But if we're not gonna do that, then why have it?"

I called Serrano a day after he returned from Las Vegas for Tennessee's opening series at UNLV, and he was a little frustrated. In four games, his pitching staff walked 20 Rebels, a number that irritates a man who has always molded quality pitching staffs.

"The walks are disheartening to me," Serrano says. "But what hurt us more was the lack of quality pitches we were missing on. Our misses were misses no one would ever swing at.

"I'm going to hold them a little more accountable in bullpens this week. It's just committing to throwing strikes. Command of the strike zone is all about focus and mechanics. So I'll have a rule that if there's more than a certain number of pitches above the catcher's head, they'll be punished in a way that makes them realize, 'I gotta make the adjustment in one pitch, not three or four.'"

Serrano wasn't completely unhappy with his staff's performance last week. He actually was pleased with the majority of his pitchers overall, and he thought it was a positive experience that would help his team when No. 20 Arizona State visits this weekend.

As for the Sun Devils: Get your bats ready, boys. There will be action in the zone.

There's luck, no luck and then TCU

This is why coaches can't afford to pay much attention to polls: TCU was a top-15 team last week and some polls have dropped it out of the top 25 after last weekend's sweep by Ole Miss in Oxford. That makes sense since TCU had a terrible start to the season, right? Not really.

"Three consecutive games unlike any that I've ever been a part of," TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle says. "If there was something to be upset about, I'd be upset about it. But I still feel as good about our team today as I did this time last week."

TCU lost its opening game 1-0. Saturday, Preston Morrison allowed two runs and struck out nine in seven innings, but a four-run eighth inning gave Ole Miss a 5-2 victory. Sunday, a first-inning grand slam put TCU in an early hole that it couldn't climb out of. The Horned Frogs went from unbeaten to 0-3 in a blur.

"We pitched well, except for one inning, we played good defense and we hit a lot of balls hard," Schlossnagle said. "We just didn't get timely hits. Jerrick Suiter went 0-for-10 on the weekend, and he squared up five or six balls. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but that's baseball."

So forget the rankings: No. 22 and 4-0 Cal State Fullerton visiting Fort Worth, Texas, is one of this weekend's best series, and TCU is still a top-25 quality club. Schlossnagle knows that, which is why he wants his team to change precisely nothing from last weekend.

"We just need to hope for better results," he said.

The eyes of Texas are upon C.J Hinojosa

A little buzz has come off the Longhorns in recent seasons, but they're still clearly one of the elite destination programs in the country, and the folks who fill Disch-Falk Field appear to have their next star.

Freshman shortstop C.J Hinojosa is hitting .500 through the first four games of his Texas career, with two doubles, three walks and only one strikeout. After Hinojosa hit in the No. 7 hole last weekend against Sacramento State, Texas head coach Augie Garrido bumped him up to No. 5 Tuesday against UT Arlington.

"He has terrific hand-eye coordination and just the gift to be able to put the bat on the ball and hit it solid," Garrido says. "It's a natural thing for him. He's ready to hit, and he's exceptional at performing."

Hinojosa will be a focal point of Nebraska's pitching plan when the Cornhuskers visit Austin this weekend for a three-game set, and he still holds an early advantage because there hasn't been enough time for a plan to develop against him. In his first four games, Garrido says, teams have tried to throw fastballs inside, but that hasn't worked.

The next attempt likely will be pitching backward -- throwing off-speed pitches early in the count, testing the freshman's maturity and ability to not get himself out. Garrido says that's how he would pitch Hinojosa right now -- moving a mix of pitches around the strike zone instead of trying to pound one hole in his swing repeatedly.

"Or you can just catch his line drives," he quipped.

UCLA's young arms hit the road

John Savage was disappointed this week that UCLA's Tuesday trip to UC Santa Barbara was rained out, because the Bruins' head coach understands what this weekend brings: a trip to Waco, Texas, to face Baylor.

Oh, it's not that he feels his club is overmatched or can't handle it, but part of the strength of No. 2 UCLA is its wheelbarrow of young pitchers in the bullpen -- talented ones, to be sure -- and Savage wanted them to get a road game in before this trip.

"This is the first road test, and I told the team the bar has been set," Savage says. "We've been a really good road team here. Our expectations are very high."

With junior Adam Plutko starting on Friday, junior Nick Vander Tuig on Saturday and sophomore Grant Watson on Sunday -- all of whom threw the ball well last weekend against Minnesota -- the Bruins can feel great about their starting pitching heading into the weekend. What will be interesting to watch is how three freshman relievers handle the Waco environment.

Righty Cody Poteet was 90-93 mph last weekend against the Gophers and can miss bats with both his fastball and his curveball. "Poteet is very advanced," Savage says. "I don't want to say his breaking balls are Bauer-ish [former Bruin Trevor Bauer], but they're real breaking balls."

Righty James Kaprielian is a power arm, 92-94 with a breaking ball in the mid-80s, and is slotted in as the Bruins' closer.

And then there's Hunter Virant, who has gone through some mechanical issues but will be another low-90s arm from the left side when he gets straightened out. "He's just trying to figure out his delivery," Savage says. "It was a little bit of a struggle, getting underneath the ball, his arm path, the consistency of his strikes. But he's found it in the last couple weeks."

Baylor was swept at UC Irvine to open the season, which could mean nothing this weekend. "They're looking to get back on their feet," Savage says. "We're expecting them to be very good."

Prospect Watch: Jonathan Gray, RHP, Oklahoma

When I spoke with Sooners head coach Sunny Golloway earlier in the spring, he was giddy about his entire pitching staff and Gray, a junior, in particular. After describing Gray's fastball that can reach triple digits and his hard slider in the mid-to-upper 80s, Golloway concluded, "He's like a larger version of Roger Clemens."

Come again, Sunny? A larger version of Roger Clemens?

It's believable if you compare the two at the same age. Gray is currently listed at 6-foot-4, 239 pounds, which would be similar to Clemens in the peak of his professional career. Last week against Hofstra, Gray struck out six in 6 2/3 innings and touched 98 with his fastball. He's scheduled to face Texas A&M Corpus Christi this weekend, and if he continues to consistently flash that kind of velocity, Gray will have a lot of buzz by the time Big 12 play opens in late March.

Today in Omaha: High of 25 degrees, 4 to 6 inches of snow (BOOO!), 114 days until CWS Game 1 (as of Thursday)

Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN.com. He played college baseball at Long Beach (Calif.) City College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating with a degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.