Matadors see depth as their calling card for the upcoming baseball season

Photo courtesy of CSUN Athletics.

Edward Segal, Sports Editor

CSUN was down 3-1 to the University of Hawaii with one out left in the bottom of the ninth. Redshirt freshman Kevin Fitzer stepped up to the plate to pinch hit for utility player CJ Yogi. With the count full, Fitzer swung at the sixth pitch of the at-bat and flied out to right center.

And so the Matadors’ campaign ended without a trip to the NCAA tournament for the 19th straight season.

The Matadors have not made the NCAA tournament since 2002, when they finished third in the Division I West Regional. They have hovered around fourth and fifth in the Big West Conference since 2016, and without a conference tournament to fall back on, have not been able to make the national playoffs.

Eddie Cornejo, who is entering his fourth year with the program but his first year as the official head coach, believes the pitching and fielding is the calling card of the team. But what makes the Matadors especially tough, he said, is the variety of batters returning to the team.

“I’ve been more excited about this roster than I have been the past three years I’ve been at CSUN,” Cornejo said. “Last year, you look at the experience that came back on the mound with Traxel, Sodersten, Schriever. We had experience on the mound, but we had two players with any significant at-bat experience coming back into the lineup. The year prior to that, we didn’t feel great about our pitching depth and what kept us alive was how we were offensively. This year, I feel good about both.”

CSUN finished 32-22 last season, fourth in the Big West behind UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly and Hawaii. This outing was good for the Matadors’ best winning percentage since 2002, excluding the 2020 season that was cut short.

The Matadors were swept twice in Big West Conference play; first by Cal Poly in the middle of March, then against UCSB in early April. On the other side of that, the Matadors won all three games against UC Riverside without giving up a run, and swept UC Davis, giving up one run in each of those games. The Matadors also won each series against five of the six other teams in the conference, with Hawaii being the only one out of those to take two games from the Matadors.

Pitcher Lucas Braun said that trusting the defense is a big way he has become better at his job so he can fight for a win in each series.

“As I’ve gotten older and progressed throughout my collegiate career, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with being able to trust my defense,” Braun said. “The seven guys I have behind me and the one guy I have in front of me are the best defenders I’ve seen at this level, and it’s just about trusting the team.”

Braun had the fourth lowest ERA in the conference last season at 2.91. He also won seven games and gave up 17 walks while collecting 77 strikeouts.

Braun is returning to CSUN baseball for his second year after being named to the All-Big West second team in his debut season wearing a Matadors jersey. Entering his senior year, Braun wants to step up as a mentor for the young guys stepping on the mound.

“A big part of my role is definitely the leadership aspect. I’m the only guy on the pitching staff who has been at a division one college for four years,” Braun said. “It’s more about showing the younger guys what to do when stuff doesn’t go right. Last year, I had a rough first half. I was in the bullpen and I was giving up home runs left and right, and that’s something that I take a lot of pride in with how I turned it around. Once I got a shot to be in the weekend rotation, I didn’t really let it go. For me, it’s more about leading by example.”

The new 20-second pitch clock will be a big test for Braun now that he is one of the leaders of the team, and his job is even bigger with pitcher Blaine Traxel gone. Traxel pitched more innings than anyone in the Big West last season and gave up 23 walks while striking out 86 batters. He had the sixth lowest ERA in the conference at 3.00 and was tied for fifth in wins with seven.

As a team, the Matadors earned the second-lowest ERA, committed the fewest number of pitching errors and gave up the fewest number of runs last season. Part of their defensive success was the fielding.

Only five guys finished with perfect fielding percentages in the Big West last season. CSUN outfielder Jakob Simons was one of them, as he collected 63 putouts and one assist without committing any errors. He, along with infielder Joey Kramer, who led the Big West in double plays with 39, are returning to the Matadors for their second season.

“Jake is good for us in the outfield,” catcher Graysen Tarlow said. “You’ll see him even in batting practice. Guys are hitting line drives, and this dude is running 20, 30 feet and making a Superman diving catch. I think a lot of why Jake is so good is because of his mentality. Jake is one of the hardest working guys on our team. He gets after it in the gym. He gets after it on the field. He’s a no excuse kind of guy.”

Tarlow said he believes that Simons will be one of the key pieces in determining the Matadors’ success.
Tarlow missed his first season due to injury and played 35 games before suffering another season-ending injury last year. He knows that with two catchers who won CIF championships joining the team, it will be up to him to show them the ropes.

“The biggest thing with those two with my role is just making sure to enforce a no excuse mentality,” Tarlow said. “As a catcher, you’re dealing with a lot of the brunt of the work. You’re dealing with guys like Lucas, guys like Ryan Wentz. You’ve got to be able to keep those guys in control, especially some of those guys who do get a little frustrated at times. So my biggest thing when I’m talking to them is making sure they’re able to calm the pitchers down.”

Though they suffered the fewest strikeouts of any Big West team, the Matadors found themselves in the middle of the pack for most hitting statistics.

Among those who have left the Matadors is Bart West. Last season, West was sixth in the Big West in hitting with a .338 batting average. He was also ninth in hits, eighth in home runs and 12th in runs batted in, leading the Matadors in many hitting stats.

Gabe Gonzalez, who drove in 11 home runs to tie for fourth in the category, and Kai Moody, who was tied for fourth in runs with 46, are both gone as well, leaving the Matadors with questions about who they have to come in clutch for them at the plate.

Andrew Sojka, an outfielder in his junior year, will return to the Matadors after batting for an average of .335, good for eighth in the Big West, and tying Moody for fourth in runs with 46.

Sojka also landed fifth in hits with 70 on the season, but said that to fill the void left by the heavy hitters, he needs to improve on the power of his swings.

“When I went away for summer ball last summer, the coaching staff told me to get better at stealing bases, and not necessarily to hit home runs, but to get more power into my swing,” Sojka said. “I am a big figure on the baseball field, so if I’m in that three-hole, they kind of want me to be under the ball to hit it into the outfield. They don’t want me grounding out.”

The offensive efficiency of the team will largely depend on the veteran leadership of Sojka, as well as how much the transfers and freshmen can provide.

The seven freshmen joining the team have seven league titles, seven first-team honors and one CIF Division I championship among them. Outfielder Brandon Leon was also named Desert Empire League MVP in his senior year, while right-handed pitcher Bruno Banuelos was named Golden West League Pitcher of the Year in 2022.

The team has depth on both sides of the ball this year.

With Banuelos coming in and Wentz, a right-hander who recorded 27 strikeouts in 43.1 innings last season, taking a velocity jump, Braun believes the depth on the mound can lead the Matadors far in the Big West.

“I feel like with the pitching staff we have this year, we have me and we have Ryan Wentz, who figured something incredible out. He’s now throwing 96, 97 mph,” Braun said. “If me and him are both playing on any given weekend, I don’t see us losing a series all year.”