Saturday, April 4, 2015

Saturday's Bulldogs-Aztecs series finale is a huge one

The final game of this weekend's 3-game series between Fresno State and San Diego State in San Diego likely holds the key to determining the Mountain West regular-season champion and the automatic NCAA bid that goes along with it.

Only three weeks into the conference race, some may say it's too early to forecast the Mountain West champion with over a month still left to go.  History suggests otherwise.  The Aztecs have won three straight conference titles and have never finished lower than third in the Mountain West since joining the league.  Fresno State, in its 30+ year history, has finished in the top three every season in every conference in which the Bulldogs were a member.

Last year, just a game separated the Bulldogs and Aztecs in the final Mountain West standings, and San Diego State had to win its regular-season finale against Boise State or it would've been the Bulldogs grabbing the league's automatic NCAA bid.

Today's game is huge for a number of reasons.  With Fresno State having an extremely top-heavy and front-loaded slate to begin Mountain West play this season, today already marks the team's final road game of the year against a team that currently owns a winning record -- either in conference or overall.  The Bulldogs' daunting start to the conference schedule meant their first 12 games in MW play have all come versus teams with winning records. 

The Bulldogs host New Mexico (22-15) at Margie Wright Diamond next week in their lone remaining series against an opponent over .500.  Fresno State's final four series of the season come against Utah State (12-23), Boise State (8-28), Nevada (11-23) and UNLV (16-20).

SDSU faces the more difficult remaining schedule on paper, as the Aztecs still have yet to play 3-game series each against Colorado State (21-16), San Jose State (25-14) and New Mexico (22-15).  Three of the Aztecs' final five series will be on the road, as well. 

While Colorado State, New Mexico and San Jose State, as well as one or two other teams, will still have a lot to say about the way the Mountain West race -- and ultimately the title -- shakes out, all eyes today will be on San Diego.

Today's game is important because it will represent a big, 2-game swing in the standings, one way or the other.

The Aztecs have a chance to push the preseason conference favorite Bulldogs three games out of first.  Moreover, winning the series for SDSU would give the Aztecs the important tie-breaker in the event of a regular-season tie.  In essence, a win by San Diego State today would effectively give Kathy Van Wyk's squad a 4-game advantage over Fresno State.  With 15 games left in the regular season, that would be a huge hole from which the Bulldogs would have to recover.

Fresno State, on the other hand, has a chance to win the series today and move within a game of first place.  Holding the tie-breaker over the Aztecs would be big and the importance of it can't be overstated.  Even though SDSU would remain in front of the Bulldogs by a game, it would give SDSU little to no margin for error down the stretch against a more difficult remaining schedule.  With the Aztecs relying almost exclusively on one pitcher this season, the upcoming slate looks even more ominous for SDSU.

So nothing will be settled today either way, but history suggests today's winner between the Bulldogs and Aztecs holds the inside track to the conference championship.  A month from now, we'll know for sure.