Sonoma State Scott Harkin, a Casa Grande graduate. Credit: Edgar Angelone / SSU

Sonoma State Scott Harkin, a Casa Grande graduate.
Credit: Edgar Angelone / SSU

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT 

Poised for another playoff run, Sonoma State is playing as predicted yet hungry to meet high expectations heading into the baseball season’s final stretch.

With the California Collegiate Athletic Association’s top teams next on the schedule, Sonoma State controls its postseason destiny. Holding onto the fourth and final conference playoff spot also will be a challenge with a handful of strong squads just behind.

“It’s going to be a test. The last couple of weeks are going to be a real uphill climb,” said outfielder Steven Filippi, out of Sonoma Valley High. “We’re all still real confident. We will get it done.”

Out-hitting opponents and with pitchers yielding nearly a run less per contest, Sonoma State has played well enough to contend for a sixth conference playoff berth in the past seven seasons.

Two of those Seawolves teams reached the NCAA Division II Baseball Championships.

A recent rough stretch — Sonoma State finally pulled out of it with a string of wins — reminds the Seawolves of the difficulty in returning to the World Series of small-college baseball.

“A bad weekend series is going to happen. You have to have a short term memory in this game,” said shortstop Scott Harkin, who played prep baseball at Casa Grande. “There’s still plenty of games left.”

Next up is a four-game series with Cal State Los Angeles opening Friday. The set against the conference’s second-place team is Sonoma State’s final home appearance. The Seawolves then visit first-place Chico State and fifth-place Cal State Dominguez Hills to conclude conference play.

Sonoma State has regained some momentum. After losing five straight, the Seawolves have won three consecutive contests. The recipe for success has been simple: strong pitching from a deep staff and steady, sometimes spectacular defense to go with a mostly productive offense.

“Our pitching has been doing really well,” Filippi said. “It’s huge. You know you’re going to be in every game.”

Anchoring the rotation is Harmen Sidhu, 6-1 with a sterling 0.78 earned run average to lead the CCAA. Sidhu, from Martinez, has a conference leading 68 strikeouts in 57-plus innings against only 17 walks.

The other top starters, Glenn Wallace, from Reno, Nev., and George Ausmus, out of Pleasanton, have combined for 10 wins with Wallace just behind Sidhu in conference ERA. Six pitchers have started multiple games for Sonoma State. Leading the staff in appearances is closer Steven Zaharias, from Brentwood. He has saved four wins on the season, tied for fourth in the CCAA.

With pitchers giving up just under three runs a game, Sonoma State’s offense has been good enough, scoring a little more than four runs per contest. The hot bat belongs to Garrett Schwartz, from Salinas, who leads the Seawolves in most offensive categories including hits and slugging.

Both Schwartz and Devon Zenn, from Benicia, have 20 runs batted in on the season. Zenn, the Seawolves first baseman, is second in hits followed by Harkin, who also has knocked home 16 runs.

What the Seawolves have been working on is more productive batting appearances and staying loose in clutch situations. Sonoma State wants to improve in games decided by one or two runs, as the Seawolves are 10-7 in those contests.

“We need to step up our situational hitting, moving guys over and getting them in,” Harkin said.

Tight games are expected in the CCAA, one of the nation’s toughest conferences. The stakes rise in postseason play.

Sonoma State wants to make good on the preseason conference coaches’ poll that pegged the Seawolves to finish fourth in the 11-team CCAA and make the league playoffs.

After beginning the season ranked No. 34 in the NCAA Division II Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Preseason Poll, the Seawolves rose as high as No. 13. Sonoma State fell out of the national rankings a week ago.

A year ago SSU reached the CCAA Tournament championship game, one win short of the NCAA tournament. The Seawolves finished with a 28-25 record overall.

Six starters return, including a pair of All-West Region performers from a season ago in junior second baseman Jackson Stogner, from Analy high, and Zenn. Filippi is among four returning All-Conference players.

A gritty group that knows how to win when the games count the most, Sonoma State has a mix of newcomers and program veterans who remember the school’s last World Series appearance two seasons back.
“I’m a big believer in how you finish,” Filippi said. “We know what can happen. It’s all about momentum.”

Among the newcomers is Harkin, by way of Diablo Valley College and Loyola Marymount.

“We’re feeling pretty good. But there’s still work to be done,” Harkin said. “We’re all focused on the same goal, the World Series.”