Tayler Aguilar's power surge leads favorite Grand Canyon in WAC baseball tournament

·4 min read
Tayler Aguilar's power surge leads favorite Grand Canyon in WAC baseball tournament

By the time the game is over, Tayler Aguilar's Grand Canyon baseball uniform usually is covered in dirt and grass stains.

He's either sliding headfirst into a base or diving for balls in the outfield.

But 20 times this season, he didn't have to get his uniform messed up on a highlight play. The left-handed-hitting, 6-foot, 205-pound junior ran around the bases effortlessly with 20 home runs, an NCAA Division I season record at GCU.

His power surge this season is one of the biggest story lines to maybe the best of coach Andy Stankiewicz's 11 seasons at the helm of the Antelopes.

They are 39-17 (the most Division I wins in a regular season at GCU) and the top seed in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament that runs Wednesday through Saturday at Mesa's Hohokam Stadium. GCU opens against Abilene Christian at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Nobody received a bye in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament that will punch the champion's automatic bid to an NCAA Tournament regional.

Last year, GCU won 39 games after winning the WAC Tournament to get into its first NCAA regional, but lost its first two games to host Arizona and Oklahoma State to end the season.

That was a young squad with Aguilar among the mix who stood out after having his freshman season cut short in 2020 by COVID-19.

This season is filled with experience and confidence and an unflappable freshman pitcher, Daniel Avitia, who, on Tuesday was named the WAC Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year.

They took huge steps this year, not only going 7-4 against Power 5 schools, including taking two of three from Arizona and winning at Oregon State, splitting two games with Stanford at a neutral site and taking two from then-No. 4-ranked Texas Tech.

By the last couple of weeks of the regular season, the Lopes were ranked 25th nationally, their first Top 25 national ranking since being a Division I program.

"We've had a really good season so far and there is more to come," Aguilar said. "We've overcome big steps in our season. A lot of guys in our lineup have stepped up, including me."

Aguilar also mentioned shortstop Jacob Wilson (.350, 16 doubles, 61 RBIs) utility Juan Colato (team-leading .383 batting average), first baseman Elijah Burries (.342), and outfielder Cade Verdusco (.314 in 35 games).

Add to that catcher Tyler Wilson (.326, 31 RBIs) and infielder Jonny Weaver (.300) and the Lopes have seven players who have hit at least .300 with at least 120 at-bats.

Aguilar, who is from Greeley, Colorado, is hitting .310 with 63 hits, including 10 doubles, and a team-best 65 RBIs. His slugging percentage is a team-best .685.

This is a big jump in power from last season when he hit .331 but had only six home runs and 43 RBIs.

"We saw the raw power," Stankiewicz said. "It was just a matter of consistency. We watched him develop into a hitter, instead of a guy who comes to the plate and swings big.

"I see him with two strikes, taking a fastball away and hitting it that way. He's starting to understand hitting. Not just up there swinging with power. I am very pleased with his development."

Aguilar said he knew he had that power potential.

"I just had to unlock it," he said. "It was something inside of me that I had to overcome. It was something Stanks saw inside of me. He believed in me."

He felt summer ball was a key to getting him more confident facing left-handed pitching.

"It was something I knew I had to work on," Aguilar said. "I came back in the fall working on it still. Spring hit and I put it to battle and it worked out really well for me."

Notes

Stankiewicz said he hasn't decided on a starter yet for the first game. It will be between Avitia (7-4, 3.52 ERA, 95 strikeouts and 14 walks in 76.2 innings) and Nick Hull (7-1, 1.27, 86 strikeouts, 23 walks in 83.1 innings).

There is no bye in the tournament and the champion will have to win four games in the expanded WAC Tournament. The Texas schools were placed in the Southwest Division that GCU didn't face this year. GCU rolled through the West Division with a 25-5 conference record.

"That side, it could have been anybody (leading the pack)," Stankiewicz said. "It looks like they're really solid. It's going to be interesting.

After the top two pitchers, GCU can go with Connor Markl (6-3, 5.18) and Carter Young (3-3, 5.24).

"You always feel like you've hit a dog day in the season," Stankiewicz said. "I feel like we've gotten over that hump. In the last two-and-a-half weeks, I feel like we've been progressing."

Wednesday's first round

At Hohokam Stadium

SW3 UT Rio Grande Valley vs. W2 Sacramento State, 9 a.m.

W4 New Mexico State vs. SW1 Sam Houston, noon

W3 Seattle U vs. SW2 Lamar, 4 p.m.

SW4 Abilene Christian vs. W1 Grand Canyon, 7 p.m.

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Tayler Aguilar's power surge leads favorite GCU in WAC tournament