SAN DIEGO -- Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn isn't with his Aztecs as they head to the NCAA regionals for the second consecutive season.
Then again, he is there.
Gwynn has been in his players' hearts and minds since he began a leave of absence in late March to recover from cancer treatment.
And for the better part of May, the Aztecs have rallied around a bobblehead of their coach.
The bobblehead was in the dugout in Las Vegas last weekend -- with Gwynn's credential around its neck -- as the Aztecs rallied to win the Mountain West Conference tournament and an automatic berth in the NCAA regionals. Freshman infielder Ryan Alvarez is in charge of packing it on the road, which this week means a trip to Lafayette, Louisiana, to face 2013 College World Series runner-up Mississippi State on Friday. Louisiana-Lafayette plays Jackson State.
Assistant coach Mark Martinez was looking for something to pump up the Aztecs after they played poorly in a three-game series at New Mexico in early May, including being outscored 19-6 in losing the last two games.
He wanted the Aztecs to wear their all-black, pinstriped uniforms at Long Beach State the following Tuesday, but they couldn't because the 49ers wore black jerseys.
So he asked an athletic department staffer for a Gwynn bobblehead, which was a giveaway item at a basketball game several years ago, early in the tenure of coach Steve Fisher.
''It actually worked out good. We wrapped up little Tony in a towel and went out to the pregame meeting and kind of poked his head out and said, 'Guys, we brought Tony with us. And they went crazy,'' Martinez said Wednesday. ''Then we were asking him questions like, 'Are we going to get any hits tonight?' or, 'Is [Ryan] Muno going to swing at a ball in the dirt?' and It was saying, 'Yes,' and we had fun with it.''
SDSU won 6-3 that night and is 10-3 since Martinez brought out the bobblehead. The Aztecs (42-19) went 3-1 in the MWC tourney, coming back through the losers' bracket to win it.The bobblehead is at team meetings and is in the sprint line during warmups.
During games it's placed ''right by the bat rack, where it belongs,'' Martinez said. ''It's great to get some mojo.''
In 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres, the lefty-swinging Gwynn had 3,141 hits, a .338 average, won eight NL batting titles and played in the franchise's only two World Series.
Gwynn has had two operations for cancer in his right cheek since August 2010. In a complicated surgery in February 2012, surgeons removed a facial nerve because it was intertwined with a tumor inside his right cheek. They grafted a nerve from Gwynn's neck to help him eventually regain facial movement.
Gwynn was last with the Aztecs on March 25, when they beat Santa Clara 12-4.
Having the bobblehead ''is pretty cool,'' Martinez said. ''It's got us to rally around him a little bit. When I talk to Tony it's, 'You know you're with us every pitch in the dugout. It just happens to be your bobblehead.' I think at first he was like, 'What are you guys doing?' Now he laughs about it. He thinks it's pretty cool, and of course, since our kids are rallying behind it, he's all in.''
Martinez said the staff tries to talk with Gwynn every day.
''For me, it's why I come to work, and I know it's why these guys come. We're trying to do him proud,'' Martinez said.
''It just gives us another reason to go out there and play hard,'' right-hander Bubba Derby said.
''Every time we step on the field we want to exceed his expectations for us,'' said infielder Tim Zier, SDSU's career hits leader with 300.
No one knows when Gwynn will be able to return to his alma mater, which he's coached for 12 seasons. He didn't respond to a call and text Wednesday.
''Tony's battling and I'm sure he's really proud of the team and I know he's with them in heart and spirit,'' his long-time agent, John Boggs, said Wednesday. ''Hopefully this gives him the energy to continue his path to recovery.''
Playing to Gwynn's standards, the Aztecs are gritty, blue collar and ''pride ourselves on earning everything we get,'' Martinez said.