By Don Hudson
This story is pretty detailed. If your reading time today is limited, you might want to scroll down to Act IV to find out what we learned this year, then come back now and then if you’re so inclined. Also, if you’d prefer to have a copy of this article as a WORD document, send me a note and I’ll email it to you. Contact me at: DonSectionA@aol.com.
ACT I: THE PRELUDE
Scene 1: Restless Summer (June-August, 2014)The odyssey really began on June 1, 2014, when the Titans were eliminated from the Stillwater, Oklahoma Regionals by the host team, Oklahoma State. Only two starters from that game (Tyler Stieb and Taylor Bryant) were returning for the 2015 season. The 2014 position players not returning hit 15 of the team’s 16 home runs (only Tanner Pinkston had a home run and was coming back) and 181 of the team’s 248 RBI were delivered by non-returning players: J.D. Davis, Matt Chapman, Clay Williamson, Keegan Dale, Austin Diemer, Greg Velazquez and Jared Deacon.
We also knew leaving Stilly that the pitching staff would have to fill the giant shoes of Grahamm Wiest (arguably the best Sunday starter in the country) and the two pitchers that posted all 12 saves in 2014 (J.D. had 7 and Koby Gauna had 5.) Add to this the turmoil associated with the head coach’s suspension for part of the 2014 season and the untimely departure of Phil Bickford just a couple weeks before the start of fall semester, there was great uncertainty and curiosity about what was in store for 2015.
Despite the loss of much of the 2014 productivity, there was cause for optimism entering the fall scrimmage season. Having Thomas Eshelman and Justin Garza returning at the top of the rotation, along with relievers Tyler Peitzmeier, Willie Kuhl, Miles Chambers, Chad Hockin, Shane Stillwagon, Henry Omana and Maxwell Gibbs, was certainly encouraging, albeit with uncertainty where the run support would come from. Pinkston was the best returning bat from 2014, and there were high hopes Jake Jefferies would get his mojo back and David Olmedo-Barrera (DOB) would continue to blossom as a hitter. Timmy Richards, Bryant and A.J. Kennedy didn’t hit much in 2014, but you knew they were good defensive players that would only get better in 2015, so the expectations grew that we’d need to win a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games.
Part of the Titans’ underdog mystique was that, from its inception as a Division I program in 1975 through 2009, every player who was in the program four years was part of at least one team that made it to the College World Series. But the elimination from the 2014 Regionals in Stilly made it a five-year Omaha drought, with lingering doubts whether a non-football university could still compete at the elite level nationally when all the Power 5 conferences were taking their zillions of dollars of football and basketball TV revenues and spending a lot of money on new baseball stadiums, training facilities and premier coaching staffs.Was the curtain closing on the Titans’ era as a collegiate baseball powerhouse?
Scene 2: Fall Foliage (September-November, 2014)As the fall season progressed, my optimism rose. The team seemed relaxed and there was an intriguing mixture of returning players, freshmen and transfers. What I found most intriguing watching the scrimmages was that there wasn’t any player that appeared to be outstanding at every facet of the game – Titans fans are accustomed to having at least one and possibly two or three players that have speed, power, hit for average and play well defensively. (Think of players like Mark Kotsay, Justin Turner, Kurt Suzuki, Christian Colon, Gary Brown, Matt Chapman and others – excellent all-around players.) But bereft of those superstar “four tool” or “five tool” players, each position player seemed to be really good at one or two things. It became evident that Hook would need to keep pushing buttons to get the right combination of talents and contributions from this roster.
One thing I liked about the transfers during fall scrimmages is that they all showed offensive potential and played multiple positions, which strengthened the coaches’ lineup juggling act options. Both Josh Estill and Jerrod Bravo had been catchers and corner infielders prior to becoming Titans; Josh Vargas and Dustin Vaught could both play infield and outfield; Hunter Cullen could play any outfield position with speed and an excellent arm. Dalton Blaser also could be moved between outfield and first base.The incoming freshman class was more evenly split between pitchers and position players than the transfers. Pitchers John Gavin and Connor Seabold made good first impressions. Scott Hurst, Chris Hudgins, Tristan Hildebrandt and Turner Buis all showed signs of good things to come during the fall scrimmages. The pitching staff added a little more experience when Kyle Murray returned to the program after Bickford’s defection.
One lesson learned from watching numerous fall scrimmage seasons: it’s hard to extrapolate fall results, either individually or as a team, into accurate projections for the regular season to follow. Speed and defense project pretty accurately, but less so for pitching and batting. Wood bats are often used for the first couple weeks, and pitchers are limited by pitch selection: breaking pitches are limited until late in the fall period as an injury precaution. Returning pitchers that threw a lot of innings the previous season and/or in summer ball typically don’t pitch much in fall scrimmages.Because the Titans had a 2015 conference series scheduled at Hawai’i, they had the scheduling flexibility to play three games in the fall against other schools. (To entice teams to incur the expense to travel to the islands, games played in Hawai’i don’t count against the visiting teams’ 56-game limit.) The scrimmage games played at home against UC Santa Barbara and Concordia and the road game at San Diego were a good opportunity for the team to gauge its development against external competition. The NCAA baseball coaches’ recommendations include allowing all teams to play fall scrimmages that don’t count in the records or against the 56-game limit; I hope that recommendation prevails.
Scene 3: Singing Peepers (January, 2015)My New Year usually starts around January 10th. It is a terrific time of year: stores and radio stations have stopped playing those dreadful Christmas songs until the following Halloween; those 85 unnecessary college football bowl games are finished; and – best of all – the countdown to the Titans season begins in full earnest.
Two of my favorite events happen this time of year: Dinner with the Titans and the alumni game.
Check out these photos from the 2015 alumni game: click here.The alumni game is always a fun day: a chance for many fans to see the current varsity team for the first time, as well as see old favorites from yesteryear. The camaraderie between players of different eras always impresses me: once a Titan, always a Titan. Not only do you see players enjoying the company of their close teammates from the years they played together at Fullerton, but you also see lasting friendships formed by players whose careers were decades apart.
One of the highlights of the game itself was freshman John Gavin taking the hill for the Alumni in relief of the venerable Eddie Delzer and shutting out the varsity team through five innings. It was a sign of good things to come for Gavin.The 2015 Dinner with the Titans was a “who’s who” of Titans baseball royalty, topped off by the keynote speaker, Augie Garrido. It was an amazing night for all in attendance.
Sidebar with readers: this year’s Dinner with the Titans will be held this year on Friday, January 29th, featuring guest speaker Kevin Costner. It is being held at the Marriott Irvine. If you haven’t signed up yet, click here to do so. I’m hearing it will be the biggest turnout ever - hope to see you there!The alumni game will be held the following day, Saturday, January 30th. What a great way for Titans fans and alumni to shake off winter doldrums and get totally psyched for the 2016 season just a few short weeks thereafter.
ACT II: 2015 REGULAR SEASON
Scene 1: The Iliad and the Oddities (February/March, 2015)Hopes were high landing in Tampa, Florida for a round-robin “Opening Weekend Challenge” at the Phillies’ beautiful spring training facility (Bright House Field), but were quickly dashed when I landed and received a text from the airline that they had lost my luggage. It was windy and the temperatures were in the low 40’s, so who needs a jacket anyways?
By game time on Friday, the temperatures were near freezing and icicles were forming from my nostrils. Thomas Eshelman came out in midseason form, carving up the University of South Florida the first five innings. The Titans held a slim 1-0 lead heading to the bottom of the sixth, albeit with minimal offensive output. In the bottom of the sixth, Esh continued mowing, retiring the first hitter of the inning. The next batter dribbled a routine groundball to second base, but it was not charged and he reached on an infield single. Two solid hits ensued and the Titans lost, 2-1. It was one of my top-ten coldest games ever, which was reflected in the Titans’ offense: just two singles and fifteen strikeouts. The only good news was that the game took just 2:26, and my luggage finally showed up at the Motel 3 where I was staying.It didn’t get much better the next day when the Titans faced ASU (Alabama State University) in an afternoon game. Although still cold and windy, the bright sunshine made it substantially more comfortable than the evening before. Kyle Murray stepped into the starting role of Garza, who did not travel for precautionary reasons. Murray did a great job, scattering five hits before leaving with a 2-0 lead and two outs in the fifth inning. Willie Kuhl replaced Murray and escaped the ASU threat with a strikeout.
Alas, the sixth inning was the Titans’ downfall for the second straight game. Kuhl hit the leadoff hitter, gave up an RBI double to ASU’s diminutive Einar Muniz and hit the next batter before being replaced by Miles Chambers. He induced a double-play ball and was nearly out of the inning, but a walk, stolen base and two-run single gave ASU a 3-2 lead, which was the eventual final score. Give credit to ASU for playing a great game, but it was a second straight thud for the Titans’ offense: just six hits and a dozen strikeouts, making it 27 K’s in two games – with the weekend finale against Louisville coming up. (Click here for photos of the Alabama State game.)You never want to look past any team, but it would have been reasonable to expect to win the first two games and face the toughest foe on Sunday, as Louisville had a deep, talented team with the experience of consecutive trips to Omaha in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Facing Louisville southpaw Josh Rogers – a name you’ll hear again – the Titans shook up the line-up and went with eight right-handed hitters (including switch-hitters Stieb and Jefferies).
It worked. The Titans stunned Rogers and the Cardinals with four runs in the top of the first, highlighted by an RBI double by Estill, a two-run single by Hudgins and an RBI single by Vaught. The freshman Gavin was sharp through five innings, outdueling Rogers, who was knocked out of the box in the fifth inning with no outs, allowing six earned runs in 4.0 innings pitched.Louisville has a scary lineup and they posted three runs in the bottom of the sixth – that dreaded inning again – to cut the Titans’ lead to 8-4. It got even closer at 8-6, but the Titans used lefties Gibbs and Peitzmeier to record the final eight outs. Whew! (Click here for photos from Louisville game. Click here for additional photos of the Louisville game courtesy Jorge Lopez.)
The Titans dropped to 1-3 with a sloppy midweek home loss to USC, 6-4. The offense continued to struggle making contact: eleven K’s against midweek pitching. The offensive largesse continued in the weekend home series against Stanford, with another strong outing by Eshelman wasted in a 2-0 loss and eleven more strikeouts by opposing pitchers. Garza, Murray, Gibbs and Pietzmeier pieced together a 4-2 win in the middle game, but the Titans stranded ten runners in the Sunday loss (11-9), a game interrupted by a heavy downpour. The sixth inning remained problematic, as Stanford posted four run. Estill went 4-for-4, with two singles, a double, three RBI and a sacrifice bunt. The loss dropped the team to 2-5 and there were a lot of lugubrious stares coming from the Titans’ dugout. (Click here for photos of the series finale against Stanford.)Just as miserably as the Titans played the first seven games, they were terrific the next seven: weekend home sweeps against the Big 12 Conference’s Baylor Bears and Texas Tech Red Raiders, sandwiched around a midweek win over Pepperdine. Both Baylor and Texas Tech came in with impressive credentials, Baylor having beaten the Titans in a 2014 series in Waco, TX and Texas Tech having many returning players from their 2014 team that made it to Omaha for the CWS.
The bats that came alive in the final loss to Stanford stayed hot against Baylor, racking up 28 runs in winning by scores of 10-1, 11-6 and 7-6. It was the result of a balanced attack: 30 singles, 3 doubles and 4 triples (no home runs), led by Vaught, DOB, Estill and Stieb. The series had been moved up, with a Friday double-header and a Saturday finale, because of threatening weather. (Click here for photos of Game 1 against Baylor and here for Game 3 photos.)In the Tuesday night home game against Pepperdine, Connor Seabold was outstanding in his first career start as a Titan, throwing four shutout innings and notching six strikeouts. Kuhl was the winner with two innings of work in relief, followed by Gibbs, Omana and Peitzy, with his fourth save. Vargas and DOB each had two hits and an RBI.
The consensus was that a series win against Texas Tech would be a big step forward, with a sweep almost unthinkable. Eshelman got the Titans off on the right foot with a 4-0 complete game shutout, aided by a 4-for-4 night (including three doubles and two RBI) by A.J. Kennedy and a 3-for-3 contribution from Jake Jefferies. With Garza on a lower pitch count and the bullpen set-up roles still developing, the complete game by Eshelman was huge setting up the remainder of the series.In the second game, the Titans won a 3-2 nail-biter, with all three runs scored in the fourth inning. Trailing 1-0, Estill led off the fourth inning with a walk, followed by singles by DOB and Jefferies to load the bases. Hurst delivered a clutch two-run single, followed by a double-play that plated the third run. Garza was the winner in his longest outing of the young season, going 6.0 innings and allowing just two runs. Kuhl was awesome in relief: he had his filthy curveball working and retired all five hitters he faced, with two strikeouts. Peitzy got the final four outs to clinch the series win.
Aided by some sloppy Texas Tech defense, the Titans took an early 5-0 lead and barely held off a late Red Raiders rally in the series finale. The Titans managed just five hits – all singles – but were aided by nine walks and two errors by Texas Tech. The Titans had ten runners LOB – not often do you see twice as many LOB’s as H’s. Gavin notched his second career win, with another save by Peitzy. (Click here for photos from the series finale against Texas Tech.)But just when you got your hopes up with a seven-game winning streak, along comes a four-game losing streak to give you a jolt of reality. It started with a butt-kicking by the San Diego Toreros, 9-4, in a game the Titans were outhit 15-3. I hold USD skipper Rich Hill in the same esteem as former Padres interim manager Pat Murphy, so this is one team I hate losing to. The lone bright spots for the Titans were 3.0 shutout innings of relief by Miles Chambers and a home run by Turner Buis in his first game as a Titan.
The following weekend series was on the road in Bloomington, Indiana against the Indiana Hoosiers. It was an intriguing road trip, albeit one with steady rain a virtual certainty in the weather forecast. Not only was it a chance to see the campus that gave us so many great Bobby Knight basketball teams and tantrums, it was a chance to see a baseball program that had gone 91-29 in 2013/2014, with a CWS trip to Omaha in 2013, under coach Tracy Smith before she left to become head coach at Arizona State. It was also a chance to see the beautiful Bart Kaufman Stadium, opened in 2013 and built at a cost (including women’s softball field) in excess of $19 million, much of it funded by proceeds from IU’s membership in the Big Ten Network. (Just what we need – is the B1G Conference becoming a rising baseball powerhouse, leveraging their fiscal strength as a Power 5 conference and their own network?)The meteorologists earned their paychecks, and the series opener was rained out on Friday, resulting in a Saturday double-header. It was cold and windy but sunny when the game started. Bart Kaufman Stadium was impressive and its now-generation AstroTurf® surface held up well to all the rain of the recent late winter days. One curiosity: they built this magnificent stadium with seats on par with Cal State Northridge and then offered seatback rentals for five bucks. They also have this burger monstrosity that includes a pound of hamburger and a pound of bacon – it costs eighteen bucks. The first one went down with ease….but I wish I hadn’t tried to stretch it into a double.
Indiana won the opener, 5-4, in ten innings. It was a gut-wrenching loss in which Eshelman pitched his butt off for 8.0 innings in which he was touched up for 10 hits and 4 runs against an excellent Hoosiers lineup. It was a “winnable game” that the baseball gods conspired for us to lose. The Titans got home runs from Hurst and DOB, plus a clutch RBI single by Estill in a game they led 2-0, trailed 3-2, tied, 3-3, led 4-3, tied 4-4 before losing on a walk-off error in the bottom of the tenth. We had a couple runners picked off; a bases-loaded HBP that would have given Fullerton a ninth inning lead overturned on appeal; an interference call at home plate, invoking the new NCAA rules about plays at the plate that ended a rally; balls dropping in because of miscommunication between fielders; the Titans committed four errors, including three by Richards, playing on the unfamiliar turf. It was a numbing loss.With less than an hour to lick their wounds before playing the nightcap, the lugubriosity continued when Stieb walked in the first inning but was picked off. The leadoff hitter for Indiana tripled off Garza and scored on a sacrifice fly deep to right field – I remember the “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd when Hurst nearly threw the runner out from the warning track. After that, Garza was perhaps as sharp as we saw him all season, striking out seven Hoosiers in 6.0 innings. But the offense scuffled, with a combined 1-for-15 outing from the top five batting order slots. Jefferies had half of the Titans’ six hits. It was a strange feeling: we trailed just 1-0 in the eighth inning but it felt like an insurmountable lead. A solo home run in the bottom of the eighth made it 2-0, which was the final score.
Hope sprang in the series finale when Estill, wearing number 28 (uniform snafu), blasted a three-run home run in the top of the fifth to give the Titans a 4-3 lead. Gavin left after 5.0 innings with a slim one-run lead and all seemed right with the world again. But the local umpire’s strike zone seemed to tighten quite a bit in the bottom half of each of the late innings and the Hoosiers won, 10-4. The loss dropped the Titans season record to 9-9 and the 12,487 mile flight back from Indiana seemed to last forever. (Click here for photos from Games 1 and 2, and click here for photos from Game 3 of the Indiana series.)An 11-0 drubbing of the CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners back at Goodwin Field provided temporary relief, but the bad juju quickly returned when the Titans lost a non-conference series against the dreaded Dirtbags of Long Beach State. Another exasperating loss. Estill hit a two-run bomb in the first inning to give the Titans a quick 2-0 lead, but Timmy Richards’ fielding woes continued and he made two errors that resulted in a pair of unearned runs that tied the score, 2-2. The Titans scored once in the second and the Dirtbags once in the third to tie the game, 3-3. From there, it was a goose-egg display, as neither team scored from the fourth through the eleventh innings. The game went so long that my buddy Greg’s wife was calling me to see if he was still at the game, since his phone battery died somewhere around the tenth inning. The Dirtbags scratched out a 4-3 win with a two-out single after a single, wild pitch and intentional walk.
Garza followed up his impressive performance at Indiana with an excellent outing at Long Beach State, going 7.0 innings and allowing just one run, leaving with the score tied, 1-1. Gibbs earned the first win of his Titans career, going 2.0 innings and striking out five Dirtbags. The Titans scored a solo tally in the top of the tenth when DOB was hit-by-pitch, a single by Dalton Blaser, a walk to Josh Vargas and a bases-loaded walk to A.J. Kennedy. Peitzy made it interesting when he allowed two hits but shut the door for his seventh save of the season. (Click here for photos of the second-game win at CSULB.)The putrid loss in the series finale had me questioning whether the Titans, who finished fourth in the Big West Conference in 2014 behind Cal Poly, UC Irvine and Long Beach State, were even the best in their league, notwithstanding whether they were still competitive nationally. If you were at Blair Field that day, you probably still have a bad taste in your mouth from the first inning defensive meltdown when three runs scored on a botched rundown play. A fourth run scored when Kennedy, the best defensive catcher in the country, misjudged a pop-up. The Titans lost, 6-1, and their season record was back to .500 (11-11).
Things didn’t change for the better in the Tuesday game played at the University of Nebraska. The Titans managed just two runs on twelve hits, dropping the opener by a score of 7-2.Time for another line-up shuffle, this time moving DOB into the leadoff spot. He led off the game with an infield single that ignited a two-run rally, keyed by a clutch two-run single by Hurst, and later hit a two-run home run to give the Titans the margin of victory in their 4-3 win. Chambers got the win in 4.0 innings of one-run pitching on a designated staff day. Seniors Kuhl and Peitzmeier combined to shut the Cornhuskers down to just one run over the final five innings. It was great to see the Nebraska native, Peitzy, get eight outs and earn his eighth save of the season in front of friends and family. (Click here for photos from Nebraska, courtesy of Jorge Lopez and friends Tom and Mary.)
Now back at 12-12 heading into the BWC opening series at Cal State Northridge (CSUN), the Titans were the ultimate model of inconsistency. Estill and Vaught carried much of the offensive load early in the season, with DOB, Stieb and Vargas coming on recently. The pitching was generally good to that point in the season, but too prone to allowing a crooked number in the middle innings of too many games.The BWC opener at CSUN featured brothers playing left field for each side: Dalton Blaser for the Titans and his brother Nick for the Matadors. Similar to when Anthony Hutting played for the Titans and brother Eric for the Dirtbags, I find it a great family moment to see brothers compete athletically.
The Matadors scratched out single runs in the second and fourth innings against Eshelman and held a 2-0 lead after six innings. Apparently I didn’t miss much offense when I had to take the two-mile walk to the bathroom in Reseda. Vargas led off the seventh with a double. Tanner Pinkston, who was in a deep slump at the time, was sent up to pinch-hit and he delivered a solid RBI double and was removed for a pinch-runner to a great ovation from his teammates. DOB continued his success in the leadoff spot with a triple that tied the game and gave the Titans a 3-2 lead when he scored on a groundout by Stieb. The Titans got an insurance run in the eighth on an RBI single by Vargas and in the ninth on a home run by Estill, winning 5-3.The Titans’ mild two-game winning streak was ended when they lost, 4-3, to Jerry Keel, the hefty lefty that always seems to pitch very well against the Titans. The Titans committed three errors and had two more misplays that could have easily been ruled E’s. There was also a crucial and controversial run scored by CSUN when Kennedy was called for violating the new home plate rule that requires the catcher to give the runner a sliding lane when he does not yet possess the ball. The Titans managed just eight hits and stranded ten runners – nothing as frustrating as leaving ten runners on base and losing by one run. A bright spot was Pinky had a pinch-hit single: the big guy was battling back.
In the Sunday finale, the Titans scored two runs before your back could even get stiff from those brutal seats at Matador Stadium. The DOB leadoff odyssey (2-for-2 with two walks) continued: he led off with a single and scored on a double by Stieb. With the team’s best power hitter, Estill, coming up, nobody expected him to lay down a perfect bunt, which went for a base hit and another run scoring when the pitcher threw the ball into right field trying to make the play. A DOB home run in the fifth made it 3-0, followed by a three-run sixth inning that blew it open. Gavin won his third game, with relief support from Chambers, Kuhl, Gibbs and Hockin.It was nice to finish the month with a winning record (14-13) and a series win to begin conference play.
But does any of this feel like it’s leading up to Omaha? It didn’t to me.
Scene 2: Titanic Struggles (April, 2015)The Titans hosted defending BWC champs Cal Poly SLO, who rolled into town for the Easter weekend series with a 9-16 record, having lost many key players to injuries, graduation and pro ball, but still with a dangerous nucleus. The Mustangs struck early when Brian Mundell delivered the first of two home runs to give Cal Poly a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning of the Thursday evening opener. Esh didn’t look like Esh this night, as he hit the first batter he faced in the second inning, threw a wild pitch and then yielded a two-run home run. The Titans lost, 5-0, with Eshelman going 6.0 innings and allowing four runs (three earned) and striking out just one. In his brilliant three-year career at Fullerton, Cal Poly was the only BWC opponent he never beat.
The second game also got off to a rocky start. After retiring the first two batters, Garza allowed a first-inning run on a walk to the red-hot Mundell and two consecutive singles. After that, Garza was dominant, allowing no more runs until departing with two outs in the eighth inning. Meanwhile, the Titans had tied the score in the fourth inning playing small ball. Vargas led off with a single, stole second, went to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jefferies. The Titans took a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning with an unearned run on singles by Vaught and Estill around two Cal Poly errors.Tyler Peitzmeier received great defensive support in the ninth inning as he nailed down his tenth save. Ryan Drobny led off the inning with a sinking line drive towards right field. Hunter Cullen attempted a diving do-or-die play, but the ball trapped against his body and bounced away. Drobny headed towards second, but Cullen quickly retrieved the ball and fired a pea to shortstop Richards, who easily tagged out the runner. Without Cullen’s quick recovery and great throw, CP would have been in business with the tying run in scoring position and none out. The final score was 2-1.
The series finale quickly turned into a laugher in Fullerton’s favor. Vaught walked, Vargas beat out a bunt single, Estill walked and DOB crushed a grand slam into the Arboretum. The leadoff-man-turned-cleanup-hitter DOB had a great batting line for the day: 2-for-2 with 8 RBI, a sacrifice fly and a HBP. The Titans won, 13-2, behind a 13-hit attack and just four LOB. Second baseman Vargas had three hits (two singles and a triple). Jerrod Bravo, who was mostly a platoon player facing lefthanded pitchers during Act II, Scene 1, was beginning to get more playing time and began his extraordinary streak of reaching base at least once every game. (Click here for photos of the series finale, courtesy Jorge Lopez.)With the record improved to 16-14, the Titans began a critical nine-game road trip at USD. The day began pleasantly enough: lunchtime poker winnings, a leisurely drive towards San Diego, a visit to Phil’s BBQ with my good friend Jim Allen (former Cal Poly SLO third baseman Jimmy Allen’s dad) and a chance to give the Toreros some payback for the thrashing they gave us earlier.
The Titans took a quick 2-0 lead on a two-out two-run single by Jerrod Bravo. But just like they had done at Goodwin, the Toreros came out crushing the ball. Connor Seabold gave up three singles and two doubles in the bottom of the first and the Toreros took a 3-2 lead. But the undeterred Titans retook the lead in the second inning. With two outs, Vaught and Vargas walked and Estill crushed a two-run double off the center field wall to make it 4-3. The Titans extended the lead to 5-3 in the fourth inning when Bravo reached on an error, stole a base and scored on a double by Stieb.Seabold was lifted in the second inning and the bullpen did a magnificent job from there. Chambers, Gibbs and Peitzmeier combined to throw 7.2 innings of relief, allowing just one run to the hard-hitting Toreros.
The drive up to Davis to play the Aggies didn’t seem so long listening to the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals games on the radio. I had a good feeling about the upcoming Titans series when Providence College beat University of Nebraska at Omaha to earn a spot in the hockey championship game against Boston University, but Thomas Eshelman took another tough loss the next day in the opener, dropping his season record to 3-4 despite pitching as well as ever. The Aggies played effective ‘small ball’ and won, 3-2. The Titans had just eight hits (three by Stieb and two each by Vaught and Hurst) and left nine runners on base, with 0-for-13 output from the 2-3-4-5 spots in the batting order. Tough loss, but give the Aggies credit for playing well. (Click here for photos from Game 1.)Both teams came out hitting on Saturday and the Titans won a 10-6 slugfest. Singles by Vaught and Vargas set the table for Estill, who delivered an RBI single, followed by an RBI double by DOB. Hurst was robbed on a great defensive play by the UCD second baseman, but a run scored to make it 3-0. But the Aggies crushed the ball against Garza in the bottom of the first, scoring three runs on a double, RBI triple, RBI groundout, single and RBI double. It could have been even more but for a great driving snare of a line drive by second baseman Jefferies and the ‘cardinal sin’ of the final out being made at third base trying to stretch the second double into a triple.
Momentum seemed clearly on the side of the Aggies when the first two Titans were set down in the second inning. But then Vaught and Vargas singled and Estill delivered a three-run bomb to give Fullerton a 6-3 lead that they never relinquished. Vaught, Vargas, Estill and DOB combined to go 11-for-17 (four hits by Vargas, three by Vaught and two each by Estill and DOB) with eight runs scored and seven RBI. Garza went 5.0 innings and got the win, with solid relief work by Gibbs, Kuhl, Chambers and Peitzmeier. (Click here for photos of the second game at UCD.)Providence College stunned the heavily favored Boston University and their superstar, Jack Eichel, to win the NCAA crown, so it was a great day all around. Ludy’s Main Street BBQ (located in nearby Woodland, CA), here I come!
The Sunday rubber game started off much like the previous game. The Titans took a quick 2-0 lead, highlighted by two-out RBI singles by DOB and Hurst, but Gavin was roughed up for three runs in the bottom of the first. He allowed a solo home run on this windy day, an infield single, a bunt single, a wild pitch, a hit-batsman and a sacrifice fly.The Aggies 3-2 lead went by the wayside when the Titans scored four runs in the top of the third, aided by two UCD errors, two walks, an RBI double by DOB and an RBI single by Hurst. It was a cakewalk from there: the Titans won, 13-3, with 14 hits and the help of seven walks and four errors by UCD. (Click here for photos of the series finale at UCD.)
The Titans had won their first three BWC series and were now four games over .500 (19-15) 0 could life be much better than this?It could.
My phone was buzzing with texts for three hours while I was driving 25 miles to the midweek game against UCLA at Jackie Robinson Stadium questioning the decision to use closer Peitzmeier as the starting pitcher. It turned out to be an all-around ugly game, a 7-2 loss with equal numbers of hits and errors (3 each). The game was shown on the PAC-11 Network, so folks everywhere got to see this poor performance and the unflattering comments from Hook during his in-game interview. The team was playing uglier than that dead rodent atop Stan Kroenke’s dome: if you expect Hook to sugar-coat it, you’ve got the wrong guy.The next stop on this season’s arduous journey was the University of Maryland. The Terrapins play at Shipley Field at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium, an embarrassing dump for a Power 5 conference program. The stadium name is longer than the foul pole distances (324 feet down each line and just 364 feet to center field.) There are no concourse passageways, so you need to shimmy along the press box façade to get to and fro your seat. They also have the worst seats: the seat bottom has the conventional butt-shape contour, but there are no seatbacks or armrests. They’d make a killing if they rented out seatbacks like at Indiana.
I knew we were in trouble when the first four Titans off the bus were dressed in gym clothes: suspended for the weekend for violation of team rules. I felt badly for the suspended players, who not only missed playing that weekend (they got to do plenty of running) but also did not get to attend some great tours of various Washington, D.C. landmarks. I also felt badly for the teammates that they had let down. But I respected how it was handled: they made mistakes; the problem was dealt with; and when the weekend was over, they moved on and it was totally in the past.The series opener was a sweet pitching duel between Eshelman and Maryland’s Mike Shawaryn. The Terps got on the board with two unearned runs in the bottom of the second. The score remained 2-0 into the ninth inning, as Eshelman and Shawaryn were both dealing: each went 8.0 innings and allowed just four hits and zero earned runs. Shawaryn notched thirteen strikeouts.
Finally into the bullpen in the top of the ninth, hope sprung when both Vargas and Estill walked to start the inning. When Maryland brought in a southpaw reliever to face DOB, the Titans went to a curious strategy of having him sacrifice both runners into scoring position. Jefferies grounded out to drive in one run, but the potential tying run was stranded at third base. Shawaryn, who earned first-team All American honors by NCBWA for the season, improved his record to 9-0.The Saturday afternoon game started with a near-tragedy. Vaught led off and smoked a line drive up the middle that struck Maryland pitcher Tayler Stiles in the face, leaving him bleeding and badly injured. There was a lengthy delay as paramedics were rushed to the scene. (Great news: Stiles has recovered and was back on the mound in October during Maryland’s fall scrimmage season.)
With the Titans scoring one run in the top of the first, Maryland quickly rallied and scored on a double, HBP, RBI single and two more Titans errors. Ugly.Maryland held a big 9-2 lead going into the ninth inning. There was a late rally: Stieb singled, Hildebrandt doubled and Vaught was drilled by a fastball. There seemed no doubt of the intent to hit Vaught, some form of payback for having batted the ball that struck their pitcher. It was complete horseshit baseball, and I was very proud that Hook gave the Maryland coaching staff an earful about it after the game.
There was an old story from the 60’s when the Dodgers had tremendous pitching but very little offense. It goes, “We finally had three runners on base. Unfortunately, they were all on the same base.” That’s sort of what happened next: Vargas delivered a bases-loaded double. Rather than clearing the bases and putting the game in reach, there were two runners at third base and another heading that way. The air came out of the tires on the bus; the final score was 9-5, dropping the season record to 19-18. (Click here for photos of the second game at Maryland.)The Titans had played so badly on defense the first two games that the coaching staff opted to completely forego pre-game defensive drills. They also inserted Taylor Bryant into the line-up at second base, a move that would have lasting impact the rest of the season.
Faced with the pressure of avoiding another road sweep at a B1G Conference school, Gavin shouldered the load for the Titans and was tremendous. He broke through the invisible “wall” that had previously existed for him around the fifth or sixth inning and pitched shutout ball for 7.0 innings, aided by excellent infield defense from Bryant, Hildebrandt and Vaught. Gavin left with seven strikeouts and just three hits allowed, but what impressed me most was that he twice hit Maryland catcher Kevin Martir with pitches. After the intentional drilling of Vaught the previous day, I was totally impressed with the savvy of a freshman to hit the opposing team’s best hitter not once, but twice, to defend his teammate.Chambers and Peitzy continued the excellent pitching, but the Maryland staff matched them and the game was scoreless after nine innings. After two quick outs in the top of the tenth, Bryant hit a high flyball to left-center field that landed over the wall just beyond the grasp of the leaping outfielder – the first home run of Bryant’s career with the Titans was huge. Peitzy closed the door in the bottom of the tenth and the Titans went home salvaging a 1-0 win. (Click here for photos of the series finale at Maryland. Click here for Jorge’s photos of the D.C. road trip experience.)
But just when hope began to flicker after the shutout win at Maryland, along came a Tuesday game at Cal State Bakersfield – the same guys we beat 11-0 a while back. It was the last time CSUB coach Bill Kernan would face the Titans (barring being assigned to the same Regionals), so you knew he was highly motivated to avenge his team’s embarrassing performance in Fullerton.Were you at Long Beach State for that first inning defensive meltdown in the Sunday game? Just imagine an entire game played that horribly. The Titans lost, 14-1, surrendering 18 hits and committing 7 errors that led to 10 unearned runs. Ten unearned runs!
In thirteen years going to Titans game, this was the first time I ever left before it finished because the team was playing so poorly. I made a beeline to the Wool Growers restaurant and enjoyed a nice Basque family-style meal, figuring I’d enjoy the ox tail stew better than watching the last three innings of that debacle.The team was 20-19 after that loss: one game over .500 with just seventeen games left on the schedule. The local message board was upset and surly: “Hook the Hook”, “Dump the Donovan”, “Get Rid of Garcia”, etc. Even Jerry Brown, Gray Davis and Obama received some of the blame for this mess. Say goodbye to that 23-year streak of making it into the NCAA tournament.
Arriving at Goodwin Field for the next series against UC Irvine after the lengthy road trip, one of my buddies I hadn’t seen in a couple weeks asked me, “So, do you think we still have any chance of hosting the playoffs?” We were 20-19 and had just allowed ten unearned to Cal State Freakin’ Bakersfield…..hosting the playoffs? My mind immediately went into Jim Mora mode – click here. Playoffs? Don’t talk to me about playoffs!I scoffed when the forms arrived in the mail for ordering tickets to home games in the Regionals and Super Regionals. Are you kidding me?
The Jekyll-and-Hyde Titans followed up one of their worst efforts ever with one of their best overall performances of the year, beating the Anteaters, 7-2, behind 8.0 strong innings by Eshelman. The Titans broke open a 1-0 pitchers’ duel with three runs in the bottom of the fifth on singles by Richards and Vaught, a two-run double by Vargas and an RBI double by Estill. They put the game out of reach the following inning on singles by Bravo and Richards (bunt) and a two-run double by Bryant.But momentum remained elusive as the Titans dropped the second game, 5-4 in ten innings, and had a season record of 21-20 with just fifteen games to play.
One thing that has always impressed me about Titans baseball: the players are far more resilient than the fans; youth bounces back faster than the aged. Just as I was ready to book non-baseball travel in early June, with the near-certainty of the Titans not being in the NCAA tournament, I noticed a new wrinkle during the UCI series finale: water bottle celebrations in the dugout to recognize teammates.The rubber game looked like more disappointment as Irvine took an early 4-1 lead. But the Titans closed the gap to 4-3 with a huge two-run double by Richards in the bottom of the third. Bryant tied it with a home run the following inning, the second straight Sunday he went deep. The Titans scored thrice in the fifth on a double and stolen base by DOB, an RBI triple by the red-hot Bravo, an error, a sacrifice fly by Stieb and an RBI single by Bryant.
The Titans got 5.0 innings of stellar relief from Gibbs and Seabold: Gibbs got the win and Seabold got his first save. You may recall this was the game that the Titans had Seabold enter the game mid-inning with runners on base from the dugout rather than from the bullpen, as he was more comfortable in the games he started (and, as such, came to the mound from the dugout.) (Click here for photos from the final game against UCI. Click here for additional photos courtesy Jorge Lopez.)There was one last game to play before April expired – a chance to avenge the opening week loss to the USC Trojans, but this time at Dedeaux Field in Los Angeles. Again, it didn’t have a good vibe, as USC held a 3-0 lead after six innings and Coach Vanderhook had been tossed by plate umpire Joe Maiden. I was sitting in the front row next to the dugout and can attest to two things: Hook simply asked where a pitch was and got booted; and the players in the dugout were excited and animated as though they were leading in a championship game. Pitching coach Jason Dietrich took over for Hook, but he too was ejected when he asked about a pitch location.
USC was 25-0 on the season when they lead in the seventh inning on, so things didn’t look promising for the Titans.The dugout euphoria rose as the Titans scored two runs in the top of the seventh on singles by Bravo and Richards and RBI singles by Stieb and Bryant.
With the season on the brink, desperate times call for desperate measures: the Titans brought in closer Peitzmeier in the bottom of the seventh. With Vanderhook and Dietrich out of the game, pitches were being called from the dugout by a caucus that included Eshelman, Kennedy (who had been removed for a pinch-hitter) and assistant coach (and former Titans catcher) Cory Vanderhook. The one-run deficit stayed intact when Pinkston made a great stop of a hard groundball headed to right field, stepped on the bag and fired home to Chris Hudgins, who applied the tag on a runner barreling in from third.The Titans tied the score in dramatic fashion in the top of the eighth. Vargas and DOB singled to place runners at first and second. Bravo smashed a ball to the left of the USC third baseman, who dove and made a nice stop. The only play was to first to retire Bravo. But Vargas hustled all the way and third base coach Chad Baum (now the third acting head coach of the game) wheeled him home. There was a cloud of dust, followed by an emphatic “Safe!” sign. Game tied, 3-3, on Vargas’ madcap dash from second base on a groundout.
The Titans had a chance to take the lead when they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth on a single by Stieb, a walk to Hudgins, a sacrifice by Bryant and an intentional walk to Vaught. The speedy Vargas hit a groundball to second base and easily beat the relay throw, with the Titans presumed to be taking a 4-3 lead. But umpire Heath Jones (a name you’ll hear again later in this story) called interference on Vaught breaking up the double-play and the run came off the board.Peitzy continued to grind it out, as did the USC bullpen. The Titans loaded the bases in the top of the eleventh on two HBP and a walk, but could not plate a run. USC had a golden chance in the bottom of the eleventh: with one out, USC’s A.J. Ramirez was HBP and proceeded to steal second and third base. Do or die time: you bring your infield in, your outfield comes in, you bring your best outfield arm (Hunter Cullen) into the game, and you hope for the best. Peitzy came up with a strikeout, one of his biggest of the year. After an intentional walk and a stolen base (I’d have ruled it defensive indifference), Garrett Stubbs (who batted .346 and stole 20 bases for USC in 2015) smoked a ball up the middle and it looked like the battle had been lost. But Richards, who had been playing great all-around baseball the past few weeks, made a great play to keep the game going to the twelfth inning.
Pinkston led off the twelfth with a single and was replaced by pinch-runner Hildebrandt, who stole second base on a strikeout. After a groundout advanced Hildebrandt to third, Richards delivered a huge base hit up the middle to give the Titans a 4-3 lead. Timmy stole second base. After Stieb walked, there was a wild pitch. Richards has decent speed but reads the ball well and gets a great jump as a base-runner. He hustled to third, saw the pitcher not covering the plate and he never stopped running – he scored from second on a wild pitch and the Titans’ dugout and small cheering section were going nuts.Peitzy nailed it down with an easy 1-2-3 inning, ending the game on his 70th pitch. Not a typical pitch count for a closer – but Tyler was hardly a conventional closer. (Click here for photos of this amazing game, courtesy Jorge Lopez.)
I don’t remember many games that created such an adrenaline surge. It seemed like “us against the world”, with our coaches getting tossed and the home team getting all the calls. But there was an intensity that was palpable – the Titans just weren’t going to lose that game.As the team walked towards the bus late that evening, I remarked to Baumer: “This is the type of game that can create the spark that ignites this team.” The Winds of Mayhem had begun to stir.
In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “You don’t need to be a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”
The Titans were sitting at 23-20 with thirteen games to play: four conference series (at Riverside, home to Santa Barbara, at Hawai’i and home to Long Beach State) and a home midweek game against UCLA. The Titans had won all four of their BWC series, so the only sure path to keep alive the consecutive year streak of making the tournament was to win the conference and earn the automatic invitation. The UCSB Gauchos were the darlings of the national pollsters and were a lock to be invited, with the question already circulating about whether they would bid to host Regionals. The Gauchos play their home games at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, which doesn’t have lights, toilets, toilet paper or enough seating capacity to host NCAA Regionals, so they could only bid if they found an alternative venue. Many thought they would request permission from their northern neighbors, Cal Poly SLO, to use the Mustangs’ Baggett Stadium to host Regionals – similar to the USD Toreros hosting at San Diego state’s Tony Gwynn Stadium in 2007 – but UCSB probably thought they would have a home field disadvantage if their “home” crowd was filled with venomous fans of the rival Mustangs.
It took 43 games to get here, but it seemed like the roles and lineup rotations were finally settling into place. My theory is that players determine playing time and roles, not coaches. With all the versatile players, all of whom did a couple things exceptionally well but not everything well, it took a long time to sort it out.Some starting positions were now essentially solely occupied: catcher (Kennedy), second base (Bryant), third base (Bravo), shortstop (Richards), left field (Vargas), center field (Stieb) and designated hitter (Olmedo-Barrera.) Pinkston and Estill formed a lefty/righty platoon at first base, similar to Vaught and Blaser in right field after Hurst’s back injury. Cullen was used as a defensive replacement in the outfield, and Hudgins was used to back up Kennedy when he was removed for a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. Jefferies was used as a pinch-hitter and Hildebrandt as a defensive replacement, usually after an infielder was replaced for a pinch-hitter.
The Titans ventured into the 951 to play UC Riverside at the Riverside Sports Complex, with its poor lighting and sloping outfield – a place that has not always been kind to the Titans.
The Titans won the opener, 9-0. Eshelman threw 7.0 shutout innings, removed only because of the lopsided score. Vargas led the 15-hit attack with three, with two each from DOB, Pinkston, Bravo and Bryant. Game 2 was worse: the Titans won, 19-0, pounding out 25 hits, led by Kennedy and Bryant with three each. Vargas, Blaser, Vaught, Richards and Stieb had two hits apiece. With 28 runs in the first two games, there was ample opportunity to rest Peitzmeier after his 70-pitch outing on Tuesday at USC.The series finale looked like another rout, with Gavin posting five tidy innings of shutout pitching before shutting it down with a 7-0 lead. Having outscored their opponents 35-0 in the series, the Titans emptied the bench early for the third straight game. It created a few nervous moments when the Highlanders bunched together a few hits and cut their deficit to 7-4, but Peitzmeier closed it out (non-save situation) to complete the sweep. Pinkston led with three hits, and Stieb and Kennedy had two each. (Click here and here for photos of the UCR series, courtesy Jorge Lopez.)
The arrival of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos set the stage for a showdown series not only between two teams battling for the BWC crown, but also an opening game battle between two aces that were both on the 2014 pitching staff for Team USA. Eshelman was matched up with Dillon Tate, who had been converted from the closer role in past seasons and became one of the most dominating pitchers in the country, with some draftniks even projecting him as the first overall selection of the draft. (He ended up selected by the Texas Rangers with the fourth selection of the draft.)The first three innings were scoreless, even though – stop the presses! – Eshelman actually walked a batter. Tate was also uncharacteristically wild: he hit the first batter he faced and later issued a walk in the third inning, but neither scored. In the bottom of the fourth, the Titans scored the game’s first run on a Bravo HBP, single by Blaser, walk to Kennedy and a bases-loaded walk to Bryant. The Titans knocked Tate from the box in the bottom of the sixth with a pair of runs (one unearned). Richards and Vargas had the key hits in the inning.
The 3-0 score stood up. Eshelman pitched 8.0 scoreless innings, striking out nine and allowing just three hits. Peitzy pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his thirteenth save.The Titans took advantage of sloppy play by UCSB and wrapped up the series with a 10-1 thrashing in the second game. Stieb led the 9-hit attack with three, while Vargas chipped in two hits and DOB hit a home run. Unfortunately, Garza had to leave the game with an injury in the fourth inning, leading to Tommy John surgery and the end of his brilliant career as a Titan. He was replaced by Chambers, who was outstanding: just one hit allowed in 4.2 innings.
The Titans caught a case of Bieber Fever on Sunday, dropping a 3-2 decision to UCSB starting pitcher Shane Bieber and three hitless shutout relief innings by Domenic Mazza. The Titans bats cooled off this game, delivering just five hits. (Click here for photos of the UCSB series, courtesy Jorge Lopez.)Next up was UCLA at home: an opportunity to boost the resume and improve RPI, playing the #2 team in the country. Seabold started the game, which perpetuated speculation about how Garza’s weekend slot in the rotation would be filled. Connor was fantastic, pitching 5.1 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and notching six strikeouts. The Titans led 2-0 after six, but fell victim to a four-run seventh inning by the Bruins, aided by a misplayed flyball. But to the credit of the Titans, they bounced back with two unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh before bowing, 5-4, in ten innings. Stieb led the offense with three hits.
The Titans headed west to play the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors. Hawai’i was on a six-game winning streak and the Titans hadn’t played well defensively on artificial turf (at Indiana and Maryland), so this wasn’t a slam dunk series.Eshelman got the series off on a good note with his second complete game shutout of the season, scattering five singles and posting a dozen strikeouts. DOB dominated offensively: 3-for-3 with a single, double, home run and two HBP. Bravo extended his streak of reaching base to 33 games, while Richards had his ‘reach base’ streak ended at 22 games.
Without Garza, Gavin moved into the Saturday starter role and was staked to a 2-0 lead after five innings. But the Rainbows battled back and tied the score in the bottom of the sixth, and Chambers replaced Gavin. Tied 2-2, Estill led off the top of the seventh with a pinch-single. Richards sacrificed and reached base on an errant throw. Kennedy followed with another bunt and beat it out when the pitcher and third baseman played Twister going for the ball. Jake Jefferies, whose playing time had become minimal recently, pinch-hit for Bryant. Having misplayed two consecutive bunts, the Hawai’i infield was drawn in fearing a hat trick. Jefferies hit a perfectly placed chopper over the third base bag, driving in two runs to give the Titans a 4-2 lead, the eventual final score. Chambers got the win with 1.2 innings of shutout relief, and Peitzy pitched 2.0 scoreless innings to get his fourteenth save.As expected, Seabold moved into the Sunday spot in the weekend rotation. There was no concern whether he could handle that assignment. But Seabold had established himself as an important cog in the bullpen – usually in the sixth and seventh innings – so the concern became how to compensate for his unavailability in that role without burning out Chambers and Peitzmeier.
The Titans struck early with two runs in the second inning on a double by Bravo, Richards’ HBP, an RBI single by Kennedy and an error. But Hawai’i tied it, 2-2, in the bottom of the third. The undaunted Titans notched solo tallies in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings and came away with a 5-2 win. Seabold got the win with 6.0 strong innings, striking out nine and allowing just three hits. Chambers retired all six hitters he faced; Peitzmeier pitched a scoreless inning to register his fifteenth save.The Titans flew home with a record of 31-22, 16-5 in BWC. They were just one game ahead of UCSB, who was 15-6 and headed into the 951 to face the hapless Highlanders while the Titans hosted the Dirtbags. The Titans controlled their own destiny in terms of winning the conference title outright (BWC recognizes co-champions, using the head-to-head outcome to determine which team gets the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament), but there was still work to be done.
Most conferences that don’t play a conference tournament have played their final weekend series Thursday-Saturday in recent years, a trend I like. It minimizes the number of games that are played after the sixteen Regional hosts are announced on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.Eshelman was staked to an early 3-0 lead over the Dirtbags with help from an unexpected power source: after second inning singles by Bravo and Blaser, Timmy Richards delivered a three-run bomb to left field, his first home run as a Titan. Eshelman pitched a complete game in what might have been his final game at Goodwin Field (not knowing at that moment whether we would host Regionals), allowing six hits and just one earned run. I was a little surprised he came out for the ninth inning: he finished with 126 pitches thrown. Bravo led with three hits, and Vargas and Pinkston each had two.
The Titans clinched the BWC championship outright when they beat the Dirtbags, 4-0, on Senior Day, coupled with the 951 upset of the Gauchos by the Highlanders, 3-2. UCSB opted to give their Golden Spikes Award semifinalist the weekend off the rest up for the playoffs, which may have given UCR extra motivation.Gavin pitched 6.2 shutout innings and got the win, allowing just three singles. Chambers pitched 2.1 innings and earned his first save of the season. Neither senior reliever, Kuhl or Peitzmeier, appeared in the game. Bravo continued his torrid hitting, going 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles. DOB added a home run.
With the conference title clinched and their tournament invitation ensured, the final game of the season still had meaning: the last chance to impress the NCAA committee in hopes of being a host team for the Regionals. The Titans came out and were taking care of business: they beat the Dirtbags, 5-3, behind 6.0 strong innings from Seabold (two runs, one earned, six strikeouts). Gibbs, Kuhl and Peitzy (sixteenth save) combined for three innings of shutout relief. Bravo and Vaught led the offense with two hits apiece.The Titans finished the regular season 34-22, 19-5 in the Big West Conference: they won all eight conference series and finished three games ahead of UCSB, who lost their finale against Riverside, again by 3-2 score. But having been one of the few brave souls to traverse the Grapevine to witness the Bakersfield bashing, the 14-3 run that followed that game was quite gratifying.
The winds of mayhem had prevailed.
There had been much speculation whether two Big West teams would host Regionals. Fullerton had won the conference title and won all eight BWC series, so it was certainly a justifiable venue selection, but UCSB had a better overall record (40-15-1) and lower RPI (20). It raised some eyebrows when the Gauchos were awarded a Regional host slot at a minor league ballpark in Lake Elsinore, more than 180 miles driving distance from their campus. In actuality, I think it helped Fullerton that Santa Barbara was awarded a host slot: how could you choose the team that finished three games behind the conference champions and lost the head-to-head series without also rewarding the champs?Memorial Day has become one of my favorite days of the year on the sports calendar: ESPN has the NCAA baseball bracket announcement show, followed by the college lacrosse championship game. I had been disappointed the previous weekend when my favorite team, Syracuse University (the #2 seed), had lost a classic 16-15 match against their unseeded arch-rivals, Johns Hopkins University, but I was nevertheless looking forward to the lacrosse championship game between Denver and Maryland.
The teams for the Fullerton Regionals were announced: Fullerton (1 seed); Arizona State (2 seed); Clemson (3 seed); and Pepperdine (4 seed). Arizona State thought they were a cinch to be awarded a host slots for the Regionals, so their fans were angry Sunday night when they found out they would be traveling – many assumed they would be heading to Lake Elsinore. They were even angrier on Monday that they learned their destination was Fullerton.They don’t “officially” seed beyond the top eight, but there is a “quasi” implied seed for the Super Regional pairings. Louisville was the #3 national seed, and the winners of the Fullerton and Louisville Regionals were matched in the next round (Super Regionals), so Fullerton was essentially the #14 seed.
UCLA was the #1 overall seed in the tournament and a heavy favorite to win it all. According to Boyd’s World calculations, they had a 91.0% chance of winning their Regionals (against Ole Miss, Maryland and CSU Bakersfield) and 21.1% chance of being NCAA champions. The next closest team was LSU (14.3%). While Fullerton had a 51.5% probability of winning its Regionals, they had just 0.7% likelihood of winning the championship. (FWIW: the eventual champions, Virginia, had just a 17.8% probability of winning the Lake Elsinore Regionals and 0.1% likelihood of winning the title. That made them a 999-1 longshot.)As conference champions, the Titans commanded the Big West Conference honors. Thomas Eshelman was named Pitcher of the Year; David Olmedo-Barrera earned Co-Player of the Year; and Rick Vanderhook was recognized as Coach of the Year. Joining Eshelman and DOB with first team all-conference honors were Peitzmeier, Vargas, Bravo and Chambers. Stieb earned second team honors, while Bryant and Gavin earned honorable mention.
Eshelman was also named second-team Louisville Slugger NCAA Division I All-American team, while Tyler Peitzmeier was named third-team All-American.The start of the Regionals brought some bad news: Josh Estill had become academically ineligible and was out for the rest of the season. Pinkston’s bat had heated up and he was playing very well defensively at first base, but Estill was a big power bat to protect DOB in the batting order, so his unavailability was a big concern, especially against the better teams in the tournament.
The Titans were clicking on all cylinders, but certainly the absence of Garza, Estill and Hurst was cause for concern heading into the postseason.
Scene 2: The Other ASU (Regionals, 2015)In a four-team double-elimination Regionals format, it is imperative to win the “hammer” game between the winners of the two first-round games: ASU/Clemson winner would face Fullerton/Pepperdine winner. Whoever wins the hammer game gets to sit back, rest its pitchers and needs only one more win to advance, while the loser of that game must bounce back and win three straight games the next two days, which puts an incredible strain on a pitching staff. Therefore, the selection of the starting pitching rotation is of paramount importance: there is a tradeoff between saving your ace for the hammer game vs. higher risk of getting knocked into the losers’ bracket right away if you don’t start your best pitcher in the first game. You can’t win the hammer game from the losers’ bracket, so you can’t get too risky with the opening game pitching strategy.
The Titans coaching staff opted to start the freshman lefthander Gavin in the opener against Pepperdine, saving Eshelman for a potential matchup against Arizona State.ASU opted to throw its ace, lefthander Ryan Kellogg, in the opening game against Clemson. You may recall Kellogg from the incredible pitchers’ duel he had with Justin Garza in the 2013 Super Regionals when both were freshmen. ASU beat Clemson, 7-4, to advance to the hammer game.
In the nightcap, the Titans staked Gavin to a quick 1-0 lead on first inning walk to Stieb, a single by DOB and an RBI single by Bravo. But the Waves took a 2-1 lead in the top of the third with a two-out rally. Gavin’s third walk of the game opened the door for three straight singles and two runs.Pepperdine’s lead was short-lived, as the Titans sent twelve batters to the plate in the bottom of the third and scored six runs to take a 7-2 lead, taking advantage of wildness by Pepperdine pitchers and poor defense. The first three Titans (Vargas, Stieb, DOB) walked, then Bravo was HBP: it’s never a good thing to allow a run and have bases loaded with no outs when there hasn’t been a ball put into play. From there, things got even uglier for Pepperdine. There were two more walks, two errors and another hit-batsman. The only hit in the six run uprising was an RBI single by Vaught.
Unfortunately, Gavin’s wildness continued and he was removed in the top of the fourth with two outs after hitting two more batters and allowing a single. Chambers replaced him and allowed a run to score on a bases-loaded walk, but escaped further harm.Tanner Pinkston hit an opposite-field double in the bottom of the sixth inning to give the Titans a lead of 9-3, which was the final score.
The Titans bullpen was stellar: after Chambers walked the first batter he faced, neither he, Gibbs or Hockin allowed another base-runner in 5.1 combined innings of work. The Titans had nine hits, led by Pinkston and Stieb with two each, and benefited from eight walks and three Pepperdine errors.This set up the hammer game matchup between the Titans and “the other ASU” – not the Alabama State University squad we lost to in the second game of the season, but the Arizona State Sun Devils, a long-time nemesis and winners of five national championships. With their five championships (1965, 1967, 1969, 1977 and 1981), ASU is one of just four teams with more championships than CSUF’s four: others are Southern California (12), LSU (6) and Texas (6). Arizona (4) is tied with Cal State Fullerton.
These are two legacy NCAA baseball programs that have had fierce competition for many years, and frankly may not really like each other very much, albeit with ASU being much more difficult to hate since Pat Murphy was fired. If you read/listen to interviews with Tracy Smith and follow her tweets, you’ll find her to be a very inspirational leader.The #21-ranked Titans came into the game riding a seven-game winning streak, facing #19 ASU. Since both teams were “home” in their first games (by virtue of higher seeding than their opponents), a coin toss determined that Fullerton was home team for the hammer game.
Things got off to a rocky start for Eshelman and his teammates, to the delirium of the large throng of ASU fans that traveled to Fullerton for the weekend. Leadoff hitter Johnny Sewald led off with a double, went to third on a wild pitch and scored when Kennedy’s throw to third base sailed away. It was 1-0 Sun Devils before the first out was recorded, and the four Titans fans seated in Section Anarchy had to listen to 400 screaming ASU fans packed in like desert sardines and pointing at us, shouting, “Scoreboard!” We knew we were in for a dogfight, but the 400 ASU fans in our section had no idea they would be drowned out by one fan: Superfan. It was an epic battle for turf and pride.ASU pitcher Seth Martinez retired the Titans 1-2-3 in the bottom of the fourth and Eshelman surrendered a solo home run in the top of the second to eighth batter in the Sun Devils’ lineup, Andrew Snow. The shouts from the ASU fans became deafening: “SCOREBOARD!!!!!”
Trailing 2-0, the Titans scored a run in the bottom of the second on a single by Pinkston, a groundout and an RBI single by Richards.After that, the Eshelman we’ve seen dominate opponents for three year reappeared and took control. ASU had a helluva team and had runners on base throughout the game, but Eshelman always came up with the big pitches when he needed them most. He also got some great support from the defense behind him and ahead of him (i.e., catcher A.J. Kennedy). As he had been all season, Kennedy was tremendous behind the plate this game.
ASU had a golden opportunity to add to their 2-1 lead in the top of the sixth. A leadoff double by ASU shortstop Colby Woodmansee was followed by an infield single that placed runners at the corners with no outs. Eshelman struck out the next two hitters, followed by a stolen base that put two men in scoring position. Eshelman won a great battle with designated hitter R.J. Ybarra and struck him out. Just when there was a chance for ASU to drive a nail through the heart of the Titans, Eshelman rose to the occasion and struck out the side.The pendulum shift towards Fullerton continued in the bottom of that inning. Bryant led off with a single and was sacrificed to second by Vargas. Stieb drove a single to left field, but Bryant had to stop at third base with the outfield playing shallow and the red-hot Olmedo-Barrera coming up next. Smith went to her bullpen to get a lefty to face DOB, who stroked a base hit into right field to tie the score, 2-2. DOB was gunned down trying to stretch it into a double on a great throw by ASU right fielder Trever Allen.
The ensuing innings were surreal. Including the three sixth-inning strikeouts, Eshelman retired eleven straight batters. Meanwhile, the Titans had a parade of ASU relief pitchers on the ropes, but the Sun Devils’ infield defense made numerous great plays to keep the Titans off the scoreboard. The Titans left the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, and stranded two in the ninth inning as the battle went into extra innings. By then it was nearing midnight and a damp marine layer had settled over the field.Eshelman left after 9.0 innings, notching 14 strikeouts while allowing two runs, seven hits and zero walks. With the MLB draft just ten days away, Eshelman threw an incredible 143 pitches. He threw more strikes (103) in the game than most guys throw total pitches. With the magnitude of the game, the Titans brought in their closer, Peitzmeier.
Peitzy immediately got into hot water in the top of the tenth when the first ASU batter he faced singled. With two outs after a sacrifice bunt and intentional walk, Trever Allen bounced a ball up the middle that seemed destined for center field, but Richards ranged far to his left to snare it and prevented the runner from scoring. Peitzy got out of the bases-loaded jam with a strikeout.After Peitzy had an easy 1-2-3 eleventh inning, the Titans had another chance to win it with two runners aboard but were snuffed by the ASU defense. Neither team got a runner on base in the twelfth inning. It was getting very late and chilly; the crowd began to thin out a little, but Superfan continued to amp up the volume out in Section Anarchy.
ASU had a mild threat in the thirteenth with a runner on first and two outs, but Woodmansee broke early trying to get into scoring position with a stolen base against backup catcher Hudgins (Kennedy had been removed for a pinch-hitter). He was out stealing, 1-3-6.Having already used five pitchers, Smith went to Eder Erives to start the bottom of the thirteenth inning. Erives hadn’t pitched in several weeks since being struck in the head by a ‘comebacker’ in a midweek game at New Mexico. Not only did Erives need to overcome the rustiness of not having pitched recently, but also the natural nervousness of taking the hill for the first time since his serious head injury. I thought it was very courageous for him to take the ball, and he pitched a scoreless thirteenth inning with just a tad of wildness: Pinkston was HBP.
Similar to his lengthy outing in the epic win at USC, you could just see that it was Peitzmeier’s game to win or lose. He retired the side in the fourteenth, his fifth inning of work. The roosters were starting to cock-a-doodle-do and the drunks were leaving the bars after last call and Ubering to Denny’s.Erives’ wildness put an end to this madness in the bottom of the fourteenth inning. Hudgins led off the inning and was hit-by-pitch, then sacrifice bunted to second by Bryant. Pick your poison: Vargas was intentionally walked to set up a double-play situation (i.e., baseball by the book in that situation where the second run means nothing), but it also brought DOB to the plate. Erives was nowhere near the plate and walked DOB on four pitches, bringing up Bravo with the bases loaded. He fake-bunted each time Erives came set, which might have jangled his juices: four straight pitches were far outside the strike zone and Hudgins scored the winning run on Bravo’s RBI walk-off walk. (Even though Bravo didn’t have a hit, his three walks extended his streak of reaching base safely to 40 games.)
It was somewhere around 1:45 a.m. when we finally got to turn to the few remaining ASU fans in our section and politely and quietly said, “Scoreboard.” I actually felt badly for the ASU team and their fans: the Devils had played a great game, the kind of gallant battle that neither team deserves to lose. Plus it put them in the awful situation of having to go back to their hotel for a short nap (assuming they could sleep after such a gut-wrenching loss) and come back to play an elimination game Sunday afternoon against Pepperdine with a depleted pitching staff after going through six pitchers and fourteen innings. (Okay, maybe I didn’t really feel that badly.)The Titans’ two All-American pitchers had combined to throw 215 pitches: 143 by Eshelman and 72 by Peitzmeier, posting a team season-high 20 strikeouts. It was truly one for the books. The win was the Titans’ first extra innings postseason win in 21 years, breaking a nine-game losing streak in such games.
Even though I didn’t leave the field until close to 2:30 a.m., I was too wired to sleep. I headed straight to Norm’s “We Never Close” for steak and eggs. You know you’re jacked up when you power slam coffee at 3 in the morning to settle your nerves so you can sleep.Aren’t tailgate parties great when you’re enjoying a leisurely afternoon while the team you barely beat a few hours earlier is inside fighting to stave off elimination? Louisville was dominating their Regionals, so the tailgaters knew it would be there final Goodwin Field gathering of the season (barring a Fullerton loss that night that would necessitate playing the “if necessary” game.)
In the elimination game, Pepperdine and ASU battled with what little pitching they had left in the tank. ASU took an early 2-0 lead; Pepperdine tied it up, 2-2, and then took a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth; ASU fought back with solo tallies in the sixth and seventh inning to tie it, 4-4; Pepperdine put up three runs after two outs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 7-4 lead; the ASU fans that showed up started heading towards Blythe; ASU never gave up and had the tying run at the plate twice in the ninth inning but couldn’t score against Wave closer Max Gamboa.To be honest, after that gut-wrenching imbroglio surrounded by ASU fans for five hours of battle-to-the-death the previous night, I think we were all happy to have a peaceful Sunday night matchup with Pepperdine. By the start of the Sunday night game, the ASU fans were somewhere east of Indio. (I wonder if they stopped at the General Patton Museum in Chiriaco Summit on the drive back to Tempe.)
The Titans had a well-rested Seabold ready to pitch, while Pepperdine had to go with Johnny All-Staff. The Titans scored once in the second inning on a double by Pinky and groundouts by Blaser and Richards. They made it 2-0 in the third inning when Vargas singled, stole second and scored on an RBI single by DOB. Four runs in the fourth inning gave the Titans a 6-0 lead and Pepperdine looked gassed. With the relaxed crowd singing a riff of the Who’s “Slip Kid,” Blaser started it off with a single and stole second base before scoring on an RBI double by Kennedy. Bryant walked, Vargas singled, Stieb hit a sacrifice fly and DOB crushed a two-run double down the right field line.Two more runs in the sixth inning made it 8-0 and we fiddled with our cell phones looking for flights to Louisville. The rally started with two outs when DOB was HBP, Bravo reached on an error which scored DOB, then Pinkston followed with an RBI single. Since it worked before, the anarchists sang the “Slip Kid” refrain when Blaser batted again and he got another hit: that’s how nicknames are born.
The final score was 10-1, with Seabold going 6.0 shutout innings and registering nine strikeouts. Gibbs, Hockin and Kuhl finished up: I was glad to see the senior Willie Kuhl out there to record the final out that advanced the Titans to the Super Regionals.Five Titans won All-Regional Team honors: Pinkston, Vargas, Olmedo-Barrera, Peitzmeier and Eshelman. The MVP of the Regionals was Eshelman for his epic outing in the hammer game.
According to the ISR-based probabilities calculated by Boyd’s World, the Titans had just a 37.8% probability of winning the series. The consensus around Louisville was that they recognized there was perhaps a 50% chance their team might lose the “Eshelman game” against their ace, Kyle Funkhouser, but they seemed to have 99% confidence that the Cardinals would win the “non-Eshelman games.”I took it as an omen when Rent-A-Wreck assigned me a cardinal-red car at the airport – but I wasn’t sure if it was a good omen or bad.
The Titans had already seen the Cardinals play three games in the opening weekend round-robin, and won their head-to-head matchup, so they were a familiar opponent. But that is a double-edged sword: not only had Louisville seen the Titans play three games, they had extra motivation to avenge that early-season defeat.For the Louisville coaching staff and fan base, there was also extra motivation to repay the beat-down the Titans had done on the red-Mohawk-clad Cardinals in the 2009 Super Regionals in Fullerton (combined 23-2 score). The Cardinals had won 11 straight NCAA tournament games at Jim Patterson Stadium (which was named after the founder of the Long John Silver’s restaurant chain) dating back to 2013, reflecting their great talent, fan support and familiarity playing on the artificial surface. Add to all those advantages that Brendan McKay, a freshman who hadn’t cracked the Louisville starting lineup when the two teams played in February, had emerged as a dominant force both offensively and as a pitcher for Louisville, so if anything, the 37.8% probability from Boyd’s calculations seemed high.
One more factor against the Titans: besides the jetlag from the flight to Kentucky (which is in Eastern time zone), the first game was scheduled at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to satisfy the capitalistic needs of ESPN. Make that 8:00 a.m. Pacific time – when the Titans’ body clocks had been adjusted to playing in the Hawai’ian time zone followed by numerous televised super-late night games in Pacific time zone.I always like to get to stadiums extra early to watch batting practice and pregame drills, especially if it is a stadium I’ve never been to before and need to acclimate to the lay of the land (e.g., parking, getting tickets from ‘will call’, etc.) It was disappointing to arrive two hours early for the opening game only to be informed that the gates would not open until one hour before game time. As much as I love the magnitude of tournament games, I dislike the way the NCAA and ESPN evil forces combine to make the fan experience far more restrictive than during the regular season. Last year, a matronly old one-armed woman in Stilly practically had Security perform body cavity searches on me because I brought a camera into the stadium – a violation that ESPN insists on rigorous enforcement – so this year I didn’t even try to take photos at any of the tournament games.
The Louisville fans were friendly and curious about people that would travel all the way from California to watch a college baseball game. Dating back to the Denny Crum era and now Rick Pitino, we tend to think of Louisville as a basketball school, but their success under Coach Dan McDonnell has created great interest in their baseball program. I was also struck by how deep-rooted was the venom between Louisville and University of Kentucky enthusiasts.One last bit of angst before game time: there was speculation that Miles Chambers’ availability was being determined on a day-to-day basis. Chambers had a great season and was rock-solid when the Garza injury and conversion of Seabold to the weekend rotation put extra burden on him and Peitzmeier. Boyd, are you really sure we have 37.8% chance of going to Omaha? It surely didn’t feel like it. It felt more like a 10/90% proposition, favoring Louisville.
Game 1 delivered the highly anticipated pitching duel between nationally elite aces Eshelman and Funkhouser, as the first five innings were scoreless. Although scoreless, there were runners on base in seven of the ten half-innings, but Eshelman and Funkhouser each came up with the big pitches when needed most. For instance, the second inning was dicey for both sides. In the top of the frame, Bravo led off with a single and with two outs, Richards reached when the first baseman was ruled to have come off the bag early on a groundball. Louisville coach McDonnell lobbied for and was granted a review by instant replay – the first time I had seen that happen in college baseball (but certainly not the last in this wild series. Even though the call was not overturned, the review broke the Titans’ momentum.) Kennedy smoked a line drive that the first baseman made a good leaping catch of, atoning for his error. Louisville loaded the bases in the bottom of the second with one out on two singles and – gasp! – a walk. But Eshelman struck out the next batter and induced a groundball to Bryant to get out of the jam.The Titans left two more runners on base in the third, the Cardinals left one.
The Titans finally plated the game’s first tally in the top of the sixth. With one out, DOB singled down the right field line. With DOB’s speed, he would have tried to stretch it into a double against most right fielders. But Louisville has the athletically-gifted Corey Ray in right field: he got to the ball quickly and has a howitzer arm, so it was held to a single. With two outs, Pinkston singled, placing runners at first and second. The Titans surprised the Cardinals with a double-steal before Blaser drove a base hit into right field to score DOB. Pinkston’s wheels vs. Ray’s arm just wasn’t a good bet, so he was held up at third and stranded.The lead was extremely short-lived: McKay, who was named Freshman of the Year by Baseball America and also won the John Olerud Award as the best two-way player in the country, drove a no-doubt-about-it home run to right field to tie the score, 1-1.
When DOB walked to start the top of the eighth, Funkhouser came out of the game, having thrown 121 pitches in 7.0 innings, allowing five hits and two walks while notching five strikeouts. DOB advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Bravo and to third on a wild pitch by reliever Lincoln Henzman, a member of the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team, bringing the infield in to protect against a potential squeeze play in this 1-1 tie game. The tension was palpable. Henzman struck out Pinkston, allowing the infield to return to normal depth. Blaser then delivered another clutch RBI single to give the Titans a 2-1 lead. He was replaced by pinch-runner Hunter Cullen, who scampered to third on a single by Timmy Richards but both runners were stranded when Henzman induced a groundout by Kennedy.Leading 2-1 and with Eshelman at 100 pitches on this hot, humid day after throwing 143 pitches in his prior start, the Titans went to closer Peitzmeier to pitch the bottom of the eighth. Eshelman had allowed eight hits to an outstanding Louisville lineup and struck out five. The entire lineup is capable – all nine starters got at least one hit in the game – but the 3-4-5 combo of Ray, McKay and catcher Will Smith is downright scary. Peitzmeier retired the meat of the order in 1-2-3 fashion in the eighth, leaving the Titans just three outs away from an opening game victory.
The Titans had a chance to add an insurance run in the top of the ninth when Stieb doubled with two outs, bringing the dangerous Olmedo-Barrera to the plate. Stieb has speed to burn and was already in scoring position, so it was quite a surprise when he was gunned down trying to steal third base and taking the bat out of DOB’s hands.So the Titans were just three outs away with Peitzy facing the 6-7-8 hitters. The first batter flied out to right field – two outs to go. But the hearts of the Titans Nation sunk when Louisville designated hitter Mike White hit a line drive home run to right field to tie the score, 2-2. When the ball was hit, it looked like it might not have the height to go over the wall, but it rose just enough to clear it and the home crowd was in a fever pitch. It was the first blown save of the season for Peitzmeier, who had previously converted all 16 save opportunities. The next batter was retired, but a two-out walk and single put the potential winning run in scoring position, but Peitzy induce a pop-up to get out of the inning.
Henzman retired DOB leading off the tenth, but Bravo followed with a walk. Pinkston then drove a base hit in the 3-4 hole into right field, but Bravo held at second. Cullen followed with a base hit in almost the identical location. Again Bravo was held up at third base in deference to Ray’s arm.With the bases loaded and just one out, it brought in Louisville’s dominant closer, Zack Burdi. This guy consistently reaches 98-100 mph on his fastball, so the Louisville crowd gets pumped just to watch his warm-up pitches. As Burdi warmed up, a slow-moving freight train crawled along the tracks behind the fence in right field. It’s really a very nice stadium and the freight train just added to the ambiance.
Richards stepped into the box – and was drilled in the shoulder on a 100 mph pitch from Burdi. The Titans had a 3-2 lead and Richards had a new nickname: “Boxcar Timmy.” Burdi blew away the next two batters with strikeouts to avoid further damage.Peitzy clearly did not have his best stuff this hot day, but he has the heart of a lion and he battled for all it was worth. He got the dangerous Ray leading off, but gave up a single to McKay, who was removed for a pinch-runner. Smith singled and put the potential tying run on second and winning run on first – more nervous moments. The next batter grounded to Bravo at third base, who was able to retire the middle runner on a force-out at second, leaving runners at the corners and White coming up – Tyler’s nemesis from the ninth inning. Peitzmeier won the battle this time, striking out White to complete the 3-2 win. It should have felt like joy, but it seemed more like relief.
Click here for the post game presser with Coach Vanderhook, Eshelman and Blaser.Whew! The Titans had been outhit (12-to-10) and out-homered (2-to-0), but the Titans played flawless defense and got clutch hits and clutch pitching when needed most. If there is one theme for the entire season, it is how hard the battle-tested Titans worked to improve after looking so awful at teams playing their brutal road warrior schedule. They didn’t handle the turf well at Indiana or Maryland, but improved a lot on the turf in Hawai’i and looked very good in the opener on Louisville’s FieldTurf™ surface.
As an added enhancement to a great day, after the game we got to walk a couple blocks away to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, to bet/watch American Pharoah go for the Triple Crown if he could win the Belmont. (Editor’s comment: it slays me that American Pharoah finished third in the 2015 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year voting, behind Stephen Curry and a golfer. While Curry and the golfer were the best at their sport in 2015, American Pharoah did something no athlete in his sport has ever done: won the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic. It wouldn’t even surprise me if Pharoah could beat Curry in a game of H-O-R-S-E.)I’ll spare you the painful details of the second game, which featured a pitching matchup between freshmen lefties Gavin for the Titans and McKay for the Cardinals. Gavin didn’t have his best stuff and was removed after 2.1 innings despite the score being tied, 1-1. Chad Hockin was bringing the heat but gave up a base hit to allow an inherited runner to score, making it 2-1 in the third.
The Cardinals blew the game open with four runs in the top of the sixth. Hockin and Gibbs were touched up for a single, two doubles, a home run, a walk and a wild pitch. The Cardinals coasted to an easy 9-3 win, and you could just feel the confidence within the stadium and around town the next day that the Cardinals were fated to make their third straight trip to Omaha. It wasn’t a question of “if” they would win the Monday night rubber game, but “how badly” would they beat the Titans.I guess there’s a reason why they play the games on the field.
A big part of the confidence was the starting pitcher for Louisville was their starting pitcher, sophomore lefthander Josh Rogers, had won eight straight decisions since his opening-weekend loss to the Titans and he was emotionally fired up to avenge that loss. He would be matched up with Titans’ freshman right-hander Connor Seabold.There was a question whether the weather would cooperate: rain was in the forecast for all day and night on Monday. It wasn’t a heavy rain, but it rained steadily throughout the day. With the extra day to kill, I went downtown and took the tour of the Louisville Slugger factory. As a baseball junkie, I’d say it is a “nice” tour: not a “destination” site worthy of making a trip there specifically to see it (as would be the case for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY), but certainly something you should check out if you’re ever in the area.
But the sun magically appeared about an hour before game time and the clouds went away. Play ball!Debunking the myth that he doesn’t hit well against quality left-handed pitchers, Olmedo-Barrera crushed a long home run to right field off Rogers with two outs in the top of the first inning. The ball landed in a coal car in the passing freight train and was later found at a power plant in Cayuga, Indiana.
When Connor Seabold took the mound for the bottom of the first inning, he was wearing number 49, rather than his customary 26. Great memories were stirred of Jason Windsor wearing 49 when he contributed so mightily to the 2004 championship. Was it an ingenious stroke of motivational psychology – or just a screw-up bringing the right uniform?Sutton Whiting led off the bottom of the second, but was gunned down by A.J. Kennedy trying to steal second base with two outs and McKay at the plate. It was the first of many vital defensive plays in the game.
The Cardinals threatened in the bottom of the second, putting two runners aboard on an error and a single, but Pinkston and Richards each made a nice play on hard-hit groundballs to get out scorelessly. Meanwhile, Rogers retired eight in a row after the DOB home run before DOB got to him again in the top of the fourth with a base hit, albeit one of the outs coming when Pinkston singled but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.The Cardinals tied the score in the bottom of the fourth. Seabold retired Ray and McKay, but Will Smith hit a home run to make it 1-1. Seabold was on the ropes when the next batter doubled, but escaped by retiring the dangerous Mike White.
Rogers was dominating through the middle innings, allowing no hits between DOB’s fourth-inning single and his stormy departure in the top of the eighth (more on that in a moment.) He speared a line drive up the middle off the bat of Bravo to end the sixth inning and celebrated excessively. Click here to see the line drive catch by Rogers and his butt shimmy before getting to his feet to gloat. It brought the SRO crowd of 6,010 to a fever pitch, but his emotional display also peeved the Titans.With the score still tied 1-1, Solak singled to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning for Louisville, and Peitzmeier was brought in to pitch to the left-handed Ray and McKay. But Peitzy plunked Ray with a 2-2 pitch and the buzzards were circling overhead.
With two runners on and no outs in a tie game, do you have slugger McKay bunt? It became a moot point when Kennedy tried to pick Solak off second and the throw got away, which allowed both runners to move up a base. McKay then crushed a ball deep to right-center field. Right fielder Dustin Vaught ran hard and “went Spidey” to make a sensational catch with his body halfway up the wall. Solak scored to give Louisville a 2-1 lead, and Ray advanced to third base.In another key play, Peitzmeier induced Smith to hit a slow chopper back to the mound. Ray hesitated and then broke for the plate. Peitzmeier ran towards him and tagged him for the second out as Smith easily advanced to second. But Smith made a wide turn and Peitz threw the ball to second baseman Bryant, who made the tag to escape without additional harm.
Leading 2-1, Rogers came out with his emotions at a zenith in the top of the seventh, retiring the Titans in order. He struck out Richards for the second out and then whiffed Pinkston for the third out. Instead of proceeding to his team’s dugout on the first base side, he moved towards the third base dugout and began gesturing at the Titans. Third base coach Chad Baum intercepted Rogers and got in his face, which riled up not only Rogers but the beer-swilling crowd.It reached pandemonium when Hook met with plate umpire Jeff Head seeking Rogers’ ejection for taunting. The huge crowd, which had been nice as pecan pie for two games and six innings, began to turn very surly. A couple local drunks even tried to get into the Titans’ dugout. Former Titans ace Wes Roemer was screaming his lungs out all weekend on behalf of his team, which the fans around him didn’t take kindly to by the third game. Our tiny section of seats in the two front rows to the left of home plate was soon surrounded by a phalanx of Louisville policemen to protect the Titans fans and dugout from the escalating emotions. Hats off to the Louisville police for maintaining order in what was becoming an increasingly tense and potentially dangerous situation.
Louisville third baseman Zach Lucas led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a single, one of his three hits on the night. McDonnell had Danny Rosenbaum pinch-hit for White – perhaps with intent to bunt. But it became moot when Lucas stole second and advanced to third and home on consecutive wild pitches by Peitzmeier. Although Peitz retired the next three batters, the Titans trailed by two runs, 3-1, and the delirious Cardinals fans were high-fiving and clicking on Expedia to reserve their rooms in Omaha.When Louisville took a 2-1 lead, I went through the first two stages of grieving the impending end of the season: denial and anger. I advanced to the third stage (bargaining) when Lucas stole second base: “Just leave him on base and I promise to….” When the insurance run scored to make it 3-1, I reached Stage 4: depression.
As we rolled into the top of the eighth inning, I was on the verge of the fifth and final stage: acceptance. I thought back to some of the darkest days of the season – I flashed back to the ox tail stew at Wool Growers in Bakersfield – and a feeling of pride and serenity came over me for how gallantly this team and coaching staff had overcome adversity and a hellacious schedule and made it this far. Louisville was a great team, Omaha-worthy and playing before a packed house of their rabid fans – I was coming to grips with defeat.But then something happened that lit a fire under everybody with an “F” on their hat or heart: Josh Rogers came out to the mound to begin the top of the eighth inning. He had a low pitch count (just 81 through seven innings) and was pitching great. It’s understandable why they wanted him to remain in the game, but wouldn’t you think his coaches and teammates would have taken him aside while Louisville was scoring its seventh-inning run and got him to chill out after his histrionics at the end of the sixth and seventh innings?
In hindsight, Louisville probably would have won the game if they pulled Rogers before the inning and brought in Henzman, the Freshman All-American set-up man ahead of closer Burdi. Rogers’ continued presence in the game gave the Titans a visceral spark. Every man in the visitors’ dugout was on the top step barking.Rogers threw two pitches in the eighth – one a foot over the head of pinch-hitter Chris Hudgins and the other off the backstop. McDonnell realized he wasn’t going to calm this kid down, so he brought in Henzman with a 2-0 count. Henzman retired Hudgins on a deep flyball to left field. But then the Titans placed two runners on base on a walk to Bryant and a single by Vargas. Jefferies pinch-hit for Stieb and struck out.
With Olmedo-Barrera coming up, Louisville brought in a lefty, Drew Harrington (3-1, 0.29 ERA, .102 opponent batting average). The Cardinals seemed intent to go after DOB, but a passed ball allowed both runners and opened up a free base to put DOB, who was then walked.With the bases loaded and the right-handed Bravo at the plate, McDonnell brought in his fire-balling closer, Burdi. The first two pitches were pure heat (98-99 mph) and Bravo couldn’t connect. Burdi continued to pound with his fastball, which Bravo barely contacted a couple times to foul them off and stay alive. Inexplicably, Burdi then came in with an 88 mph slider that Bravo drove through the 5-6 hole for a base hit. Bryant scored, with the speedy Vargas right behind him, and the score was tied, 3-3.
The stunned silence throughout the stadium was deafening.The reinvigorated Peitzmeier retired the top three men in the Louisville batting order in the bottom of the eighth. Burdi matched him with a 1-2-3 top of the ninth.
The Cardinals had a chance in the bottom of the ninth when Smith got a one-out single, and Lucas surprised the Titans with a bunt single. There was a deep flyball to right field that should have easily allowed both runners to move up, but they had a brain fart and held their bases. You could just feel the frustration of the Louisville fans: “Why didn’t they tag up?” It became moot when the next guy grounded out to Richards, with a nice scoop by Pinky on the receiving end.Burdi continued to pound the strike zone in the tenth inning and recorded an easy 1-2-3 inning.
The bottom of the tenth had to be gut-wrenching for the Cardinals. They needed just one run to earn their third straight Omaha trip, but they just couldn’t put away this scrappy group of Titans. Part of the success of closers is that batters rarely see them more than once in a game: the Cardinals were seeing Peitzmeier for the third time through their batting order in the tenth inning and still couldn’t put him away.The ninth batter in the Louisville line-up, speedy center fielder Logan Taylor, hit an 0-2 pitch left too close to the plate into right field for a base hit to start the bottom of the tenth. Whiting bunted to sacrifice the winning run into scoring position. Disaster nearly struck for Fullerton – catcher Hudgins air-mailed his throw way over the head of his 6-6 first baseman, Tanner Pinkston. It spelled disaster – as soon as he released the throw, everybody’s brain fast-forwarded to the winning run circling the bases as the throw bounced around in the right field corner.
The game and the season would have been over - except for the alert, hustling play of second baseman Taylor Bryant, who was in perfect position backing up the play. He caught the errant throw on the fly and prevented either runner from advancing.With two on and none out, the next batter, Solak, tried to bunt the runners over, but he popped it up to Hudgins for the first out. Still, the dangerous Ray and McKay combo were looming.
Peitzmeier induced a groundball to second base for a forceout, but there was no chance for a double-play. That brought Ray to the plate with second base open – a run that meant nothing. With Tyler in his fifth inning of work, I think the Titans might have intentionally walked the left-handed McKay and brought in the right-handed Chambers to face Smith, had he been at his peak. Instead they took their chances with Peitzy going after McKay.Then came the second heartbreak of the inning for Louisville: Peitzmeier threw a filthy pitch in the dirt that bounced through Hudgins’ wickets. It should have gone all the way to the screen and Taylor would have walked in with the winning run – except the ball struck the leg of umpire Head and the runners couldn’t advance. The crowd gasped. Titans fans looked at each other and said, “Can you believe this shit?”
McKay hit a groundball that Richards handled, sending the game to the eleventh inning. While Peitzmeier had just completed five innings on the mound, he had become used to that situation from the classic triumphs over USC and the other ASU. But Burdi was drifting into unfamiliar territory as he went to the mound to start the eleventh inning, having entered the game in the eighth: it would become the second longest outing of his career.Olmedo-Barrera led off for the Titans in the eleventh: a classic matchup of power vs. power. With the count 2-1, Burdi threw a fastball on the outside part of the plate. Anticipating the need to get on the pitch early, DOB was ready and hit a long opposite-field flyball slicing towards the left field foul pole. DOB put his head down and ran, intent on making it to third base in the event the ball bounced off the wall in fair territory.
But the ball cleared the wall as it was slicing towards foul territory – and umpire Heath Jones came up twirling his index finger to indicate that it was a home run. The Titans dugout went crazy, as did the players down in the bullpen close to where the ball had landed.McDonnell came out screaming and demanding that they review the play on instant replay. The four-man umpiring crew huddled up and discussed the call before getting on the headphones to ask for replay assistance. The review of the play seemed insufferably long. I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for DOB…or Vanderhook….or Burdi….or McDonnell…or, for that matter, Heath Jones, who made the call on the field. I’m told that replay calls were under the jurisdiction of a two-man umpiring crew based in Atlanta, but the lengthy delay had me believing the NCAA had outsourced the review process to India, and they were put on hold waiting for an answer.
When the review was completed, the umpires again twirled the index finger to uphold the home run call made on the field. The venom of the angry mob convened at Patterson Stadium shifted momentarily from the Titans throng to the umpiring crew. (From where I sat, I couldn’t see whether the ball was fair or foul. The players in the bullpen were adamant that they heard the ball just barely “ping’ the outside of the pole as it sliced away.) By the smallest of margins, the Titans had a 3-2 lead.You could see Burdi was pissed: he drilled Bravo with a fastball down around the ankles with his first pitch. Bravo was in excruciating pain and there was great consternation whether he could remain in the game. But Bravo is a tough player and refused to be taken out. Blaser followed with a single and Richards sacrificed both runners up a base, giving the Titans a golden chance to add an insurance run with two runners in scoring position.
Pinkston was walked intentionally to set up a double-play situation and a force play at every base. The strategy worked, as Hudgins hit a groundball, and Bravo was out on a force play at the plate. Burdi struck out Bryant to end the inning, but the Titans had a 3-2 lead going to the bottom of the eleventh.Peitzmeier had given the Titans a gritty outing of 5.0 innings, but gave way to an unexpected relief appearance by….Thomas Eshelman. Eshelman had made just one relief appearance in his career (in a meaningless game as a freshman when Garza and Esh split a game at UC Riverside to ease their workload just prior to the postseason.) He had thrown 100 pitches on Saturday and was awaiting his name to be called in the MLB draft…but he wanted the baseball. That defines Thomas Eshelman.
Knowing that taking pitches against Eshelman in hopes he misses the strike zone is an exercise in futility, Smith swung at the first pitch and hit an easy flyball to Vargas in left field. Lucas already had two singles and a double, but Esh got him on a swinging strikeout – one out from Omaha! Designated hitter Danny Rosenbaum hit an easy dribbler to third baseman Bravo, who was hobbled from the HBP but still fielded the ball cleanly – and bounced a bad throw that Pinky was unable to scoop off the carpet.It gave us a collective sinking feeling – déjà vu to the 2010 Super Regionals at UCLA.
Ryan Summers pinch-ran for Rosenbaum. The strategy seemed obvious. The batter was shortstop Devin Hairston – a good hitter, but not a big power threat. With the unlikelihood of getting two straight hits off Eshelman to score the tying run – and having already seen the Titans’ backup catcher air-mail a throw the previous inning – Summers took off to try to steal second base. Hudgins uncorked a perfect throw….Taylor Bryant caught the throw and had to wait at least a second for the runner to arrive and apply the tag. “Out!”It was one of the greatest sports thrills ever. Our small crowd was doing our own dogpile as the Louisville fans filed out of the stadium in total silence. The dogpile on the field was great, but I looked over at the coaches’ dogpile and saw pitching coach Jason Dietrich rolling on the ground in pain. He ruptured his Achilles tendon in the celebration.
Just about the moment the Titans joyously rushed the mound to dogpile Eshelman, his name was called as the 46th selection of the draft by the Houston Astros. What a great day for such a deserving young man!Here is a clip from NCAA.com of the game’s highlights.
Click here for the post-game presser with Fullerton’s Vanderhook, Bravo and Olmedo-Barrera; click here to see the post-game presser with Louisville’s McDonnell, Rogers and Smith. These are worth watching in entirety – they capture the feeling surrounding what was, win or lose, an instant classic. The raw emotion on the face of Rogers is gripping, and I appreciate how McDonnell went out of his way to note some of the great defensive plays made by Richards and Pinkston. I tip my hat to Rogers for having the courage to answer to the media at a most devastating personal moment. I also liked how genuine Hook was in expressing relief that the ball rocketed up the middle hit Rogers in the glove rather than in the face, recalling the horrific incident with the Maryland pitcher.Click here for a great article about the win in the Los Angeles Times. I especially enjoyed the quotes from Chad Baum. My favorite was what he was thinking to himself during the confrontation with Rogers: “Let the baseball gods take that kid where he needs to be taken.”
Unlike the Regionals, there is no MVP or “all tourney team” in the Super Regionals, but the Titans had no lack of heroes. Eshelman certainly stood out, battling Funkhouser and leaving with a lead in Game 1 and coming back two days later to save the title game was huge. Peitzmeier was the winning pitcher in Games 1 and 3 and gave the Titans a huge lift holding down the fort in the bullpen. Olmedo-Barrera batted .583 (7-for-12) against Louisville, with five runs, one double, two home runs and two RBI. But there were huge contributions from the entire lineup, without which the season would have expired. Blaser had the two huge RBI hits in Game 1. Richards took a 100 mph dose with the bases loaded to drive in the winning run, and played spectacular defense, as he had done for the last two months of the season. Bravo’s two-run single against Burdi to tie Game 3 was monstrous. Vargas, Stieb, Kennedy and Pinkston all had big moments. Taylor Bryant’s backup of the errant throw in the title game saved the season. The great catch made by Vaught climbing the wall on the long drive by McKay limited the damage to just one run in what could have been a decisive crooked-number inning in the finale. Hudgins’ throw to nail the attempted stolen base is an image that will last a long, long time. Although used primarily as a defensive specialist, Cullen contributed a huge hit in the tenth-inning rally that won the series opener. The spirit of the bench players was also vital and did not go unnoticed: is it coincidence the season turned around with the start of the water bottle celebrations in the dugout?While the fans, families and officials slept a few hours before flying back to California, the players got to sleep in and actually remained in Louisville for three days before flying to Omaha on Thursday morning. Having already crisscrossed the country five times (Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, Maryland and Kentucky) and the ocean once (Hawai’i), it was a welcome break for them to avoid a couple extra days of traveling back and forth. The Titans had logged nearly 14,000 air miles in 2015, but the ultimate road trip was yet to come: the Titans would be representing the United States at the World University Games in Gwanju, South Korea in July.
During that down time before heading to Omaha, Garza (Indians), Peitzmeier (Cubs), DOB (Rays), Kennedy (Padres) and Jefferies (Nationals) all joined Eshelman (Astros) as MLB draft selections. We wish them all the greatest success in their pursuit of the dream.There was one more bit of good news received the day before starting the College World Series opener: Eshelman and Olmedo-Barrera earned first team honors in the American Baseball Coaches’ Association/Rawlings All-America team.
Scene 4: Rain Delay (College World Series, 2015)This was the Titans’ first Omaha trip since the demolition of Rosenblatt Stadium and was my first opportunity to see the new downtown venue, TD Ameritrade Park. At the risk of being sacrilegious, I was never a big fan of Rosenblatt Stadium, but I did love the ambiance of the neighborhood where it was located and the confluence of college baseball fans from all around the country. While I missed being able to walk across South 13th Street to the Titan House, I liked everything inside the new stadium better than in the old, especially the large concourses and concession stands that handled large crowds with almost no waits.
It will be especially interesting at the 2016 CSW when beer and wine will be sold during the games at Ameritrade Park on a one-year pilot program. The NCAA suits can preach their phony virtues all they want - the end game is always how to make more money. It will be the height of hypocrisy if the NCAA requires the host facilities during Regionals and Super Regionals to cover up any in-stadium advertising for adult beverages while selling beer and wine in Omaha. They should just stop all that silly nonsense.There is a big difference in how each of the fields plays in terms of home runs and scoring: the ‘blatt was probably too cozy and conducive to long balls, while home runs became almost obsolete at Ameritrade Park when it made its CWS debut in 2013 (the year UCLA won the championship with pitching and defense and just enough offense.) But with the flat-seamed balls introduced in 2015 throughout NCAA Division I, the number of home runs during the CWS increased substantially: I think they are pretty close to the “right” balance without altering the playing field dimensions.
The Titans were matched up with the defending champions, the Vanderbilt Commodores, in their opening game. The other two teams in the bracket, TCU and LSU, played the afternoon game on Sunday. While I have some great friends in Louisiana and will always appreciate the hospitality of the LSU fans from our visit there a few years ago, I’ll always root for Kirk Saarloos’ team (except when they play the Titans, of course), so I was happy to see the Horned Frogs put a 10-3 beating on the Tigers.The Titans and Commodores had never played an official game before, having met only in a couple fall scrimmage games a couple years earlier. On paper – even with Eshelman pitching for the Titans – the Commodores seemed heavily favored. Their starting pitcher was Carson Fulmer, a high first round selection in the MLB draft and with a record of 13-2, and 1.82 ERA in 114 innings pitched, including 152 strikeouts and opponents’ batting average of just .182. The ‘Dores were a combination of speed and power: they came in batting .295 as a team, with 66 home runs and five players with twelve or more stolen bases. Add to that their familiarity with playing at TD Ameritrade Park and the experience gained in winning the 2014 championship, they were certainly a formidable opponent, led by shortstop Danby Swanson, who came in batting .350, with 15 home runs, 62 RBI and had been the first selection in the recent MLB draft.
But the Titans had a striking equalizer: Eshelman.Both aces looked good right out of the box, with Fulmer retiring the side in order in the first and second innings, while Eshelman surrendered a harmless two-out single in the bottom of the second.
My buddy Nathan kept looking at his cell phone every ten minutes or so and tried me to get to look at some Doppler map, but I’m impossible to talk to when the Titans are playing. He tried to show me an intense pattern of cumulonimbus clouds heading directly at us, but I would have none of it. Red skies at night, sailors delight…..right?For all his experience and accomplishment, Fulmer looked momentarily rattled in the top of the third. Richards led off with a walk and advanced to second on a balk by Fulmer. Kennedy sacrifice bunted him to third. Even though it was only the third inning and scoreless, Vandy played their corner infielders in, which I thought showed great respect for Eshelman. Bryant followed with a line drive up the middle for an RBI single that gave the Titans a 1-0 lead.
Fulmer added two wild pitches to his walk and balk that inning, but retired the Titans without more scoring.Vandy had a mild threat in the bottom of the third with a single and a stolen base, but Eshelman struck out the dangerous Rhett Wiseman with the tying run at third base, with Swanson in the on-deck circle.
Fulmer regained his control and carved through the Titans’ 3-4-5 hitters in the top of the fourth: he struck out the side. Eshelman reciprocated in the bottom of the frame, retiring the Vandy 3-4-5 hitters, albeit without strikeout.The Titans struck for two runs in the top of the fifth to take a 3-0 lead – another rally started by a walk to Richards. Kennedy doubled down the left field line, giving the Titans two runners in scoring position with just one out. This time, the Vandy infield played in all around. But Fulmer struck out Bryant to register the second out, with leadoff man Josh Vargas coming up.
Before Vargas had a chance to complete his at-bat, Fulmer bounced a pitch to the screen, scoring Richards on a wild pitch to make it 2-0. Just for good measure, Vargas delivered a single to right field to drive in Kennedy with the Titans’ third run. We were all screaming and hollering – Nathan was high-fiving with one hand and tracking cumulonimbus clouds with the other.In the bottom of the fifth, freshman Jeren Kendall hit a double for the ‘Dores, but Eshelman was equal to the task with two infield pop-outs and a strikeout.
Off in the distance, we saw a few lightning bolts, but there was no rain and the visible sky was still mostly blue. But according to Nathan and that Doppler app on his cell phone, things were about to change.Fulmer continued to labor in the sixth inning. He gave up a one-out double to Olmedo-Barrera but retired Bravo and Pinkston to get out of the inning, still trailing 3-0 and with his pitch count at 104.
The air was still calm as Eshelman faced the top of the Commodores lineup in the bottom of the sixth. Wiseman delivered a one-out double, but Eshelman struck out Dansby for the second out. Wiseman advanced to third base on a passed ball with cleanup hitter Zander Wiel at the plate. The count went to 3-2…..then word came down to field from NCAA officials to stop play immediately because of lightning within eight miles of the stadium – an NCAA rule. Not a drop of rain had fallen at the stadium, and there looks of confusion and despair everywhere.One of the first reactions from the Titans’ cheering section was, “Great! This is an official game – past the fifth inning – so I hope it pours like crazy and we win, 3-0.” Ummmm….it doesn’t exactly work that way.
The ground crew at TD Ameritrade Park quickly covered the infield with the tarpaulin. Even after they finished covering the field, it was probably another ten minutes before the rain arrived. But when it arrived….holy cow, did it pour! I’ve lived in Texas and seen a few great rainstorms in my travels – this one was right up there with the deluge we saw at Texas A&M in 2012. It was an intense thunderstorm.Just as there are stages of dealing with grief, I discovered there are stages of dealing with rain delays. The first step is to look at your watch and try to figure out how quickly the game would need to resume for there to be any chance of Eshelman returning to the mound. After all, he had only thrown 89 pitches, and we’ve seen this warrior throw 143 pitches and barely break a sweat.
When you get past the point of any chance of Eshelman returning to the game, thoughts shift towards whether or not it favors your team to resume play that evening after a lengthy delay or if it would be better served suspending the game to the next day. The Titans still had momentum, so it seemed like the former was the better option.But Mother Nature would have none of it. It poured like mad and there were no breaks in the storm – it kept just coming down harder and faster. The delay began at 9:22 p.m. CST and the game was officially suspended at 10:41 p.m., set to resume the following morning at 11:00 a.m. (there were still two games to be played the next day in the other bracket, hence the early starting time.)
Moving from the stadium during the rain delay to the bar next door, and then from the bar to the car, we got drenched to the bone. My mind had flashed forward to the next stage: “How many days in a row do we need it to keep raining to get Eshelman ready to finish the game?”It was haunting that they called it with a 3-2 count and nary a drop of rain in the sky and the last flash of lightning off in the distance at least ten minutes ago. If only Esh had been able to complete the at-bat by Wiel….
It was treacherous driving back to the hotel: the roads were like lakes and visibility was non-existent. With all the lightning, I really didn’t need the headlights as I hydroplaned back to the EconoRoom motel.It rained all night and was still raining in the morning, albeit at nowhere near the intensity of the initial storm. Word spread that the time of game resumption had been pushed back to 2:00 p.m. – weather permitting – and that Titans fans were bade to wear the same “lucky” clothes they had worn the night before. I threw everything into the dryer for an hour – and they were still too wet to wear. Seven months later, my sneakers are still damp from that storm. That’s how hard it rained!
There ought to be a rule that, in a situation like that, the teams need to wear their same uniforms when play resumes. With every team having several sets of uniforms worn in various combinations, it is often left to the choice of each game’s starting pitcher as to what will be worn, especially if it is a quality pitcher. For example, the Titans wore the orange jerseys for all fifty starts made in Eshelman’s career. Similarly, Vanderbilt wears those horrid black pants and jerseys with gold pinstripes whenever Fulmer pitches – you know, the ones that look like the bad pajamas you had to wear as a kid because they were a birthday present from Grandma and you didn’t want to hurt her feelings. The Commodores changed their karma by reappearing wearing their classy white pinstriped uniforms. I had a bad feeling the minute I saw that. I felt a lot better about beating the guys in pajamas.As the fans trickled back into the stadium, speculation was rampant: who would be on the mound when play resumed? The suspended game had wiped out the scheduled off-day, so you really didn’t want to have to bring in your closer in the sixth inning, even though Peitzmeier had excelled in that situation so many times already. It was an ideal situation for Miles Chambers, but he hadn’t pitched since the first game of the Regionals seventeen days earlier, so you didn’t know how well he was feeling or how he would pitch after an extended layoff.
The ball was handed to sophomore Chad Hockin, who had a very good season and would later star in the Cape Cod summer league. It was a tough spot for him to be in, inheriting a 3-2 count with no margin of error, so he went with his best pitch: fastball.Wiel was looking for a fastball and he drilled it for a double to drive in Wiseman, making it 3-1. Hockin walked the next man but struck out the following ‘Dore on three pitches, limiting the damage to just one run.
John Kilichowski came out of the Vanderbilt bullpen to replace Fulmer and he delivered an outstanding performance – perhaps the key to the reversal of fortunes. He retired the Titans on just a walk in the seventh and 1-2-3 in the eighth.Meanwhile, Peitzmeier entered the game in the bottom of the seventh and looked great: a strikeout, groundball back to the mound and a foul-out to first base. He continued strong in the eight: another easy 1-2-3 inning.
The Titans threatened to add an insurance run in the top of the ninth when Bravo singled and advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Pinkston. But closer Kyle Wright came in and snuffed the potential rally. The Titans were clinging to their 3-1 lead heading to the bottom of the ninth. My breathing was starting to become normal again and my blood pressure had fallen to 150 over 115, so I was feeling better about things.Wiel hit a gapper to right-center field starting the ninth inning – that dude can swing the bat! Pietzmeier struck out the next batter, bringing up the sixth man in the batting order, center fielder Bryan Reynolds, who dropped a ball perfectly just inside the left field line for a double, scoring Wiel to make it 3-2.
Up comes that freshman, Jeren Kendall. After a brief conference on the mound to discuss the pitching and defensive strategy, Pietzmeier went to work. The “book” on Kendall was that he was strong and had a great swing, but was vulnerable to left-handed pitching. Peitzmeier started him off with a fastball and came back with a slider. It was a pretty good pitch – but Kendall handled it perfectly and launched a deep drive to right field. Vaught ran back as far and fast as he could, then he stood limp as the ball sailed over the fence for a walk-off home run.
It was a horrible feeling. I don’t think there is anybody on either side that thought the Titans would lose the game had the rain delay not occurred. My only form of self-consolation was to look back at all the crazy good luck the Titans had benefited from just to get to this point and accept that this time the bad luck of having that thunderstorm interrupt the game had finally worked against us.Click here for post-game coverage from Vanderbilt perspective.
There was little time to regroup before facing another outstanding SEC team in an elimination game the following day. The LSU Tigers also had an outstanding starting pitcher, SEC Freshman Pitcher of the Year Alex Lange, who came in with a record of 11-0. Seabold moved up to the second rotation for the Titans, ahead of Gavin, based on his outstanding work in the clinching games against Pepperdine and Louisville. The Tigers also had an outstanding shortstop: Alex Bregman was the second pick of the 2015 MLB draft (Astros), behind only Vanderbilt shortstop Danson. The Titans knew it wasn’t going to get any easier.Bregman began the game with a single for LSU, the designated visiting team, but Seabold retired the next three hitters and notched a first-inning zero.
The Tigers had lost badly to TCU in their opening game, 10-3, and were back on their heels when the Titans came out smoking in the bottom of the first. Stieb got it going with a one-out single and scored when Olmedo-Barrera scorched a triple. Bravo followed with an RBI single to drive in DOB and make it 2-0. Pinkston notched the third consecutive hit, a single to right field that sent Bravo to third, where he scored on a squeeze bunt by Blaser to give the Titans an explosive 3-0 lead. Richards walked and the LSU bullpen began to stir. Lange settled down and retired Kennedy to avoid further damage.Seabold battled through a scoreless second inning, allowing two singles and a wild pitch. Lange looked like a different pitcher in the second, putting the Titans down in order.
The Tigers fared much better the second time through the order against Seabold. Bregman, Jake Fraley and Kade Scivicque all singled to cut the Titans’ lead to 3-1. Seabold struck out the cleanup hitter but departed after allowing an RBI single to Chris Sciambra that made it a 3-2 game, replaced by Miles Chambers.Chambers was greeted by a sacrifice fly that made it a 3-3 tie game. Two straight singles followed and LSU had taken a 4-3 lead. It was a bright sunny day, the ball seemed to be carrying well and it had the feeling it might be one of those crazy 14-12 games.
But Lange changed that script.From that point on, Lange was dominant. After allowing three runs on four hits and a walk in the first inning, Lange allowed just two singles and a walk the rest of the way. He struck out ten Titans in throwing a complete game victory, 5-3.
Chambers battled hard to keep it close, throwing 4.0 innings and allowing just one run. Maxwell Gibbs also contributed 2.0 scoreless innings, while Hockin finished it out by retiring both LSU hitters he faced. Lange simply pitched a great game, and was supported by several good plays by shortstop Bregman and right fielder Mark Laird, who had three hits and robbed Tyler Stieb of an extra-base hit. Bregman led LSU’s 13-hit attack with four singles; Bravo and Pinkston each had two of the Titans’ six hits.(Editor’s note: Later in the summer, I saw Bregman and J.D. Davis playing for the Lancaster JetHawks. Bregman made some outstanding defensive plays at shortstop when I saw him. The Astros have a young and exciting team. I would love to see Bregman playing second base and J.D. at third, flanking the Astros’ gifted shortstop, Carlos Correa, in a couple years.)
Just like that….it was over. The journey that had begun on a bitterly cold night in Tampa, Florida had ended on a hot, humid day on Omaha, Nebraska. It wasn’t the way we wanted the story to end, but it was one helluva ride.
These are my random thoughts and observations:
* This was a fun season! With a strong pitching staff and a bunch of position players really good at a couple things but lacking the five-tool superstars of past years, it took a lot of juggling and shifting of roles before everything clicked – but once it clicked, it was a beautiful thing to witness. Kudos to Rick Vanderhook and the entire coaching staff for having the persistence and perspicacity to put this jigsaw puzzle together so that they peaked at the right time of the year.
* The career performance of Thomas Eshelman from 2013 through 2015 certainly merits his inclusion in the discussion about “best ever” pitchers in Fullerton history. There is no definitive answer, especially considering how rules governing both bats and baseballs have changed so dramatically over the years: you can’t use numbers alone to compare pitchers or hitters today vs. players from the “gorilla ball” era. Nevertheless, Eshelman’s numbers are mind-boggling. This was analyzed in great detail in the first part of this recap series: click here. (If the link doesn’t bring you to the Eshleman analysis, scroll back to June 19, 2015 on this Facebook page.)
* Jason Dietrich did a phenomenal job with this pitching staff, especially considering the need to replace the 2014 contributions of Grahamm Wiest, Koby Gauna, J.D. Davis and Phil Bickford, as well as the late-season injury loss of Justin Garza in 2015. Click here to read the second part of this recap series, posted June 26, 2015, which provides a detailed comparison of the 2014 pitching staff and how each of the roles was handled in 2015. Be sure to click on each of the images: that is where the “meat” of the analysis is. It’s pretty nerdy, but interesting to see just how well the freshmen pitched, as well as how well several returning pitchers successfully stepped into bigger roles.
* We saw some outstanding players on opposing teams this season. When you look at the 2015 All-American team, the MLB draft and the 2016 Preseason All-American teams, there are a lot of names of great players we saw in 2015.
The role of the Friday starter inherently means facing the other team’s ace, but consider the guys Eshelman went up against this year: Cal Quantrill (Stanford), Dillon Tate (UC Santa Barbara), Mike Shawaryn (Maryland), Kyle Funkhouser (Louisville) and Carson Fulmer (Vanderbilt). Tate, Fulmer and Funkhouser were all first-round selections in the 2015 MLB draft (fourth, eighth and thirty-fifth selections respectively). Quantrill had been projected as a high selection in the 2016 draft but had Tommy Johnson surgery a month after facing Fullerton. But the best game pitched against us last year, in my opinion, was by Maryland’s Shawaryn, who is a Louisville Slugger preseason All-American for the upcoming season. Mark your calendar to be at Goodwin Field in 2016 when he pitches.
* Based on pure subjective feel and opinion, here are my top ten favorite games of the year.
1. Game 3 of Super Regionals: Titans beat Louisville Cardinals in eleven innings to advance to Omaha. This game had it all: home runs, great pitching, huge defensive plays, verbal confrontations, lengthy review by replay umpiring crew, dumb luck, and – best of all – it ended with a Titans dogpile.
2. “Hammer game” in Regionals: Titans beat Arizona State in fourteen innings to take command of Regionals at Fullerton. Both teams had great pitching and made some amazing defensive plays. It is a bitter legacy rivalry between these two great programs, so any time we see Arizona State go away sad, it is a good feeling.
3. The twelve inning win at USC when the Titans looked dead, had two coaches booted out of the game and faced a team that was 25-0 leading from the seventh inning on. The team showed an intensity level not previously on display – I loved it when Vargas scored from second on a groundout to tie the game and Richards added an insurance run scoring from second on a wild pitch. I debated making this my #1 game because without the spark that came from this game, the rest of this wonderful journey might never have happened.
4. The ten-inning win in the first game of the Super Regionals certainly ranks high. I think we tacitly understood that if we lost the opening game that Eshelman pitched, there was little likelihood of beating the Cardinals two straight.
5. One of my “sleeper” picks is the ten-inning win in the final game to avoid a sweep at Maryland. The Titans had lost the games started by Eshelman and Garza and were facing an excellent team: the Terrapins later won their Regionals as a #4 seed against UCLA, the overall #1 seed in the country, by beating them two-out-of-three games head-to-head at Jackie Robinson Stadium. As badly as the Titans played the first two games, they could have easily let it slip away and get swept on the road by a B1G Conference opponent, as had recently happened at Indiana. But Gavin stepped up big-time and Bryant got the big hit that led to his elevation to being the team’s primary starter at second base.
6. For #6, let’s go with the opening game of the UC Santa Barbara series: not so much for the merits of the game itself, but for the magnitude of the outcome. Not only was it the pitching matchup between Eshelman and Tate, but UCSB was the odds-on favorite to win the BWC and were ranked #7 in the Baseball America rankings (ranked #6 by NCBWA). The Titans had lost the 2014 series at Santa Barbara and the wheels came off the bus on the long trip back to campus. The Gauchos had won every road series to that point, as their press release crowed: “Should UCSB win its series against CSF and lowly UC Riverside this month, the program will go undefeated in road series for an entire season for the first time in program history.” Guess what – they lost the series to both CSF and lowly UC Riverside. Had UCSB won the series and rode momentum to the conference title, Fullerton would probably still have been invited as an at-large bid but not as a Regionals host team. Who knows what would have happened had they been sent somewhere….like ASU or UCLA? Eshelman outpitched Tate and the rest was history.
7. The rubber match of the UC Irvine series was a game that could have gone either way, but Bryant had his second consecutive Sunday game with a clutch home run and Seabold had a breakout performance. Connor had already impressed with his first career start earlier against Pepperdine, but this was a much bigger stage: facing an outstanding lineup in a deciding game in a “must win” conference series. The coaches’ confidence in him was displayed by allowing him to stay in the game and record the save, with Chambers and Peitzmeier having combined to throw 5.0 innings the previous night. He provided a huge pick-me-up for the pitching staff.
8. The road win in April against the University of San Diego Toreros came at a good time. The Toreros had kicked the Titans’ butts in the earlier game at Goodwin Field, so this was a nice payback. The Toreros’ hitting completely impressed me in the two games combined, so it was a nice lift from the bullpen trio of Chambers, Gibbs and Peitzmeier to combine for 7.2 innings and allowing just one run in that span. Did I mention earlier that I take double enjoyment whenever I see Rich Hill lose?
9. Let’s just lump the consecutive sweeps of Big-12 foes Baylor and Texas Tech as one impressive set of outcomes when the Fullerton team had yet to find its footing. Both of those teams arrived with gaudy credentials and were outplayed by the Titans.
10. To finish out the list, let’s go with the win over Louisville in the final game of the opening weekend after losing to South Florida and ASU (Alabama State University). It was such an about-face: the team looked docile at the plate in the first couple games, taking a lot of pitches and striking out 27 times. But on Sunday against Louisville’s Rogers, the team came out swinging at first pitches and playing aggressively. Some of the new faces in the lineup made good impressions that day – most notably Estill, Vaught and Hudgins.
* Here is a fascinating tidbit on the top three games of the year. Besides the fact that Titans won each game – what would you expect? – those three games have several other things in common. First, the Titans trailed in each game, which made victory more dramatic. But in each game, closer Tyler Peitzmeier went at least five innings and was the winning pitcher in all three games. In the Louisville clincher, the Regionals win over the other ASU and the win at USC, Peitzmeier pitched 15.2 innings combined, allowing eight hits, one run (earned) with three walks and fourteen strikeouts: his ERA was 0.57 and his record was 3-0 in those games. If a closer goes 5+ innings once in a season and wins a big game, it is memorable; when he does it in the three biggest wins of the season, it is legendary. Peitzy was also the winning pitcher in the fourth biggest game (again, ranked strictly by my opinion) of the season, albeit without the extended number of innings as in the top three.
* I hope the BWC eventually breaks the cycle of Fullerton playing the four best opponents (Cal Poly SLO, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State) at home in odd-numbered years and away in even-numbered years. The schedule always used to rotate the series so that any year there was a road trip to SLO, we played Santa Barbara at home; it would flip-flop the following season. But after the fiasco where San Diego State was going to join the Big West Conference but then backed out, we ended up going to SLO two straight years (2013 and 2014) and got locked into the current rotation. Playing the BWC’s elite teams at home in 2013 and 2015, the Titans easily won the conference title, but finished fourth-place in 2014 when we played them all away. I don’t think scheduling should create a cycle of feast or famine.
* The switch to the flat-seamed baseball by the NCAA attained its intended effect of increasing home runs, which increased nationally by 38% in 2015 vs. 2014. The increase for the Titans was 25% - the team increased from 16 home runs in 2014 to 20 in 2015. With DOB (10 home runs) playing exclusively as DH in postseason and Estill (5 bombs) ineligible, none of Titans playing corner infield or corner outfield positions in the tournament hit a home run in the entire 2015 season. I doubt any other team in the country could have advanced so far using that same recipe.
* My iPod tracks my 25 most listened-to tracks. It got a lot of usage with all the long trips this season. My Top 25 during the season included most of the usual suspects: Doors, Who, Killers, Depeche Mode, REM, Bob Dylan, Aztec Two-Step, Cars, Bloodhound Gang, Guess Who, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Harry Nilsson and Violent Femmes. But the most-played track of the season: Citizen Cope’s “Let the Drummer Kick” – although up until the Hawai’i trip, I thought the recurring lyric was “Let the drama kid die.”
* One of my favorite personal moments during this season happened near the end of a 19-0 blowout win at UC Riverside when Hook sent pitcher Shane Stillwagon to the plate to pinch-hit. He ripped the first pitch thrown to him over the third base bag for a single – an easy double if the score wasn’t lopsided. Shane is a consummate Titan and had just gone through a difficult family situation, so I found it an extraordinarily touching moment. Very classy move by Hook to give him that opportunity. In a season with an ocean of great memories, the smile on Stilly’s face when he got that hit just might be the image I remember best.
Lastly, I’d like to thank the many people I’ve met along the journey that make following Titans baseball such a great joy. With the risk of overlooking somebody quite dear to me, I won’t list names, but I cherish the camaraderie shared with the players, coaches and their families and friends; with members of the CSUF athletics department, who work their butts off to enrich the overall experience; with fellow baseball fans, whether at home games or on the road.Thank you for reading, and I look forward to sharing another great season of Titans baseball with you in the very near future.