Saturday, March 14, 2009

All Good Things Must End


By Don Hudson

STILLWATER, Okla. -Throughout their eleven game winning streak, the Cal State Fullerton Titans won as a team: an explosive offense with speed and power; steady and oftimes spectacular defense; and solid pitching that got the big outs whenever needed. The Titans winning streak came to a crashing halt Saturday evening by a score of 10-6 to the Oklahoma State Cowboys, in a game played at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium in Stillwater, OK. Indeed, this outcome was a team effort, as several of the steadiest strengths of the team had the inevitable off night.

Throughout the winning streak, the Titans demonstrated that good teams take advantage of every mistake made by their opponent and go for the jugular when the other guy gives them an opening. Last night, the shoe was on the other foot: Fullerton was the team making the mistakes and Oklahoma State was the team meting out the punishment. Aided by four Titans errors (and a couple more which could have been ruled errors), the Cowboys offense exploded with a power barrage that included nine extra-base hits.

The visiting team Titans jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning when Gary Brown led off with a walk, advanced on a groundout and scored on an RBI single by Josh Fellhauer. Kyle Witten pitched a strong 1-2-3 first inning.

Nick Ramirez led off the second inning with a home run. The third run of the game scored that inning: Tony Harkey singled and advanced to third on a double by Joe Scott. After Gary Brown was hit by a pitch, Christian Colon hit a groundball to the shortstop, who hesitated just slightly in tossing the ball to second, allowing the speedy Brown to beat the throw and giving Fullerton a 3-0 lead.

After another strong inning by Witten, the Titans squandered an opportunity to break the game open early. Jared Clark and Khris Davis had singles and a double steal, but strikouts by Harkey and Garneau left them stranded in scoring position.

The Cowboys showed they were not going to be pushed around, as Michael Dabbs blasted a two-run homer to cut the Fullerton lead to 3-2 in the bottom of the third inning. However, the Titans responded immediately with two runs in the top of the fourth on a Brown single, an RBI double by Colon and an RBI single by Clark, giving the Titans a shortlived 5-2 lead.

Witten gave up a couple hits in the fourth inning, but struck out the side and posted a zero. Ninth-place hitter Tyrone Hambly doubled to lead off the fifth inning and later scored on a sacrifice fly which made the score 5-3.

Josh Fellhauer homered in the fifth inning to give CSUF a 6-3 lead. Comfortable? Not at this ballpark, on a night in which neither temperature nor wind would be a factor (unlike Friday night).

The roof caved in for Witten and the Titans in the last of the sixth inning. Doug Kroll led off with a double before the turning point in the game. Neil Medchill skied a foul ball that looked like it might stay in play in front of the OSU dugout. Garneau camped under it, with Brown hovering in the area. The ball seemed to come back farther than he had judged and popped out of Garneau's glove for an error that extended the at-bat. Two pitches later, the lefthanded-hitting Medchill crushed one that turned the three-run lead into a narrow 6-5 edge.

Dean Green followed with a single and was forced out at second on a nice play by Brown on an attempted sacrifice bunt. The ninth-hitter, Hambly, then crushed a monster home run that gave the Cowboys their first lead of the night, 7-6. Exit Witten, enter Jason Dovel, who promptly plunked the first batter he faced. One out later, with Travis Kelly on the mound for Fullerton, Kevin David hit a sizzler past Clark into right-field for an RBI double and an 8-6 lead.

The inning gave the Cowboys and their small but partisan crowd a huge adrenaline injection. Pitcher Tyler Lyons seemed to be throwing harder in the seventh inning than early in the game. He threw easy 1-2-3 innings in the seventh and eighth innings.

Things really came unglued for the Titans defensively in the eighth inning after Kelly retired the first batter. The second batter up (Hambly) struck out, but the ball eluded Garneau momentarily and his throw to first base struck Hambly in the back for Garneau's second error of the evening. After Hambly was forced out at second base, the third out eluded the Titans when Joe Scott's feet slipped from under him and he booted a groundball. Kyle Mertins relieved Kelly, who pitched pretty well considering the defensive lapses, and walked Kevin David to load the bases. Tom Belza then hit a soft fly towards left-field that Harkey charged well, got to - and couldn't hold on to. It was ruled a double and the lead was stretched to 10-6. (So much for getting a runner aboard and bringing the tieing run to the plate in the ninth inning.)

Closer Randy McCurry struck out the side (sandwiched around a Fellhauer single) in the ninth inning to end the streak.


So what did we learn last night?

First, we learned that the host team has a distinct advantage in a three-team round robin tournament format. When each team plays the other teams twice, wouldn't you expect every team to be home once and visitors once against each opponent? The deck was stacked so that OSU was the home team in both games against Fullerton.

In Tyler Lyons and Andrew Oliver, the Titans faced two of the country's premier lefthanded starting pitchers and posted fourteen runs in the two games: it us tough to score an average of seven runs a game against quality pitchers like that and only get a split. However, it is a good indicator of the offense's capability to hit elite pitching, not just score a pile of runs against weaker arms.

It would be a misstatement to call home plate umpire Ben Harlow a "homer"; he was absolutely dreadful calling pitches for both teams. The guy was so bad that it kind of evened out, but it seems that some of the biggest Cowboys' hits happened after an apparent third strike was called a ball. I guess an umpire is fair if both teams thought he sucked, but isn't a good umpire supposed to be the guy you hardly even notice he is on the field?

Sunday's opponent, URI, has taken two beatings from the superior Fullerton and Oklahoma State teams, pitching their third and fourth starters. We will be up against their ace, who pitched 8 2/3 shutout innings in the Rams' 3-0 win over Miami. The game is being moved up to 11:30 a.m. CDT to accomodate the Titans' travel plans and it is the final game of remarkable but grueling road trip. It is another great test of the mental toughness of this team: it would be perfectly understandable for this team to "mail it in" against an inferior opponent and head to the airport for a well-deserved trip home, but I expect these guys ready to show up Sunday and end this sojourn on a high note. Beware the Ides of March, Titans!

Winning pitcher Tyler Lyons (3-0) got stronger as the game wore on: he was getting hit early and it looked like his pitch count limit would be surpassed quickly, but he settled down and pitched well. Witten started stronger, but Lyons finished better. Lyons pitched eleven games last summer with the undefeated Team USA (which included Fellhauer, Colon and Clark) and allowed no earned runs.

Even with Lyons giving up some early hits and runs, he avoided the two things that have killed opposing pitchers during the Titans hot run: he gave up just one walk and one HBP. The Titans have had an uncanny knack for driving in runners that have reached base "the easy way", which Lyons avoided.

It was a little surprising that Witten stayed in the game as long as he did, considering the Titans had hoped to get 5-6 strong innings from him (his first extended duty since leaving the USM game with a tightened glut muscle; he pitched a little bit Tuesday against Texas A&M) and then use Jason Dovel to either contain the strong stretch of lefthanded hitting of OSU or to cause lineup changes to get weaker righthanded hitters in off the bench. Even though Witten's defense let him down in the sixth inning, he surrendered a three-run lead and gave up some long bombs to lefthanded hitters while Dovel waited in the bullpen.

Garneau made two errors and Colon and Scott had one each. There were a couple of tough plays in left-field that Jeff Newman, as well as he has played defensively, might have made. Pitches were left up and the price was paid.

We seem to be giving up a lot of extra-base hits to eighth and ninth batters lately. This may be merely reflective of the top-to-bottom quality of good teams, or is it something else?

We also learned that Reynolds Stadium plays different when the wind isn't blowing straight in: the ball jumped off bats and really carried - unlike Friday. Back in 1984, Oklahoma State outfielder Pete Incaviglia (you remember him with the Texas Rangers?) slugged an unimaginable 48 home runs (in 75 games). Even playing a few more games than today's teams that advance deep into the NCAA tournament, that is still a lot of homers, even if you are hitting golf balls with titanium bats. The stadium (which opened in 1981) had to have something to do with it.

Prior to the game, the Diamond Club held a gathering at a nearby restaurant. Coach Sergio Brown was the guest speaker and he gave an enthusiastic insight into how the team has really come together as a tight-knit family during this arduous road trip. I really like this coaching staff and the job they have done. Baseball lends itself to resolution-free arguments (should you bunt a lot or swing away? do you play a better defensive outfielder or one that hits better? do you stick with the starter or go to the bullpen?) The part of Sergio's speech that interested me most and made me proudest was when he talked about the quality of the young men in this program. There is a "Titan Way" for even the small things - like how to close a hotel room door - that teaches lessons that last long after the spikes and pinstripes have been replaced by wingtips and business attire.

I also enjoyed the impromptu introductions made by all meeting attendees. (Great idea, Larry!) After going to games for a few years now and poking my head in at a tailgate party now and again, the faces are familiar but the stories behind them aren't. It was great to learn about the identities and lives of the people stricken with this same addiction to Titans baseball as I am. Whether it is guys like Milt Bower and Matt Helm who played on the very first Titans baseball team back in 1963/64 or parents of players in their first year in the program, this is an outstanding group of people with successful lives and stories to tell.

Finally, the Titans' loss was not my only disappointment on Saturday. After a delicious breakfast at Mom's Diner, I set out to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, all set to see the exhibits honoring greats like Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, George "The Animal" Steele, Captain Lou Albano, King Kong Bundy, Haystacks Calhoun, Killer Kowalski, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and all my other favorite athletes. Guess what? The place was bereft of tributes to any and all of the sport's legends: this place was all about honoring that phony-baloney college wrassling stuff. What a disappointment!


Anonymous said...

You left out the Iron Sheik, Don!

DonSectionK said...

Doh! You are right, Anonymous - the Iron Sheik!

I always have admired Vince McMahon's "no holds barred" marketing approach. When there were still American hostages held captive in Iran, McMahon had the Iron Sheik come into the ring waving the Iranian flag and (poorly) singing the Iranian national anthem as his manager, Jimmy "The Mouth of the South", stood respectfully saluting the flag. Life imitates the WWF (now WWE) and the Iron Sheik was a perfect personification of 'the bad guy'.

Sidenote: I love the Iron Sheik's occassional appearances on "The Howard Stern Show" on satellite radio.

Anonymous said...


are you the older gentleman with gray beard who sits right behind Section K at all the games?