Saturday, March 28, 2009

Great Scott! Titans Win in Riverside

GAME 21: TITANS 4, UC RIVERSIDE 1 (10 Innings)

By Don Hudson

In a game that had more ups and downs than the playing surface at the Riverside Sports Graveyard, the Cal State Fullerton Titans scored three runs in the top of the tenth inning to win a 4-1 nail-biter against the U.C. Riverside Highlanders this afternoon. Joe Scott tied an NCAA record with four sacrifices in the game, which also saw a brilliant outing by freshman hurler Noe Ramirez in the first weekend start of his fledgling collegiate career. The loss was the Highlanders first at home this season after eight wins and was just the Titans second win in eleven tries at the Graveyard dating back to 2003.

In a game eerily similar to Friday night, Noe Ramirez and righthander Matt Montgomery (UCR) locked horns in a beauty of a pitching duel. The Titans had quiet 1-2-3 innings in the first and second innings, while the Highlanders managed just an infield hit off Ramirez in the first two frames.

The Titans posted the game's first run in the third inning after Dustin Garneau led off with a double and was advanced to third on the first of Joe Scott's four sacrifices. Seeing how good the pitching was, Riverside opted to play the infield in very early in the game, which worked out as Jeff Newman hit a grounder to second base which did not score Garneau, even though 2B Bryan Horst momentarily bobbled the ball. Fortunately for Fullerton, Gary Brown made sure the runner was not stranded when he lined a base hit on a 3-1 pitch.

The Titans had Montgomery on the ropes again in the fourth inning following singles by Josh Fellhauer and Jared Clark to open the inning. With the first-baseman holding the runner, the ball Nick Ramirez scalded down the line - which would have normally been a double into the corner - became a snappy 3-6-3 double-play. Felly was stranded at third base when Montgomery retired Khris Davis on a foul flyball to rightfield.

The Highlanders finally got a runner aboard in the fifth inning, after Noe had retired the previous nine batters almost effortlessly. Their leading hitter, Tony Nix, led off with a triple that bounced off the centerfield wall and skipped past a hard-charging Fellhauer. Joey Gonzales then hit a chopper to shortstop Christian Colon, who threw home to try to cut down Nix and the tying run. The throw and runner arrived pretty close: catcher Garneau and runner Nix got tangled several feet before the plate: out! Oops, the ball escaped Garneau for an error and Nix was safe on an unearned run. Scott helped minimize the damage by starting a pretty 4-6-3 double-play on a nice backhand stop of a hard-hit ball up the middle.

Matt Andriese entered the game in relief for UCR to start the seventh inning and he was met by a leadoff single by Dustin Garneau, who advanced to second on a Scott sacrifice and to third on a wild pitch. Jeff Newman followed with a fly ball to medium-deep centerfield, presumably deep enough to score the runner from third. But CF Carl Uhl looped a high throw to the plate; catcher Robert Brantly caught it high and away from the sliding runner (Garneau). It was a good throw that appeared to get there before the runner, but about the only person in the stadium who didn't see Garneau touch the plate ahead of the tag was our old friend, Mike "Crappy" Gilmore. Coach Serrano gave Crappy an earful; to no avail, as his hearing appears commensurate with his eyesight.

The Titans let UCR off the hook again in the eighth inning. Fellhauer walked with two outs and then stole second base with Clark at the plate. With first base open following the SB, the Highlanders intentionally walked the red-hot Clark. Nick Ramirez hit an opposite-field shot that had "bases clearing double" written all over it, but the ball held up and was run down by the leftfielder.

Noe Ramirez issued his only walk of the game with one out in the eighth inning. After retiring the next hitter on a short flyball, his pitch count reached 100 and he came off to a nice ovation as southpaw Kevin Rath came in to face lefthanded-hitting Carl Uhl, who hit the ball sharply, but came up empty when Gary Brown snared his sinking line-drive.

I considered taking up smoking in the Titans ninth inning. Khris Davis lined a long double to centerfield and Dustin Garneau walked, bringing Matt Larkins out of the UCR bullpen. Scott sacrificed both runners along - hey, this is great: second and third with just one out. Tyler Pill pinch-hit for Newman and hit the ball on the ground to the drawn-in second-baseman, who threw home to nail Davis on the "run on contact" play. With Brown at the plate looking for another clutch two-out hit, a pitch in the dirt bounded away from catcher Brantly. Garneau made a dash for the plate and was tagged out by the pitcher covering: the third Titan of the day thrown out at the plate!

There's an old joke: what do you do with an elephant with three balls? Answer: walk him and pitch to the giraffe. That story came to life in the bottom of the ninth, a tense game tied at 1-1. Ryan Ackland relieved Rath and easily retired the first two (righthanded) hitters before allowing a double to lefthanded-hitting Ryan Goetz. With the winning run at second base and first base open, righthanded Tony Nix (hitting .425 with .457 OBP and .685 SLG%) is coming to the plate, followed by lefthanded Joey Gonzales (.235 hitter, .300 OBP and .370 SLG%). Don't you walk the elephant and pitch to the giraffe? But Dave made the aggressive move: he brought in his closer (Michael Morrison) and rolled the dice: my best against your best. Morrison won the battle, striking out Nix to strand the potential winning run at second base. (In a game with a dozen plays that could be "the" play of the game, I thought this was "the" play of the game.)

Kolby Moore entered the game for UCR on the mound in the top of the tenth and was greeted by Gary Brown's base hit. Brown took off for second on the first pitch and Colon masterfully poked the ball through the hole vacated by the second-baseman, sending Brown easily to third base. Felly hit a grounder to shortstop that plated the go-ahead run - but it got even better: the throw to second for the force play on Colon got away and Colon ended up on third base and Felly on second.

A one-run lead was "nice", but Jared Clark had an opportunity to give the Titans some breathing room. The senior team leader came through in style, lining an 0-2 pitch into centerfield for a base hit that gave the Titans a 4-1 lead. Clark stole second base - making him 7-7 on the year in stolen bases - but was doubled off when he went too far on a hit-and-run play and was retired easily after a fly ball by Nick Ramirez.

The Highlanders had a modicum of hope in the bottom of the tenth inning when Joey Gonzales hit an 0-2 pitch from Morrison for a single. But Morrison threw some great pitches and struck out Brantly. With Clark playing back and not holding the runner, Gonzales headed towards second base on a 1-2 pitch to pinch-hitter Michael Nesbitt, assuming he would arrive uncontested on "defensive indifference." Wrong! Morrison blew a third strike past Nesbitt and Garneau made a strong throw that Colon scooped out of the dirt and applied the tag to end the ballgame.


So what did we learn this afternoon?

Nineteen-year-old Noe Ramirez has handled every assignment given to him with great composure. He was brilliant today in his first weekend start, going 7 2/3 innings, 100 pitches, and allowing just three hits, one walk and one unearned run - wow!

How many times have you seen an offense perk up when a dominating starting pitcher is finally removed and they get a crack at the bullpen? Kevin Rath, Ryan Ackland and Michael Morrison combined in 2 1/3 innings of shutout relief to make sure the Titans didn't waste Noe's great outing.

All told, Titans pitchers allowed just five hits, one walk, one unearned run and ten strikeouts in ten innings of work on a hot, sunny day. Dustin Garneau led the offense with three hits. Scott's record-tying sacrifices and his stellar defense made him the game's unsung hero.

We learned that runs are going to be much tougher to come by in Big West Conference play. During the non-conference schedule, the Titans were recently enjoying sick ratios of runs to hits. For example, 16 hits against University of Rhode Island yielded 17 runs. While 9 hits against Oral Roberts University was good for 10 runs in a game last weekend, the same number of hits plated just one run Friday night against Big West Conference foe UCR. At one point today, the Titans had just one run on ten hits - combined 2 runs on 21 hits in the two games at that point - before posting three runs in the tenth inning. Teams in the BWC have deep, quality pitching staffs and tend to play good defense.

This year's team has some potent hitters and I love how the coaches have adapted their offensive strategy to take advantage of how well these guys can swing the bats. It will be interesting to see if the offensive style is reined in a little more during conference play when games are tighter and each run is precious.

Case in point: when is it right to take the bat out of Nick Ramirez' hands? He is a hitting machine like we have not seen in years: he is hitting .397, with .443 OBP and .740 slugging percentage and is second on the team in RBI. Like Erik Komatsu last year, Nick's at-bats are being maximized by letting him hit away, seemingly without regard of the situation. On Friday night, with the Titans leading 1-0 in a tight pitching duel against a quality left-handed pitcher, Jared Clark led off with a single. The Titans eschewed the bunt: Ramirez grounded into a 5-4-3 double-play, which cost a big run when Khris Davis and Dustin Garneau followed with hits. Today, Ramirez came to the plate with runners at first and second, nobody out, again with the Titans holding a slim 1-0 lead. He slammed the ball hard on the ground: 3-6-3 double-play and rally thwarted. In the tenth inning today, he batted with the Titans now leading 4-1 and Clark on second with nobody out. Again, he was allowed to hit away and another double-play resulted when Clark took off on a hit-and-run and was unable to get back to the base following Nick's flyball to rightfield. In "the old days", Clark might have been bunted to third to try to give the Titans the four-run lead that needs a grand slam to make it a one-swing game for the opponent.

This is what makes baseball the greatest game ever invented: we can sit in the cheap seats spitting our sunflower seeds all game long and second guess every call by the umpires and every decision by the coaches. It sure is easy up here in the bleachers - baseball is a game of decisions and consequences that occur quite quickly - talk about art imitating life!

This was a very big win for this team. With all the past failures at this field - described today as looking like a golf course with its rolling hills and bunkers - and every possible break seeming to go Riverside's way, these guys gutted it out and came away with a win. Sunday's rubber game should be another beauty - both teams will once again put a good pitcher on the mound and another tight game is expected. I hope to see you out at the Graveyard.

No comments: