Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rath Passes Oral Test


By Don Hudson

Relief pitcher Kevin Rath posted nine strikeouts in his first extended duty of the season and got the win as the Cal State Fullerton Titans beat the Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles, 10-6, last night at Goodwin Field. The Titans improved their record to 15-3 and were led at the plate by Christian Colon, who went 3-3 and was on base all five times he batted (walk and HBP).

Kyle Witten started on the hill for the Titans and it was immediately evident that he was struggling to find the strike zone. He got a break when the leadoff hitter chased a 3-1 pitch out of the strike zone and popped up before issuing a four pitch walk to Tyler Garewal, who advanced on a groundout and scored on a base hit by Seth Furmanek after Witten fell behind in the count, giving ORU a short-lived 1-0 lead.

Jameson Dunn started for ORU and probably knew he was in trouble after plunking leadoff man Gary Brown with a pitch: Brown hadn't even discarded his protective gear and headed to first base when a cadre of pitchers and catchers ran down towards the Eagles' bullpen to start warming up. That's a confidence booster! Brown raced around to tie the score when Christian Colon laced a double to rightfield.

Josh Fellhauer then ripped a line drive that just barely made it over the leaping shortstop (his glove may have tipped it), which caused Colon to hold up momentarily and he could only advance to third. After Felly advanced to second on a wild pitch by Dunn, a passed ball allowed Colon to score the second run and move Felly to third. Dunn then walked Jared Clark and Nick Ramirez to load the bases. He struck out Khris Davis but then walked Dustin Garneau to score the third run. Out came ORO skipper Rob Walton and Dunn was done. Reliever Mark Serrano easily got the second out on a force out at the plate on a Joe Scott bunt (I hate bunts when there is a force play at the plate), but was touched for an infield single by Jeff Newman that gave the Titans a 4-1 lead after one inning.

Witten continued to miss the srike zone in the second inning, but he got defensive support via a 6-4-3 double-play (the first of three Titans twin-killings in the game) after allowing two singles to start the inning. With two outs, Danny Duffy smoked one towards the fence in deep right-centerfield: Fellhauer made a great running catch.

The Titans added another run in the bottom of the second when Colon was hit by a pitch, advanced on a wild pitch and a passed ball and scored on a groundout by Clark.

Witten remained unscathed in the third inning, but his wildness remained in evidence. Garewal got a one out single and was forced out on a Juan Martinez slow hopper to Joe Scott. Martinez went to second on a Witten throwing error on a pickoff attempt and went to third on a wild pitch. Michael Notaro popped out to end the threat.

Khris Davis hit a "no doubt about it" home run leading off the third inning for CSUF, his seventh bomb of the year.

Witten's evening came to an early close when he hit the leadoff batter on a 3-1 pitch to open the fourth inning. Kevin Rath entered the game for the Titans - his first appearance in a while. Rath immediately looked good, striking out Johnny Roberts before inducing a 3-6-1 double-play ball from Kyle Price: just like they do it in infield practice!

The Titans increased their advantage to 7-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning when Christian Colon hit a cue shot into rightfield: a single that was misplayed, allowing Colon to reach third base with nobody out. Fellhauer drove him in with a groundball to second base (which was booted to allow Felly aboard.)

Rath's most scintillating inning was the fifth: he struck out the side on just ten pitches. Fullerton scored another run in the bottom of the frame on doubles by Davis and Brown. Rath later struck out the side again in the ORU seventh inning.

The first three Titans were strikeout victims in the seventh inning, yet the team somehow scored two runs. Say what? The third victim was Jeff Newman, but he reached base on a third strike wild pitch. After Brown was hit by a pitch (second time of the game), Colon and Fellhauer delivered RBI singles to make it 10-1.

Rath retired the first two hitters in the ORU eighth inning before appearing to tire and bringing his pitches up and out of the strike zone. He walked two and gave up a single to load the bases and prompt a visit by Serrano. When Johnny Roberts delivered a two-run single, Rath came off the field to a nice ovation. Kyle Mertins gave up a double to Price, allowing both inherited runners to score and making the score a little closer, 10-5.

Michael Morrison gave up a home run in the ninth inning to Robert Barbosa before striking out the side to end the game.


So what did we learn last night?

Oral Roberts is getting beat up by Christian (how ironic): Colon is 7 for 8 in the first two games in the series, and has reached base in 9 of 10 plate appearances.

We learned that Khris Davis is extremely strong and continues to make great contact, even when he falls behind in the count. His home run seemed to still be rising when it went off into the night. Righthanded hitters like Davis and Colon continued hitting the ball hard to the opposite field last night.

It was a strange game in which neither starting pitcher ever seemed to get comfortable and threw an inordinate ratio of balls to strikes, yet somehow each team's pitching staff mustered thirteen strikeouts against the other. Since the Titans did not bat in the ninth inning, 13 of their 24 outs were of the whiff variety. Both teams got nine strikouts from its long reliever: Rath for the Titans and Mark Serrano for ORU.

Kevin Rath was fantastic in relief. The first time I saw him as a freshman in the 2007 Fall scrimmages, he reminded me of Ryan Paul: a tall lefthander with filthy breaking stuff and a propensity for wildness. Once Paul started hitting the strike zone, he became a major force in the Titans bullpen: I still think we would have won it all in 2006 if we had a healthy Vinnie Pestano and Ryan Paul pitching lights out in the bullpen during the playoff run that season.

We caught a glimpse of the "good Kevin" when he came into the game. His line would have been incredible had he finished after the first two hitters in the eigth inning: 4 2/3 innings, two hits, no runs, no walks and nine strikeouts. We also caught a small glimpse of the "evil Kevin" when he tired in the eighth inning and walked two and allowed two singles: all four runs scored to slightly tarnish an otherwise brilliant performance. He will be as good as his control: he is tied for the staff lead in walks for the season with 9 - and he has pitched only 8 innings. I really hope to see more of him - it's hard to improve your control if you hardly ever get to pitch.

Kyle Witten threw 52 pitches: 28 balls and 24 strikes, in his 3+ innings outing. Umpire Frank Pflugradt rang up 26 strikeouts on the night, so you can't blame the strike zone: I've seen closer pitches on intentional walks than some of tonight's offerings. Kyle just doesn't look comfortable on the mound and his mechanics (particularly his legs and feet) just seem out of sorts. (Landing on the mound after his deliveries, he reminded me of a kid with muddy feet trying to walk undetected across Mom's just-swept kitchen floor.) He has an incredible arm and great game, so I am confident he'll figure it out. I'd much rather see a pitcher scuffle a little bit in March against Oral Roberts and become a clampdown pitcher as the season progresses into the Big West Conference schedule and the NCAA playoffs.

Did you see the quote from Coach Serrano in the Orange County Register following the Thursday game and Noe Ramirez' continuing run of impressive pitching? "He's probably pitching better than anybody on our pitching staff right now. He's pushing somebody right now. He's showing he wants to be part of that weekend rotation."

Right now, I think his current role makes Noe the team's most valuable pitcher, especially in this new era of NCAA baseball where the compressed schedule increases the significance of the midweek games. The coaching staff has generally demonstrated great patience with the weekend rotation so far, but I'd expect that patience to get thinner as we get into the Conference schedule and head towards the playoffs.

Dustin Garneau and Joe Scott each moved up a slot in the batting order and Newman was dropped into the #9 slot. There were no spectacular results last night from that change, but having a good bat behind Davis in the #7 slot is becoming increasingly important. Run totals tend to decrease in Conference play, where every team is intimately familiar with their opponents.

Finally, the energy level in the last two home games seems several notches below what it was on the road trip. This is understandable and could be based on several factors (thrill of playing in front of large crowds at partisan venues; better competition; the national attention of the epic road trip; etc.) We can win this weekend on just superior talent and experience, but we'd be in trouble next weekend if we can't get the energy level cranked up to what it was in Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma. (Even I have reduced energy - just the shift after living on Central Time zone for two weeks has me too tired to write my articles when I get home at night. I'm sure it has been a drag for the players to catch up on their classwork, get back into 'normal' routines, etc.) They can use our support - let's really get behind these guys!

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