Saturday, March 7, 2009

Return of Small Ball ... and Hidden Ball Trick


By Don Hudson

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - The Cal State Fullerton Titans were up to their old tricks today (hit batsmen, bunting, applying pressure on the defense and forcing mistakes - and even the ol' hidden ball trick) as they clinched their weekend series in Hattiesburg against the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles by a score of 11-6 this afternoon at "The Pete." Seven of the game's runs were unearned: it wasn't very pretty, but it was a win nevertheless.

Once again, the Titans got on the board early and often. Gary Brown led off the game with the first of his three hits, followed by a Christian Colon HBP and Josh Fellhauer reaching on a misplaced sacrifice bunt. Jared Clark plated the first run on sacrifice fly. The red-hot Khris Davis knocked in two more runs with a clutch two-out single. Sign that things are going well: Davis took a big lead and broke for second while the pitcher still had the ball. Fortunately for the Titans, pitcher Cody Schlagel's pickoff throw was way over the first baseman's head and rolled into "no man's land" as Davis circled the bases to give Fullerton a 4-0 advantage before the Golden Eagles came to bat.

Kyle Witten looked very sharp in the home half of the first, setting Southern Miss down in order.

Pitcher Schlagel was on a short leash: he was yanked after surrending a leadoff walk to Dustin Garneau in the second inning. Garneau scored the Titans' fifth run on a Joe Scott sacrifice and an RBI single by Gary Brown.

Trouble struck for the Titans in the bottom of the third inning. Witten was breezing along, aided by a spectacular bare-handed do-or-die play by Brown on a ball chopped deep to third base: we were all so stunned by the beauty and athleticism of Brown's play that we didn't immediately notice Witten hobbling around the mound. Dave Serrano and trainer Chris Mumaw came out check him out: Witten is tougher than the breakfast steak at the Hattiesburg Diner and he remained in the game. The next batter walked and was followed by a base hit to right field that Khris Davis misplayed and the Golden Eagles had an unearned run. Kyle Mertins was then summoned to replace Witten.

The score remained 5-1 in favor of CSUF until the Golden Eagles struck in the bottom of the fifth inning off Mertins, who gave up singles to Tyler Koelling and Taylor Walker leading off the inning. Kameron Brunty hit a hard ground ball to Clark that had 3-6-3 double play written all over it - unfortunately, the ball went under his glove for an error and the score was suddenly 5-2 with runners at second and third and nobody out. Brian Dozier's infield single made it 5-3 with runners on the corners and nobody out. After a sacrifice fly made it 5-4, the Eagles made a baserunning gaffe when Dozier broke early to attempt a steal and was easily picked off. Mertins escaped further damage by striking out DH Kyle Maxie to end the inning with the Titans clinging to a narrow one run lead.

Fullerton's small ball offense caused pain for USM in the top of the sixth inning. After Davis led off with another hit, Newman's sacrifice bunt was misplayed by pitcher Kyle Lindsey when he threw wide of first base. When Garneau followed with another bunt, Lindsey attempted to gun down davis at third base; unfortunately, the third baseman was charging to play the bunt and the throw went down the left field line and allowed Davis to score and Newman and Garneau to reach scoring position. Now trailing by two runs and the game getting late, the USM infield was drawn in and the new RBI machine, Joe Scott, bounced one up the middle to score both runners and give Fullerton an 8-4 edge.

Southern Miss responded in their half of the inning with a one-out Graves single and a Koelling walk that drove Mertins from the game and brought in Noe Ramirez, on just three days rest following his seven inning outing against SDSU. Things looked grave for the Titans when Noe was immediately greeted by a Walker double, scoring Graves and sending Koeller to third base.

This is when a very pivotal play occurred. Before heading back up on the hill, Noe Ramirez kneeled down to tie his shoes - looking every bit the part of the nervous freshman pitcher - but it was all a decoy: Brown had held onto the ball and he tagged out Koelling for a huge out. Head coach Corky Palmer made a half-hearted attempt to convince the umpires that Ramirez was on the mound (which would have constituted a balk), but the third base coach was too embarrassed to have any part of that fuss. Noe induced a fly ball to end the inning and take the wind out of the Eagles' sails.

The other Ramirez - Nick - helped put the game out of reach with a line drive home run deep over the fence in right-center field in the top of the seventh inning. After Noe pitched a 1-2-3 bottom half of the seventh, the Titans posted their eleventh and final tally in the eight inning. Gary Brown legged out a one-out triple and made it safely back to the bag on a fielder's choice grounder that allowed Colon to reach first base. Out came another old Titans trick: Colon broke for second base and stopped halfway while Brown scampered across the plate.

After Noe pitched a scoreless eighth inning, Ackland gave up a harmless ninth inning run on a walk and two singles.

So what did we learn today?

Freshman pitcher Noe Ramirez won his second game of the week by virtue of a rule that gives discretion to the official scorer to determine which reliever pitched the most effectively when a starting pitcher leaves the game before five complete innings with a lead that is never relinquished (except on designated staff days). Mertins and Noe Ramirez both pitched the same number of innings (2 2/3), but Noe gave up no runs on just one hit and one walk, while Mertins gave up four runs (three earned) on five hits and three walks.

I'm not a doctor (but I am staying at a Howard Johnson's), so I won't begin to speculate on the nature or extent of Kyle Witten's injury. Suffice to say, though, that the reliance on freshmen pitchers Pill and Noe Ramirez will be even greater if he misses any starts.

We also learned that it is very tough to win games against topflight opponents the caliber of Cal State Fullerton when your two best starting pitchers give you just 2 1/3 combined innings in the Friday and Saturday games. After Pat McInnis was knocked out of the box after 1 1/3 innings last night, Schlagle lasted just 1+ today.

Brown and Davis led the ten hit Titan attack with three hits each. Davis is making excellent contact consistently - my worst fear was that his three home run game was going to get him swinging for the fences every at-bat, but he is going with the pitches and hitting the ball hard with consistency. Brown has played two stellar games this series and he looks like he is ready to explode.

We learned that even in the midst of a winning streak, the defense can break down occassionally. Davis and Clark made errors that led to unearned runs, while Felly's ninth inning error caused only runner advancement. On the flip side, Gary Brown and Jeff Newman each made a great defensive play, and Colon, Scott and Garneau were as steady as usual.

We learned once again that you just can't beat good ol' fashioned southern hospitality. The people of Mississippi that follow this program love baseball and make each game an event. Beyond the fence arching from center to right field, there is an area where space is reserved (by virtue of season ticket purchases and booster club contributions) to the hardcore tailgating crowd. Walking by wearing the "F" hat, compliments for our baseball program and offers of adult beverages were ubiquitous. The Diamond Club was hosted today by the Golden Eagles' booster club: it was a great display of hospitality and camraderie: thank you!

We also learned that former Raiders punting great Ray Guy (pictured above) is a regular member of the USM baseball tailgating society. He is a graduate of Southern Mississippi and was a great athlete - not just a great punter. The only punter ever drafted by an NFL team in the first round of the draft, Guy once held the NCAA record for longest field goal and his eight interceptions as a standout defensive back is still (I believe) a single season school record. It is a complete travesty that he has never been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame - the old guard just won't bring down the wall that prevents any pure punters from enshrinement. Pro football is a game of field position and Ray Guy totally revolutionized both the game and the punting position.

Lastly, we learned that WCWarEagles knows his barbeque. In a recent thread, he suggested restaurants for various types of food and Leatha's was his nomination for barbeque. Acting on his advice, I left my luxury pad at HoJo's and went there - the food was awesome, 87-year-old matriarch Leatha was there and the place was packed with players, coaches, family, friends and fans of both programs. It put a great finish on a very nice day.

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