Friday, April 10, 2009

Heavy-hearted Titans Split: Part 1

By Don Hudson

Photo Courtesy Bryan Crowe

The Cal State Fullerton Titans arrived at Matador Field at Cal State Northridge Thursday after a bus ride in which you could hear a pin drop. For the players, coaches, support staff, alumni, fans and families, it was a day filled with shock, profound sadness, deep sorrow and smoldering anger. A drunk driver (forgive my lack of political correctness for not saying "alleged drunk driver") with a suspended license resulting from a prior DUI conviction had stolen the lives of three fantastic young people and left a young man we have come to know and love in a hospital fighting for his life.

Being part of Titan baseball, even just as some old guy sitting in the stands spitting sunflower seeds and watching these remarkable young men play a game that has captured his imagination since childhood, is an extreme privilege and provides an impenetrable buffer between the harshness of the real world and our secret world of small ball, hit-and-runs, hidden ball tricks and trips to Omaha. News of the tragic accident in Fullerton in the wee hours of the morning was a painful incursion that shattered that barrier and left everyone associated with the Titan Nation that day feeling numb. Just as the team on the field did everything in their power to focus on the matter at hand - as they knew Jon Wilhite would insist that they do - it was impossible, just as it was for the supporters in the stands. Eyes were full of tears, people hugged and prayed and held out hope that the next text message received would be the one to let us know that everything was going to turn out okay.

If you've ever been to Matador Field, there are a couple things you notice right away: there are no lights and the closest bathroom is in Santa Clarita. This became a major factor in a game that was played in chilly, cloudy weather conditions and was eventually suspended after twelve innings because of darkness, with the score tied at 4-4. Both teams had opportunities to push across runs each extra inning played today after the game resumed, but it was the Matadors who eventually took care of business in the bottom of the fifteenth inning and won a 5-4 verdict.

It took a few innings for the Titans to shake off the shock and the emotional handcuffs. After an easy 1-2-3 inning for the Titans in the first inning, pitcher Daniel Renken was touched for two runs in the bottom of the frame when he plunked the leadoff man with a pitch, followed by a stolen base, two singles and a fielder's choice.

The Titans plated their first run in the third inning when Joe Scott led off with a bunt single, advanced to second on Dustin Garneau's sacrifice and scored on Josh Fellhauer's RBI single up the middle.

Gary Brown was a one-man rally in the fourth inning. After two quick outs, he stroked a base hit into right field. He stole second. He stole third. With Joe Scott at the plate and the count 2-2, CSUN pitcher Ryan Juarez and catcher John Parham thought they had Scott struck out on a pitch close to the plate. As the catcher framed the pitch and the pitcher glared at umpire Dan Perugini, neither noticed Brown inching down the line. As soon as Parham tossed the ball back to the mound, Brown broke for the plate and easily stole often do you see a player steal three bases during one teammate at-bat?

With the score tied 2-2, Renken continued to pitch effectively. He ended up going eight strong innings and left with a lead that was subsequently lost.

In the seventh inning, the Titans took their first lead of the game, again sparked by Brown. He led off with a double in the leftfield corner and was moved around on a Scott sacrifice bunt and a Garneau sacrifice fly.

The Titans' 3-2 lead was short-lived, however. Parham walked and Richard Cates singled to open the inning. One out later, Dominic D'Anna lifted a flyball to leftfield, which scored Parham with the tying run just ahead of Jeff Newman's strong throw.

By this point in the game, the dark clouds and late hour (why do they wait until 3:00 to start the game with no lights, especially when their games average around four hours?) were making it harder and harder to see what was happening.

In the top of the ninth inning, Khris Davis led off with a double and moved to third on a groundout by Brown, which brought CSUN's ace closer, Brian Slover, into the game. Rather than attempt a squeeze with Joe Scott due up (which everybody in the stadium would be expecting), Tyler Pill was summoned to pinch-hit and he delivered a long sacrifice fly to give the Titans a 4-3 lead going into the bottom of the ninth.

On came closer Michael Morrison to nail it down for Renken and the Titans. After an easy flyout to rightfield and a groundout to shortstop, Morrison quickly threw two strikes to Cates: "Come on, Michael! Just one more out and we can go home with a satisfying gut-it-out win on an horrific day." But the wheels came off the wagon: Morrison lost his control and Cates walked, bringing the Matadors best power hitter, Ryan Pinedo, to the plate. With the winning run one swing of the bat away, surely the 'dors wouldn't risk ending the game with a failed steal attempt? But Morrison was intent on keeping the tying run out of scoring position and he eventually sailed a pickoff throw way over Jared Clark's head, advancing Cates to second. A wild pitch moved Cates to third, but just one more out was needed. With the count 3-1, Mikey Mo's next pitch was way out of the strike zone and got past a diving Garneau, tying the score on a wild pitch. Kyle Mertins came in to avoid further damage.

In the tenth inning for Fullerton, Newman reached on an error but was picked off to end the inning. Mertins allowed a two-out triple to Jeffrey Pruitt, but escaped unscathed. (Umpire Perugini apparently has much different taste in music than Pruitt: every time Pruitt advanced towards the plate, Perugini glared towards the press box and used a familiar hand gesture instructing them to cut off the song. It became comical as the game went along, with Perugini eventually giving a thumbs-up when the music was cut off prior to his cut-it-off gesture.)

Billy Marcoe singled to lead off the eleventh inning, but CSUN second-baseman Justin DeMarco made a nice play when he stood his ground on a Khris Davis hit-and run attempt, which he turned into a double-play.

The Matadors had a golden opportunity to put the game away in the last of the eleventh inning. T.S. Reed led off being hit by Mertins' first pitch and beat Clark's throw to second base when Parham bunted on the next play. A wild pitch moved the potential winning run to third base with nobody out. This is when you bring the outfield in to choke off anything hit in front of them, knowing that a deep flyball will end the game anyways? Nope; the Titans opted to walk the next batter to load the bases and played their infield in, but the outfield stayed in their normal positions. Mertins got cleanup hitter Pineda to hit a slow roller in front of the plate, which Garneau retrieved and stepped on the plate for the force play.

Kevin Rath came in from the bullpen to face the dangerous D'Anna. He got the perfect result: a comebacker to the mound, which he turned into a 1-2-3 double-play.

The twelfth inning was played in near darkness. Closer Slover continued his extended tour of duty on the hill for Northridge. He threw a 1-2-3 inning, which Rath matched with a hitless stanza (with a walk allowed).

After the inning, the coaches and umpires conferred and the next thing I knew the screen in front of me had gone dark - it reminded me of the final scene in "The Sopranos". The screen went dark, the characters disappeared and the outcome was ambiguous.


In lieu of our normal "what did we learn today" crap, I'll tell you how the game ended Friday afternoon when it was resumed. You'll have to wait for tomorrow to read about the Titans' 7-5 win in Part 2 of this novelette.

The suspension of play forced Slover (who lowered his ERA to 0.32) from the game and gave the Titans a chance to recover physically and emotionally from perhaps the most trying circumstances in which they've ever played. Coach Serrano, Jared Clark, Joe Scott, Dustin Garneau and Matthew Fahey planned to return to Orange County last night to visit Jon Wilhite at the UCI Medical Center. By all accounts, the suspension of play seemed like a big break for the Titans.

Things looked up for the Titans when Jeff Newman lined a single when play resumed in the thirteenth inning, but an unsuccessful bunt attempt and a pickoff thwarted that rally. Rath continued his strong pitching (three innings with no hits allowed) with a 1-2-3 thirteenth inning.

In the top of the fourteenth, the Titans again got the leadoff runner aboard but could not produce a run. Billy Marcoe reached on an error and was advanced on a sacrifice, but a flyout and a hard line drive to centerfield by Joey Siddons ended the inning.

The Matadors got a leadoff walk by Pineda, who went to second on a Rath balk, in the bottom of the fourteenth. After a Rath strikeout, Ryan Ackland entered the game in relief and worked out of the jam by retiring the next two hitters.

The Titans got the leadoff man aboard again in the fifteenth on a single by Garneau, who went to second on Christian Colon's sacrifice. After Newman struck out, Fellhauer beat out an infield hit, which would have brought leading RBI man Clark to the plate with the go-ahead run - except the Titans tried to catch the Matadors taking a siesta by keeping Garneau running to the plate. He was thrown out by about twenty feet - same play they tried unsuccessfully last Sunday against UCI.

The long drama came to an end when Pruitt led off the fifteenth against Ackland with a double. DeMarco's effort to sacrifice Pruitt to third was a beauty - Ackland and Brown had no play and there were runners on the corners with nobody out. The next batter was walked to load the bases and set up a force out at every base - pretty conventional baseball, eh? But the Titans once again eschewed the 'baseball book' by leaving their outfielders at normal depth. Parham drove the second pitch he saw into right-centerfield for the winning hit. (It would have been interesting to see what would have happened on that play had the outfield been drawn in - Felly might have caught the ball twenty field behind the infield, which would not have scored the runner from third.)

Both teams had multiple chances to win the game - the Titans can lament the blown save in the ninth and the Matadors can look back at 18 runners left on base. But the Matadors can also relish the outstanding relief pitching they got: this normally shaky staff did not permit a walk from the seventh through fifteenth innings.

No loss is ever easy, but this one was perhaps understandable. These guys played with heavy hearts and they played about as well as you could ever expect under the circumstances.

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