Sunday, April 19, 2009

Titans Avoid Pacific Tsunami

By Don Hudson

Despite being outhit again, the Cal State Fullerton Titans managed to salvage the series finale against the University of the Pacific Tigers this afternoon at Goodwin Field, winning by a 4-3 margin on the combined pitching of Kyle Witten and Nick Ramirez.

My mother always told me that if you have nothing nice to say, it is better to say nothing at all. So with that in mind, here are my recaps for all three games of the series.

Nothing to say here, except that Daniel Renken once again pitched well enough to win and was the victim - for the second consecutive game against a perennial Big West Conference cellar swellar - of a ninth inning meltdown by the bullpen.

Nothing to say here.


It looked like another lost day in the Titans recent streak of somnambulance when the Tigers posted two quick markers in the first inning. Starting pitcher Kyle Witten hit leadoff man Nick Longmire with the game's first pitch. Titan nemesis Joey Centanni then hit a perfect double-play ball to 2B Joe Scott, but SS Christian Colon dropped the routine throw and everybody was safe. J.B. Brown then ripped a single and the game was just five pitches old and the Tigers had an unearned run and two runners on with nobody out.

After a groundball out placed runners on the corners, Witten tried the "fake to third, look at first play" - and plate umpire Rorke "The Showboat" Kominek emphatically called it a balk, scoring Centanni with the second run of the game. Coach Serrano came out to compare recipes, but (in my humble opinion) The Showboat seemed to get the call right: Witten's foot appeared to swing far beyond the 45 degree imaginary line.

The Titans scored a quick run in the second inning on a Nick Ramirez leadoff walk and an RBI double into the left-centerfield gap by Khris Davis. But a potential big inning was averted by giving away one out on Jeff Newman's sacrifice bunt and then having Davis run into an easy out at the plate on the "contact play", which generally doesn't work well on one-hoppers back to the pitcher.

After squandering Joey Siddons' leadoff HBP in the third inning by having him thrown out by about ten feet attempting to steal, Witten worked out of a jam in the fourth inning on a nicely executed 3-6-1 double-play after singles by Mike McKeever and Kurt Wideman had placed runners at the corners with one out.
The Titans took their first lead of the game with three runs in the fourth inning. Nick Ramirez drew a one-out walk and was pushed around one base at a time on singles by Davis and Newman. Dustin Garneau's bases loaded single drove in two runs and was followed by Joe Scott's RBI single, making it 4-2 in favor of Fullerton. Scott's hit drove Pacific starting pitcher Mark McCain and brought in Jamie Niley.

After Scott stole second base, Siddons struck out on a wild pitch that bounced right back to catcher Wideman. Garneau was sent homewards, running into the fifteenth or sixteenth silly out of the series. (Oops, sorry Mom.)
Witten labored along in the ninety degree heat, striking out the first two hitters in the sixth inning. But McKeever and Brian Martin followed with solid singles and Kurt Wideman walked on four pitches, with Witten seeming to wince in pain on the last couple. Coach Serrano notified The Showboat that he was making an injury substitution and Nick Ramirez was summoned with the bases loaded and given extra time to warm up. When play resumed, Nick came up big and got Mike Walker to ground out to second-base.

Ramirez got into and out of trouble in the seventh inning, but he stranded runners at second and third when he got the dangerous J.B. Brown to fly out to CF Fellhauer.

In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Titans fastidiously stuck by their offensive strategy and prevented adding an insurance run. Siddons led off with a single (and was curiously not pinch-run for by Gary Brown). Leading 4-2 and with an excellent bunter at the plate (Colon), you bunt the runner over late in the game and give Felly and Clark a chance to drive him in and take a three-run lead....right? Colon was allowed to hit away and was narrowly doubled up at first base. Fellhauer then smoked a single that the first-baseman dove for and deflected away, which would have easily scored the runner from second had there been a successful sacrifice.

The strategy looked even more curious the following inning when McKeever crushed a lead-off home-run, cutting the lead to 4-3. After a strikeout and a single, another curious play happened: there was a high chopper towards Scott at second-base. The runner from first was already well past him when the ball came down and the only play was to first base for the second out. But Scott went up for the ball and like a hoopster trying to avoid a travel, he tried to alley-oop the ball to Colon, who had no play. Flashbacks of the Friday and Saturday meltdowns swept through the horrified crowd, who were further sickened when a dinky chopper between the mound and third base loaded the bases with just one out. After the bullpen collapses of the two previous nights, Ramirez was allowed to continue and he justified the coaches' confidence when he induced a short fly to Felly which could not advance the runners and then retired SS Ben Gorang on another easy fly to centerfield.

With no sign of the earlier bullpen culprits, Nick Ramirez took the mound in the bottom of the ninth to face the 2/3/4 hitters in the Pacific lineup. After two quick outs, McKeever gave us one final scare when he launched one deep to right-centerfield. There was a collective sigh of relief when Felly put his glove up, shielded his eyes from the bright sunshine and made the catch to preserve the 4-3 victory.


So what did we learn this weekend?

First of all, we learned that there are no longer teams in the Big West Conference where you can just lace up your spikes and count on a win. Give credit to the Pacific Tigers for playing an awesome series: they collected 22 runs on 43 hits in the three games, and played errorlessly in two of the games.

We learned that there is a reason Tigers catcher Kurt Wideman has thrown out more than half of would-be base-stealers (19 out of 36 thrown out). He and Dustin Garneau both put on a catcher's throwing clinic this weekend. With an opponent coming in with a team ERA hovering around the 6.00 mark, I just don't get why we took away so many at-bats on failed steal attempts, ran "contact plays" on balls hit to the third-baseman and pitcher and had hot hitters bunt in hitting situations and slumping players swing away in bunting situations. In the games Friday and today, the Titans got completely shut down by a bullpen that usually gets lit up.

Let's hope the injury to Witten is minor and he does not lose any more time. This has been an injury-riddled season for him from the start; he could be a key component to unraveling the mystery of what to do about the bullpen if he can remain healthy. It's probably time to give Michael Morrison a midweek start to help him sort through his recent rough outings as the closer. I thought the Titans pitching was at its best during the road trip when Noe Ramirez was a weekend reliever and a midweek starter. He is a weapon no matter how he is used - I'd rather see him in at the end of the game than any of the other righties at the moment and Nick seems ready to handle the portside part of a closer tandem.

There is an old baseball axiom that you're never as good as you look when you're winning and you're never as bad as you look when you're losing. That surely seems applicable to this year's Titans. I'm sure the team and the coaches are just as frustrated as idiots like me sitting up in the bleachers. But the talent on this team is the same as it was when they were the talk of the nation and being fitted for bronze statues during Mustache March. It's easy to support a team when they are winning games and reminding people of the 1995 juggernaut. Now is the time to really dig in and help them through this funk. Let's start with a good showing Tuesday night against San Diego and Wednesday afternoon against Pepperdine before heading up to Sacramento to play UC Davis.

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