Sunday, May 17, 2009

Titans Bend but Don't Break

GAME 51: TITANS 6, UCLA 5 (10 innings)

By Don Hudson

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The Cal State Fullerton Titans were firing on all cylinders last night at Jackie Robinson Stadium, leading the UCLA Bruins by a 5-0 score before a two-out seventh inning rally capped by a Cody Decker grand slam tied the score. However, the confident and resilient Titans took the Bruins' best shot and eked out a ten-inning 6-5 win in a game that featured power, speed, defense and pitching - both good and bad.

It was a battle between freshmen pitching sensations Noe Ramirez and UCLA's Trevor Bauer, who entered college a year ahead of his high school class. Both represented themselves well and had streaks of brilliance: Noe early in the game and Bauer later.

After a scoreless first inning (one hit for each team, with the UCLA inning ending on a "strike'em out, throw'em out" double-play), the Titans got on the board on the strength of a walk to Khris Davis and a home run to left-centerfield by Dustin Garneau. Bauer allowed a single to Joey Siddons and a walk to Christian Colon, but escaped further damage by retiring Gary Brown.

Noe allowed a second-inning single to Gabe Cohen, but escaped danger when Garneau threw the runner out at second attempting a steal. Could the first two innings have been any better for Garneau: two caught-stealings and a two-run homer?

It looked like it would be a short night for Bauer when Josh Fellhauer led off the third inning with a home run to rightfield, giving the Titans a 3-0 lead.

Noe was breezing along until a double and a single put Bruins runners on the corners with one out in the bottom of the fourth inning. But Justin Uribe hit a sharp grounder that 1B Jared Clark backhanded nicely and fired to Colon to start a potential inning-ending double-play. Noe got a late jump covering first, which caused Colon to have to delay his throw slightly, but the shortstop's cannon arm allowed him to get the ball to first in time to complete the 3-6-1 double-play.

It really looked like a short night for Bauer in the fifth inning when he gave up two more runs and fell behind, 5-0. Colon got the inning started with a double, went to third on a sacrifice by Brown and scored on Felly's groundout. Clark then launched one of his classic tape-measure home runs to leftfield.

Noe gave up an infield single and a walk with two out in the bottom of the fifth, but once again came up with the big pitch and got the final out on an easy grounder to Clark.

Bauer seemed to get relaxed: "It's already 5-0, so what have I got to lose?" From the sixth inning on, the tentative pitcher was gone and a confident pitcher with excellent stuff had taken his place. Garneau got a hit and stole third-base in the sixth inning, but Bauer allowed no hits in his final 3 2/3 innings of work.

The bottom of the seventh began innocently enough, as Noe retired the first two hitters with ease, bringing up the #8 hitter: single to centerfield. Up came the #9 hitter - Tyler Rahmatulla - who had earlier doubled and walked. Noe didn't get a close call on a 2-2 pitch and ended up walking him to bring up the top of the order. No problem, right? Wrong.

A hit batsman loaded the bases and a single to left-field made it 5-1: coach Rick Vanderhook took no chances running on LF Brown's arm trailing by four and his team's leading home run coming to the plate. That was all for Noe on this night: Michael Morrison was summoned from the bullpen to face the ever-dangerous Cody Decker. After Mikey Mo took his warm-ups and Decker went through his pre-pitch rituals, the battle began.

It was a very brief battle: Decker launched the second pitch from Morrison deep to centerfield for a game-tying grand slam. The Bruins' dugout and fans went berserk. Morrison did avoid an even worse inning by striking out slugger Casey Haerther to end the inning.

After an easy 1-2-3 eighth inning for Bauer against the Titans, Morrison got ahead of Uribe, but he fought off a 1-2 pitch and punched the ball down the rightfield line for a double: it might have been possible for a triple, but you know that cardinal rule about never making the first or third out at third-base, especially late in the game when it is the possible go-ahead run. Exit Morrion, enter Travis Kelly. Rather than bunting the runner to third, UCLA Coach John "The Sheriff" Savage had Marc Navarro swing away and he did the job perfectly: a groundball to second-base that put the go-ahead (and potential winning) run just ninety feet from home.

Exit Kelley, enter Nick Ramirez.

With the infield in all around, Nick induced Giovanazzo to pop out to Joe Scott. He then gave his team a huge adrenaline surge by striking out Nico Gallego on three pitches.

Bauer continued to get better as his pitch count rose (he ended up with 136) and the game progressed: he threw a 1-2-3 ninth inning before retiring for the night.

Shevis Shima entered the game at second-base in the bottom of the ninth (Matthew Fahey had pinch-hit for Scott) and made the first of two remarkable web-gem defensive plays. Rahmatulla led off the bottom of the ninth and seemed overmatched by Nick Ramirez. He fought off a 1-2 pitch and dinked a little flare headed for disaster along the rightfield line. But Shima got back and made a leaping catch and held onto the ball as his body crashed to the turf. Nick retired the next two hiters to send the game to extra innings.

The Bruins went to the bullpen and brought in southpaw Gavin Brooks. Colon greeted him with a long double to right-centerfield to start the inning. Brown tried to sacrifice the go-ahead run to third base, but his first bunt attempt hit him in the batter's box and was foul. After that, the Titans eschewed the bunt and Brown tried to advance the runner by hitting to the right side, but eventually struck out.

Colon then made on the many big plays in the game: he got a huge lead as Brooks delivered to Fellhauer and stole third-base: the Titans have been aggressive this weekend stealing third-base. Fellhauer then hit a medium-deep flyball to leftfield: LF Dustin Quist got the ball with momentum building as he threw to the plate, but Colon dove headfirst and the ball escaped C Gino Aielli, giving the Titans a 6-5 lead.

Nick Ramirez remained on the bump and he faced the two thumpers in the UCLA line-up - but he got both decker and Haerther to fly out to leftfield as their home run derby attempts fell short. The Bruins' last chance was pinch-hitter Brett Krill - hitting .227 with no home runs. Krill attempted to check his swing on the second pitch, but the ball struck the barrel of the bat and went softly over the pitcher's mound. Colon had no play on the ball, but Shima backhanded it and - with all his momentum carrying him toward third-base - threw across his body to Jared Clark. Krill slid headfirst but just barely after the throw from Shima. A perfect webgem defensive play to end a thriller.

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.


So what did we learn last night?

Three weeks ago when the team was in a funk, this game would have turned into a loss. But they stuck to the mantra I heard from the very first practice last fall: when something goes bad, your teammates are there to say, "So what?" This game could have easily gotten away and been a disspiriting loss with the national seed seemingly within their grasp.

Noe Ramirez struck out nine hitters and deserved better than a 'no decision'. He dug himself into the hole when he ran put of gas in the seventh inning and allowed the #8 and #9 hitters to reach base with two outs. Both he and Bauer demonstrated why their numbers this season are so good and it will be nice to see them hook up again sometime in the future.

Kelly retired the one hitter he faced and Nick Ramirez was absolutely dazzling after that: he retired all eight hitters he faced and getting out of the inherited runner-on-third-and-one-out situation was huge. Now that the closer situation has been settled - Nick put an exclamation mark on that one - the only unsettled roles heading into the playoffs are the set-up relievers. Nick proved last night and last Saturday against Cal Poly SLO that he is more than a one-inning closer, but you can't rely on your closer as your seventh- and eighth-inning specialist. Ryan Ackland and Kyle Mertins began the season in those roles and it would not surprise me if they were to reclaim them in the post-season.

Fellhauer led the offense with two hits and three RBI (including the game-winning sacrifice fly). Colon's two doubles were both huge. Garneau had two hits and was brilliant (as usual) behind the plate.

Let's see what we can do this afternoon to finish off the sweep. Hopefully, traffic to Jackie Robinson Stadium won't be as bad on a Sunday morning as it was yesterday afternoon. That may have been the most brutal part of the entire ordeal!

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