"Sorry, buddy.....sheez.....someone left the cake out in the rain."
Of all the messages of condolence and comforting received in the aftermath of the Titans' "2 and BBQ" performance in Omaha, I think the one that said it best was that voice message from my good friend "Tempe Tim." Do you remember that schmaltzy 1968 ballad sung by Richard Harris (and later covered by Donna Summers and others and parodied by many) titled "MacArthur Park"? The essence is captured in these lines:
MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again.....
What a wretched feeling after the cake was left out in the Omaha rain. This was a great team that was a long time in the works. A roster composed of players from the recruiting efforts of the former and current coaching staffs, an amazing recipe of youthful pitching talent, mature leadership, speed, defense, power, great coaching, a high national seeding and favorable path to Omaha.....you couldn't have asked for a more beautiful cake.
But don't let the bitterness of the destination spoil the beauty of the journey - it was truly a remarkable season and worthy of taking a few minutes to retrospect. The games are now long over and were televised live and have been analyzed by many more insightful than me, so let's skip past the details of the last two games and get right to the question.......
So what did we learn this year?
This team went 47-16; finished the regular season with the #1 RPI against a brutal schedule; swept arch-rivals Stanford and Long Beach State; went 8-1 on an epic 11-day southern road trip; had a Golden Spikes Award semi-finalist, an All-American pitcher and Co-Freshmen Pitchers of the Year in the Big West Conference. When they were good, they were as good as we've ever seen. The Titans were never challenged in the Regionals and Super Regionals - were we really that good or was it a cruel set-up for a good ol' fashioned Omaha come-uppance?
The question remains: "why?" Baseball is a cruel game and the answer may be nothing deeper than "they just played two lousy games at the wrong time...it happens." I can accept that answer. But I know there are many other questions to be asked and lessons to be learned. I have the utmost confidence those questions will be asked and the answers carefully considered.
To me, one of the most joyous days of the year is when the team reports to practice in the fall. It's funny - I think I enjoy a sun-drenched October afternoon sitting in the stands at Goodwin Field watching old favorites return and new faces anxious to impress, along with a handful of parents and hardcore fans, even more than a humid day in Rosenblatt Stadium with many people watching the team for the first time with the tag unremoved from their crisp new "F" hat.
The "Midnight Madness" practice was very cool, as was the "First to Practice, Last to Play" mantra. I love unifying theme messages like that and I hope they continue. Part of what made this ride so dramatic was how quickly and loftily the team peaked, how it fell on its tailbone and how it was able to regroup after the USC debacle. The pre-season preparation cycle undoubtedly impacts the peaks and valleys of the season - no team goes wire-to-wire without challenges and low periods - so the necroscopy should include review of those cycles.
After watching the team all fall, during the unsupervised scrimmages in January and during the February sessions, I thought the team was ready to jump out in a hurry. Opening night at home against TCU gave us some valid and false hints of things to come. Daniel Renken pitched reasonably well, but the bullpen got lit up. Khris Davis struck out four times and some fans wanted him immediately dispensed under Matt Haegman's bus, while Nick Ramirez went 4-for-4 in his collegiate debut and fellow freshman Tyler Pill roped a walk-off pinch-double to give the Titans an exciting 7-6 win. But the pitching staff, with all its preseason uncertainty, gave us plenty of cause for concern, surrendering 19 runs and 29 hits in the next two games - both losses.
The ship was quickly righted with a sweep of Stanford the following weekend, sandwiched around a pair of Tuesday wins at San Diego State - a nice way to get ready for the 11-day junket and the start of "Moustache March." In the Stanford finale, Khris Davis hit three home-runs and an indication of the breakout season he was about to enjoy became evident.
The southern trip began in Hattiesburg, MS, against the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles - red-hot at that time and subsequently a CWS participant. The Titans put on the greatest three-game display of baseball I have ever seen at any level. The Titans played big ball, small ball and hidden ball. The hitting was spectacular, but the pitching, defense and base-running were on par. But much more than the on-field clinic given by the Titans, the off-field hospitality of the USM fans is what I will remember most about this series in the years to come.....along with that incredible BBQ restaurant.
The sizzling play continued on Tuesday night in a 15-5 rout of Texas A&M and their passionate student body of hecklers and ice-throwers. It was a 'coming out party' of sorts for Noe Ramirez, who had already established his physical skills on the mound, but this game demonstrated his ability to perform in the utmost hostile environment.
From there, the Titans went to Stillwater, Oklahoma for pairs of games against the University of Rhode Island and host Oklahoma State. The Friday action was played in blustery cold, windy weather - the wind chill factor was in the low 20's - and I will always remember Coaches Bergeron and Lindgren refusing to give in and wearing short sleeves without jackets in the coaching boxes. The Titans pummeled URI, 17-3, for their fifth consecutive game scoring double-figure runs, before beating OSU, 8-4, in the nightcap. The Titans lost a game (finally) to Oklahoma State before winning a tight game against URI to end the trip a remarkable 8-1 and with the fans back home declaring them better than the 1995 juggernaut.
The first signs of trouble showed up the following weekend against Oral Roberts University. The Titans swept the three games, but there was a discernible reduction in energy and focus vs. what happened on the road trip. It was understandable - after being on the road with just 25 players and the coaching staff, it was inevitable the bonds would loosen upon returning home and to "normal" routines, like classes, friends, families, etc. But - what the heck - the team was winning nearly every game, it was ranked #1 in most polls, it had an historically superb RPI and even overcame a tough Friday loss and won its Big West Conference opening series at that graveyard out in Riverside, spanking the Highlanders 18-1 in the Sunday finale.
The winning continued when the Titans went to Tempe, Az and won the opener of a two-game set, 7-5, behind Jared Clark's home run and double, Gary Brown's three hits (including two doubles) and Joe Scott's two clutch RBI singles. By this time, Nick Ramirez' bat was starting to cool off, but he began moving up the bullpen depth chart with impressive performance after impressive performance. Against ASU, he pitched 4 1/3 inning of brilliant no-hit shutout relief.
But, alas, the calendar flipped to April and the moustaches were shorn - despite a record of 12-1 during the 21 days the crumb catchers were present and an overall 14-2 record in March. Years from now, they'll still be second-guessing the group shave that happened after the ASU win. The Titans lost the next day - their offense flushed down the sink with the whiskers, as they managed just five singles in a 3-1 loss. They lost 5 of 6 games, including 2-of-3 at home to BWC rival UC Irvine, digging themselves into an insurmountable Conference hole from which they would never dig themselves out. The hitting was weak, the bullpen was porous and the base-running ran the team out of innings time after time.
Coaching baseball is an awesome job. When the play works, you are heralded for "willingness to gamble," "aggressiveness," "knowing your personnel," and "outsmarting Murphy." But when those same decisions don't work, the fans behind the dugout or some idiot blogger with too much time on his hands questions your sanity, knowledge, fitness for duty and family heritage. What made it all the more frustrating was having seen how special this team could be when they were all on the same page. A lifeless 8-3 home loss might have seemed like the end of the world at the time, but it could not prepare any of us for what was about to happen.
There are no words adequate to describe the feelings that awful Thursday afternoon at Cal State Northridge as we learned of the tragic accident that left our friend, Jon Wilhite, fighting for his life, and which killed Courtney Stewart, Henry Pearson and Nick Adenhart. People sometimes marvel that I can vividly remember minute details of a baseball game without writing notes, yet I doubt I could have told you the score or even who was ahead as that game was played. In my blog that day, I wrote: "Eyes were full of tears, people hugged and prayed and held out hope that the next text message received would the one to let us know that everything was going to be okay."
Somehow, the Titans took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but the bullpen snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and let the Matadors tie it up. Darkness caused the game to be suspended in the twelfth inning, but Northridge prevailed the next day when it was completed.
Pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in what had to be the most awful circumstances to be worried about some dumb baseball game, the Titans came back and won the next two games, including an 8-0 complete game shutout in the finale by Tyler Pill. (It seemed great at the time, but a month later we would be looking back and wondering why a freshman was allowed to throw so many innings, particularly in one-sided games that the bullpen could have used the work.)
Things looked up after winning the final two at Northridge and at USC, 9-2, with the support of a Diamond Club bus trip to Dedeaux Field. But the end of ugliness was nowhere in sight. With a couple players sitting out the weekend because of team academic rule infractions, the Titans faced the University of the Pacific Tigers - a team they had beaten nineteen consecutive times. On Friday night, the Titans had the game in hand, 4-1, going to the top of the ninth inning. But for the second consecutive series opener against a perpetual BWC cellar dweller, the bullpen imploded and the Tigers broke the losing streak, 5-4. I don't think I've ever been as stunned or angered by a loss. For good measure, the Tigers banged out eighteen hits against Tyler Pill (who suffered his first collegiate loss after six wins) and the bullpen in the second game and won 14-10, to clinch the series. The Titans saved a modicum of dignity on Sunday with an 8-3 victory that started a six game winning streak. The team looked good in mid-week wins over San Diego and Pepperdine, but never really got it together in a road sweep of the hapless UC Davis Aggies the following weekend. The pitching was good against a bad-hitting opponent, but the offense was shaky, players lost track of game situations, and they just generally did not look like an Omaha-bound team.
The straw that broke the camel's back came the following Tuesday against USC, a team going nowhere with nothing to play for. The Titans got their asses handed to them, 9-3. The pitching was atrocious, the defense was uncharacteristically bad, there was lack of hustle, no timely hitting and a situation just seeming ready to explode. I was too embarrassed to blog: Samuel Chi wrote a one-sentence recap of the game: "Not to take anything away from the Trojans, but have the Titans played a worse game this season, including the Pacific series?"
Rumors abounded of cliques and divisions within the team and a certain amount of strife, which one would expect from such a capable team in such a funk. The Thursday practice was replaced by a "let's get everything out on the table" meeting, which concluded with some words of encouragement by noted sports psychologist Dr. Ken Ravizza.
It did not take long to see the results of that meeting. The Titans came out Friday night fired up and hustling and played a great all-around game, beating the UCSB Gauchos, 7-2. After sweeping Santa Barbara, they took two mid-week games against the Arizona Wildcats before heading to San Luis Obispo to take on the #13-ranked Cal Poly SLO Mustangs. The Titans ran their winning streak to seven games in taking the first two games before losing on Sunday afternoon.
The excellent play continued with the Titans taking 2-out-of-3 in a split-series against the UCLA Bruins, their opponents in the 2007 Super Regionals and the 2008 Regionals. A team left for dead in the discussions about national seeds when losing games to Northridge, Pacific and USC, the robust turn-about put the Titans back in the running. A strong showing against the team's final opponent just might get us over the hump - bring on those Dirtbags!
In the Friday opener against Long Beach State, Renken made the Dirtbags look like Little Leaguers. (Oops, sorry - those were actual Dirtbag Little Leaguers - my bad.) But he did grit out eight innings and a win as the Titans gained a close 4-3 win. Things were not as close on Saturday, as senior sluggers Jared Clark and Joe Scott went deep in a 7-1 win behind Noe Ramirez, who retired nineteen consecutive hitters after a little early trouble. The home run was Scott's first in 180 games and 439 at-bats with the Titans. The crowd went bananas when the laser left his bat: no doubt about it!
The Titans honored the seniors on the final day of the regular season: Jared Clark, Joe Scott, Dustin Garneau, Matthew Fahey, Jeff Newman, Shevis Shima and Jake Silverman. The celebration was moving and inspired the team to a 15-3 thrashing of the Dirtbags.
The Titans finished the regular season 42-14 and won 23 of their final 27 games, which vaulted them to a #2 national seeding when the NCAA brackets were announced on Memorial Day weekend. While some will point to the team meeting following the USC loss as turning around the season, most of us experts are quite certain it was the return of the moustaches. The Titans were also inspired about the remarkable survival and recovery by Jon Wilhite: not a day goes by when most of us don't read the family's journal and shake our heads in wonderment and awe.
Facing a Regionals field of Utah, Gonzaga and Georgia Southern, the Titans smoked their way through the first round of the playoffs. The team batted .476 and scored 41 runs in the three-game rampage. Khris Davis hit four home runs, while Dustin Garneau won Most Outstanding Player honors by hitting .583, allowing no stolen bases and making more stunning kick saves than Ken Dryden his senior year at Cornell. The mound trio of Noe Ramirez, Daniel Renken and Tyler Pill all performed well.
The Titans faced a much tougher opponent in the Super Regionals, but the results were about the same. The Louisville Cardinals showed up with their red mohawks and a lot of optimism after winning the Big East regular season and conference tournament plus their Regionals. But Daniel Renken pitched the first complete game shutout of his career in winning the opener, 12-0.
In Saturday's second game against Louisville, the Titans were inspired by the return to Goodwin Field of Jon Wilhite (photo courtesy Bryan Crowe) and his family and friends - was there any way they could possibly lose this game? Ummm....no. The Titans used their speed (five stolen bases in the first two innings) to take a quick lead they would never surrender. Noe Ramirez gave them eight innings of outstanding pitching and received excellent offensive and defensive support from his team in the 11-2 Omaha-trip-clinching victory.
So it was on to Omaha and a Saturday date with the Arkansas Razorbacks. Controversy immediately surrounded Coach Dave Serrano's decision to start Noe Ramirez in the opener, rather than Daniel Renken, normally the team's opening-game ace. I can understand and (to a degree) agree with the rationale that "we're trying to win the whole thing, not just the first game." Had the Titans won the opener, they would have had their #1 guy against LSU, perhaps the best team in the field. It was a gamble that didn't pay off......kind of like when I went to the casino in Council Bluffs my first night in town with a game plan to be at the poker tables for nearly two weeks. On the very first hand, I was dealt pocket jacks and made a big raise. The fellas from Louisiana and Virginia got out of the way, but the old buzzard from Arkansas called me. When another jack came out on the flop, I went all in.....and lost my entire two week bankroll when that damn Razorback drew to a flush on the river. In hindsight, it was probably an unnecessary gamble and it backfired on me big-time, but I'm going to learn from it and be a better player next time I am back in Council Bluffs.
Dave's gamble backfired also and the Titans lost the opener, 10-6. After a day off, they played an elimination game against the Virginia Cavaliers, a team that had already proven their mettle by beating SDSU phenom Stephen Strasburg and the #1-ranked UC Irvine Anteaters (twice) in the Regionals. The Titans took a quick 2-0 lead on a home run by Dustin Garneau, but Renken surrendered four runs in the second inning and the Titans could never catch up again. Remarkable stat: the four earned runs off Renken that inning were more than he had allowed in any game all season. Second remarkable stat: Fullerton trailed only 1 out of 45 innings in the Regionals and Super Regionals, but 17 out of 18 innings played in Omaha.....ouch!
Epilogue and Personal Thoughts
It was a great year...regardless of the disappointing ending. This was the 35th season of Division I baseball at Fullerton and the 16th CWS appearance - there are very few programs that would not trade places with us in a heartbeat. There were great wins (sweeps of Stanford and Long Beach State; the clinic in Hattiesburg; shutting up those raucous students at A&M and obliterating the Regionals and Super Regionals) and horrible losses (Northridge, Pacific twice, USC and, of course, the World Series games.)
But not every team ends their season with a dogpile, no matter how compelling the slogan or how talented the team. This was a team that made it one step farther than last year, but not as far as it was capable.
A lot of great things happened. Jared Clark put a cap to a sterling career here with great leadership and 82 RBI to go along with his .363 average and 12 home runs. Davis finally had the monster year: .328/16/58 with 17 stolen bases - he had the unenviable task of replacing Erik Komatsu and he did about as well as anybody could have hoped. Felly hit .396 and continued to be a great all-around player in the Titans' style of offense and defense. Sophomores Colon and Brown had great seasons and should be serious candidates for pre-season All American honors in 2010. Dustin Garneau and Joe Scott had great senior seasons. Garneau and Marcoe combined to throw out 30 of 53 would-be base stealers. I think we were all so busy being mad at Joe his first two seasons as a starter for not being Justin Turner or Blake Davis that we didn't really realize just how good a player Joe Scott was. Jeff Newman beats you a dozen different ways that don't show up in the boxscore. How can you not love watching Joey Siddons play?
When the final Baseball America rankings are announced next Monday, the Titans are likely to be in the Top 10 for the seventh consecutive season - the longest such current streak. Small solace for "2 and BBQ", but surely affirmation of the enduring success and prominence of the Fullerton baseball program.
I love the pitching staff potential for next year. This year, the freshmen and sophomores had a record of 39-10 - that gives us plenty to look forward to next year. The inexperience in Omaha of this year's starting rotation could be the experience in Omaha of next year's starting rotation.
With all the seniors and draft-eligible juniors, there are a lot of holes to fill next year, particularly in the position spots. But the core of Colon, Brown, Nick Ramirez, Joey Siddons, Billy Marcoe and Tyler Pill gives the Titans some good returning bats, while we'll get to see what red-shirts Matt Orloff, Cody Collins, Wes Borba and Austin Kingsolver can do next year. Plus we had two highly heralded bats on medical red-shirts last year: Corey Jones and Carlos Lopez. We won't know until after the August 17th pro signing deadline which of the signees will make it to campus, but it seems like Coach Brown and the staff have done another great job in recruiting.
To add a couple personal notes, I thoroughly enjoyed this season, particularly for the old friendships nurtured and the new ones founded. Through this blog and my "moonlighting" job as editor of the "Tuffy's Titans" newsletter, I got to spend time with some great people around the Titan Nation. Some were subjects of interviews and others were people that were there to cheer with when times were good, to cry with when they were tragic, to frown with when we played like crap and to exalt with when the team turned it around. I got to see this program closer than I ever had before and I am as impressed with the people behind the scenes every bit as much as those we cheer for on the field and in the dugout.
The feedback of the readers has been great - I appreciate it when this stuff pleases you as well as when it makes you wretch. Keep those cards and letters coming.
I especially enjoy the parents I have met and become close friends with. I make it a point never to give you a 'shout out' by name, lest anybody think your kid will get preferential treatment in this kangaroo press, but your support and friendship means a great deal to me. Early this year, parents of a new player came up to me and said, "Don, we really appreciate all the nice things you say about our son." I replied, "I just write what I see. I only hope you'll appreciate my honesty as much when he is not doing as well."
There are also great people scattered throughout every baseball program in the country. The people in Hattiesburg were great - it was so cool meeting the "Easy Eagle Rider", Butch Davis, the guy that drove his motorcycle from Mississippi to California last year to see Southern Miss play in Fullerton. Meeting fellow college baseball bloggers "Doctor Dan" and Eric Sorenson was also a personal highlight for me this year.
My thanks to the publishers of "TitanCentral.com" and "CSFBaseball.com" for giving me a place to publish my ramblings. Last year I made my debut with the recaps. This year I bought a camera and learned how difficult it is to do what the pros like Matt Brown and Bryan Crowe do. I vow to get better - it is a crazy high when I see something of mine with a photo credit somewhere in cyberspace.
All in all, it was a successful year and I extend my thanks to the players, coaches, administrators and friends of the program that makes it such a great thing to be a part of. I can hardly wait until that sunny day this October when a dozen of us gather in the stands to take our first look at the 2010 Titans....play ball!