Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Titans Salvage Finale in Swamp - Part 1

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans opened the 2012 season with the most formidable challenge possible: they traveled across country to play the top-ranked team in the country, the University of Florida Gators, compared recently to the 1927 Yankees and the 1995 Titans by CSUF coach Rick Vanderhook. The Gators have made deep runs in Omaha the past two seasons under Coach Kevin O’Sullivan, and they brought back all but two of their key position players, as well as their entire weekend pitching rotation, closer and set-up men. They also displayed some fantastic freshman talent.

Despite being an overwhelming underdog, the Titans played competitively in all three games, dropping the first two, 7-3 and 5-2, before making a scintillating comeback and winning the finale, 8-5. Despite their loss on Sunday, the Gators retained their #1 ranking in the polls released Monday, which shows me some respect for the Titans despite CSUF dropping out of Baseball America’s Top 25 rankings. Second-ranked Stanford swept tenth-ranked Vanderbilt and could have easily been justified to move up to the top of the polls.

It was a series in which the winning in each game put up a four-spot in an inning – for good measure, the Titans did it back-to-back innings on Sunday. In the Friday and Saturday losses, the Titans played the Gators even up except for a single big inning in each game.

Game 1: Gators 7, Titans

Matched against Gators ace Hudson Randall, Dylan Floro pitched exceptionally well and tamed a potent line-up for six innings, allowing just two solo home runs and another run on a misjudged flyball. The game was televised regionally and played before a crowd of 5,356, an all-time Gators record for opening day attendance, presumably there to see Vanderhook’s debut as a head coach. (Perhaps not – the stadium announcer called him “Rick Vanderbook.”)

The Titans drew first blood in the second inning on a double by Michael Lorenzen, a sacrifice by Anthony Hutting and an RBI groundout by Anthony Trajano, who reached base when freshman second-baseman Casey Turgeon’s throw to first ended up somewhere near the on-deck circle. The Gators tied it in the bottom of the inning when freshman Taylor Gushue hit the first pitch thrown to him in his collegiate career for an opposite-field home run. Gushue is a player to watch – two months ago, he was playing high school football and was expected to be a high selection in the MLB draft this spring. He graduated early and arrived on campus in January and earned a position as UF’s designated hitter on opening night.

Both starting pitchers dominated the next few innings until the Gators took a slim 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth on a single, stolen base and a two-out double on a high flyball down the leftfield line that Austin Kingsolver ran hard towards the foul line to get under after shading the left-handed hitter slightly into the gap. He overran the ball, which dropped harmlessly into fair territory. The Titans outfielders seemed to have difficulty with the lights, which were installed at McKethan Stadium in 1977 with a generous donation by Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner.

The Titans bounced right back, however, with two runs in the top of the sixth inning. Casey Watkins led off with a ground-rule double to rightfield and went to third on a single by Richy Pedroza. Derek Legg hit a slow bouncer to the right side to drive in the tying run, with Pedroza advancing to second. Carlos Lopez doubled to rightfield to give the Titans a short-lived 3-2 lead, chasing Hudson from the game (Randall – not me.) Lefty Steve Rodriguez replaced him and was dominant during his 2-1/3 innings of work.

Floro allowed a home run to Gators masher Preston Tucker to tie the game in the bottom of the sixth inning – a line drive that just kept rising and just made it over the glove of a leaping Ivory Thomas. With his pitch count (approximately 86) near where they wanted him for his first start of the season, the Titans opted to go to the bullpen to begin the seventh inning to avoid having an inexperienced reliever potentially enter a game in the middle of a jam. Freshman Jose Cardona struck out the first hitter he faced, but then the wheels came off the wagon. Josh Tobias reached base when Pedroza threw low and in the dirt on a hard-hit groundball, which was ruled an infield hit. (Don’t get me wrong – these Gators have a great hitting team – but the hometown official scorer does his part by ruling rather generously to the betterment of the local lads’ statistics.)

Two walks by Cardona ensued, which brought freshman Koby Gauna into the game in that situation we were hoping to avoid: bases loaded and just one out and a precarious one-run lead, which quickly vanished when Gauna plunked Daniel Piggot with a pitch to tie the score, 3-3. The next play was perhaps the changing point in the game. When Tucker lifted a flyball to shallow right-centerfield, Legg, Lorenzen and Thomas all converged on the ball. With Lorenzen’s rifle arm and its growing legacy, we want the ball in his hands, right? If Lorenzen catches it, there’s a good chance the runner bluffs down the line or gets thrown out at the plate to end the inning. But at the last second, Thomas called him off and Turgeon easily scored the go-ahead run. Gauna gave up two more runs on solid RBI singles before giving way to Dave Birosak (younger brother of former Titan Dustin Birosak), who shut the door by retiring all four Gators he faced.

With the lockdown pitching of Rodriguez and closer Greg Larson, the Titans bats were quieted in the final three innings. The Titans had seven hits, led by Lorenzen and Kingsolver with two each.

Game 2: Gators 5, Titans 2

“Second verse, same as the first.” (Sorry – I’m still tormented by childhood memories of my little brother Davey standing on a tree stump in an empty field near our house, singing Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry the VIII” for about six hours a day, every day, for six straight months. We moved a lot when I was a kid, but somehow Davey always found us.) Just as happened in the season opener, the Titans’ starting pitcher, Grahamm Wiest, performed very well in a match-up against an opposing star. (Sophomore Karson Whitson was the ninth overall selection of the 2010 MLB draft, but couldn’t reach contract terms with the San Diego Padres and ended up at UF, where he was 8-1, 2.40 ERA as a freshman during the Gators’ 2011 season when they finished runner-up to national champions South Carolina.) Also, the game was played evenly throughout, except for a big four-run inning that decided the outcome.

The Titans had Whitson on the ropes early, but as is often the case with elite pitchers, they let him off the hook and he settled into a groove. The Titans scored once in the first on a single by Legg and an RBI double by Lopez. After Wiest had a quick 1-2-3 inning, the Titans threatened again in the second when they loaded the bases with one out on a walk to Chad Wallach, a double by Kingsolver and a Trajano HBP. Pedroza ripped the ball hard, but right to the second-baseman for an inning-ending 4-6-3 double-play. A few feet away in either direction, this could have been a completely different ballgame.

The Titans extended their lead to 2-0 in the third inning on a walk to Lopez, a double by Lorenzen and an RBI groundout by Anthony Hutting. Meanwhile, Wiest allowed no hits through three innings, aided by catcher Wallach, who picked a runner off first base and threw out a would-be base-stealer at second base. Whitson continued to allow base-runners, but used his sinker (again) to induce a double-play to end the fourth inning.

The powerful Gators’ bats came alive in the fourth inning and they posted a four-spot to take command of the game. With one out, Pigott got the first UF hit of the game and scored on consecutive singles by Tucker and Mike Zunino. That darned freshman Gushue delivered a huge hit again, a triple to rightfield that gave the Gators a 3-2 lead and re-energized the crowd of 4,951. Gushue scored on a sacrifice fly – the ball was hit medium-deep to left-centerfield and Lorenzen was cranked up to attempt to gun the speedy runner out at the plate. But again, the corner outfielder converged and made the catch at the last instance, colliding with Lorenzen and allowing the run to score uncontested. In all likelihood, the runner would have made it anyways, but Lorenzen was demonstrably upset with the miscommunication.

From that point on, the story of the game was Gators reliever Austin Maddox, who threw the final four innings, allowing just one hit and no walks or runs. Having Maddox coming out of the bullpen in the sixth inning shows the sick talent on this team – he is a two-way stud with power at the plate and a fastball in the mid-90’s. He was 3-0, 0.67 ERA and 5 saves last year – and that was before he learned how to throw a filthy four-seamer!

Dimitri DeLaFuente and Christian Coronado pitched effectively in relief, allowing just one run in three combined innings. Kingsolver led the way with his second consecutive two-hit game, all of them hit hard.

Game 3: Titans 8, Gators 5

Okay, folks, we’re going to have to stop here – I have to work sometime! But I promise you, the story only gets better from here. See you soon ...

Continued in Part 2 ...

  • Photo 1: Koby Gauna bounces back to pitch a brilliant Game 3
  • Photo 2: Michael Lorenzen slides into second base
  • Photo 3: Austin Kingsolver, Ivory Thomas and Anthony Hutting celebrate victory
  • Complete photo gallery

1 comment:

Greg D said...

Awesome job Don. It was great meeting everyone this weekend.
Thanks for getting JD's home run on film. Priceless !!!
Greg Davis