Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Titans Salvage Finale in Swamp - Part 2

By Don Hudson

Game 3: Titans 8, Gators 5

(Editor's note: see Part 1 of this story, which discusses Games 1 and 2 of the series.)

So where were we? The Titans had played two very competitive games against the top-ranked Florida Gators in Gainesville, losing twice but showing some very positive signs.

In the Sunday finale, the Titans faced junior left-hander Brian Johnson, tabbed as a potential first-round draft choice, making his first appearance on the mound in an official game since being knocked unconscious by an errant throw from catcher Mike Zunino during the SEC Tournament last year. Facing their first lefty of the season, the Titans showed their considerable depth and adjusted the starting line-up to include just one left-handed hitter, Carlos Lopez.

The Titans did not notch either a hit or run in the first two innings, but did work counts and got Johnson’s pitch count up to 38, including a walk, a balk and a HBP. The high early pitch count later became a factor in the game, as he was working on a short pitch count in his mound return. Johnson was stellar, allowing no runs, two hits, a walk and five strikeouts in his four innings on the mound.

Freshman left-hander Kenny Matthews, a 12th-round draft selection of the New York Mets last spring, made his mound debut for the Titans. After an uneventful first inning, Matthews retired the first batter in the second before putting himself in a hole with a streak of wildness. He hit two consecutive batters before getting the second out on a strikeout. However, facing a daunting Gators line-up in his collegiate debut, Matthews couldn’t close the door without damage. He walked Casey Turgeon to load the bases and then plunked leadoff man Nolan Fontana off the helmet with a pitch to drive in the game’s first run. Leading 1-0 without a hit, Daniel Pigott’s followed with a two-run single and it looked like the rout was on.

While the actual clouds had been replaced by bright sunshine, the metaphoric thunderheads continued to gather in the bottom of the third inning. UF catcher Mike Zunino singled leading off, bringing Koby Gauna in from the bullpen to replace Matthews. As you’ll recall from Part 1, freshman Gauna had made his Titans debut on Friday and had been roughed up. When he was greeted by a double to leftfield by Austin Maddox, the Gators fans throughout McKethan Stadium could smell the blood in the swamp. But Gauna gave the Titans a huge momentum shift when he worked out of the mess with no runs allowed, with a foul-out to catcher Casey Watkins (on a ball out of play blown back by strong winds), a strikeout and an infield pop-out.

The Gators 3-0 lead held up through the fourth inning, with Johnson and Gauna exchanging goose-eggs. Gauna was aided by a crisp 4-6-3 double-play to end the inning, the Titans’ first of the young season.

With Johnson reaching his pitch count limit early, Gators’ skipper Kevin O’Sullivan sent Jonathan Crawford out to the mound to start the fifth inning. That didn’t work out so well – he faced seven batters and surrendered five hits and a walk. Greg Velazquez walked and advanced to second on a wild pitch. With a three-run lead in the middle innings, the Gators’ infield defense played back, which Richy Pedroza took advantage of by squirting a bunt single just out of Crawford’s reach. One out later, Michael Lorenzen made it 3-1 with an RBI single deep into the shortstop hole. Ivory Thomas followed with a line-shot RBI double off the left-field wall to make it 3-2. Carlos Lopez then bounced a hard chopper over the third-baseman’s head into leftfield that gave the Titans a 4-3 lead. J.D. Davis followed with a chopped single almost identical to Lopez’s. Two pitchers and a Watkins HBP later, the Titans left the bases loaded and the Gators’ fans seemed relieved that the damage had been controlled.

After coming back every previous time the Titans had taken a lead during the series, it seemed like a Gators comeback would be swift when smasher Preston Tucker led off the bottom of the fifth with a double, and the Titans bullpen began stirring. But Gauna was up to the challenge, striking out the dangerous clean-up hitter Zunino before the next two batters flied out to Lorenzen.
Gators closer Greg Larson, who had entered the game to work out of the fifth-inning jam, gave up a leadoff double to Pedroza, who advanced to third on a sacrifice by Derek Legg. O’Sullivan brought his infield in with Lorenzen coming up – it worked for him, as Pedroza was unable to advance on a groundout to the second-baseman. With Lopez coming up after Ivory Thomas was hit by a pitch, the Gators brought in southpaw Steve Rodriguez, who had stifled the Titans’ bats in the series opener. This time, Lopez came through with the Titans first two-out RBI hit of the season, giving the Titans a still-slim 5-3 lead.

Rodriguez was left in the game to face the right-handed J.D. Davis, who delivered a prodigious three-run homer that completely left the yard, clearing the bleachers beyond the leftfield wall. Rodriguez apparently took exception to some of the post-bomb celebration and he threw the next pitch behind Austin Kingsolver, resulting in immediate ejection from the game.

The Gators have a great line-up and play in a typical bandbox stadium you see down south, and with the wind blowing out, an 8-3 lead seemed anything but comfortable with four more innings for the home team to bat. Gauna continued to scatter hits, but held onto the five-run lead until the bottom of the seventh inning. The Titans also put runners aboard, but did not score against the final three of the eight Gators pitchers they faced.

Seemingly on fumes, Gauna came out to pitch the seventh inning. Pigott roped a line-drive headed towards the leftfield corner before it was intercepted on an amazing body-parallel-to-the-ground diving catch by Austin Kingsolver. (If you saw it, you probably flashed back to that catch Carl Yastrzemski made at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the ninth inning on April 14, 1967 to rob Tommy Tresh of an extra-base hit and to keep Billy Rohr’s no-hitter bid alive in his major league debut.) It was not only spectacular, but also very meaningful, as Tucker followed with another of his laser rising-line-drive home-runs. With two outs and a runner on base, Gauna was given further support by another incredible diving catch, as Michael Lorenzen robbed a would-be double that would have brought the tying run to the on-deck circle.

Christian Coronado took over for Gauna to begin the eighth inning and surrendered one run on two singles, sandwiched around a passed ball, making the score 8-5. When the Titans stranded Watkins, who had singled and advanced on a sacrifice by Keegan Dale, in the top of the ninth, anticipation mounted as Lorenzen warmed up to make his debut as closer, facing the brutal 3-4-5 meat of the Gators’ line-up.

Lorenzen came in throwing gas – his first pitch speed was shown on the scoreboard at 97 mph. But in a classic power-versus-power match-up, Preston Tucker prevailed with a line-drive base hit to start the inning. Lorenzen threw some filthy pitches: the 96-97 mph fastballs were one thing, but the 92 mph bender impressed me the most. Zunino got sawed off and lifted a feeble pop-up towards second-baseman Legg. I’m not exactly sure what Tucker was thinking – if anything – but he wandered too far off first and was doubled off when Lopez darted behind him and took the throw from Legg. (He may have been hedging that Legg would let it bounce and he got caught with his hand in the coconut.)

It was a day of significant firsts: first win for Koby Gauna, first save for Michael Lorenzen, first home-run for J.D. Davis and the first win as a head coach for Rick Vanderhook. The Titans knocked out fifteen hits, led by Lorenzen, Lopez and Davis with three each and Pedroza with two.


So what did we learn this series?

This team with its inexperienced pitching staff held its own in all three games in a hostile SEC stadium environment and, with a better bounce here, a two-out hit there and better damage control in the opponents’ big inning (e.g., allowing perhaps just two runs instead of four), this series could have easily gone the Titans’ way.

Dylan Floro and Grahamm Wiest held their own against two of the nation’s elite starting pitchers, but the depth and experience of the Gators’ bullpen was a huge advantage for them in the first two games. While all three ‘true’ freshmen that threw this weekend for CSUF took some lumps in their debuts, the experience is incredible and will pay huge dividends down the road. If your first game out of high school was on the road in the hostile environment of an SEC ballpark, in front of an opening game record crowd in a regionally televised game against the #1 team in the country, you might have some shaky moments too.

I was very impressed with the confidence displayed by the coaching staff in Koby Gauna, who bounced back from his inauspicious debut on Friday with five innings of relief in winning the series finale on Sunday, allowing just one run while scattering six hits.

We also learned not to expect many called strikes on the road in an SEC ballpark against the local team’s superstars. The Gators have incredible hitters, led by Preston Tucker and Mike Zunino. But they seem to get an extra strike every at-bat, reminding me of the time a rookie catcher complained to the plate umpire about why he had ruled a pitch a ball with Ted Williams at the plate. The umpire told the catcher, “If it was a strike, Mr. Williams would have swung.”

There were some notable individual performances. Austin Kingsolver hit the spit out of the ball, going 5-for-9 (.556), along with Michael Lorenzen (.462) and Carlos Lopez (.412 with 5 RBI). Lorenzen’s debut as a closer was impressive, as was the Friday performance by “situational left-hander” Dave Birosak. The side-arming transfer Birosak will be tough on left-handed hitters, but it should be noted that the first batter he faced was the talented freshman switch-hitter Taylor Gushue, so he actually retired a right-handed batter with two men on base.

With a young team, sometimes progress is measured by improvement, not just wins. The pitching and defense both improved from Friday to Saturday to Sunday. There were zero Titans errors in the series, which is encouraging but a little misleading given the propensity of the official scorer to inflate statistics with generous rulings of hits instead of errors. There were a couple critical misplays on Friday that contributed to the defeat. The defense was decent on Saturday, except for the miscommunication between the outfielders. But on Sunday, the defense was amazing. Not only were all the routine plays executed flawlessly, the seventh inning catches by Kingsolver and Lorenzen may have been the best pair of catches I’ve ever seen in the same inning in the past seventy years. Watkins and Wallach both played well behind the dish in the series.

But what I liked the most in this series was how the Titans passed a major gut check. After losing the first two games and trailing 3-0 in the finale with two runners in scoring position and nobody out, they got up off the matt and fought their way back.

There were two instances Sunday that symbolized the Titans’ refusal to back down from anybody, even the big, bad bully in his home sandbox. First was when the pitcher intentionally threw behind Kingsolver’s back and was banished from the game. While emotions stirred throughout the stadium, Kingsolver calmly waited while the replacement moundsman took his unlimited warm-up pitches and then lined a seed up the middle for a base-hit.

But my favorite moment was one of those classic games-within-a-game that make baseball so rich yet don’t show up in the boxscore. It happened in the sixth inning when the Titans were clinging to the 4-3 lead, with Pedroza on third when Ivory Thomas was hit by the pitch. As reliever Rodriguez was warming up, Ivory was in the base-path intently studying the pitcher’s motion from the actual location where he would be running. The UF infielders brought out a practice ball to stay loose, with the first-baseman tossing grounders like they do between innings. Except Ivory was directly in their way, which prompted shortstop Fontana and first-baseman Ramjit to start yelling at him to “Get out of the way!” Rodriguez even looked over a couple times as the volume increased – the Gators infielders even threw balls directly towards Ivory, but he never said a word to them and focused on studying the pitcher’s motion. Lopez followed with his RBI single and Davis jacked the next ball back to somewhere near Tallahassee – the way Ivory Thomas stood his ground reflected the way the team closed out the weekend.

If this is a sign of things to come, this ought to be a very fun season. See you Friday.

Go Titans!

  • Photo 1: Michael Lorenzen closes out Game 3 victory
  • Photo 2: J.D. Davis is mobbed by teammates after a mammoth home run
  • Photo 3: Koby Gauna bounces back to pitch a strong series finale
  • Complete photo gallery

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