Monday, March 12, 2012

Titans Rain on Aggies' Parade

By Don Hudson

The Titans made a stirring comeback this weekend and won their best-of-three series on the road against the sixth-ranked Texas A&M Aggies in a series played during a drought-busting deluge that dropped an estimated five inches of rain (up to 10” in some areas) over the four days the Titans were in town. With the wins, the Titans moved up four notches in the Baseball America rankings (from 19th to 15th), while the Aggies dropped down to 10th.

If you were there, it was a series you will never forget – truly an instant classic.

Game 1: “I Flew All the Way Out Here and Froze My Ass Off for This?”

Aggies 6, Titans 1

Flying into Houston and driving out to College Station on Friday, it seemed like there was a very realistic chance that you’d gone all that way and the entire series could get rained out. And after a dismal loss in the opener, you almost wished it had been rained out.

The start of the game was delayed by an hour: the official temperature at game-time was 47 degrees with a wind at 11 knots (13 mile per hour) and everything from your head to your feet was drenched – what a beautiful feeling. (I’d rather be lit on fire than sit around in wet clothes, so you can imagine how great I felt.)

The game began inauspiciously for the Titans: the Aggies’ ace and Michael Lorenzen’s teammate from last summer’s Team USA, Michael Wacha, struck out two in an easy 1-2-3 inning. Dylan Floro retired two of the first three Aggies he faced, but then surrendered two consecutive hits to give A&M a quick 1-0 lead. All three Aggies’ hits were on two-strike counts: every time their hitters got two strikes on them, they went up the middle and enjoyed success all night long.

After another three-up, three-down inning for Wacha, the Aggies scored thrice to make it 4-0 and a mismatch in the making. The Aggies, who entered the series with 40 stolen bases (more than 3 per game), were aggressive and ran with virtual impunity. The inning began with a bunt single and a stolen base. The inning included three hits and two stolen bases. Even though Floro threw over to first many times and delivered his pitches using a slide-step when there were base-runners, the Aggies were off to the races on his first motion to the plate.

The Titans finally got their first runner in the third inning when Keegan Dale reached on an error, but Wacha notched his fifth strike-out to end the inning unharmed. Whenever an A&M pitcher strikes out an opposing hitter, the scoreboard plays the opening from “The Rifleman”.

Carlos Lopez got the first hit of the game for the Titans in the fourth inning with two outs and advanced to third on a solid opposite field single by designated-hitter Matt Chapman, but Wacha retired Richy Pedroza to work out of the first mini-threat of the evening.

Wacha struck out the side in the top of the fifth inning (his 6th, 7th and 8th of the game) to make it an official game and the head groundskeeper and umpires conferred and covered up the infield with the tarpaulin. The rain had been steady throughout the game and it was bone-chillingly cold, but I don’t think that’s why they stopped the game. My guess is that Lucas McCain was running out of bullets and had to send Mark into town to buy some more ammo at Hattie’s general store. Mark returned an hour and six minutes later and play was resumed.

I’ll spare you the details of how it ended. By the time play resumed, the announced crowd of 3,399 had thinned down to a couple hundred, so we moved down closer to the field and got to hear the A&M fans second-guess every call that didn’t go their way – not just the close calls or significant calls, but every call. Every pitch. Plate umpire Doug Williams gave the boo-birds a thrill when he discreetly shot them the bird – pretty funny stuff.

Hope sprung briefly for the Titans when Wacha returned to the bump after the McCain delay and was wild. (Christian Coronado replaced Floro after the game resumed – I was surprised A&M coach Rob Childress send his Friday night guy back out there on a wet, miserable night with a 4-0 lead after an 1:06 delay.) The Titans plated their first (and only) run hitlessly: Derek Legg was hit by a pitch; Lopez reached on an error; Chapman drove in Legg on a sacrifice fly.

The Titans had thirteen batters retired on strikeouts and managed just two hits after the fourth inning: an eighth inning double by Lorenzen and Chapman’s second hit to rightfield in the ninth inning. The game ended ingloriously on a bunt back to the mound. Time to git along, li’l dogies.

Game 2: “Baseball 101”

Titans 6, Aggies 5 (11 innings)

It rained all night and throughout the morning, but there was a break in the storm on Saturday afternoon to begin the second game on time (2:05 p.m. local time). Thomas got on to start the game with a HBP and advanced on Derek Legg’s sacrifice, but got caught in no-man’s land between second and third and was removed from the basepaths with Lorenzen at the plate. Lorenzen was hit by a pitch and Lopez reached on an error, but Chapman was retired and a sense of continued despair was in the air. It didn’t feel any better when the Aggies took a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the second against freshman left Kenny Mathews, including two unearned runs.

The Titans had a chance to creep back in the third inning, but Kingsolver was called out on appeal for leaving third base early on a flyball to end the inning.

The deficit could have become larger in the bottom of the third inning when the Aggies notched three hits, but (finally) had their aggressive base-running backfire. Mathews caught a runner leaning the wrong way and he was out on a caught-stealing (1-3-6). With two outs and a runner on first, A&M’s clean-up hitter and biggest power threat, Jacob House, surprised everybody by dropping a nice bunt to third base, which he beat out. With third-baseman Pedroza charging to field the bunt, the runner from first tried to go to this and was gunned down from Lopez to catcher Casey Watkins, who hustled down to cover the base.

The Titans finally broke through in the fourth inning against A&M’s hurler Ross Stripling on a double by Lorenzen, and RBI double by Lopez, a sacrifice by Chapman and an RBI groundout by Pedroza. The score was 3-2 and the momentum seemed to shift just slightly. But A&M seemed ready to stifle the Titans’ rally when they scored again in the fifth inning on a pair of infield singles (a bunt and a ball that Mathews momentarily gloved but which squibbed away) and a perfectly executed suicide squeeze play. The lead was back to two and successful suicide squeezes tend to get the crowd excited, so the outlook for the Titans was darker than the thunderheads gathering over the prairies.

The Titans dusted themselves off in their next at-bat, though. Legg led off the sixth inning with a perfectly placed drag bunt for a hit and moved up on a scorching single by Lorenzen. All the second-guessers sitting in my chair were questioning the sanity and strategy of having Lopez sacrifice, especially when Chapman struck out with two runners in scoring position. But Pedroza, who had been scuffling so far in the series, dropped a Texas Leaguer (why not, we were deep in the heart of Texas) into shallow leftfield. When the throw to the plate trying to cut down Lorenzen was errant, Pedroza continued around the basepaths. A&M tried to cut Pedroza down heading to third base and the throw was offline and Richy came all the way around to give the Titans a startling 5-4 lead.

Meanwhile, Mathews was nails, throwing scoreless sixth and seventh innings. But in the bottom of the eighth, the Titans appeared to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Mathews struck out Tyler Naquin, who was hitting around .500 at the time and is one of the numerous studs in the middle of the A&M line-up. But with Pedroza guarding the line to prevent extra-base hits, A&M’s Matt Juengel hit a screamer to his left into leftfield for a one-out single. Mathews had done a great job shutting down the vaunted running game of A&M, but he tempted fate once too often and threw the ball past Lopez on a pickoff attempt, moving the tying run into scoring position.

Mathews’ pitch count was rising, but he remained in the game to face the dangerous left-handed House. On his 106th pitch, Mathews induced a weak foul pop-up behind third base. It wasn’t very high and the footing was muddy along the warning track area, but Pedroza got to the ball and had it in his mitt – but it popped out and House’s bat was extended. Mathews’ 107th pitch was ripped by House for a game-tying double. Reliever Dmitri De la Fuente worked out of further damage and the score was tied at 5-5.

The Titans went down quickly and easily in the top of the ninth. As the Aggies came to bat for the home half of the ninth, the head grounds chief met with the umpires.

De la Fuente walked the potential winning run to lead off the ninth inning – and received some serious one-on-one mentoring. Pitching coach Kirk Saarloos has made all the mound trips so far for the Titans this season, so you know the conversation is going to be earnest when the head coach comes out and the catcher and infielders remain away in their normal fielding positions. A sacrifice bunt put the winning run on second, with first base open. But rather than walk the next hitter, Jace Statum (.316), the Titans played aggressively and brought in freshman lefty Tyler Peitzmeier to pitch to him.

Peitzy was focused on the hitter and didn’t look back at the runner on his first pitch. When he didn’t look back again, the runner took off and stole third, forcing the Titans to draw their infielders and outfielders to cut down the winning run from third base. But Peitzmeier rose to the occasion and got a huge strikeout. Fellow freshman Willie Kuhl was summoned to face leadoff man Mikey Reynolds (.397) – and he struck him out to send the game to extra innings. Two HUGE strikeouts for the freshmen relievers.

Even though the rain had stopped for several innings, the umpires suspended play and the tarp was brought back on to cover the infield. The PA announcer – who was one of the best I’ve heard – informed the crowd that an intense storm was charging directly towards us.

The next two hours were surreal. For the first 20-25 minutes after the game was suspended, there wasn’t a drop of rain. Given the uncertainty of how many extra innings would be required, it was kind of a head-scratcher why they hadn’t continued play, but then the rain moved in.

All the while, Vanderhook had the rapt attention of his team. He talked, they listened. He yelled, they listened. He talked some more, they listened some more. He took a breather now and then, but dugout classroom wasn’t dismissed, even as the rain became heavier. Nobody was ‘saved by the bell’ from what Hook later told Kendall Rogers was his “Baseball 101” rain delay lecture.

The rain delay lasted 20 hours and 58 minutes, which was barely enough time for Hook to cover some of the team’s recent mistakes.

By the time they suspended the game two hours later, the field was being soaked by a classic Texas downpour, with lightning crashing down nearby and a hailstorm brewing. As we left the field, I think all of us felt we had seen our last baseball for the weekend, going home with a loss and a tie that should have been a win.

But hope springs eternal – until we saw that the weather on Sunday morning was just as miserable as it had been since the team arrived on Thursday. I kept looking at Mike Greenlee’s tweets to confirm the games had been canceled and we could all sanely stay indoors, but no such announcement was forthcoming. It seemed insane to even stick around – I was ready to pull the plug around 11:00 and get out of Dodge. Mike Lopez and I even discussed the parable about the difference in a bacon-and-egg breakfast between the chicken and the pig: “The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.” I decided to be a pig and stick around to see what would happen – man, was I glad I did!

The game was resumed at 1:55 p.m. CDT – did I mention we also lost an hour of sleep due to the time change, in addition to everything else? There was a travel curfew announced for the final game – no inning could start after 5:30 p.m.

Lopez made a bid to win it in the tenth inning when he launched a drive deep to right-centerfield which might have gone out on a warmer, less damp day, but it stayed in the ballpark for a double. But he was stranded, and Kuhl returned to the mound after the lengthy delay. He threw a pivotal 1-2-3 tenth inning to keep the score deadlocked, 5-5.

The Titans pushed the go-ahead run across in the top of the eleventh. Anthony Trajano stroked a ball inside the third-base line for a one-out double. After falling behind 0-2 in the count, Kingsolver battled back and won a seven-pitch at-bat, sending a perfectly placed bouncer up the middle, over the pitcher’s head into centerfield to score Trajano.

Lorenzen came in to close it out – and it took him thirteen pitches to retire the Aggies on two K’s and a groundout to Pedroza. After his previous dropped ball had given House a second chance, I was very glad that Richy made the last play of the game.

Game 3: “The Freshmen Earn their Spurs”

Titans 4, Aggies 3

When the rubber game of the series began, it was like déjà vu all over again for the Titans. They were facing another pitcher with glittering stats coming in: Rafael Pineda was 2-0, with an ERA of 1.00 and 18 K’s and just 10 hits allowed.

Just like on Saturday, the Aggies posted a three-spot in the second inning. The Aggies got three hits and stole two bases in the inning and seemed to have their mojo back. Titans’ freshman pitcher J.D. Davis averted further damage when he picked a runner off first to end the inning.

Pineda mowed the Titans down through three innings, facing the minimum number of batters (nine). One runner got on by error but was erased in a double-play.

The Aggies have great fans – they are knowledgeable and witty – except for the two jackasses sitting behind us. There was a fat guy and his fat kid who couldn’t come up with anything better than “Ohhhhh…..yeahhhhh!!!” whenever anything went their team’s way. I’m not talking about big plays that make a difference – these two nitwits were doing their best Randy “Macho Man” Savage “Ohhhhh…..yeahhhhh!!!” impersonations every time the Aggies pitcher threw a strike or our pitcher threw a ball.

With one out in the top of the fourth, Legg broke up the no-hitter with another perfectly placed drag bunt to the left of the mound. Anxious to keep the no-no alive, Pineda threw the ball to the invisible fielder covering the base and Legg advanced to second on the error. Lorenzen then found a gap in right-center and belted a double to cut the deficit to 3-1. After Lopez grounded out to move Lorenzen to third, Chapman launched a drive deep to left-centerfield. There was no doubt he had burned the outfielder, but did it have enough to make it out? The ball came down, hit the top of the fence and landed behind the fence for a two-run homer that tied the score.

In unison, the small throng of Titans fans in the upper deck down the third base side started screaming “Ohhhhh…..yeahhhhh!!!” It was incredible. For that one moment, a group of perhaps 20 people drowned out the stadium. Even the Aggies radio announcer said, “That must be Chapman’s parents.” It was classic. The two jackasses behind us never said a word the rest of the game.

Now it’s 3-3: game on!

The Aggies got a runner aboard with two out in their half of the fourth inning, but Davis picked off another one and you could just feel the momentum had shifted to the Titans.

When Davis surrendered a leadoff single in the bottom of the fifth inning, the game’s second big turning point occurred: Grahamm Wiest, who started the season as the #2 starter but had been shut down since the opening weekend, came into the game. He was dazzling: his threw an assortment of pitches, but his sinker was unhittable. He struck out two hitters and got out of the inning.

Wiest and the Texas A&M battled it out for the next few innings: great pitching on both sides. The Titans threatened in the sixth when they stranded two runners, but the game moved along at a nice pace, with both teams watching not only the scoreboard, but also the clock as we moved within an hour of the travel curfew. Wiest pitched four shutout innings in his return to mound duties, striking out five.

It turned out great that the game was tied, because neither team was incentivized to pull shenanigans to either slow down or speed up the game’s pace.

The Titans came to bat at 5:19 p.m. – clearly the ninth inning would be the game’s last, so it added a whole new element of strategy playing for either a win or a tie.

Chapman singled sharply to leftfield with one out in the ninth inning. The Titans eschewed using a pinch-runner for Chapman, who then tore it up and made it to third base on a base-hit by Pedroza, who advanced to second on the throw. With first base open and one out, the Aggies went by the baseball book and intentionally walked Anthony Trajano to set up a force at every base and a potential double-play.

Anthony Hutting was announced as a pinch-hitter for Chad Wallach, but A&M decided to stick with their side-arming righthander Kyle Martin, who had pitched brilliantly during the series. On the first pitch thrown to him, Hutting smashed the ball hard on the ground towards the first-base bag. The first-baseman was playing halfway and the ball got to him in a split second: he had to backhand it like a hockey goalie (“Kick save and a beauty!!!”) and the puck – oops, baseball – bounced away from him momentarily and he had no chance to make a play on Chapman at the plate.

The game moved to the bottom of the ninth with the Titans holding a 4-3 lead and the curfew time expired. Lorenzen was summoned to try to get his second save of the day.

Lorenzen overpowered the first batter, who he struck out. His fastball topped out at 97 mph. The next batter was hitting .200, so he went up looking for a walk: he never swung at the first five pitches. Ball-ball-called strike-ball-called strike. The count went full and Lorenzen threw him the Linda Ronstadt fastball (e.g., Blue Bayou) – he struck him out on the high cheese. Needing just one more out, Trajano’s low throw to first was dug out of the dirt on a great backhand scoop by Lopez to end the game and clinch the series.


So what did we learn this weekend?

A lot. When this team is bad, they’re lousy. But they are taking on the toughness that has characterized Titans teams in the past and they have shown themselves capable of playing with any team in the country. When they play their best – which I believe we have yet to see throughout an entire series and perhaps even a game – they are extremely good.

Texas A&M has a terrific team – even after losing this series, they are hitting .310 as a team while holding their opponents to a .200 batting average. As we went through the A&M batting order the first time through on Friday, we kept looking at their averages on the scoreboard waiting for the weak part of the order – we got past the .388 hitters and got to the .500 hitters before tapering off to a few .340 hitters. They run the bases aggressively, had some cannons in the outfield and had a deep and talented pitching staff. Plus Rob Childress and his coaching staff do a great job. The Aggies made an uncharacteristic number of defensive errors in the series, but they hustled and executed the “little things” that make a team successful. Make no mistake – the Titans beat a very good ballclub this weekend.

It will be interesting to see how the batting order shapes up over the next couple weeks before starting conference play. After the USC debacle on Tuesday, the batting order was shaken up, most notably moving Ivory Thomas into the leadoff spot, and putting Lorenzen and Lopez back-to-back in the 3-4 positions. Something had to change. In the Florida series, the Titans clean-up hitters went 6-for-13 with 4 RBI (3 on the bomb by J.D. Davis). But in the subsequent nine games (including eight at home), the clean-up hitters went 3-for-31 (.097) with 2 RBI.

The real key to the batting order may be the continuing development of freshman Chapman. Batting in the fifth spot (e.g., protecting Carlos Lopez), he went 4-for-11 (.364) with 3 RBI and a home run against A&M. That could be a huge plus for this line-up if Chapman and Davis can be consistent producers and occasional power threats.

Coach Vanderhook coached his ass off this weekend and practically willed his team to victory. His teaching style isn’t exactly Miss Peach – he can be brutal and blunt – but his knowledge and passion for the game are boundless. For practical purposes, this series can be divided in half and the line of demarcation was Hook’s “Baseball 101” classroom during the 20:58 rain delay. Before the delay, the Titans had played two horrible games (e.g., the USC loss on Tuesday and the A&M opener on Friday). When play resumed on Sunday, the Titans played with a determination that they simply were not going to lose. They were on the road against a terrific and highly ranked opponent, in miserable weather, in a hostile environment where the home team had not lost a non-conference weekend series in seventeen years. There were unlimited opportunities to fail, but the Titans found a way to succeed.

Perhaps an overlooked aspect in the series turnaround was keeping the Aggies’ running game in check in the second and third games. The old baseball axiom was on display that “you can’t steal first.” It was key that the five Titans pitchers in Game 2 allowed just one walk in eleven innings – and that walk starting the bottom of the ninth resulted in an earful from Hook. Mathews held the runners close and picked one off at a key juncture (technically a caught-stealing). J.D. Davis had two pick-offs on Sunday and catcher Chad Wallach gunned down a would-be base-stealer on one of the rare times the Titans have pitched out this season.

I hope that the series against Texas A&M extends beyond its initial home-and-home two year term. The series against TCU has been good for both programs, and I’d love to see the same with Texas A&M, although their transfer into the SEC may preclude them from scheduling ranked teams as out-of-conference opponents beyond their existing commitments. Playing in the SEC, you certainly don’t need strong out-of-conference competition to bolster your RPI.

The friendliness of Texans is legendary and it was certainly on display in abundance this weekend. The Aggie fans are probably the most fervent supporters of their team as possible and they love to try to rattle the opposing team – but it is done in a humorous and respectful manner. We had a lot of bonding time during the rain delays and everyone was just as nice as could be to their guests from Fullerton.

I’d like to give a special shout-out to Brian Bachik, who gave me a VIP tour of the recently made-over Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park. You talk about a committed fan: Brian and his son are season ticket holders who come to the games from their home in Waco, which is around 90 miles away. I always love chatting college baseball with serious fans of the various teams we play on road trips. I really enjoyed meeting Brian and his son and hope they come out our way when the Titans host the Aggies.

The stadium make-over is incredible. Since the Titans played a midweek game last year at Olsen Field, a major project turned the facility into a baseball shrine. I’ve heard various estimates of how much was spent, but the ones I believe are in the $25 million range, give or take a few mill. Much of it was spent on spectacular facilities for the players and coaches, as well as a VIP boosters’ lounge area that is on par with some of the nicest facilities I’ve seen at major league stadiums. They also did a great job with the appearance of the ballpark on its outside.

A few years ago, Texas A&M invested millions of dollars in state-of-the-art drainage technology for all their outdoor athletic fields. They have a system below the field which acts as a giant vacuum that sucks away the accumulated water and makes the fields playable after heavy rains with minimal delay. They say their football field can take ten inches of rain in an hour and be able to play 45 minutes later without a hint of lingering wetness. It was absolutely amazing how much water fell on this field and it played perfectly. Kudos to the grounds crew for getting all three games played – I’d have bet the ranch it wouldn’t have happened.

Now it’s time to see whether this weekend was a turning point – or just another indication of the Titans playing to the level of their competition. I really got the feeling it was a turning point. Let’s get out and support the team this week and build some momentum heading to the road trip to play Arizona State.

Go Titans!


TitanNick85 said...

Did an NCAA baseball umpire really flip the Aggies fans the bird? LOL hilarious! Thanks for the report, Don!

Diablos06 said...

Don . . . your knowledge, wit and details of the weekend brings many of us to this amazing facility to relive this memorable weekend, my sincere appreciation for playing the role of the pig, your committed indeed to us Titan fans.

DonSectionK said...

TN85, it was discreet but definitive. The fans were on this guy mercilessly by name....apparently he has worked their games for many years. We have BWC umps that we hold in similar disdain at Goodwin who I'm sure sometimes would like to flip us the bird.