Friday, March 30, 2012

Titans Split With Sun Devils

By Don Hudson

In a mid-week showdown between two perennial Division 1 college baseball powerhouse programs, the evenly matched Cal State Fullerton Titans and Arizona State University (ASU) Sun Devils split a pair of games this week at Packard Stadium in Tempe, AZ. The games were the final tune-up for the Titans before they begin Big West Conference action at home on Friday night against the Cal State Northridge Matadors.

Game 1: “Are We Ever Gauna Hit?”

Sun Devils 1, Titans 0

The Titans wasted numerous early opportunities, as they erased runners and destroyed rallies by grounding into three double-plays in the first five innings and lost another runner on a busted steal attempt. After posting seven hits in the first 4-1/3 innings, the Titans were no-hit the rest of the game by a triumvirate of ASU relievers. With their offensive ineptitude, the Titans were shut out for the second consecutive game and squandered a brilliant pitching performance by Koby Gauna and relievers Dimitri De la Fuente and Dave Birosak.

It was only the third time since the inception of the Titans Division 1 program in 1975 that they had been shut out in consecutive games. The first occurrence was in the 1982 College World Series (versus Wichita State and Maine) and the most recent was in 1997 (a pair of 2-0 losses at USC and at UCSB).

After the shutout in the final game against Oral Roberts, the Titans came out with a new-look line-up which included Richy Pedroza leading off and playing second-base; Anthony Hutting moved up to second; Michael Lorenzen and Carlos Lopez in the 3-4 spots; J.D. Davis was the designated hitter; and Anthony Trajano inserted at shortstop, with Matt Chapman shifting to third-base.

Pedroza led off the game against ASU starter Zak Miller with a crisp single to rightfield, but was erased on the first of the double-plays. Similarly, Lopez singled to open the second inning, but the Sun Devils again turned the double-play to avoid an early deficit.

Meanwhile, Gauna gave the Titans good pitching on its side. He threw a 1-2-3 first inning and his defense supported him with a 5-4-3 double-play in the second inning after he had allowed a leadoff walk. The Titans turned another deuce in the third inning after a leadoff single, the first of the game allowed by Gauna. Fullerton got a break when Drew Stankiewicz hammered a triple to leftfield but was ruled out on appeal for missing first-base.

The futility continued for the Titans in the fourth inning. With one out, Lorenzen singled, but was thrown out from here to Quartzsite trying to steal second-base. The Devils pitched out, Lopez took the pitch and Lorenzen looked back towards the plate as though he thought it was a hit-and-run. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be a hit-and-run or not: it looked like it, but I’ve heard otherwise. Regardless, Lorenzen was erased. Lopez then belted a ball deep off the wall in right-centerfield for a double that would have easily scored Lorenzen from first. But after already grounding into two DP’s and having a relatively slow batter at the plate, it’s hard to fault the effort to make something happen in what was already shaping up as a low-scoring pitchers’ duel.

After Gauna threw a 1-2-3 fourth inning, the Titans had another chance to take a lead kiboshed by a double-play. Davis hit a one-out double into the gap in right-centerfield – he went with the pitch and hit it hard. Trajano hit a hard bouncer toward third-baseman Stankiewicz – which caused Davis to hold up to see whether or not he would have a play, lest he remove himself from scoring position by running into an out at third. The ball scooted over Stanky’s head into leftfield for a single, but third-base coach Chad Baum held up Davis. I think the runner and coach both played it right, but the ball was not handled very swiftly by the Sun Devils and Davis might have made it had he been sent. ASU went to the bullpen and brought in Robert Ravago a strikeout pitcher who induced catcher Chad Wallach to hit the ball up the middle for an easy 4-6-3 double-play to end the threat.

Things got interesting in the bottom of the fifth inning. ASU clean-up hitter Abe Ruiz, usually a dead pull hitter with great power (7 home runs already this year) hit a great pitch by Gauna to the opposite field for a base hit – nothing more you could ask from your pitcher. But then Gauna hit the next batter (casually leaned into the pitch and smugly took his base). The next batter put down a good bunt, fielded cleanly by Chapman, but Pedroza simply muffed the catch covering first-base and the bases were loaded with no outs. With memories of Gauna’s mid-inning stumbles vs. USC and Washington State still fresh in memory banks, my stomach was probably as queasy as Casey Watkins’, who had food poisoning and was unable to play in the series.

But Gauna stepped up big-time. The next batter popped out to Trajano in short leftfield – no chance for the runners to advance. The next batter hit a high chopper towards the mound – the kind where the pitcher can’t do anything except plea “Please come down sometime soon!” The ball came down in time for Gauna to throw home for the force-out of the lead runner. The next batter grounded to shortstop to complete the Houdini-esque escape by Gauna.

The Sun Devils did finally post the game’s first – and ultimately only – run against Gauna in the sixth inning, making him a hard-luck loser. The Sun Devils’ leadoff hitter, Andrew Alpin, touched Gauna for a double down the rightfield line, which brought Dimitri De la Fuente from the bullpen. The Titans got a break when the next batter popped out to Wallach attempting to bunt, but Alpin stole third and was driven in on an RBI-single by Joey DeMichele.

There’s nothing left to talk about offensively for the Titans in this game. They went 1-2-3 in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. They would have also gone 1-2-3 in the ninth inning, except Lorenzen reached base on a passed ball when he struck out with what should have been the game’s final out. The Titans had an unexpected pardon from the governor, but the dangerous Lopez grounded out to end the game.

Lopez and Trajano each had two of the Titans’ seven hits. Gauna, De la Fuente and Birosak limited the Sun devils to just five hits, but it wasn’t enough, as the Titans’ string of scoreless innings was extended to nineteen innings.

Game 2: “We’re Now Playing for the Bus Ride Home!”

Titans 9, Sun Devils 5

Something had to change. Anything. With nineteen scoreless innings behind them and a 375-mile bus ride ahead of them, it was imperative for the Titans’ offense to make something happen in the series finale on Wednesday, lest the trip home seem like 750 miles.

Some things did change. In perhaps the most visible change, Rick Vanderhook was stationed in the third-base coach’s box, a sight quite familiar to Titans’ fans for many years but the first since becoming head coach. Strategy or just trying to shake up the luck? Your guess is as good as mine.

Both teams took the field Wednesday evening with heavy hearts after learning of the passing of music legend Earl Scruggs. The famous banjo player and his partner, Lester Flatts, wrote and played many classics, but were best known for the epic “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” Frankly, I would have completely understood had the game been cancelled.

But the game wasn’t cancelled and the “new” third-base coach immediately brought an end to the nineteen inning scoring drought.

Pedroza led off with a single, as he had done in the opener. But with the wounds still open from the previous game’s double-plays, the Titans had Trajano hit-and-run, which advanced Pedroza into scoring position on a groundout. Lorenzen then dropped a single in front of the rightfielder, who was playing somewhere near the Maricopa County line, scoring Pedroza with the game’s first run.

Freshman left-hander Tyler Peitzmeier started for the Titans, perhaps chosen because the three best hitters in the ASU line-up hit left-handed and the breeze was once again blowing out towards rightfield. The anticipated starter was J.D. Davis, who warmed up a couple times during the game but was never summoned. Peitzmeier allowed a single to DeMichele in the first inning, but retired the dangerous Ruiz on an assortment of breaking balls.

The double-play bug came back in the second inning. Davis and Austin Kingsolver had back-to-back singles, but Wallach grounded into a double-play. There was a momentary discussion between Vanderhook and the umpiring crew after Kingsolver was ruled to have interfered at second-base, which was a moot point because ASU easily retired Wallach at first despite Kingsolver’s hard slide resulting in an off-target throw to first.

ASU had Peitzmeier on the ropes in the second inning, as the first four batters all hit the ball hard: single, line-out to rightfield, single and RBI-single. But the ninth hitter in the line-up, Tucker Esmay, whose father just happens to be the head coach, failed to get a sacrifice down and then hit into an inning-ending double-play.

The Titans had a runner in scoring position in the third inning (Trajano had reached on an infield single and went to second on an overthrow), but Lorenzen and Lopez were retired and it looked like “more of the recent same” for the Titans: double-plays and stranded runners. Fortunately, the tide was soon to turn to the better.

After Peitzmeier breezed through an impressive 1-2-3 third inning, the Titans posted their first crooked number in a while and opened up a 4-1 lead. One-out singles by Chapman and Davis opened the door to the ASU bullpen. After both runners advanced on a passed ball, Kingsolver delivered a clutch RBI-single to make it a 2-1 lead and alertly took second on the play, as third-baseman Esmay appeared to be out of position and there was no cutoff man. The base-running play was HUGE, as Wallach grounded the next ball to shortstop for what would have been an easy inning-ending DP, but instead it scored a run and kept the inning alive for Pedroza, who lined a base hit to drive in the third run of the inning.

After Peitzmeier again tormented the slugging Ruiz with off-speed stuff and got him out to open the bottom of the fourth, pitching coach Kirk Saarloos went to the bullpen for freshman Willie Kuhl to face the predominantly right-handed middle of the ASU batting order. When he retired both batters he faced in the inning, the Titans seemed on the verge of breaking the game open.

Lorenzen led off the top of the fifth with a single and went to second on a wild pitch and to third on a groundout. But momentum seemed to shift back to ASU when reliever Alex Blackford struck out Velazquez and Chapman to strand the runner at third.

Kuhl was in hot water in the fifth inning when he gave up a leadoff single and stolen base. Esmay failed to bunt and then struck out, turning over the line-up to the dangerous foursome at the top. Aplin hit a flyball deep to right-centerfield – a ball you expect The Cowboy to catch in his sleep – but Lorenzen broke in, stumbled momentarily and the ball sailed over his head for an RBI-double that made it 4-2, bringing the tying run to the plate with the heavy guns behind him. Kuhl was equal to the task, striking out Deven Marrero and getting DeMichele to fly out.

After the Titans left two runners on base in the sixth (Kingsolver’s third hit and walk to Pedroza), it looked like Uncle Mo had completely shifted to ASU. But Kuhl came out and pitched an electrifying inning, striking out the side.

With the game close, ASU brought Ravago in to pitch – he had faced seven batters and recorded eight outs (including DP erasing inherited runner) the night before. As is often the case when you see a reliever for the second time in a series, he was not as effective this game. After Lopez walked, freshman Clay Williamson pinch-hit for the slumping Velazquez and lined a base-hit up the middle. After Austin Diemer pinch-ran for Williamson, Chapman stroked an RBI-single and advanced into scoring position by taking second on the throw. Once again, the extra base taken was pivotal in staying out of double-play situations. Without a double-play situation, the ASU infield was drawn in to face Davis, who grounded to second-base to drive in Diemer to give the Titans a 6-2 lead.

After his brilliant sixth inning and with a four-run cushion, Kuhl took the mound again for the seventh inning. The first batter he faced crushed a ball that looked like it would leave the yard, but Lorenzen grabbed it just in front of the fence for the first out. After issuing a two-out walk, the Titans turned to Grahamm Wiest, who had pitched 8+ innings against ORU in his return to the weekend rotation. Wiest wasn’t getting many strike calls on his low pitches, so things got interesting after a passed ball and a walk, but Marrero grounded out to end the threat.

Things got hairy in the bottom of the eighth. Wiest came out to start the inning on a night he seemed to be elevating the ball. The bases were quickly loaded on a single by DeMichele, a double by Ruiz and a hit batsman. Wiest then induced a 4-6-3 double-play, scoring one run. But ASU wasn’t done, as catcher Max Rossiter got a clutch two-out RBI-single, making it 6-4 and bringing Lorenzen in from the outfield to try for a four-out save. Things got more tense when Lorenzen threw a wild pitch that Wallach could not find – Lorenzen had to run in to retrieve the ball, but not before Rossiter had advanced two bases. (It’s never a good thing when a catcher easily advances two bases on a pitch, especially when the tying run was at the plate and he only needed to take on base to get into scoring position.) But the next batter grounded out to Trajano to end the threat.

The Titans took their two-run lead to the ninth inning hoping to push across at least one insurance run. Lopez led off with a single and Diemer attempted to sacrifice him into scoring position. But Diemer’s bunt was a beauty to behold; it hugged the first-base line, not seeming inclined to roll towards either side of the line as it slowly made its way towards the bag. ASU pitcher Matthew Dunbar was in “no man’s land” and finally grabbed the ball and tried to “sell it” that he had picked it up in foul territory – but plate umpire Darren Hyman was having no part of it and emphatically pointed fair. Dunbar must have had something interesting to say, as Hyman quickly gave him the “Heave ho!” ASU then brought in its closer, Jake Barrett, who had dominated the night before, to replace Dunbar. After an unlimited warm-up period, Barrett threw away Chapman’s sacrifice, as the ball sailed into rightfield and Lopez scored, while Diemer and Chapman ended up in scoring position. Barrett threw a wild pitch that scored Diemer before giving up an RBI-single to Ivory Thomas. The Titans had opened up a 9-4 lead.

The extra margin made the bottom of the ninth considerably more comfortable. In a classic power-versus-power match-up, Ruiz belted a double off Lorenzen to make it 9-5: it was the first run allowed by Lorenzen in his ten-game collegiate pitching career. But Lorenzen struck out the next batter to end the game and notch his ninth save of the season.

In breaking the scoring drought, the Titans banged out eighteen hits – all singles! Kingsolver played a tremendous game and led with three hits, along with Pedroza, who also made a couple of superb defensive plays. Lorenzen, Lopez, Chapman and Davis also had two hits each for the Titans. Trajano also played a steady defensive game, successfully handling all nine chances. They weren’t spectacular plays, but he actually outplayed his shortstop counterpart, Marrero, who is the defending Pac-10 (as it was called last season) Defensive Player of the Year.


So what did we learn from this series?

One of the biggest differences between the Game 1 loss and the Game 2 win was hitting into double-plays. The avoidance of double-plays is a result of several factors: getting runners on base (obviously); bunt, hit-and-run or hit away strategy and execution with no outs; base-running (stealing or taking extra bases) to avoid double-play situations. I look at hitting into double-plays with no outs as much more sinful than with one out. With one out, the strategy to hit away is clear-cut and it is then simply a matter of execution whether the hitter avoids DP jeopardy. But hitting into a double-play with no outs means that the sacrifice or hit and run were either eschewed or not executed.

Of the three double-plays the Titans hit into in the series opener, the ones in the first and second inning both came with no outs and immediately erased the leadoff runner who had just reached base. ASU has a potent offense (including 20 home runs prior to the series) and there was a good breeze towards rightfield, so playing for a big inning early made sense, but it was a lack of execution combined with strategy that led to the twin-killings. The DP in the third inning came with one and runners at the corner: clearly not a bunting situation. Nothing the coaches can do but hope the batter gets the ball out of the infield.

CSUF grounded into one double-play in Game 2 (they also had a strike’em-out-throw’em-out DP against them to end the ninth inning.) But it might have been an entirely different outcome without the alert and aggressive base-running by Kingsolver and Chapman to take the extra base and avoid double-play situations. Each of their efforts was followed by run-scoring groundouts that would have likely been inning-ending double-plays.

Drew Stankiewicz de-committed from the Titans after the coaching change and told the local press (East Valley Tribune, August 8, 2011 article) that he has chosen ASU because, “I want to win. I want to go to the College World Series.” Good luck with that in 2012 – enjoy watching the playoffs on TV! When he was called out for missing the base in the opener and then benched the next night so Coach Esmay could play his .188-hitting son at third-base, I didn’t actually feel all that badly for him.

The performance by Gauna with the bases loaded and nobody out in the fifth inning of Game 1 was very impressive and encouraging. His recent trend had been to be dominating for several innings before getting hit around, usually after an error had been made behind him. It had this ‘déjà vu all over again’ feeling to it after the bases were loaded when Pedroza muffed the throw on the sacrifice. But Gauna stood his ground and got stronger, not weaker, when the pressure got cranked up. It was a nice sign of developing as a Division 1 pitcher right before our eyes.

The absence of Christian Coronado, who has been on the shelf since leaving the series opener against Texas A&M with an injury, is pressing the Titans’ bullpen. Dimitri De la Fuente has been incredible, but there is a risk of turning him into the Titans’ version of “Everyday Eddie” Guardado. I wasn’t surprised the Titans used a weekend starter to get an out or two on a regular “throwing day”, but I was surprised when Wiest returned to the mound for the eighth inning in the second game after he finished out the seventh. Davis had been throwing and I assumed he was going to be brought in as a bridge to the closer.

Depending on whether or not the 2013 season includes a trip to ASU (either regular- or post-season), this may have been the last time the Titans ever play at Packard Stadium, the vaunted home of the Sun Devils since 1974. In 2014, ASU will begin playing its home games at the new Chicago Cubs spring training facility in nearby Mesa, AZ. ASU signed a 30-year contract to play at the new facility, which will include a $2 million locker room and practice facility built for the Sun Devils. The team will not pay rent on the facility until its revenues from tickets, concessions and parking exceed $1.1 million. The university will pay $1 per year to lease a 3.2 acre lot to be used for parking, with all revenues retained.

I’ve heard rumors that Packard Stadium will be torn down and the land used for campus buildings. I hate such desecration. The same thing happened this year to my second favorite college baseball team, the University of La Verne Leopards, who lost their home field when the land-locked university could no longer accommodate its growth without better utilization of its limited land. The venerable Ben Hines Field was demolished to build a parking lot and dormitories – and the Leos became an itinerant baseball team. (Trust me – ULV did not have as sweet a contingency plan lined up as ASU had.)

No matter how great the new facility is – which this one will doubtlessly be – there is always a sense of loss when the old is retired. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for playing in modern, comfortable facilities. A lot of my childhood dreams happened at the old Boston Garden and it was hard to see it closed – but it was time. I also think Fenway Park is a dump that should be replaced by a modern facility, just as the Yankees did with Yankee Stadium. But there is still that sense of loss. Packard Stadium has been the home to a great collegiate baseball program under some of the game’s greatest coaches ever – no, Pat Murphy, I’m not talking about you. It is cozy (one might say ‘cramped’ if you ever tried to get from the center of your seating row to the aisle during the game) and parking is free. The general admission seating in the berms is great if you have the foresight to bring something to sit on.

There are a couple extra niceties playing at ASU in March. The first is that many of the fans at the ASU games are “snow birds” from the Mid-West or other cold climate cities on vacation to watch their favorite teams in spring training games. Universally, those fans (who are often seeing Division 1 baseball for the first time) express great admiration for the college game – how well it is played, the intensity and the passion. Also, because spring training is ongoing locally, you get to see several former Titans in the stands. Nick Ramirez was behind the batting cage on Tuesday (BTW: his hand surgery went fine the following day.) I saw Reed Johnson, Jared Clark, Dustin Garneau and others while I was there.

I would love to see the ASU series become a weekend series, hosted by each team in alternate years, as it used to be with Stanford. Without Murphy there, it’s much harder to hate them, but much easier to respect them. The two-game mid-week formula, which has resulted in splits for the past several years, is fun, but not very meaningful in that neither team gets to see how well it would do against the other’s front-line pitching. ASU’s starting pitcher in the second game had pitched only three innings previously.

It was ironic timing that Lisa Love was fired while we were in town. She was ASU’s Vice President of Athletics who had laid the hammer down on Murphy, not only firing him, but having campus security escort him off the premises. But did she wait too long? The buck stops at her desk when the NCAA comes down on the university for “lack of institutional control.” She botched the hiring of a football coach (actually, two: Dennis Erickson and Todd Graham) and a basketball coach (Herb Sendek). It’s a tough business and with revenues dropping, your basketball and football programs in the toilet, the baseball program ineligible for post-season and – gasp! – your rivals from Tucson starting to gain market share in the Phoenix metropolitan area through slick use of social media and contemporary marketing tools – it was probably time for her to go. But I still feel sorry to see the person who chopped off Murphy’s nuts being shown the door. But it’s a business.

So now we’re down to conference action - it’s been a very interesting season so far. Nothing is easy. Let’s hope that all this pre-conference experience gained from playing top-flight competition will help launch the Titans to a fast start in BWC action.

Go Titans!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good write up Don. Keep it up bro.