Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Titans Squeeze By the Beach

By Don Hudson

In a series sandwiched around dire weather forecasts – which generally came true – the Cal State Fullerton Titans were able to gain a pair of narrow 2-1 victories in a Friday day-night double-header in a non-conference series against the dreaded Long Beach State Dirtbags before losing the finale on Sunday, 7-2. The Titans have now won their fourth consecutive weekend series heading into their match-up with Oral Roberts University, and they were rewarded by moving up two notches to #13 in the Baseball America rankings.

Game 1: “Pitching Plus Pedroza”

Titans 2, Dirtbags 1

In a game in which the Titans left a small village of runners on base, they prevailed on the strength of the pitching of Dylan Floro, a late two-out rally highlighted by Richy Pedroza’s two-run single and a save by Michael Lorenzen, his seventh in seven attempts. That uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach throughout the game was a result of the 13 Titans runners left on base: 16 batters reached base (12 hits, two walks and 2 HBP), but just two scored. (Okay, the spicy sausage sandwich with onions and red peppers I bought from the roach coach might have also had something to do with it.)

After both hurlers notched 1-2-3 first innings, the Dirtbags got on the board with a single, stolen base, walk and RBI single. This is when the turbulence began for the Titans offense.

Carlos Lopez led off with an infield single and went to third on a perfectly executed hit-and-run single by Anthony Hutting, giving the Titans runners at the corners with one out. Derek Legg was hit by a pitch – the first of three times that happened in the series, but catcher Casey Watkins was retired with the bases loaded.

Floro (left) got locked into a groove, but the Dirtbags’ starter, Shaun Stuart, was able to maintain the slim 1-0 lead by working out of jam after jam. In the fourth inning, the Titans loaded the bases after two were out on a walk to Hutting and infield singles by J.D. Davis and Legg before Watkins was retired to end the threat. In the fifth inning, Ivory Thomas led off with a single and advanced on a sacrifice by Pedroza, but the Titans’ big guns, Lorenzen and Lopez, were unable to break the scoring drought.

Sixth inning? More frustration – again Watkins was retired to end a threat with two runners aboard. (Matt Chapman had singled and Legg walked.) The job that Floro and his defense did was the saving grace for the Titans. The Beach had a threat in the seventh inning on a lead-off single and sacrifice, but the runner strayed too far from second base on a groundball to shortstop Chapman, who played it perfectly by running directly towards the runner and making the play on him unassisted.

With the frustration of leaving so many runners aboard, the Titans gambled in the bottom of the seventh inning and were once again denied by those pesky Dirtbags. Facing reliever Matt Johnson, the Titans got singles by Pedroza and Lopez to put runners on first and second with two outs. Chapman bounced a ball deep into the shortstop hole – the throw went to second, but Lopez easily beat it, which would have loaded the bases for Hutting. But third base coach Chad Baum kept Pedroza wheeling towards home, where he was thrown out to end the inning. Tough call – Hutting has been squaring the ball up lately and also has a great eye at the plate, but the instantaneous decision to try to force the action seemed like a reasonable risk to me at the time.

Floro kept churning out scoreless innings, sending the game to the fateful bottom of the eighth with the Dirtbags clinging to their 1-0 lead.

Johnson easily retired the first two Titans before plunking Legg with a pitch on a bunt attempt. A brief brouhaha ensued, as Dirtbags skipper Troy Buckley challenged why plate umpire Brad Hungerford had earlier disallowed a Dirtbag from taking a base when struck by a Floro pitch while awarding Legg a base. (I had a good look, Skip – the difference might be your right-handed batter went across the plate into the path of the pitch while attempting a bunt, while Legg was batting left-handed and moving away from the pitch when struck.)

After Austin Diemer pinch-ran for Legg, Greg Velazquez pinch-hit for Watkins and delivered a solid base hit to leftfield. Thomas hit a soft bouncer to second-baseman Jeff McNeil, who fielded the ball cleanly but hesitated slightly on his throw, which Thomas beat out for a single to load the bases.

A lengthy battle then ensued between pitcher Johnson and hitter Pedroza, who quickly fell behind before battling back to make it a full count. With the runners moving on the pitch, Diemer and Velazquez scored easily (left) when Pedroza lined the ball into centerfield to drive in the tying and go-ahead runs.

Now clinging to a 2-1 lead, Lorenzen was called on to preserve the margin in the ninth inning. Lorenzen did what he does best: he pounded the strike zone for 11 strikes out of the 12 pitches he threw. Even though he surrendered a solid single, Michael seemed in complete command and was able to finish the job successfully.

Dylan Floro (2-2) got the win, scattering seven hits and just one walk in his eight innings of work, throwing 99 pitches.

Just enough time between games to eradicate the aftertaste of the spicy sausage sandwich by making a quick trip to The Hat for their world-famous pastrami dip!

Game 2: “Second Verse, Same as the First”

Titans 2, Dirtbags 1

(Damn! Will I ever get that dreadful Herman’s Hermits’ song out of my head?)

Kenny Mathews was once again brilliant for the Titans in posting his second win, with excellent relief help from Grahamm Wiest. Mathews was dominant, facing just one over the minimum in the final 20 batters he faced.

With the end-of-winter storm approaching and the chilly evening temperatures quickly cooling off my leftover chili fries from The Hat – they taste great no matter how cold they get – Mathews and the Dirtbags’ Matt Anderson locked into a pitchers’ duel.

The Titans had an early threat to continue the momentum over from the scintillating comeback in Game 1 and kick the Dirtbags while they were down. Thomas led off with a single and Pedroza reached base when Long Beach kicked his sacrifice bunt. When you have runners on first and second resulting from a misplayed bunt, what do you do? You bunt again! Unfortunately, Anderson’s pitch sailed inside and struck Lorenzen on the hand as he attempted to bunt – more on that later – and Lorenzen eventually struck out and slammed his bat in pain and frustration. Both runners advanced on a groundout by Lopez, but the threat was thwarted when the Dirtbags got a major break: a pitch went all the way to the backstop and Thomas broke for the plate. But the ball bounced right back to the catcher, who flipped to the pitcher to retire Thomas.

Mathews also faced an early threat, when two Dirtbags singled in the second inning, but he worked out of it with a strikeout and flyout to Thomas. Another Titans’ opportunity went by the wayside in the third inning. Catcher Chad Wallach singled and advanced on a sacrifice by Thomas and a groundout by Pedroza (left), but was stranded when Lorenzen grounded out. Lorenzen threw his bat – perhaps disgust added to his pain and frustration – and was given a warning by the plate umpire.

Just as happened earlier in the day, the Dirtbags grabbed a 1-0 lead. First-baseman Ino Patron, a notorious Titans killer, singled and advanced around the bases on two wild pitches and a sacrifice fly.

The Titans finally cashed in some chips in the fourth inning, not waiting as late as they had in the lid-lifter. Infield singles by Lopez and Hutting put two runners on base with one out, followed by a walk to Velazquez that loaded the bases. The plate-hugging Legg was hit by a pitch to drive in the tying run.

With Wallach now batting with the bases loaded, there was pitch that eluded the catcher, who had trouble finding the ball after it got past him – but Hutting held up at third. We lightning-quick base-runners sitting in the stands all knew that we would have successfully attempted to score, but the memory of a lost base-runner at the plate earlier in this game and also on Tuesday vs. Washington State was fresh in the players’ minds. Wallach lifted the second pitch thrown to him deep enough into leftfield to score Hutting on a sacrifice fly to give the Titans a 2-1 lead.

After that, it was like déjà vu all over again. The Titans managed to get guys on base with frequency – sometimes even on the same base – but were unable to punch across any insurance runs.

With Lorenzen’s availability to potentially close Game 2 uncertain because of the finger injury he suffered on the attempted bunt earlier in the game, the Titans hoped to get Mathews at least through the eighth inning still clinging to the 2-1 lead. He retired the first two Dirtbags in the inning, but when he gave up a solid single and a right-handed pinch-hitter was announced, the Titans went to the bullpen for Grahamm Wiest, who had been a major hero in the rubber game of the series win the previous weekend at Texas A&M. The Dirtbags went to a left-handed pinch-hitter to face Wiest, who induced a line drive to shortstop Chapman to end the inning.

In the bottom of the eighth, Lopez somehow worked his way out of a rundown between home and third when he tried to score on a “contact” play. Lopez slid back into third-base ahead of the attempted tag and saw teammate Austin Kingsolver heading towards the same bag. Lopez seemed to momentarily play “possum” and act like he was out, which may have lulled the Dirtbags into a momentary lapse that allowed Kingsolver to scamper back to second unscathed. It was quite calamitous and should have been enough to break the backs of the dispirited Dirtbags – but they maintained their composure and executed a 4-6-3 double-play to escape the inning scorelessly.

Wiest came out to face the top of the Dirtbags line-up in the ninth inning. He was smooth and looked almost effortless in retiring the side to nail down the win and clinch the series for the Titans. It was the first career save for Wiest.

(More photos from the Titans' sweep of Friday doubleheader)

Game 3: “We Would Have Won 2-1 (Except for that 6-Run Inning)”

Dirtbags 7, Titans 2

It rained all day Saturday – just as the weatherwoman had predicted – so there was no game played on St. Patrick’s Day. Perfect – green beer for you and corned beef and cabbage for me. (Great job, Peppertree Café in Glendora!) The weather on Sunday morning was a little more varied: hailstorms here, bright sunshine there, cold and windy everywhere. Play ball!

Sunday is the day the Titans usually win and hit the stuffing out of the ball: they came in with a record of 5-0 on Sundays (counting both outcomes of the Sunday games completed at Texas A&M) and averaged eight runs per game. Not today. All good things must end someday.

It had a bad feeling from the start. The leadoff Dirtbag lined a routine single to rightfield, which scooted by Thomas and resulted in a runner on third with no outs. I wasn’t down there, so I can’t say, but the field looked to be in great shape considering the amount of rain it took from late Friday night through Sunday morning. Titans pitcher J.D. Davis then surrendered an RBI single to Matt Duffy, and the Dirtbags had a 1-0 lead for the third straight game.

What, me worry? The Titans threatened to tie the score in the bottom of the second when they had runners on the corners with one out (double by Lopez, groundout and walk by Velazquez), but LBSU pitcher Ryan Strufing induced a line-out by Diemer and a flyout by Legg to escape peril. Meanwhile, Davis continued his recent trend of allowing lots of hits but not many runs. He went four innings, allowing five hits, one walk and two hit-batsmen, but just the solo run in the first inning.

Davis was taken off the hook when the Titans tied the score, 1-1, in the bottom of the fourth. With one out, Lopez hit a hard groundball that appeared to me and the entire Dirtbag dugout to be foul – even Lopez remained at the plate momentarily until he realized first-base umpire Hungerford was emphatically signaling ‘fair ball.’ (Hmmmm….isn’t Hungerford the ump who tossed Lopez out of the game against LMU?) Lopez went to third on a groundout by Chapman and scored on a two-out RBI single by Velazquez. The Dirtbag playing rightfield momentarily misjudged Diemer’s opposite field drive, but he recovered and made a circus catch as his feet slipped to limit the damage.

Koby Gauna took over for Davis and worked a scoreless fifth inning, albeit with a four-pitch walk followed by a hit batsman which proved to be a portent of bad things to come.

The Titans took a 2-1 lead in the last of the fifth inning. Legg led off with an infield single, and Watkins was sent up to bunt him over. There was apparently a missed sign, resulting in a not-so-subtle admonition from the dugout for him to bunt the next pitch. With everybody in the house knowing what was happening next, the Dirtbags fielded Casey’s bunt and cut down the lead runner. Ivory Thomas followed with a long double off the wall in right-centerfield, which allowed Watkins to score from first when the Dirtbags missed their cutoff man. The Titans had gained their familiar 2-1 lead, and all seemed right with the world when they loaded the bases on walks to Pedroza and Lopez. (By this time, Lopez had worn out their pitching so much that they would have probably walked him even if the bases were loaded.) But once again, the bases were left loaded and the Titans clung to their slim 2-1 lead. What would be the odds of sweeping three games by identical 2-1 scores?

Answer: not good. Freshman outfielder Richard Prigatano led off with a single and stole second base. The next batter attempted to sacrifice the tying run to third, but his bunt was good enough for a hit that put runners on the corners with nobody out. Gauna walked the next Dirtbag to load the bases. Then the wheels really came off the Titans’ wagon.

Long Beach tied the score, 2-2, when a dinky chopper towards second base turned into an RBI single, chasing Gauna with the bases still loaded and no outs. Wiest came in to try to work out of another crisis, but he did not have the magic on this day. He walked the first batter he faced on four pitches and suddenly the Titans trailed. A groundball in the shortstop hole resulted in another RBI hit. A passed ball by Wallach, who had replaced Watkins, led to more pain. Pedroza left his feet to field a high chopper and it turned into an error. The Dirtbags scored six runs on five hits, two walks, an error and a passed ball. Of the five hits, only one left the infield: there was a bases-loaded RBI single that resulted in Lorenzen gunning a runner out at home, with Wallach deftly blocking the plate. Ugliness was raised to a new height.

That was pretty much the ballgame. Jared Deacon made his first appearance of the season for the Titans, catching three innings and batting once (he walked). Dimitri De la Fuente also notched two scoreless innings – “Papi” has been nails since he received his one-on-one mentoring from Coach Vanderhook on the mound in the middle game at Texas A&M.

The Titans had something going in the seventh inning, which might have been a huge spark if they had overcome such a shitty inning and a five-run deficit. They loaded the bases on singles by Thomas and Pedroza and a semi-intentional four-pitch walk to Lopez, bringing Chapman to the plate with a chance to make the game closer. He hit a screamer down the third-base line, seemingly ticketed for a double that would bring the tying run to the plate. But Long Beach State third-baseman Michael Hill dove and made a great grab of the line drive, practically landing on the base to double off Thomas, who had absolutely no chance to get back.

Sometimes games like this are the easiest to flush – they played poorly in all facets of the game. There were eight hits and seven walks, but eleven runners were stranded. The defense made two errors and the pitching gave up twelve hits, four walks and three hit batsmen. Flush it and move on to the next series against Oral Roberts.

(More photos from the Dirtbags' Game 3 victory)


So what did we learn this weekend?

The Titans scored two runs in each of the three games. It wasn’t lack of hits or base-runners that was their problem; it was lack of hits with runners on base. The pitching was great in the two wins, but the offense sputtered every time they had the chance to inflict harm on the Dirtbags.

  • Game 1: 16 runners reached base (12 hits, 2 walks and 2 HBP), just 2 scored – 13 LOB.
  • Game 2: 13 runners reached base (7 hits, 4 walks, a HBP and the fielder’s choice on the botched rundown play), just 2 scored – 9 LOB.
  • Game 3: 15 runners reached base (8 hits, 7 walks), just two scored – 11 LOB.

That’s 33 runners stranded in three games – 11 per game.

Many of the fans have been clamoring for a revised batting order – myself included – and this weekend we got pretty much what had been the consensus on the message boards: Thomas leading off, followed by Pedroza, Lorenzen and Lopez. Despite pretty good productivity from the table-setters, there were no runs scored this weekend by the top three batters in the order. Zero. Thomas was 5-for-12 (.417) with a walk (.462 OBP), while Pedroza was 4-for-11 (.364) with one walk (.417 OBP) and the two huge RBI in the series opener. Clean-up man Lopez also had a great series, going 6-for-11 (.545), with three doubles, two runs scored and two walks (.615 OBP).

Lorenzen had a rough series: 1-for-14 (.071). We’ll never know how much of it was good pitching by Long Beach against a great ballplayer, or how much was just the normal ups and downs of hitting a baseball or whether his hand injury in the Friday night game was a factor. Twitter posts after the game by “Shotgun” Spratling (@SoCal_CBDaily) and Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersPG) quoted Coach Vanderhook that Lorenzen suffered a blood blister which apparently “busted open” when he went down to the bullpen: “blood was everywhere.” Vanderhook has already shown his willingness to have Lorenzen work both ends of a double-header (see last week at Texas A&M), so the fact Wiest closed out the win Friday night may have been related to the injury. Lorenzen played with a bandaged finger on Sunday. Lorenzen is a total stand-up guy and wouldn’t make excuses for his performance or uncharacteristic displays of frustration on Friday – but I think he deserves a lot of slack for this series.

Runs in baseball are like rain: you can have an extended drought followed by a deluge. Both Texas and Southern California were in the midst of sustained droughts – until the floodgates opened the last couple weekends. I’m optimistic the same is going to happen to the Titans offensively. All it will take is a break here and a clutch hit there and all the pieces will fall into place. This team has too many capable hitters to continue to score as few runs as they have lately.

The common link in all seven losses by the Titans: they have fallen victim to a big inning. I think this is an area where we will see steady improvement as the team matures: experienced pitchers are better able to overcome a mistake (either their own or by a teammate) and limit damage control to just a run or two, not a big crooked number.

Kenny Mathews continues to impress. He is 2-0, 2.25 ERA and leads the team with 25 strikeouts. He moved the ball all over the place on Friday, generally relying on his fastball but changing speeds just enough to keep the opposing hitters off-stride all night. When he gets in a groove, he is virtually unhittable. I also like the way he holds runners on base.

It will be interesting to see how the catching position playing time is divvied up going forward. Both catchers were yanked from the game Sunday: one following an apparently missed sign and the other following a passed ball. Jared Deacon made his 2012 debut and drew a walk in his only plate appearance. If he has recovered from off-season elbow surgery, the left-handed-hitting Deacon will probably figure into a platoon situation with the right-handed-hitting Watkins and Wallach.

Interesting-but-not-surprising stat: in 19 games (including today’s 12-2 shellacking by Pepperdine), Long Beach State has hit zero home runs and allowed just one. Also not surprisingly, there were no home runs in the series this weekend. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with Blair Field, but they’re playing the same on the road.

Finally, kudos to whoever worked out the schedule that allowed all three games to played without subjecting the teams and fans to endless hours of rain, cold and wind. I like the flexibility that was displayed, presumably by officials of both programs, who heeded the forecast and made reasonable adjustments. Nice job!

Let’s get behind the team this weekend – don’t wait for something good to happen to cheer!

Go Titans!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great insight Don, I feel as if I were at the games. Ralph T