Monday, March 5, 2012

Titans Sweep Utah Valley Wolverines

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans had a breather this weekend in an early season schedule that includes weekend series with highly ranked opponents (e.g., Florida Gators, TCU Horned Frogs and Texas A&M Aggies) and ended up sweeping the Utah Valley Wolverines. With the wins, the Titans extended their current winning streak to seven games.

Game 1: Titans 6, Wolverines 1

Other than a brief respite from duking it out with other Division 1 heavyweight programs, series like this are essentially “nothing to gain, everything to lose” propositions. It’s a different kind of pressure – anything less than a sweep is considered a bust. The series opener was a “nervous” game for the first few innings.

Dylan Floro was dominant, but the Titans stranded four runners in the first two innings and the game was scoreless until the Wolverines scored first on a double, an infield single and a wild pitch.

The Titans quickly tied the score in the bottom of the frame on a leadoff double by Ivory Thomas and an RBI single by Casey Watkins. After an error put two runners aboard with nobody out the Wolverines retired the next three batters and avoided further damage. The Titans took a 3-1 lead in the fifth on a walk to Richy Pedroza, a single by Carlos Lopez, a sacrifice by Anthony Hutting and RBI singles by Thomas and Watkins.

As Floro continued to mow down Wolverines, the Titans finally put the game away with three runs in the seventh inning after two were out. Hutting walked with one out and advanced on the third hit of the game by Thomas. With two outs, Keegan Dale plated an insurance run with a single. After Thomas and Dale executed a double-steal, Orloff legged out an infield hit, with Dale running all the way and scoring from second when the throw was in the dirt.

Floro took the mound to start the ninth inning, but was replaced by Dmitri De la Fuente – a nice gesture by the coaching staff to let Floro receive a well-deserved ovation. The Wolverines went quietly in the ninth inning.

In earning his first win of the season, Floro allowed just five hits and one walk in eight innings. Thomas led the Titans with three hits and two runs scored, while Watkins had two hits and two RBI. The Titans left ten runners on base.

Game 2: Titans 2, Wolverines 0

A quartet of pitchers – all in their first season pitching for the Titans – combined to toss a five-hit shutout and clinch the series.

Freshman Kenny Mathews got locked in a pitchers’ duel with Utah Valley’s Adam Gunn, the defending Great West Conference Pitcher of the Week. Both starters were outstanding, with Mathews just slightly better than Gunn.

Michael Lorenzen led off the first inning with a howitzer back up the middle that split the outfielders and went for a leadoff triple. Pedroza lifted a short flyball to leftfield – Lorenzen tested the arm of leftfielder Sean Moysh and just made it ahead of the tag to make it 1-0 on the sacrifice fly. An error and hit batsman followed, but Gunn worked out of the inning.

Mathews had a no-hitter going until being touched for a double with two outs in the fifth inning by Cole Butcher. After Butcher advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt (it looked like miscommunication, as nobody was covering the base), Mathews stranded the potential tying run at third base with a swinging strikeout.

The Titans had a chance to break the game open in the bottom of the sixth, but an execution meltdown occurred and the slim lead of 1-0 remained intact. Hutting led off with a HBP and went to second on a single by Thomas, but was forced out at third on an attempted sacrifice. The two-runners-on-with-nobody-out inning was soon one-runner-out-with-two-outs after Thomas broke early on an attempted steal of third and was caught in a rundown. Keegan Dale delivered a clutch two-out hit, but Moysh’s arm was tested again, and this time he prevailed, gunning down Watkins at the plate.

Mathews allowed a leadoff single in the seventh inning and was replaced by fellow freshman Willie Kuhl, who walked the first batter he faced to set up a potential big inning. The next batter bunted to attempt to move the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position, but first-baseman Lopez charged aggressively and was very decisive in throwing to third to cut down the lead runner. After a strikeout for the second out, Butcher lined sharply up the middle, but Utah Valley did not want to test the legend of Lorenzen’s hose and the runner was held at third – good thing for him, as Lorenzen unleashed a strike to the plate that would have easily retired the runner had he attempted to score. Kuhl struck out the next batter with the bases loaded to retire the Wolverines.

The Titans picked up an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh inning when Lorenzen reached on a two-out error, stole second and scored on an RBI double by Pedroza.

The Wolverines threatened again in the eighth inning, as Kuhl allowed a one-out walk and single, which brought freshman lefty Tyler Peitzmeier into the game to face clean-up hitter Austin Heaps. The crowd squirmed as Peitzy threw three straight balls, but he bounced back with a couple strikes before inducing an inning-ending 4-6-3 double-play. Lorenzen completed the shutout with a scoreless ninth inning, allowing one hit and striking out the last two batters of the game.

Austin Kingsolver led with a single, triple and HBP. The Titans managed just six hits, leaving eight runners on base. The four Titans pitchers who threw the combined shutout allowed just five hits.

Game 3: Titans 11, Wolverines 3

Although the series finale was scoreless until the bottom of the third inning, both teams had numerous scoring opportunities – it was the lull before the storm. Lorenzen put the Titans up 1-0 when he got hit by a pitch, stole second (his ninth of the season) and scored on an RBI single by Lopez.

The Wolverines scored twice in the fourth inning on a collection of four hits off starter J.D. Davis, sandwiched around some defensive miscues by the Titans. Neither run was earned, and the crowd groaned on the blistering hot day when the inning was extended on a botched rundown play. It was right about then that the entire dugout of reserves was dispatched to the bullpen to loosen up in case the sloppy play continued.

The Titans bounced back and took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth. Matt Chapman and Kingsolver walked to start the inning, and the door to the Utah Valley bullpen was opened. Lorenzen sacrificed the runners into scoring position and reached base when struck with the throw to first base, which allowed Chapman to score the tying run. Kingsolver scored the go-ahead run on a double-play ball by Pedroza.

Davis left the mound after five innings and was credited with the win, as the Titans held the lead for the remainder of the game. Although he allowed seven hits, Davis did not allow an earned run. Christian Coronado pitched two strong shutout innings when the game was still close.

The Titans torched the UVU bullpen with five runs in the sixth inning, turning the 3-2 lead into a rout. Thomas set the table with a leadoff walk and went to third when catcher Chad Wallach scalded a ball off the leftfield wall for a double. That’s when the floodgates opened: RBI singles by Dale and Chapman; sacrifice fly by Kingsolver; RBI triple by Matt Orloff; and RBI double by Lopez.

The Titans scored thrice more in the seventh inning on five hits, highlighted by Austin Diemer’s RBI infield single and a two-run single by Greg Velazquez.

From there, a quartet of pitchers got some work on the mound for the Titans: Michael Lopez, Phillip Jones, Dave Birosak and De la Fuente.

Lopez led with three of the Titans’ fourteen hits, while Orloff, Wallach, Dale and Chapman had two each.


So what did we learn this weekend?

We learned that Utah Valley University is a publicly funded university located in Orem, UT (approximately 35 miles south of Salt Lake City). It is the largest university in Utah, with an estimated enrollment of over 33,000 students. It was called Utah Valley State College until 2008, when it earned accreditation as a university. It was founded in 1941 as a vocational school. The baseball team plays its home games at Brent Brown Ballpark, which has seats for approximately 2,500, with additional “lawn” seating for another 3,000. They were independent in athletics until it joined as a charter member of the Great West Conference, which began “all sports” play in the 2008-2009 school year. The Great West Conference has yet to earn an automatic qualifier into the NCAA baseball post-season tournament.

The Wolverines produced a couple major leaguers (pitcher Kam Mickolio and outfielder Mitch Jones) and a few NBA players (Travis Hansen, Ronnie Price and Michael McDonald), although Utah Valley’s all-time greatest athletes were probably Wesley Silcox (world champion bull rider) and Noelle Pikus Pace (World Cup gold medalist in tobogganing).

The Titans’ pitching continues to be better than expected and the hitting worse – although this seems to be continuation of the way the team played throughout the spring scrimmage sessions. The Titans allowed just two earned runs in the three-game sweep of Utah Valley – and even those two runs were avoidable – to reduce the staff ERA to 3.09. And this outstanding performance has included no participation since the Florida Gators series by two pitchers considered to be keys to the staff’s success; e.g., Grahamm Wiest and Jose Cardona. Their absence may have opened the door earlier than expected for freshmen Kuhl and Peitzmeier, each of whom has been outstanding so far. Floro has been superb in all three starts, while Koby Gauna (starter and long relief) and Lorenzen (closer) have excelled in their respective pitching roles. Mathews also has shown that he can be a dominating pitcher when he has good control.

But the hitting has been inconsistent, which is cause for concern but not alarm, as the roster is deep with both proven hitters and newcomers that will eventually develop the consistency of an offensive juggernaut. If the pitching can continue at its current high level of quality, this Titans team has the potential to be quite formidable if the hitting improves on a consistent basis.

One stat that jumps off the page: there is a day and night difference between how the team plays during the day and night. In the three Sunday games played in the early afternoon, the Titans are batting .385 and have scored 30 runs (10 per games), averaging 14 hits per game. By contrast, in the eight night games (the middle game at Florida and the LMU game were counted as night games, since the 4:00 p.m. starts quickly morphed into under-the-lights affairs), the team has scored just 28 runs (3.5 per game) and averages 7 hits per game. Is it a matter of seeing the ball much better during the day, or does it reflect beating up on lower quality Sunday pitching? Time will tell.

Another stat that bears watching: the need for consistent productivity in the clean-up spot behind Carlos Lopez in the batting order. In the three games played in Florida, the players batting immediately after Lopez were 6-for-13 (.462) with 4 RBI and 1 home run. During the subsequent eight games played at home, the players following Lopez hit just 3-for-27 (.111) with 2 RBI. Again, this is not cause for alarm – we all know there is a lot of hitting talent on this team and that the bats will heat up – but this is an area of improvement that will result in more runs scored, fewer runners left on base and better pitches for Lopez to hit.

What about the week that Matt Orloff had? He made his first start of the 2012 season against San Diego State on Tuesday and doubled in his first at-bat, equaling his previous career total for extra-base hits. He came off the bench on Sunday and got two hits, including a triple to rightfield. Orloff went 7-for-10 on the week, with hits to all fields.

It will be interesting how playing time at second-base is divvied up between now and the start of Big West Conference action. Richy Pedroza started there the final two games of the Utah Valley series, presumably to get more at-bats for Matt Chapman, who replaced Pedroza at third-base. Keegan Dale has been playing great and has earned his current role at shortstop, so it’s a challenge to find enough playing time for infielders Orloff, Pedroza, Chapman, Derek Legg and Anthony Trajano.

Ivory Thomas’ return this weekend helped boost the offense. The junior outfielder went 4-for-9 (.444) with an RBI and three runs scored after being sidelined since last Saturday when he left the middle game versus TCU with an injury.

Pitchers Michael Lopez and Phillip Jones got into the series finale on Sunday against Utah Valley, making them the 28th and 29th players to appear in a game this season for the Titans.

While Louisiana State University (LSU) and East Carolina University (ECU) share the same colors, we learned that a Tiger is really not the same thing as a Pirate, and that ECU fans don’t have a clue what you’re talking about what you walk up to their tailgate party and declare yourself to be “Tiger Bait.” (Sorry, inside joke.)

Last call for the bus trip to play USC on Tuesday. The bus leaves at 4:00 p.m. sharp from the parking lot of Brian’s Beer & Billiards (1944 North Placentia Avenue in Fullerton). The price is $40 per person, which covers transportation and a game ticket. Seats are still available: contact Kelly Newman for more information:

I’d love to say “I’ll see you there,” but I won’t. Barring a rainout or some other odd, unforeseen event tomorrow night, my consecutive games streak came to an end yesterday at 183. (This damned job is constantly getting in the way!) But I’ll be there in spirit and back again in person at the Texas A&M series to begin a new streak.

Go Titans!

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