Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Titans Take Fifth Straight Weekend Series

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans completed a seven game homestand, in which they went just 4-3, by winning two-out-of-three from the Oral Roberts University (ORU) Golden Eagles this weekend. They will now embark on a two-game road trip to Arizona State, their last tune-up opportunity before returning home to begin Big West Conference play next weekend against the Cal State Northridge Matadors. With the series win, the Titans maintained their lucky #13 position in the Baseball America rankings.

Game 1: “Lopez and Floro Reward the Titans’ Faithful”

Titans 7, Golden Eagles 1

The Titans scored four unearned runs in the seventh inning, breaking open a close game, and rode the strong pitching of Dylan Floro and the three hits of Carlos Lopez to a solid 7-1 win in the Titans’ final non-conference weekend series of the season. It was Lopez’s fourth consecutive multi-hit game.

Last weekend against Long Beach State, the Titans got zero runs scored from the top three spots in their batting order – the revamped line-up in the ORU series opener scored four runs from the top three in the batting order, although the Titans continued the recent trend with 10 runners left on base.

The Titans got on the board in the first inning on an infield single by Lopez and an RBI triple to left-centerfield by Anthony Hutting. A potentially larger inning was averted by the Golden Eagles, who turned a 4-6-3 double-play before the run-producing hits.Floro allowed solo singles in the first and second innings, but then went into lockdown mode: he did not allow a base-runner in the third, fourth and fifth innings. Meanwhile, the Titans had added solo tallies in the third and fifth innings to take a 3-0 lead. Aided by the wildness of ORU starting pitcher Kurt Giller, who had two walks and two wild pitches, the Titans scored in the third inning. Lorenzen led off with the only hit of the inning and advanced on a sacrifice by Richy Pedroza, a flyball and alertly scored when a pitch in the dirt bounced just slightly past the catcher. The fifth-inning tally came on a walk to Pedroza, a hit-and-run groundout and a clutch two-out RBI single by designated hitter Anthony Trajano – vintage 2011 stuff for him.

The Titans led 3-0 after five, but it felt like a 6-0 lead as Floro was mowing effortlessly and the Titans had left seven runners aboard. The reality of the game’s closeness was underscored in the top of the sixth inning when ORU scored on a single and a two-out double nearly hauled in by Hutting, tightening the score to 3-1. Floro induced a groundout to shortstop Matt Chapman to avoid further damage.

The Titans finally posted a crooked number in the bottom of the seventh inning. After Pedroza was robbed of a hit on a dazzling play by ORU second-baseman Cam Schiller, Lopez singled on a similar play. A single by Hutting and a Trajano HBP loaded the bases with two outs for Greg Velazquez, who hit an easy roller towards first-base. Fortunately for the Titans, Jared Schlehuber did a perfect Bill Buckner impersonation and the ball went through his legs, allowing two unearned runs and giving the Titans some breathing room. The lead was extended to 7-1 when Derek Legg scorched a two-run single up the middle.

The Golden Eagles began making better contact against Floro in the eighth inning, when he surrendered three solid hits. Fortunately for the Titans, there was a double-play in between and a line drive right at second-baseman Legg to end the inning scorelessly. The Titans tried to extend the score in the bottom of the eighth when Lorenzen walked and went to third on a hit-and-run single by Lopez. I don’t know the magic formula for when the team with a big lead is supposed to shut it down and play station-to-station baseball, but ORU skipper Rob Walton seemed to take umbrage with the Titans’ choice to hit-and-run with a 7-1 lead late in the game.

Floro pitched eight innings, scattering eight hits and just one walk. Dimitri De la Fuente pitched a scoreless ninth inning, which ended on a crisp around-the-horn double-play. Lopez led with three hits, while Hutting had two. Besides his hit and two RBI, Legg also walked and was hit by a pitch: at that point, he had reached base in 17 of his last 29 plate appearances.

Game 2: “Nice Game, Chap!”

Titans 5, Golden Eagles 3
Let the record show that I have had nothing but kind words to say about the umpires – both home and away – until the 21st game of the season. In the middle game of the series, plate umpire Tony Norris drew the constant ire of the pitchers, hitters, coaches and fans with the most unpredictable strike zone I’ve seen in years. Even if you don’t agree with an umpire’s strike zone, you can live with it if it is consistent – Norris was completely random. If Pitch “A” is ruled “high” and the following Pitch “B” is in the same spot but two inches lower, could it possibly be ruled “low”? That is mathematically impossible – even if Eddie Gaedel is the batter – but that was how Norris called two consecutive pitches in the first inning and we all knew we were in for a long game. Even with 21 combined strikeouts for both teams, several of the game’s key hits occurred after a batter appeared struck out, only to get another shot when Norris’ random call generator ruled “ball.”

Anyways, let’s talk a little about the game. Things did not look good for the Titans right away. Freshman southpaw Kenny Mathews quickly went ahead of the first hitter and then hit him with a pitch. When the next batter bunted softly back to Mathews, the pitcher eschewed the sure out at first base and tried unsuccessfully to get the lead runner. The next batter walked, including the aforementioned strike zone idiocy with pitches “A” and “B”. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Mathews struck out the next two and seemed to have struck out the side – save for the random call generator Norris. With a second life, Kevin Cho bounced a soft-hit spinner to the left of third-baseman Pedroza and to shortstop Chapman’s backhand. The only possible play was for Chapman to throw to third for a force-out, but Pedroza had to vacate the bag when he went for the ball. Trailing 1-0, Mathews left the sacks loaded with his third strikeout of the inning.

The Titans had a chance to tie or go ahead in the second inning, but they did not score after having the bases loaded with nobody out. These were three of the ten runners left on base by the Titans.

The Titans did manage to tie the score in the third inning on singles by Lopez and Greg Velazquez and a safety-squeeze by Trajano. Meanwhile, Mathews had settled into a groove and was mowing down hitters, many on strikeouts.

In the fourth inning, the Titans took a 2-1 lead on a walk and stolen base by Legg, followed by Lorenzen’s RBI single.

As Mathews’ strikeout count mounted, so did his pitch count. He easily retired the first two batters in the top of the sixth, but two consecutive ropes for base-hits brought pitching coach Kirk Saarloos out with the hook. De la Fuente entered and struck out the dangerous Jose Trevino to end the inning.

The Titans managed one run in the bottom of the sixth to make it 3-1. Chapman led off with a double and Ivory Thomas was hit by a pitch. With Legg looking t sacrifice, the ORU corner infielders charged hard in anticipation of the bunt – the first-baseman was practically in front of the mound when the pitch was delivered – so the Titans tried to counter with the “butcher boy” play. Legg bluffed bunt and then swung away, bouncing a ball that nearly made it over the head of the third-baseman – but Trevino made a nice play, grabbing it near the bag and converting it into a double-play. But Casey Watkins came up with a clutch two-out single that scored Thomas with the third run of the game for the Titans.

The Titans scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh and took a 5-1 lead, which looked like it would stand up easily. The damage all came with two outs on a single by Velazquez, a double by Trajano, a run-scoring wild pitch and an RBI single by Chapman, his third hit of the game.

The Golden Eagles made the game interesting in the eighth inning. After the first two batters reached base, De la Fuente yield to southpaw freshman Tyler Peitzmeier, who walked the first man he faced to load the bases with no outs. Peitzmeier struck out the next man before Saarloos came to mound to summon his closer, Lorenzen, to face the tying run (which made it a save situation.) Lorenzen appeared to have ORU’s Trevino struck out, but not to the satisfaction of Norris, who got an earful from the Titans’ dugout when Trevino stroked an RBI single to leftfield. A second run scored to make it 5-3 before Lorenzen left two runners in scoring position with a strikeout and an emphatic gesture of enthusiasm.

Lorenzen earned the save, pitching a scoreless ninth inning, allowing a single.

There were several standouts in the game for the Titans, including Mathews (career high 11 strikeouts and winning pitcher), Chapman (three hits, including two doubles, and some stellar defense) and Lorenzen (three hits, an RBI and his eighth save in eight tries). But the unsung star was catcher Casey Watkins, whose steady framing of pitches contributed to the fifteen strikeouts recorded by the Titans’ pitchers. Besides his clutch two-out RBI single against a pitcher with an ERA of 0.60, Watkins made the game’s most spectacular play when he made a diving backhand snare of an overthrow when he hustled all the way down the line, saving at least one extra base when the score was tight. There was something very electrifying seeing a catcher wearing all his gear – even the mask was still on – when he went flying parallel to the ground and grabbed the overthrow. He also threw out a would-be base stealer.

Game 3: “Titans’ Offense Is Gonzo”

Golden Eagles 3, Titans 0

The Titans ran into the real deal on Saturday night in the series finale and were unable to do much with him, ORU sophomore pitcher Alex Gonzalez shut the Titans down for 7-2/3 innings on just five hits and a walk, striking out six. Gonzalez was an 11th-round selection in the MLB draft coming out of high school, and he was a Freshman All-American, winning Summit League Pitcher-of-the-Year honors last season. For his effort this weekend, Gonzalez won Pitcher-of-the-Week honors in his conference.

The offense squandered a strong start by Grahamm Wiest, who allowed 3 runs in his 8+ innings of pitching, giving up just four hits and no walks.

The Titans missed an early opportunity when the hot-hitting Chapman led off the second with a single but was picked off. Trajano then singled and went to second on a throwing error, the first of three in the game by ORU. But Gonzalez worked out of the mini-threat and kept the game scoreless until Trevino hit a two-run blast to leftfield to give ORU a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning.

The Titans let Gonzalez off the hook again in the fifth inning. Trajano reached on an error and Velazquez walked to open the inning. Legg tried to bunt both runners into scoring position, but was unable to execute – perhaps in frustration, he struck out on a missed bunt attempt with two strikes. With two outs and the runners moving on a 3-2 pitch, Lorenzen lined a base-hit to leftfield. I expected Trajano to score easily when running on the pitch, but the ball was hit hard and played quickly, so he was held at third, bringing Pedroza to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. The hero last weekend, Pedroza struggled all weekend (0-for-9 in the series) and was retired on a groundout.

Wiest was magnificent after the home run, allowing no runs in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

The Titans finally made a little noise in the eighth inning when Lorenzen singled and pinch-hitter Thomas hit a rope that was headed towards the gap in left-centerfield – but was snared on a tremendous leaping grab by ORU shortstop Nate Goro, whose throw to first would have doubled off Lorenzen except it was wild, allowing Lorenzen to return safely to first base and advance to second. That brought Lopez to the plate as the tying run – ORU went to the bullpen and brought in its left-handed specialist, Lars Liguori, who did his job and worked out of the inning with ORU clinging to its 2-0 lead.

Wiest gave up a leadoff single in the ninth inning and was replaced by Peitzmeier, who retired the only batter he faced. But Koby Gauna allowed a double into the leftfield corner that plated an insurance run for ORU.

Closer Matt Rush earned his third save of the year for ORU with a quiet 1-2-3 ninth inning. The Golden Eagles improved to 9-12, posting only their third win of the season away from the friendly environs of J.L. Johnston Stadium.

Both teams had five hits, with Lorenzen the only Titan with more than one.


So what did we learn this series?

The weekend pitching staff was solidified in the final weekend series heading into Big West Conference action – Dylan Floro, Kenny Mathews and Grahamm Wiest make up a very solid triumvirate. The pitching has kept the Titans in almost every weekend game – and hopefully will continue to.

The two games this week against Arizona State University will be a good benchmark for freshmen pitchers J.D. Davis and Koby Gauna. Both have respectable ERAs (4.76 and 3.51 respectively), but are yielding high opponent batting averages (.347 and .330). The Sun Devils squeaked out a two-out-of-three Pac-12 Conference series win this weekend at home against Cal, so they are likely to be spread thin on pitching, as they were two weeks ago when they split a two-game midweek series against Utah Valley State.

The Sun Devils have hit 20 home runs, led by Abe Ruiz (7) and Joey DeMichele (4), each with more than the Titans have as a team (3). For the Titans to win or split the upcoming road games our pitchers will have to keep the ball in the yard and the hitters will need to grind out productive at-bats – let’s make the Devils work for every one of our 54 outs.

For those of you heading over to Tempe this week to watch the two games against ASU, beware that it is still legal in Arizona to use cameras for enforcement of traffic laws, although they may soon become illegal. (See report from last week) On July 15, 2010, the state of Arizona discontinued its contract with the company they had hired to administer the program on state roads and highways (such was I-10), but that was based on economic and political reasons, not a definitive determination of their legality. Hopefully, the resolution being considered by the state’s legislators will shut them down everywhere throughout Arizona, but don’t let your guard down this week if you’re visiting our neighbors to the east.

Oral Roberts University is located in Tulsa, OK, and was founded in 1963. For those readers too young to remember, Oral Roberts was a despicable charlatan, the vile confluence of Elmer Gantry, Vince McMahon and Bernie Madoff. His proud achievements include fleecing decent, God-fearing people through his pioneering roles in faith healing crusades, televangelism and prosperity theology (“The more of your hard-earned money you give to me, the richer you will be.”) With an enrollment of 3,700 students from 49 states and 70 countries, ORU’s proud alumni include Michele Bachmann, Kathie Lee Gifford, Ted Haggard and Richard Roberts (Oral’s son, who was removed from the university presidency in 2007 for misappropriating millions of dollars from the university to support his and his family’s lavish lifestyle.)

The Golden Eagles are presently members of the Summit League, but will be joining the Southland Conference in July. The ORU athletics teams were called the Titans from inception through 1993, when they changed it to Golden Eagles and their mascot became Eli the Golden Eagle, an acronym for Education, Lifeskills and Integrity. ORU dominates the Summit League in baseball, with minimal competition from South Dakota State, South Dakota, North Dakota State, Western Illinois, Nebraska–Omaha, Southern Utah, Missouri-Kansas City, Oakland, IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) and IPFW (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.)

The Titans played ORU in 2009 after returning from their epic road trip to Hattiesburg, MS; College Station, TX; and Stillwater, OK. After playing lights out on that trip and vaulting into the #1 position in most of the national polls, the Titans returned home and swept the Golden Eagles, but their play was lethargic and uninspired. Both then and this year, it seemed like the Titans felt their talent advantage would prevail and they would win under any circumstance. I hate match-ups like that – it’s fine with me if we don’t continue scheduling this team.

Best wishes to Nick Ramirez, who is having surgery Wednesday to repair a broken hamate bone in his right hand. He is expected to be sidelined six weeks. Nick was named as the Brewers minor league player with “best power tool,” having launched eight home runs in just 23 games in his professional debut last year with the Helena Brewers.
Welcome back to Mike and Deb Valenti, longtime Titans fans and Diamond Club members who recently relocated back to Southern California (Carlsbad) after spending the last two seasons in Idaho. Their friendship and passion for the baseball program were sorely missed during their hiatus – it was great to see them last weekend.

Head coaches who get tossed out of games are a perfect 2-0 this season at Goodwin Field. It happened earlier this month, when Washington State’s Donnie Marbut got booted in the bottom of the tenth inning by first base umpire Carl Coles for arguing a call at the plate in the top of the inning. The Cougars had a chance to score the go-ahead run, but the runner was ruled on a relay from Pedroza to Watkins. From where I sat, the runner slid under the tag and would have been safe, but he never touched the plate and was out on the second try by Watkins. On Saturday, Oral Roberts’ Rob Walton was ejected on a classic case of ‘rabbit ears’ by Tony Norris, whose “random call generator” strike zone befuddled both teams in the Friday evening game. Pedroza clearly went around, but third-base umpire Norris ruled he had checked his swing. Still irate from his team’s 15 strikeouts with Norris behind the dish the previous night, Walton squawked in the dugout – which happens a few dozen times a game and umpires are trained to tune it out – but Norris was looking for a confrontation and he ran Walton before he ever took a step out of the dugout. I’ve always believed that a team that needs its coach to get ejected in order to get fired up probably isn’t destined to win the game anyways, but it’s worked twice this year at Goodwin Field for the visitors.

The lack of offense is vexing. This Titans team has a lot of potentially good hitters whose performance so far is below expectations. Their poor performance against Gonzalez is part of a consistent pattern of struggling against other teams’ elite pitchers.

I’ll leave the line-up to the coaches and the conjecture to the website posters – it’s what makes baseball such a delightful game – but there isn’t a batting order in the world that will produce runs without successful execution on the field. Hitting in baseball seems to be contagious: players often slump together and then get hot simultaneously. You just know that the offense will eventually get it cranked up and this team could be very dangerous down the stretch.

Matt Chapman made several outstanding defensive plays in the series. He showed great range to his left in Game 2 and to his right in Game 3.

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