Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Aztecs Crumble and Fumble

By Don Hudson

With sadness and sorrow abounding after learning of the death of Chief Jay Strongbow, the Titans completed a sweep of their two-game home-and-home series against the San Diego State University Aztecs on Tuesday night with a road win at Tony Gwynn Stadium, with four pitchers combining to allow just one unearned run. Koby Gauna pitched five innings and got the win, with relief support from Dimitri De la Fuente, Willie Kuhl and Dave Birosak.

Richy Pedroza was involved in much of the Titans’ scoring, with three hits, two runs scored and two runs driven in. Much of the Aztecs’ misery was self-inflicted, as they committed five errors and allowed four unearned runs. The loss broke a four-game winning streak by the Aztecs since the return of Coach Tony Gwynn from his most recent cancer surgery recovery.

With the game delayed a few minutes by umpire tardiness, the Titans jumped on the SDSU pitcher right out of the gate. (I hate when that happens – your pitcher goes through his pre-game rituals and warm-ups based on an established game time and blue arrives ten minutes late.) Pedroza led off with a single and advanced to third on a base hit by Anthony Trajano. Aztecs pitcher Philip Walby nearly escaped unscathed when he struck out Michael Lorenzen and got Carlos Lopez to hit a grounder to shortstop, but Lopez hustled down the line and just barely beat the throw for an RBI fielder’s choice.

Gauna threw a scoreless first frame, and the Titans came back in the top of the second with two more runs on two hits and two errors. Ivory Thomas beat out a swinging bunt and went to third a couple pitches later on an errant pickoff attempt by the SDSU catcher. Anthony Hutting was credited with an RBI when his groundball went through the wickets of the Aztecs first-baseman, allowing him to reach second. After a sacrifice by Matt Chapman, Austin Kingsolver bounced an RBI infield single into the shortstop hole.

The Aztecs scored their only run in the third inning. After Gauna got two outs – he had retired all eight batters faced so far – the ninth batter in the Aztecs line-up poked a groundball to the left of third-baseman Pedroza. Trajano got to the ball in the shortstop hole and bobbled it momentarily – a pretty tough do-or-die play that is generally ruled a base hit, but as is often the case when a pitcher has yet to allow a hit, it was ruled an error. After a stolen base and a walk, the tying run came to the plate. Tim Zier doubled down the leftfield line, but the ball was played well by Kingsolver and the damage was limited to one unearned run, with two runners stranded in scoring position when Kingsolver made a good catch after a long run on a foul flyball.

With momentum seeming to creep slightly towards San Diego State, Gauna did a nice job with a scoreless fourth inning before his teammates tacked on another run in the top of the fifth, again aided by two errors. Kingsolver reached with one out when his bunt was fielded cleanly but thrown errantly by the pitcher. Jared Deacon then hit a tailor-made double-play ball to the first-baseman, but the throw to second was straight in line with the runner Kingsolver – the shortstop was unable to make the play and King went around to third. A passed ball allowed Kingsolver to score. (The Aztecs’ miscues reminded me of something that happened after this year’s Super Bowl, when a pawn shop in Denver paid to have 8,000 Butterfingers candy bars dropped into Copley Square in Boston, mocking the Patriots for their numerous dropped balls.)

Gauna gave up a single in the fifth inning, but helped himself – with some help from first-baseman Lopez – with a pickoff. The runner slid back easily ahead of a routine pickoff throw and was shocked to see himself being called out by blue – it was only then he realized his hand was touching Lopez’s shoe, which was blocking the path back to the base.

Gauna departed after the fifth, allowing just two hits and the unearned run, replaced by Dimitri De la Fuente, who pitched two scoreless innings but gave up three hits. Trailing by just three runs in the bottom of the seventh, the Aztecs strung together three hits but were snuffed when Kingsolver gunned a runner down at the plate on a sharply hit single to leftfield. It was perfectly executed – the cutoff alignment, the throw, the tag by Deacon – but I was still very surprised to see the runner go on such a sharply hit ball down by three runs, with the potential go-ahead run coming to bat if the runners stays at third.

Methinks the Aztecs are not a very well-coached team.

Seeking an insurance run, the Titans scored once in the eighth inning to take a 5-1 lead on a single by Pedroza, sacrifice by Trajano and an RBI single by Lorenzen.

Willie Kuhl pitched a scoreless eighth for the Titans, despite allowing a hit and two wild pitches. While neither De la Fuente or Kuhl were as sharp as they have been in recent appearances, they both got the job done, throwing a combined three scoreless innings as the bridge from the starter to the closer, if needed.

The Titans made sure the closer wouldn’t be needed when they added two more runs in the ninth inning, all with two outs. Kingsolver beat out a bunt and went to second on a bad throw. After Deacon was hit by a pitch, Pedroza delivered an RBI single to score Kingsolver. Deacon subsequently scored on a passed ball. Dave Birosak finished it off with a scoreless ninth inning, allowing a walk and a single.

Besides Pedroza’s three hits, the Titans also got two hits from Kingsolver. The Titans outhit the Aztecs, 8-7, but the primary difference was pitching and defensive execution – not the first time a baseball game was decided by pitching and defense.


So what did we learn last night?

It wasn’t exactly an impressive offensive outburst for the Titans against a trio of midweek pitchers with ERAs of 4.00, 5.06 and 16.50. But there were some encouraging signs, especially the way the Titans were able to push base-runners across the plate when given bonus opportunities by the sloppy defense of the Aztecs. There were only six runners left on base for the Titans.

You couldn’t ask for much more than what Lopez has delivered so far this season, leading the team in batting (.361), hits (39, tied with Lorenzen), doubles (9) and RBI (18). Last year he feasted in the mid-week games. This year, he is actually hitting better (.366) against elite opponents (Florida, TCU, Texas A&M and Arizona State) than he is against the more ordinary competition. But I was very impressed by how he was able to contribute to the team’s success in ways that may not show up in the box score,
even though he had a rare hitless night. He drove in the first run to get the Titans going in the first inning by hustling down the line and just barely beating out a potential inning-ending double-play. (It would have set a bad tone to have runners at the corners with no outs in the first inning and then not score.) Lopez also contributed defensively when he blocked the runner’s dive back to the base on a routine pickoff throw, which helped Gauna out of a potential SDSU threat.

It was encouraging to see Jared Deacon make his first start of the 2012 season behind the plate. With the recent absence of Casey Watkins from the line-up (food poisoning), there has been a great burden placed on Chad Wallach, who is working his butt off to learn on-the-job how to play the most challenging defensive position at the highest level of collegiate baseball. Deacon’s return will add depth and stability to the catching position if he is able to resume playing on a steady basis, presumably in a platoon role with Watkins.

Kingsolver had an outstanding game defensively in left-field, while Thomas was used as the designated hitter. It will be interesting to see how at-bats for five players (Kingsolver, Thomas, Hutting, Greg Velazquez and J.D. Davis) will be divided up between three positions (leftfield, rightfield and D.H.) I suspect a lot of it will boil down to lefty vs. right pitching match-ups.

Hooky has a heart: I thought it was a great touch that Jesse Jenner, who was born in San Diego and went to nearby Steele Canyon High School, got an opportunity to bat and catch an inning in front of a large throng of friends and family.

I really look forward to San Diego State joining the BWC – Tony Gwynn Stadium is a great baseball venue, not even mentioning the proximity to Phil’s BBQ. Ever since the Titans swept their 2007 Regionals at Tony Gwynn Stadium, which were officially hosted by the University of San Diego Torreros (whose own ballpark is too crappy to host a sandlot game), that ballpark just has a very comfortable feeling to me.

Perhaps the saddest part of going to Tony Gwynn Stadium is seeing Tony Gwynn, whose health has been ravaged by the effects of cancer and the extraordinary treatments he has endured (a 12- and a 14-hour surgery within an 18-month span) resultant from his 30 years of chewing tobacco. While Gwynn has become an unwilling poster boy for the risks associated with smokeless tobacco in baseball, his unfortunate suffering has inspired former Aztecs pitcher Stephen Strasburg and former Padres manager Bruce Bochy to win their battles against this potentially deadly addiction. (Interesting article)

Gwynn was unquestionably one of the greatest hitters of any era and is universally recognized as a classy, dignified man and a great ambassador for the game of baseball and the San Diego community. His record as a collegiate coach has been less than stellar, but I don’t think wins and losses mean as much as the role model he is for his players. If he can inspire others and raise the awareness of the risks associated with what was once considered a relatively benign behavior, then his contribution as a coach will have been very meaningful.

Here is my favorite “what I’ve learned” of the season. I was sitting down the rightfield line in the same seat I sat in each game of the 2007 Regionals (not that I’m superstitious – I just like the view from that particular seat), a couple sat behind me, rooting for the Titans. After a couple innings, we struck up a casual conversation – nothing unusual, just friendly discussion about the team from fans who live in the area where the road game is being played and don’t often get to see the team play in person. The guy clearly knew his baseball – after two times through the Titans’ batting order, he could pick out hitters' strengths and weaknesses.

Then the gentleman described his affiliation with the Titans dating all the way back to 1975, when the program moved up to Division 1 and made it to the College World Series, my level of interest rose. That is one of the most unbelievable athletic feats almost beyond imagination: how does a team move up to Division 1 and then beat the dynasty USC team for a berth in Omaha in its very first year? The same Trojans team under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux that had won the CWS in 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1974 – the team that was expected to steamroll every team in their path along the way to what was considered an inevitable sixth consecutive championship. How do you even recruit players when you are currently playing in a lower division and have no budgetary or infrastructure support?

I figured the dude might have been student back then or might have had a friend on the team – until he said, “It was a great thrill – I pitched a complete game to beat USC in the Regional opener and then came back to throw 6-2/3 innings in the title game win against Pepperdine to earn the trip to Omaha.” By now I am completely mesmerized – who is this guy????

I was sitting having a casual chat with Titans royalty and I didn’t even know it: the couple was Dan and Marge Boone! We had a wonderful chat about people and events of that era, which laid the foundation for the subsequent greatness of the Cal State Fullerton baseball program. Dan Boone was a 5-foot-7 lefthander who pitched for Cerritos College in 1973 and 1974 under the legendary Wally Kincaid, and was considering powerhouse programs like Arizona and Arizona State to transfer to – until he met some new coach at Fullerton named Augie Garrido. Boone, a distant relative of frontiersman Daniel Boone, led the upstart Titans with 13 complete games in their inaugural 1975 season – which is still the program’s all-time single season record! In his two seasons as a Titan, he was 22-6 with an ERA of 2.29, fourth best in school history.

Boone was an extraordinary pitcher in the Alaskan baseball leagues, which is where he met Marge Moss in 1974 when he was a plucky 5-foot-seven, 135 pound moundsman. Both he and Garrido were inducted into the Anchorage Glacier Pilots Hall of Fame in 2007, the team for whom he pitched in 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1985. He was drafted five times, back when MLB had a “regular” and a “secondary” draft, including finally by the California Angels in the second round in 1976. Boone made his major league debut in 1981 with the San Diego Padres, pitching 37 games and posting two saves and a 2.84 ERA. After a trade to the Houston Astros, he faded into MLB obscurity, but never lost his love and passion for the game. In 1989, Boone went to play for the Bradenton Explorers in the newly formed Senior Professional Baseball Association, where he learned to throw a knuckleball. He became very adept with the pitch, and earned a trip back to The Show, signing with the Baltimore Orioles in 1990, where he made four September appearances, including his first (and only) major league start after a lengthy hiatus.

Boone was inducted into the Cal State Fullerton Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.

What a fun day – a pre-game trip to Phil’s BBQ with friends; meeting some very nice people with an incredible role in the legacy of the Titans; and a solid 7-1 win to help flush the bitter aftertaste of the Sunday loss to Northridge. I hate starting the conference against the lower projected teams – there is little margin for error, lest you fall too far behind the better teams in the standings. Let’s support these guys and hope for a sweep against UC Davis – which won’t be easy. We swept them last year, but they could have easily won the Saturday and Sunday games. And they have some quality pitchers who are throwing very well.

Go Titans!

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