Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Power Outage Dooms Titans at JRS

By Don Hudson

Facing their fourth left-handed starting pitcher in the past six games, the Cal State Fullerton Titans struggled offensively and posted just four singles and lost to the UCLA Bruins, 4-2, last night at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

The Titans were held hitless until the fifth inning by left-hander Grant Watson (7-1).

The Bruins got on the board in the first inning. Koby Gauna started on the mound for the Titans and was immediately greeted by back-to-back singles, but he avoided a crooked number by inducing a tailor-made double-play ball to escape with just a solo tally on the board.

Meanwhile, Watson faced the minimum twelve batters through the first four innings. He did not allow a hit and picked off Matt Chapman, who had walked in the second inning.

The Bruins scored three runs in the bottom of the fourth, two of them unearned. With one out, Trevor Brown walked and stole second. The next UCLA batter, Eric Filia-Snyder, grounded to third-baseman Chapman, who looked the runner back to second but then threw wildly to first, allowing Brown to score and the batter to reach second. Shortstop Pat Valaika followed with an RBI triple into the leftfield corner (which I would have scored as a double and an error), driving Gauna from the game. Tyler Peitzmeier entered and gave up a sacrifice fly that gave the Bruins a 4-0 lead.

The Titans’ only runs in the game came in the top of the fifth. After a one-out walk to Ivory Thomas, Chapman broke up the no-hitter with a groundball through the right side of the infield. Designated-hitter Matt Orloff then placed a single through the 5-6 hole to load the bases for Anthony Hutting, who delivered an RBI single to make the score 4-1. Needing to avoid a potentially lethal groundball, Chad Wallach lifted a flyball to deep right-centerfield for a sacrifice fly to cut the deficit to two and advance two runners into scoring position. However, Watson regained his command and got Anthony Trajano to pop out to end the threat.

Trailing 4-2 with the game half over was a familiar and not entirely uncomfortable feeling for the Titans, who had rallied twice last weekend from the exact same score to carve out comeback wins. It seemed like momentum was shifting to the Titans when Peitzmeier threw a scoreless fifth inning.

But UCLA isn’t UC Davis – their bullpen and infield defense was outstanding, notwithstanding a throwing error by third-baseman Cody Regis allowing Chapman to reach base opening the seventh inning. After pinch-hitter Clay Williamson reached on a fielder’s choice, Hutting walked to bring Wallach to the plate with two runners aboard. Wallach hit a chopper toward third that forced Regis to make a do-or-die short-hop fielding attempt – Regis fielded the ball cleanly, stepped on third and fired across the diamond to complete the inning-ending double-play.

Dimitri De la Fuente, Dave Birosak and Willie Kuhl followed Peitzmeier and shut down the Bruins. The four Titans relievers combined to throw 4-2/3 shutout innings, allowing just three hits and a walk. But the Bruins’ bullpen triumvirate of David Berg, Ryan Deeter and Scott Griggs was even more impressive: they no-hit the Titans in the final three innings, walking just one. The final seven Titans were retired, with eight outs resulting.


So what did we learn last night?

Win or lose, the story of this game was Rick Vanderhook’s return to Jackie Robinson Stadium and the lovefest embrace he was given by everyone – from UCLA head coach John Savage, the assistant coaches, the players, the fans, the ballpark attendants and everyone else who was there. A common refrain was, “We sure do miss him and wish he was still with UCLA, but we’re very happy for him to have earned his dream job.”

The four left-handed starting pitchers faced recently by the Titans have given their teams quality starts. They have held the Titans in check deep into the games and placing them in the vulnerable position of having to play from behind: each LHP has pitched at least six or seven innings while allowing two or fewer runs. The Titans mounted an eighth-inning rally against Dayne Quist and the UC Davis closer, as well as the memorable ninth-inning walk-off win in the second game of that series when Anthony Kupbens ran out of gas in the ninth inning.

On paper, the Titans should hit at least as well if not better against southpaw pitchers. Let’s not overlook the obvious: the four pitchers faced (Jerry Keel of Northridge, Quist and Kupbens of Davis and UCLA’s Watson) are all good pitchers who have enjoyed success against most opposition. Perhaps the ability of left-handed pitchers to shut down the Titans’ running game is critical: in the 30-1/3 innings thrown by the aforementioned portsiders, the Titans have stolen just one base in three attempts and have had one runner picked off. The only stolen base was by Trajano on a play where he was picked off but reached second safely when the first-baseman for UC Davis took too long making his throw.

Is it just me or does this seem like one of the slowest Fullerton teams in memory? The reduction in stolen bases isn’t necessarily reflective of lack of speedy players as much as it is a shift in offensive philosophy, but what stands out to me is the number of batters thrown out at first base on plays that generally were infield hits in the past. There were at least three plays last night where a UCLA infielder made a nice stop but would normally not have had a play, but the Titans’ hitters were thrown out by a half-step or a full-step.

Another metric of speed (or lack thereof) is the GIDP (grounded into double-play) statistic. So far, the Titans have grounded into 25 double-plays (with an additional 5 DP’s against them by other means) in 32 games.

Just for curiosity’s sake, compare the 2012 team CSUF team that played last night at JRS vs. the 2010 team that battled so gallantly there without the injured Gary Brown in the epic Super Regionals battle. In the 32 games played so far, the 2012 Titans have had 432 runners reach base by hit, walk or hit-by-pitch. With the 25 GIDP so far, it equates to one out of every 17.3 Titans that reaches base is erased on a groundball double-play. The 2010 Titans ended up playing 64 games (exactly twice as many as played to date this year) and put 1,042 runners on base by hit, walk or HBP. They grounded into just 23 double-plays, which equates to one out of 45.3 Titans that reached base being erased on a groundball double-play. That is a staggering difference!

A team with a lot of power can overcome lack of speed and vice versa, but simultaneous lack of power and speed is a potentially lethal combination. The statistic cited above actually reflects on both speed and power: with a disproportionate percentage of the hits being singles this year, there are logically more double-play situations being created than in an offense with a better blend of singles with extra-base hits.

Richy Pedroza did a couple of things last night that don’t show up in the box score but which help a ballclub. The first was in the bottom of the fifth, with the Bruins holding a two-run lead and a runner at third with two out and their dangerous clean-up hitter, Jeff Gelalich batting. Gelalich hit a flyball to rightfield that Thomas initially backed up on. Pedroza saw that the ball was only going to be medium-deep and in jeopardy of dropping in if Thomas could not recover, so he sprinted back towards rightfield to be in position to make an over-the-shoulder grab if necessary. Thomas quickly recovered and easily made the catch to end the inning, but the hustle from second-base by Pedroza to get into position to catch a medium-deep flyball to rightfield was impressive.

His second play that impressed me was in the bottom of the seventh, with UCLA still clinging to their 4-2 lead. After the first hitter singled and the ninth batter came to the plate, everybody in the stadium is expecting a sacrifice, so Pedroza was headed to cover first when the Bruins tried to cross up the Titans by having the batter swing away. Pedroza had to make an instantaneous transition from “cover first mode” to “field hard smashed groundball and start double-play mode,” which he successfully did. The ball was headed towards rightfield before Richy snared it heading towards first and he wheeled around and made a perfect feed to Trajano, who completed a very pretty double-play.

People are always coming up to me at the ballgames and asking me, “Are people really always coming up to you at the ballgames and asking you questions about all kinds of different things?” Absolutely – even though I usually don’t know the right answer and I just make something up. Bear with me a few minutes so I can address some of these once and for all.

Here are some this year’s most frequently asked questions:

By far, the question I’ve been asked the most this year: “Who is the ‘MC’ honored with his initials on the outfield wall near the rightfield foul pole?” Answer: Mike Campbell was a Cal State Fullerton golfer and long-time equipment room volunteer who passed away last year.

During Coach Vanderhook’s introductory presser last summer at Goodwin Field, he spoke of what a great person and Titan that Mike Campbell was. Everyone who knew Mike speaks of a tremendous person who left us tragically too soon.

Several questions pertain to music:

Question: Why don’t they play “Sweet Caroline” anymore at Goodwin Field?

Answer: How the $#&% would I know? Maybe it had just run its course. Maybe Neil Diamond wanted too much in royalties. Personally, as a lifelong Red Sox fan, I wish every ballpark in the country hadn’t copied the Fenway Park tradition that started in 1997. “Sweet Caroline” has been played there in the middle of the eighth inning during every game played there since 2002. (Its origins at Fenway Park.)

If you’re going to adopt Fenway Park traditions, I’d much rather they play “Tessie” by the Dropkick Murphys. It is a song about a song. The original “Tessie” was written in 1902 for a play called The Silver Slipper. It became the unofficial fight song of the Boston Americans (predecessor name to Red Sox) and their fiercely loyal supporters, the Royal Rooters, during the 1903 season. That was the year the first World Series was played, a best-of-nine series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Americans. Without the convenience of air travel back then, the format was four games in one city and five games (if necessary) in the other city. The Pirates came to Boston and took three-out-of-four games. But the Royal Rooters did not despair: they hired a band to play “Tessie” on the train ride to Pittsburgh and at the games. Legend has it that they played the song non-stop until it drove the Pirates and their fans crazy – the Americans came back and swept four straight games in Pittsburgh.

In the summer of 2004 when “The Curse of the Bambino” was alive and well and had haunted the Red Sox for 86 years, the Dropkick Murphys wrote a new version of “Tessie” which was about how the original song had brought good luck and a baseball championship to Boston early in the previous century. Several members of the Red Sox sang back-up vocals, most notably Johnny Damon and pitchers Bronson Arroyo and Lenny DiNardo. I’ll never forget the day the Dropkick Murphys gave their first live performance of “Tessie” at Fenway Park. Just before gametime, Red Sox skipper Terry Francona went to confer with his starting pitcher, Arroyo, but couldn’t find him anywhere. Then somebody pointed up to the centerfield bleachers, where Arroyo was jamming with the band.

Need I remind you who won the 2004 World Series? That was my best sports year ever – the Titans and Red Sox both won their respective World Series.

Question: If you were a player, what would your walk-up music be?

Answer: It depends whether I was a hitter or pitcher – the snippets played for hitters are shorter, while the music plays longer for pitchers while they walk in and warm up. If I was a hitter, I think I would go with the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” I love that refrain, “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.” If I was a pitcher, I would go with “People Who Died” by The Jim Carroll Band.

One of my favorite aspects of attending college baseball games is hearing the variety of music played at campus ballparks around the country. Listening to the music of today’s youth helps keep old farts like us young – believe it or not, there really has been a lot of great music produced after The Doors and Pink Floyd. I love how they play lively, energizing music when the home team is taking B.P. or fielding practice, but schmaltzy old crap when the visitors are doing their pre-game drills. Weather-related music played during rain delays is always great, but the best ever was a few years ago when they played fire-related songs at Blair Field during the delay after a power transformer on a light pole spewed nasty green hazardous chemicals before igniting into flames.

I also like interpreting the players’ song selections: some are obviously sacred and deeply personal, while others are just fun to listen to and reflect what a great time of life it is to be in college in California and playing baseball. Most of the time I have no idea what the name of the song is or who performs it. For example, I love Dimitri De la Fuente’s walk-in song, especially when it amps up to a frenetic speed (78 rpm from my day), but I couldn’t even tell you one lyric from it or what it’s called or who sings it or what it’s about.

It’s not something I consciously do, but the association between the players and the songs gets stuck in my head for years to come. The other day I was driving to work (yes, I do actually have a job) and I heard Linkin Park’s “In the End.” My immediate reaction: “Adam Jorgenson!”

Of course, there are always a lot of baseball-specific questions: “Why is Billy playing there?” “Why is Ramon batting here?” “How come Louie hasn’t been playing lately?” “Why didn’t they bunt in the second inning?” “Why did they leave Josh in to pitch the sixth inning?” “How come they took Johnny out of the game?”

Those are all great questions – the fundamental reason that baseball is by far the most interesting sport to follow. We all have opinions – I almost always do. (Okay, not almost – I always have opinions.) But ultimately those are decisions that are the coaches’ responsibility to make and I trust that they know more than you, me or anybody else sitting up in the stands. I love the free discourse we have on these weighty matters in the stands, the bars, the parking lot and on the message boards. But don’t be disappointed that those questions aren’t the focus of this blog, which tends to be more about observations than opinions about what is happening with the team. (Of course, observations are just as subjective as opinions.)

I’m also often asked about polls and rankings. I keep up with that stuff, but don’t place enough meaning on them to even bother commenting. For example, UCLA (now 22-7 overall) dropped from #5 to #17 in the Baseball America rankings in just one week, in which they lost two-out-of-three at home in a conference series against a very good George Horton-led Oregon Ducks squad. Such a precipitous drop in the rankings is a bunch of crapola. With such paucity of credibility from even the most commonly referenced source of rankings, why even bother to discuss?

Another question asked a lot: “Do you take notes during the game?” Answer: “No.” I pay close attention to the game and am reasonably observant – I’m the worst person in the world to go to a Titans game with if you want to chat about anything other than the game. I rely on my memory, with confirmation by the box scores. My memory is very strange and works only on things that interest me: I can’t remember who dealt the previous hand in a poker game, but I still have very clear memories back to when I was around six months old, long before I could talk. I remember looking up and wondering about people standing over my crib, thinking “Why is that jackass talking like a baby just because I’m a baby and don’t know how to clearly elucidate my thoughts yet?”

Let’s hope the weather cooperates enough to get all three games played this weekend at UC Irvine. Hope to see you there.

Go Titans!

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