Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Titans Spoil Perfection, Then Best 'Eaters

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans (23-12, 7-2) made their first road trip of the Big West Conference schedule and won a best-of-three series against their recent nemesis, the UC Irvine Anteaters (18-14, 4-5.) The Titans were nearly no-hit in the opening game of a double-header on Saturday which was necessitated by Friday’s rainout, dropping a 4-1 in the lidlifter before storming back to win the nightcap, 13-2. In the nationally televised rubber match on Sunday, the Titans won on a combined three-hitter thrown by a quartet of pitchers and highlighted by a two-run bomb by J.D. Davis.

It was the eighth consecutive weekend series win for Fullerton and left them in a tie with the Long Beach State Dirtbags atop the BWC standings. That regular season-ending final series at Blair Field could be huge – which is what Titans vs. Dirtbags should be. The Titans remained at #12 in the Baseball America rankings, consistent with their RPI, which improved five slots to #11 on the strength of four road games against UCLA and UCI.

Game 1: “We Can’t Hit Righties Either”

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UCI Irvine Anteaters 000 012 10X - 4 8 1

The UCI Anteaters came into the series in desperate need of a series win – if not a sweep – to stay in contention for a BWC championship, which is likely to be their only path to an NCAA tournament bid.

After sweeping their opening conference series against the University of the Pacific Tigers, the ‘Eaters had been swept last weekend by the Cal Poly SLO Mustangs, the first time UCI had been swept after winning at least one game in 46 consecutive conference series dating back to 2006. Perhaps even more remarkably, the series-opening loss up in SLO was the first time UCI had lost a BWC series opening game since 2008 – they had won an amazing 25 consecutive opening games in BWC series openers. Just think how many outstanding pitchers they had to beat to win 25 straight series openers – truly an amazing record. (Thanks, FBF, for that stat.)

So could the Titans extend UCI’s new ‘streak’ to two straight BWC series-opening losses, facing Andrew Thurman, moved up in the rotation because of injuries to UCI’s top two weekend starters? He had pitched well in the beginning of the season, but had been lit up recently, allowing 12 runs in his prior 15-2/3 innings. Even better, he was a righty – a welcome respite from all the southpaw pitchers the Titans have struggled against lately.

You’ve got to like your chances, eh?


With the wind blowing out hard at cavernous Cicerone Field at Anteater Ballpark (just one name shy of ASU’s Winkles Field at Brock Ballpark at Packard Stadium), the Titans put on one of their worst offensive performances in many years. There were ten flyouts and six strikeouts. Thurman was in complete command – he didn’t have overpowering ‘stuff,’ but his command was superb.

The Titans had an opportunity to score first, when Davis reached base on an error leading off the third inning. He advanced to second on a sacrifice by Austin Kingsolver, but Thurman induced two groundballs to the right side to get out of the inning.

Titans’ starter Dylan Floro was equal to the task until allowing the first run of the game in the bottom of the fifth inning. Kris Paulino led off with a single and looked like he would be left on when Floro struck out the next two batters. After D.J. Crumlich singled, Tommy Reyes drove in Paulino with an RBI single to rightfield. I am seldom happy when an opponent does something to beat the Titans, but I doubt I was alone in cheering inside for Reyes, who was playing his first game since his older brother Robby, a Marine Corps Cpl., was killed last week in a helicopter crash during a training mission in Morocco.

There was a pregame moment of silence for Robby Reyes.

After that, the gears were mucked up for the Titans. Not only was Thurman throwing a no-hitter into the ninth inning, but he nearly had a perfecto going – no walks and just one runner reaching by error.

The ‘Eaters’ slim one-run lead was fattened in the sixth inning with two unearned runs that featured a variety of ugliness: an error, a couple of hits, a walk and a passed ball. They added an insurance run in the seventh. Reyes walked to lead off, which brought freshman Tyler Peitzmeier from the bullpen. After a sacrifice bunt, Peitzy hit a batter and was then victimized by a double steal. A flyball to centerfield made it 4-0, which seemed like 14-0 the way Thurman was dealing and the Titans were swinging the bat.

The Twitter world was buzzing, as seemingly all of the national college baseball writers were in the house as Thurman took the mound for the ninth inning, trying to nail down his first no-hitter since Little League when he was 10 years old. The tension was palpable – made somewhat surreal knowing that we had to play again and we were sucking.

Kingsolver battled Thurman before finally hitting a high chopper toward second-baseman Reyes, who charged the ball and made a quick throw, but there was no chance to get the speedy Kingsolver. (Photo courtesy College Baseball Today.) Bye-bye, no-no!

Whether fatigued from pitching so deep into the game or let down by emotions of losing the no-hitter, Thurman walked Jared Deacon on his 102nd pitch and was replaced on the mound by Jimmy Litchfield, a crafty left-hander whose fastball tops out near 81-82 and whose change-up is in the 62-64 miles per hour range. Litchfield walked the only hitter he faced, Richy Pedroza, which brought the tying run to the plate with no outs, bringing closer Race Parmenter into the game.

With a right-handed closer in and Anthony Trajano coming up, I was somewhat surprised that the Titans recent left-handed pinch-hitting dynamo, Clay Williamson, wasn’t called upon. Parmenter got exactly what he was looking for – a tailor-made double-play grounder just a few feet from second base. The run scored to make it 4-1, but the air had gone out of the balloon. Parmenter got Lorenzen on a groundout to end the game.

Game 1 Epilogue: Kudos to “Ketti” for one of the funniest posts ever on Titan Central, titled “Conversation Overheard in Titan Dugout between Games.”

Team member: “We’re sorry we didn’t do better.”

Coach: “Hey, that’s okay, I know you were all trying. Now just go out the second game and relax and have fun.”

Can you imagine if it actually went down that way? From the sounds heard from the outfield discussion circle, I don’t think it went exactly as Ketti may have overheard it, which makes his facetious humor all the more brilliant. The pundits on Twitter were going crazy, with descriptions ranging from “The Coach gave a very inspirational speech” to “Rip’em ‘Eaters? Coach V just ripped ‘em a new one.”

Whatever he said, it got through to them, because it was a completely different team the rest of the series – déjà vu to the “Baseball 101 lecture” during the 21-hour rain delay at Texas A&M.

Game 2: “Were Those the Same Two Teams?”

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UCI Anteaters 000 002 000 - 2 7 0

The suspense over a possible no-hitter in the second game of the double-header was immediately erased when Pedroza led off with a single and went to third on a base hit by Derek Legg, making his first start in a few weeks. One out later, Anthony Hutting, elevated into the clean-up spot in this game’s revised batting order, stung an RBI single into centerfield. After an intentional walk, the Titans left the bases loaded, just three of the twelve runners they would leave on base.

After freshman lefty Kenny Mathews pitched an easy 1-2-3 inning, the Titans’ offense exploded against Crosby Slaught, UCI’s starter. Jared Deacon, making his first career start as designated hitter, ground out a tough at-bat and singled to start the inning. After a walk to Pedroza sandwiched around two outs, the next seven batters put together a string of excellent at-bats and carved up Slaught and reliever Nick Hoover for seven runs. Lopez walked to load the bases and Anthony Hutting was then hit by a pitch to force in a run, making it 2-0. Williamson, making his second career start in the outfield, then drove a ball over the first-base bag for a three-run triple that made it 5-0 and a blowout in progress.

If ever one hit can described as “the” hit in an 11-run blowout, it would be Williamson’s. With the Anteaters stung and back on their heels, Michael Lorenzen surprised them with a bunt single to drive in Williamson. After a single by Matt Chapman put two runners aboard, Deacon got his second hit of the inning, an RBI single. Wallach put the cherry on top of the sundae when he dropped a double on the chalk along the rightfield line.

The Titans kept their foot on the gas pedal in the third inning, scoring three runs on singles by Lopez, Hutting and Williamson to load the bases for Chapman, who delivered a bases-clearing opposite-field double to make it 11-0.

Staked to the huge lead, Mathews did exactly what the pitcher should do: he threw strikes. His only lapse came in the sixth inning when the Zots scored twice on an infield single and an overthrow, followed by an RBI single by Reyes and RBI double by Jordan Fox. Mathews (4-0) went seven strong innings, allowing just 2 runs on 6 hits, strking out 7 and neither walking or hitting any batters. Tyler Peitzmeier made his second appearance of the day, throwing two shutout innings.

The Titans added two more runs in the ninth when Legg was hit by a pitch, Austin Diemer singled and Lorenzen scored them both with a double.

There were 18 hits by the Titans – and just 13 of them were singles! They also had 3 walks and 4 HBP in the offensive outburst, which was led by six players with multiple-hit games: Chapman (3 H, 3 RBI), Lopez (2 H), Hutting (2 H, 2 RBI), Williamson (2 H, 3 RBI), Lorenzen (2 H, 3 RBI) and Deacon (2 H, 1 RBI).

Game 3: “Freshmen Fever”

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UCI Anteaters 020 001 000 - 3 3 1

After their loss Saturday evening in the second game, UCI Coach Mike Gillespie described the rubber game as “Critical! Critical! Critical!” in terms of his squad’s ability to get their season track and earn a post-season berth. Although earlier in the week Gillespie had hoped that one of his injured starters, lefty Matt Whitehouse, would be able to start the game Sunday and work on a limited pitch count, there was a “setback” during the week that left UCI with the soft-tossing reliever Litchfield as their choice to win this critical game, which was televised nationally on ESPNU. The Titans had the luxury of being able to hand the ball to their regular Sunday pitcher, (redshirt) freshman Grahamm Wiest.

Litchfield made the ol’ coach’s decision look good when he got out of the first with a double-play ball after allowing a leadoff single to Pedroza. Wiest was also the beneficiary of a first inning twin killing when Fox smashed a hard line-drive to first-baseman Lopez with the runner off on the pitch on a hit-and-run play.

The Titans couldn’t adjust to the timing of Litchfield’s slowball in the second inning, which made his 62 mph change-up look like Ryne Duren. Lorenzen was out trying to bunt, and the next two batters were retired on easy grounders to second-base, one of them a check-swing by Davis.

The Titans came unglued in the bottom of the second and gave up two runs with sloppy defense and pitching. After a leadoff single, the ESPNU put the whammy on Wiest, describing him as “a strike machine that never walks batters.” Ball four. When the speedy Christian Ramirez dropped down a bunt to move the runners into scoring position, catcher Wallach pounced on the ball but eschewed the out at first and fired to third to try to cut down the lead runner. The ball sailed past Pedroza into leftfield foul ground, allowing the game’s first run to score and both runners to advance into scoring position. The next batter drove in the second run (unearned) on a groundout to shortstop, which Chapman alertly threw to Pedroza to erase the lead runner heading to third. Wallach cut down a runner trying to steal before – gasp! – Wiest walked his second batter of the inning.

Trailing 2-0, the Titans wasted no time in getting right back in the game the following inning. With one out and Diemer aboard (singled), Wallach put a good at-bat together and – gasp! – beat out an infield hit on a play which UCI shortstop Crumlich fielded the soft one-hopper with his feet in shallow leftfield but was unable to throw him out. After a walk to Pedroza loaded the bases, Chapman delivered another huge hit – an RBI double over the third-base bag that tied the score at 2-2. Things looked great for the Titans with Lopez and Lorenzen due up with two men in scoring position and just one out, but Pedroza was out at the plate on a “contact play” and Hutting was retired by reliever Phillip Ferragamo (Vince’s 6-foot-8, 260 pound nephew) after Lorenzen reached on a semi-intentional walk.

With renewed life, Wiest settled down and retired UCI scorelessly for the next few innings, albeit not with his normally impeccable command. Ferragamo was also a monster, retiring nine consecutive hitters after his purposeful walk of Lorenzen.

But how often have you seen it in baseball – a pitcher is unhittable one time through the order and then gets whacked the second time through? With two outs in the sixth inning, Hutting came up for the second time against Ferragamo and got one of the game’s biggest – and perhaps most unsung – hits, a two-out double roped opposite field to bring the freshman Davis to the plate. While he has been struggling at the plate, Davis remains the team’s best source for longball power – and he crushed one out of sight, a rare home run in Cicerone Field at Anteater Ballpark. The Titans had a 4-2 lead and Gillespie nearly swallowed his dentures.

Wiest came out to pitch the bottom of the sixth against a string of left-handed hitters in the heart of the UCI order. After he gave up a solid leadoff double and a well-hit flyball that advanced a runner to third, pitching coach Kirk Saarloos made the move to bring in the side-arming lefty specialist, Dave Birosak. The inherited runner scored on an infield grounder, but Birosak did his job, retiring both batters he faced.
With a narrow 4-3 lead and the bottom of the UCI order due up, freshman Willie Kuhl was sent out to pitch the seventh inning. He retired the Zots on three lazy flyballs.

The Titans got a much-needed insurance run in the top of the eighth. Thunder and Lightning: Davis lined a base-hit leading off and was pinch-run for by Ivory Thomas, who stole second and went to third on a passed ball. With one out and UCI protecting against a possible squeeze play with their infield in, Diemer ripped a ball that bounced over the third-baseman for a single that gave the Titans a 5-3 advantage.

With a two-run lead, the coaches displayed confidence in Kuhl by sending him out to pitch the bottom of the eighth against the top of the UCI order, knowing they had Dimitri De la Funente and Lorenzen to back him up. But Kuhl needed no help, inducing two more easy flyballs around a line-drive that was scalded straight at Pedroza.

Lorenzen was summoned to close out the ninth inning, which he did with three groundballs to the right side of the infield. The second one was hit hard to Lopez’s left, but he made a nice stop and a perfect feed to Lorenzen for the out.

Wiest (3-3) was the winning pitcher, despite not having his best ‘stuff.’ He allowed only three hits and two earned runs in 5-1/3 innings, but he walked two and hit three batters. The bullpen, though, was perfect: Birosak, Kuhl and Lorenzen retired all eleven batters they faced without allowing a base-runner.

Davis was the star offensively with his two-run blast and his second hit, which eventually allowed pinch-runner Thomas to score the insurance run. Pedroza, Chapman, Diemer and Wallach also had two apiece of the Titans’ eleven hits.


So what did we learn this series?

You just can’t say enough about what Saarloos has done with this young pitching staff. They don’t have a lot of power arms that make the radar gun light up, but they attack the strike zone and generally display good control. They were the top-ranked pitching staff in the country coming into this weekend for fewest walks allowed per nine innings.

Kuhl and the Gang: consider that of the ten pitchers doing the preponderance of the pitching these days for the Titans, the highest ERA is Kuhl’s 3.31, although the opponents’ batting average against him is just .217. But if you toss out his one bad outing at USC – four hits and three earned runs in just an inning – his ERA is 1.69 and the OBA is a miniscule .167.

Consider how well the bullpen performed against Irvine: Peitzmeier (2 appearances), De la Fuente, Birosak, Kuhl and Lorenzen combined to pitch 7-1/3 innings, allowing no runs, no walks and just one hit.

Mark your calendars to be at Goodwin Field on Thursday, April 26, when the Titans will host the Challenger Little League to their annual baseball clinic. The event begins at 5:00 p.m. Anyone who has ever participated in this event has been deeply moved by it – come out and cheer for these truly special players and the very meaningful impact it makes on their lives to be down on the field and becoming part of Titans baseball, a privilege that should never be taken for granted.

There’s nothing like going to a Titans game while it is being recorded at home. If they lose, you go home, hit “DELETE” and it never sees the light of day. But if they win, you get to relish every second of it. Of course, you look for yourself on TV, but it is great to capture the details you may have missed the first time.

One thing that I was extremely impressed by was the knowledge of the ESPNU broadcast team of play-by-paly announcer Mark Neely and color commentator Mike Rooney, a former assistant coach at Arizona State. They obviously know the college game and actually knew the details of the programs, the coaches, the players, their draft potential, strengths, weaknesses, etc. It was infinitely better than the crap that ESPN usually sends to cover college games, hot-shot pros who haven’t been in a college ballpark since they played a few decades ago, like Eric Karros, Robin Ventura and that stiff from USC (used to play third-base for the Astros, what is that guy’s name?) who used the entire telecast last year to kiss Gillespie’s ass, including crediting him for the ‘remarkable job he did getting UC Irvine to Omaha in 2007.’ Those guys pick up the stat sheet on the way past the press table and that is the extent of their knowledge. But Neely and Rooney were a breath of fresh air with their knowledge and insight.

Let’s move from ‘fresh air’ to ‘hot air.’ If you were at Cicerone Field at Anteater Ballpark this weekend, you probably recognize this dude: he is Keith Franklin, a.k.a. “The UCI SuperFan.” Even if you weren’t at the game, you probably heard him. Keith is the most vociferous, partisan fan you will ever see at a baseball game – he screams for his team from the first pitch to the last. He doesn’t heckle the other team – he genuinely roots for his team from the bottom of his heart and the depths of his lungs. Double-header? No problem! I’m sure he gets under the skin of many visiting fans – I’m guessing some of the home fans as well – but the guy is as loyal as can be to his team. Many fans would be screaming in the ninth inning of a game when their pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and their team is ahead – but would they still be screaming five hours later when their team is getting their butts beat by eleven runs? That’s what Keith is all about.

He may have crossed a line in the second game Saturday, but I don’t think anyone was offended. With the score 11-0, Gillespie jumped out of the dugout and considered going out to argue a call at first-base – probably a 10-minute delay by the time he gets there and back from the dugout on the opposite side of the field in a second-game blowout – so the Titans fans started to yell, “Sit down, Gillespie!” I think the UCI fans were startled – nobody comes into Skip’s ballpark and tells him to sit down! So another Irvine fan yells, “Don’t tell him to sit down!” and the next thing you know, Keith is displaying his hiney towards the Fullerton section. One of our true-blue fans, Ed, yells back at him: “At least it looks better than your face!”

(Photo credit to College Baseball Daily – thanks, Stitch! I tried to get a pic of Keith, but when I got close he hugged me so hard I couldn’t move my camera finger.) He really is a nice guy if you ever get to talk to him when he isn’t screaming. Keith actually got hooked on college baseball coming to the Fullerton games with his close friends and long-time die-hard Titans fans, Mike and Debi Valenti. Mike described Keith as having a "big heart" and "he became a great fan by watching the Fullerton fans and the respect they always had for the other teams' players."

Finally, as I was watching the tail end of batting practice, a big guy and his family came and sat in their seats right beside me. As the man approached, I immediately recognized him: it was Randy Youngman, the sports columnist for 25 years with The Orange County Register until he was laid off recently as a casualty of the slow, steady death of the newspaper business.

I must disclose: I love reading newspapers. The advent of Internet-based information exchange has dramatically changed the way we gather and share information, but to me, nothing beats the visceral feeling of flipping through a newspaper. While I’ve never held the Register with much regard, I always enjoyed Mr. Youngman’s columns. He was an excellent wordsmith, he knew his business and he was always a great supporter of the local teams, especially Cal State Fullerton. It speaks miles when a guy is there an hour before game time watching college kids take batting practice before a game he is no longer being paid to cover – his love of the game is real. I was very saddened when I read of his layoff – damn you Al Gore and your Internet!

But sitting next to this icon of journalism, I thought about how different it has become to follow the Titans in this technology age. Decades ago, what was there? A campus radio station whose signal faded at Yorba Linda Boulevard, The Daily Titan and The Orange County Register. The print media did a good job, but their distribution was limited by geographic reach. Then along came cable and satellite TV, which opened up an occasionally televised college game, which never happened back when there were only three broadcast networks in every home.

Then the Internet: look at how many ways you can follow your team these days. Internet radio and TV. They do a great job at the school website with accurate, updated information constantly. The videos that Matt Brown and Mike Greenlee do are great. There are preview columns and recap blogs. There are message boards where we all go to shoot off our mouths, whether locally or nationally. There are bloggers, again both nationally and locally. There are Facebook pages. Then there is Twitter, which has rapidly become far and away the best way to keep up with your favorite team. (If you’re not following the Titans on Twitter, you’re missing an amazing source of information.)

With younger people turning to these other mediums as their primary information sources and newspaper circulation declining, it is hard to make a case that allows the print media to survive without transmogrifying into a form that competes with the New Era information aggregators. The change is inevitable and, while I’ll clutch my newspaper until they pry it from my cold dead fingers, it is very hard to create a business case for a private business to make money providing the level of in-depth coverage that is largely being done by people purely for their love of the sport and passion for the team. I can rationalize it logically, but it still made me sad that such an honorable, professional man as Mr. Youngman had fallen victim to this progression.

So it’s on to a midweek game at home against Pepperdine. Tuesday has not been our kindest day, so let’s get out and root for the team – can you believe how fast this season is flying by?

Go Titans!

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