Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Titans Sweep UC Davis

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans rode the strength of two stirring late-inning rallies and overcame two-run deficits to post wins over the visiting UC Davis Aggies by identical 5-4 scores on Thursday and Friday before completing the sweep with an 11-0 rout in the series finale on Saturday.

With the sweep, the Titans (5-1) moved into sole possession of first place in the Big West Conference, one game ahead of Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, who swept UC Irvine, the Titans’ next BWC opponent. UC Santa Barbara entered their series finale against Cal State Northridge tied with CSUF, but they were stymied by the hefty lefty, Jerry Keel, who had pitched brilliantly a week earlier in a complete game win over the Titans, along with three innings of shutout relief from the Matadors’ bullpen.

With their road win at San Diego State on Tuesday and the home sweep of UCD, the Titans moved up a notch to twelfth in the Baseball America rankings.

Game 1: “Clay Feat”

CSUF Titans 5, UC Davis Aggies 4

The series opened on Thursday evening (Easter weekend schedule) with the Titans facing one of the BWC’s premier pitchers, lefty Dayne Quist, who arrived with a 4-0 record and 1.99 ERA. He lived up to his billing most of the game.

The Aggies arrived with a reputation for excellent starting pitching but not much hitting. It sure didn’t look that way at the game’s onset. UCD greeted Titans’ ace Dylan Floro with back-to-back-to-back singles that gave the Aggies a 1-0 lead and runners at the corners with one out before the stain from spilled mustard had even settled into my shirt. But then there was a big play that kind of got lost in the aftermath of late game heroics: the next hitter also ripped the ball hard, a line-drive headed towards left-centerfield. But diminutive shortstop Anthony Trajano timed it perfectly at snared it at the zenith of his leap, completing the play with a throw to first to double off the runner and avoid a big crooked number.

Trajano led off for the Titans and was plunked by a pitch from Quist. He left on ‘first motion’ and was seemingly hung out to dry, but the throw from the first-baseman was late and Trajano had a stolen base. With the lefty Quist falling off towards third-base after his pitch, Pedroza bunted towards the first-base side of the mound and beat it out. Perhaps trying to take advantage of a rattled pitcher and infield, Lorenzen also bunted, driving in Trajano on a successful safety squeeze to tie the score, 1-1.

As has happened often lately, Floro got locked into a groove after the other team let him off the hook in the first inning. He threw four consecutive zeros and took a 2-1 lead to the sixth inning, with the Titans scoring the go-ahead run in the third on singles by Pedroza, Carlos Lopez and Matt Orloff (RBI).

The game was tied 2-2 in the top of the sixth on one swing of the bat by switch-hitting outfielder David Popkins, who lined a home run off the advertising signs above the fence in rightfield.

Floro and Quist continued their mound battle through the middle innings. After allowing a one-out bunt single to Lorenzen in the fifth, Quist set down the next eight Titans in order, quite often inducing hideous-looking swings. No ill reflection on the Titans’ hitters – Quist’s ball just moved all over the place.

But like the lyrics in the Sublimes’ classic song “Date Rape”: “That’s when things got out of control.” The Aggies scored two unearned runs, largely because of bunts mishandled by the Titans. After a lead-off single, UCD tried to sacrifice him into scoring position. Floro fielded the bunt quickly and seemed to have plenty of time to nail the runner at second, but his throw sailed into centerfield. The next batter bunted down the third-base line. It might have rolled foul, but third-baseman Matt Chapman had to make an immediate real-time decision and he picked it up and fired to first. Unfortunately, the ball, the runner and the fielder all arrived in near simultaneity – the batter reached, a run scored and both runners moved up a base when the throw went into rightfield.

If you’re listening to the Sublimes, crank it up for this part. Now leading 3-2, the next Aggies hitter, Popkins, lifted a flyball to medium-deep centerfield for what appeared to be a certain sacrifice fly. But nothing is certain when Lorenzen is the outfielder making the throw. As he camped under the flyball, you could see every muscle in his body twitching in preparation for making the throw, just like a jet revving its engines getting ready for take-off. The anticipation was superb: while the ball was in flight and Lorenzen had it lined up, I heard several fans tip off their friends: “Watch this!”

Lorenzen unleashed a howitzer to the plate, which bounced once into the hands of catcher Chad Wallach, who applied the tag to the stunned runner. It was right up there with Lorenzen’s stunning throw to nail a runner at second from the warning track last year against UCI or the amazing throw to the plate to cut down the tying run in the last inning of the game against UCSB. It momentarily held the deficit to just one run, but the Aggies made it 4-2 with another base hit.

Trailing 4-2, Lorenzen hit an 0-2 pitch into rightfield and easily legged out a double. I was flabbergasted that so many fans were screaming at Vanderhook for holding him at second base – haven’t you ever heard about not ever risking making the first or third out of an inning at third-base? Don’t you understand you’ve already got a fast runner in scoring position with your clean-up hitter coming up, representing the tying run?

Quist struck out Lopez, but was driven from the game when Ivory Thomas hit an RBI single into leftfield that made the score 4-3. Quist had thrown 113 pitches and was replaced by closer Harry Stanwyk, a hard-throwing righthander who entered the series with an ERA of 1.89 and an opponent batting average of .232. The baseball “book” says you bring in a hard thrower after a soft-tosser because his fastball seems even faster – the Red Sox did this in recent years, always bringing in Daniel Bard whenever Tim Wakefield was removed.

With a righty in to replace lefty Quist, Vanderhook opted to have left-handed hitting Anthony Hutting pinch-hit for RH-hitting Orloff. After Thomas moved up a base on an error by Stanwyk on an errant pickoff attempt, Hutting had a great at-bat and went with a 1-2 pitch, lining it opposite field for a single that sent Thomas to third as the potential tying run. Chapman then walked on five pitches – some of which were very close to the strike zone but apparently just missed – to load the bases.

Wallach was the next scheduled batter – ever the threat to hit into a twin-killing. Hook considered his options and called on freshman Clay Williamson, a left-handed hitter who recently got his first collegiate hit in a pinch-hitting appearance at Arizona State. Looking confident and capable, Williamson slammed a 1-1 pitch back up the middle into centerfield for a two-run single that gave the Titans a 5-4 lead. Chapman was caught trying to go to third when the Aggies properly executed a cutoff play and Stanwyk retired Austin Kingsolver to end the rally, but the damage had been done.

Lorenzen brought his golden arm to the mound for the ninth inning and easily retired the first two hitters before making it momentarily anxious. My friend Rock nearly put the whammy on him with his premature counting of the chickens before they hatched: “So how many saves is this for Michael? Is this his eleventh save?” Just like that – Lorenzen hit the next batter with a pitch and then pushed him into scoring position on a wild throw on an attempted pickoff. But order was quickly restored and Lorenzen got the final batter of the game on a flyball. Yes, Rock – that was his eleventh save.

Pedroza and Lorenzen had two hits apiece, while Floro (5-2) was the winning pitcher. It wasn’t a particularly well-played game, but there were certainly some thrilling moments. The two-run single by Williamson and the throw by Lorenzen were the most spectacular moments being discussed afterwards, but the play by Trajano in the first inning should also be on that short list of key moments in the victory.

Interesting factoid courtesy of Mike Greenlee’s recap: all four pitchers who appeared in the game committed a throwing error. Odd but true.

Game 2: “Great for Eight”

CSUF Titans 5, UC Davis Aggies 4

In the middle game last year at UC Davis, left-hander Anthony Kupbens pitched a great game against the Titans. Matched up against Noe Ramirez, it was a classic pitchers’ duel – scoreless after seven innings. While Noe had been relieved by Dylan Floro and Raymond Hernandez, Kupbens forged gallantly to the eighth inning, where he allowed the game’s first tally on a clean single, a bunt single, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly. He was still throwing great but his pitch count had reached 110, so then-Coach Rex Peters lifted him in the ninth inning. The arson squad in the UC Davis got bullpen and the Titans scored six times, making the 7-0 final score seem deceptively one-sided.

So this year under somewhat similar circumstances and after their closer had been used the previous night and blown a save, new Coach Matt Vaughn sent Kupbens back to the mound for the ninth inning and put the game completely in his hands. The decision backfired – let’s talk about what happened.

The game was an interesting match-up of style and experience: the Titans’ freshman hard-throwing freshman left-hander Kenny Matthews vs. Kupbens, a senior out of that “crafty left-hander” mold that has given the Titans fits over the years. Kupbens was just 5-8 last season, but he had a stellar ERA of 2.36.

Kupbens got the better of the early innings, retiring all nine batters he faced in the first three innings and carrying a 4-0 lead and a no-hitter into the bottom of the fifth inning. Meanwhile, Mathews struggled early but settled down to pitch a strong game. He started inauspiciously, allowing a single and a hit-batsman to start the game, but escaped harm when UCD lined into an unassisted double-play on a hit-and-run play to snuff a first inning rally.

The Aggies got on the board in the top of the third on a single, a hit-batsman and another single that loaded the bases before third-hitter Paul Politti delivered a sacrifice fly that left runners on the corners with two outs. Mathews caught the runner on first leaning the wrong way, but the Titans split their attention between the runners and the man on first allegedly – Hook disputed the call and an umpires conference occurred – made it to second untagged while the lead runner crossed home without a throw. Double steal in the scorebook, bad execution on the field, as the Aggies took a 2-0 lead.

The Titans got their first base-runner in the bottom of the fourth when Ivory Thomas was hit by a pitch leading off, but the Titans hitless streak continued and he was stranded on third base.

Mathews retired the first two batters in the fifth, but was touched for a long triple to centerfield and a two-run blast to leftfield by Popkins, his second in two nights. At that point, it didn’t look or feel good for the Titans. There were a couple times that Mathews appeared to have earned a strikeout, but at-bats were extended by plate umpire Frank Pflugradt’s mystery strike zone, with damage ensuing.

Alas, the Titans got their first hit in the bottom of the fifth when Greg Velazquez hit the first pitch thrown to him back through the middle for a single. Orloff ran the count full before walking, followed by an RBI single by Chapman to cut the lead to 4-1. After Casey Watkins advanced both runners into scoring position, Kupbens settled down and escaped with no further damage by striking out pinch-hitter J.D. Davis and Thomas.

Mathews settled down after the home run and pitched well as he gave his team an opportunity to come back. But Kupbens was equal to the challenge, pitching consecutive 1-2-3 innings in the sixth and seventh.

The Titans cut the deficit to 4-2 with a solo tally in the bottom of the eighth. Austin Diemer got it started with a one-out single before being erased on a fielder’s choice by Thomas, who advanced into scoring position on a wild pitch – which was possible the first portent of a chink in Kupbens’ armor. Pedroza followed with an EPIC twelve-pitch at-bat which ended with a solid RBI single to right-centerfield that earned him a standing ovation. Not only was it huge for the moment at hand, the extra exertion expended facing Pedroza was probably a significant contributor to the ninth inning uprising.

Mathews started the ninth inning, but was replaced by Willie Kuhl after allowing a leadoff single on his 104th pitch. The runner eventually reached third on a sacrifice and a stolen base, but Kuhl worked out of it without allowing a much-coveted insurance run to the Aggies.

So with his pitch count still under 100 – despite the battle with Pedroza – Kupbens was sent out to finish off the job, unlike last year when the bullpen was torched for six runs or the previous night’s blown save by the closer. With left-handed hitting Lopez leading off, it certainly made sense – so long as there is a Plan “B” if he gets in trouble. There was no Plan “B”.

Plan “A” seemed to be working when Lopez was retired, but then Velazquez walked on four pitches. When the inning started, I moved to sit next to the Valentis (change of luck, you know?), so I had a good view of his pitches from straight behind the plate. The pitches seemed to have less bite on the breaking balls and were elevating in the strike zone – never a good thing for a tiring pitcher.

Plan “A” still seemed to be working when Kupbens induced a high flyball into shallow rightfield from Orloff, but luck was with the Titans when the rightfielder and second-baseman miscommunicated and allowed the ball to drop in. The second stroke of luck was that the ball bounded slightly away from them, because Velazquez had to retreat to first base and he might have been forced out at second with a more favorable UCD hop after the ball landed.

Time for Plan “B”? Nope. Chapman stroked a groundball single into rightfield to drive in Velazquez and put the tying run into scoring position. More Plan “A”.

Superstition dictates that you never say the word “seven” at the craps title, lest you jinx the shooter. The same applies for baseball, so nobody said what many were thinking when Chad Wallach came up to the plate: “I sure hope he doesn’t hit into a double-play.” It was a situation nearly identical to the previous night when Wallach was replaced by a pinch-hitter facing a right-handed closer, but this was a better match-up for him facing a tiring soft-tossing lefty. The place went crazy when Wallach smashed a double into the leftfield corner for a double that tied the score and placed the potential winning run just ninety feet away with just one out.

Surely Coach Vaughn must be ready to go to his bullpen – nope. Coach Vanderhook opted to have the left-handed hitting Hutting pinch-hit for right-handed hitting Diemer, even with a lefty on the bump. The move paid off dramatically. With the winning run on third and just one out, the Aggies were forced to bring both their infield and outfield in. Hutting wasted little time in ending the suspense, as he roped Kupbens’ 111th pitch of the game deep and over the head of the drawn-in leftfielder. It was a very exciting and truthfully stunning ninth inning that caused a near-playoff-like response to the walk-off victory.

Kuhl (2-2) was the winning pitcher. Chapman was the only Titan with multiple hits (2), but this was one of those games where stats meant nothing and thrill meant everything. Stats have a funny way of turning: Kupbens looked unhittable and Mathews was hitting batters and giving up jacks – but then everything reversed. In the end, Mathews’ pitching line (8 IP, 6 hits and 4 ER) was actually better than Kupbens’ (8-1/3 IP, 8 hits and 5 ER). Go figure.

Game 3: “Knockout Punch”

CSUF Titans 11, UC Davis Aggies 0

If you’re the Aggies, how do you bounce back after letting back-to-back heartbreakers slip away against a team that has beaten you up in recent years like a redheaded stepchild? If they had managed to get up the canvas and win after taking a standing eight-count the two previous rounds, it would have been an extraordinary achievement. But the Titans came out swinging and punched the Aggies into submission, delivering a five-run knock-out punch in the first inning, dismissing all possibility of yet another squandered opportunity to complete a series sweep.

Pedroza led off with a single and advanced to third on a two-base error by the UCD shortstop on a hit-and-run grounder by Orloff. The Titans took a quick 2-0 lead on consecutive RBI singles by Lorenzen and Lopez. Hutting, celebrating his 21st birthday, then ripped a double and an RBI, followed by Chapman’s two-run single. All of this was at the expense of Aggies’ starter Tom Briner, who was the UCD closer that the Titans whacked around last year after Kupbens gave them eight great innings.

Staked to a 5-0 lead, CSUF pitcher Grahamm Wiest easily retired the first two hitters in the second inning before the Aggies loaded the bases on two singles and a walk. Wiest worked out of the jam and the outcome was never threatened again.

The Titans added a run in the second on a single by Pedroza and an RBI double by Lorenzen, and then extended the lead to 8-0 in the third on a walk to Chapman, a single by Williamson and a two-run double by Kingsolver. It was the first start of his Titans career for Williamson, perhaps a reward for his game-winning hit in the series opener.

After that, it was a matter of getting in some work. The lead was extended to 9-0 in the fourth when Lorenzen was hit by a pitch, stole second and scored on an RBI single by Hutting. After the lethargic play in the prior three series finales, I liked the aggressive take-no-prisoners approach: “If you’re going to throw at one of my star players, we’re going to steal bases leading by eight runs!” Message sent - knockout punch delivered.

Wiest pitched six shutout innings in earning his second win, allowing just four hits and a walk, throwing 67 pitches. He gave way to Christian Coronado, who threw two shutout innings, allowing three hits. Tyler Peitzmeier allowed two hits but also had two strikeouts in pitching a scoreless ninth inning.

The Titans had 13 hits, led by Pedroza, Lorenzen and Hutting with two apiece.


So what did we learn this series?

The Titans faced two pretty good lefthanded pitchers in the first two games and they struggled until they were either removed from the game (Quist) or ran out of gas and pitched on fumes (Kupbens). If we go back to last Sunday against CSUN’s Jerry Keel, it’s three straight conference struggles against talented southpaws.

I point this out not as evidence of vulnerability to quality lefthanded pitching (although that is a premise worthy of consideration) but as a statement that even the traditionally weaker teams in the conference are going to show up with at least one or two pitchers capable of dominating stretches of games. The difference will be depth of the pitching staffs, which was the main difference between a sweep of UCD or losing a game, or – gasp! – two. In this BBCOR era, the good teams can’t take for granted that they will bludgeon a troika of tomato can pitchers and sweep every series against inferior opponents.

I hated the schedule opening with BWC series at home against Northridge and Davis – anything less than 5-1 would have been digging a hole, going on the road to play weekend series against stronger opponents. But by the skin of their teeth, the Titans did what they had to do. Now the real fun begins, with upcoming road trips to Irvine, Stockton, Santa Barbara/Goleta and Long Beach.

The series finale was significant for the Titans to demonstrate their ability to deliver the knock-out blow.

The three previous weekends, the Titans were in a position to complete sweeps over Oral Roberts, Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge, but each time they faltered, scoring just three runs combined in losing each series finale. With their gut-wrenching losses the first two games, the Aggies would have needed a miracle to get up off the canvas in the final game – the Titans’ first inning onslaught took that possibility out of play decisively.

With much of the playing time in the corner outfield positions being split by draft-eligible players (Thomas, Hutting and Kingsolver), the recent play of freshmen Diemer and Williamson is encouraging for the future. Diemer has played a strategic role throughout the season as a pinch-runner and defensive outfielder, especially important with the use of Lorenzen as the team’s closer. But after struggling with the bat in his limited plate appearances, Diemer has come on lately and elevated his batting average to .286. His recent success started with the perfectly placed bunt single hugging the chalk at Arizona State, and he had clean singles in both of his at-bats against UC Davis. From his limited action, I like the way Williamson swings the bat – he has generally had quality at-bats, even when he has made outs. Don’t be surprised if he becomes an increasingly larger factor in the second half of the season. With the preponderance of closers being right-handed, the roles of Hutting and Williamson as late-inning pinch-hitters take of magnified significance.

The return of Christian Coronado was encouraging. He was pitching well before suffering an injury at Texas A&M. It was nice to have a blowout that allowed him a chance to get some game action to ease his transition in a non-pressure situation. CC allowed three hits but posted two shutout innings in the game Saturday, which was played in just 2:22, despite 11 runs and 22 hits.

The Titans’ infield depth paid off in the series, as Trajano was sick and didn’t play in the final two games. Matt Orloff moved seamlessly into the defense at second-base, and Pedroza and Chapman demonstrated their versatility in shifting to third-base and shortstop respectively. Richy has split his time between third-base and second-base, while Chapman has done the same between third-base and shortstop. Learning either of those positions is difficult as a first-year player at this level, so it’s even more impressive how Chapman has learned two positions on-the-job.

Congratulations to Pedroza for winning Big West Conference Player of the Week honors, batting .571 (8-for-14) with 5 runs scored and 3 RBI. His 12-pitch battle in the eighth inning of the middle game in the UCD series was incredible – even better because he was batting right-handed, which is not usually his strength.

So onto this week, perhaps the last opportunity to build on the resume with quality road wins against good teams. I’m really looking forward to what should be a great reception tomorrow for Hook at UCLA, where he helped build a chronic underachiever team into a battle-proven hard-nosed elite national program. Let’s also hope the weather cooperates this weekend and lets us get the games in against Irvine. Does anybody know: if a game gets rained out at Irvine and you have to play a double-header the next day, do they charge you twenty bucks for parking?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work Don !!! RT