Monday, April 23, 2012

Titans Work Extra to Tame Mustangs

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans (26-13, 9-3) were able to win their ninth consecutive weekend series by taking two-out-of-three at home against the hard-hitting Cal Poly SLO Mustangs (22-16, 6-6).  With the series win, the Titans kept pace and remained tied for first place with the Long Beach State Dirtbags (18-19, 9-3), who also won two games in its series against UC Irvine (20-16, 5-7) despite having a no-hitter tossed against them by the ‘Eaters’ Andrew Thurman on Friday night.

With the series win and their Tuesday win over Pepperdine, the Titans moved up four spots to #8 in the Baseball America rankings.

Game 1:  “Get Him Early…..or Not at All”

Cal Poly SLO Mustangs 000  000  010   -   1   10   2
Cal State Fullerton Titans 011  004  00X   -   6     9   2

Despite being outhit, the Cal State Fullerton Titans were able to do a better job than the Cal Poly Mustangs at delivering hits with runners on base and they rode the strong pitching of Dylan Floro (6-3) to a 6-1 win in the Friday night opener.  Through the first four innings, the Mustangs had six hits and seven runners left-on-base – they had their chances against Floro but let him off the hook early.  As is his general pattern, he gives up a few early hits and if he’s relatively unscathed, he is a machine once he hits his stride.

The Mustangs had two hits and stranded two runners in both the first and second innings.  In the bottom of the second, Anthony Hutting’s bat and legs got the Titans on the board first – he singled, stole second, took third on a wild pitch and beat the throw home on a sacrifice fly by Clay Williamson.

The Mustangs threatened again in the third, the first two runners reaching base with nobody out: error (1B Carlos Lopez pulled his foot early) and single.  Floro easily retired the lead runner on an attempted sacrifice, then got the next two batters to leave two stranded runners for the third straight inning.  (After all the Titans’ travails with runners left on base earlier this season, it felt nice to see it happening to the other team for a change.)

The Titans scored an unearned run in the third inning to make it 2-0.  Jared Deacon led off with a hard-hit ball that the shortstop turned into an error.  He advanced on a single by Richy Pedroza and scored on a clutch two-out single by Michael Lorenzen.

Floro and Cal Poly’s pitcher, Joey Wagman, settled down and posted zeros until the Titans blew the game open with a four-pot in the bottom of the sixth inning.  After Lopez and Lorenzen set the table with singles, Hutting tried unsuccessfully to sacrifice – perhaps the third time this happened so far in this game for a Titans hitter – but all was forgotten when he swing away with two strikes against him and hammered a two-run double to rightfield and continued to third when the outfielder did not handle the ball cleanly.

Out came Cal Poly skipper Larry Lee with the hook, bringing in sophomore pitcher Michael Holback, who actually played on Cal Poly’s club baseball team in 2011.  He also happened to be the grandson of the cousin once removed of my good friend Rock, the guy I’ve sat behind at Goodwin Field for several years now.  Those are always awkward moments – you don’t want to openly root against somebody’s relative while they’re sitting right there, but the coincidence of their relationship has no bearing on my desire to see the pitcher get his brains beat in.

Holback’s first pitch was wild and went to the screen, allowing Hutting to score to make the score 5-0.

One out later, Williamson reached on an infield single, went to third on a double by Derek Legg and scored on Holback’s second wild pitch.  I commented to Rock, “I sure hope he’s a good student.”

The Mustangs finally got on the scoreboard against Floro in the top of the eighth inning and threatened to make it a game.  DH Tim Wise led off with a single and advanced on a mishandled pickoff throw to first.  The official scoring of the play was an error on Floro, but something happened I haven’t seen before: the Cal Poly scorer ruled the error on Lopez and the box score at their web site conflicts with the official game box score at the Fullerton site. (Disagreements on scoring decisions are common, but the decisions of the official scorer are….well, official.)  After two solid singles made it 6-1 with two runners on base, Floro was able to retire the next two hitters on infield grounders.

Dimitri De la Fuente pitched an easy 1-2-3 ninth inning to end it.  Pedroza, Lorenzen and Hutting had two hits each for the Titans.  Aided by the wild pitches, the Titans scored six runs but had just three RBI.

Game 2:  “Home Run Derby”

Cal Poly SLO Mustangs 000  060  020   -   8   16   1
Cal State Fullerton Titans 000  240  000   -   6     9   0

The Titans came into this game hoping they could stop the uncanny Saturday success of Cal Poly: they came in with an 11-1 record on the day traditionally referred to by Quakers as “Seventh Day” and which was named after the planet Saturn back when the weekday heptogram was adopted in the Hellenistic Era.  Much of that Saturday dominance can be credited to the outstanding pitching of senior Kyle Anderson, a crafty lefthander who came into town with a 6-1 record and a 2.08 ERA – just the type of pitcher who gives the Titans fits.

Matched against the Titans’ own capable lefthander, Kenny Mathews, it seemed like it would be a low-scoring affair, which it was – at the beginning.  It was scoreless through three, although both teams managed to get a runner or two on base here and there – both pitchers looked “good” but not unhittable.  The Mustangs gave us a portent of trouble ahead when they got a couple of hits after two outs.  Cal Poly has a line-up with five hitters batting over .300 and they swing very aggressively: they love to swing on 2-0, 3-1 and 3-0 counts.  Mathews began falling behind in counts and paid for it, but he worked out of trouble.

After nibbling around the edges against Anderson in the first three frames, the Titans finally scored in the fourth when Lorenzen reached on error, advanced to third on a double by Matt Chapman and scored on an RBI single by Ivory Thomas.  Chapman scored on a sacrifice fly by Hutting to give the Titans a 2-0 edge.

What happened next can best be described by those immortal words from “South Park”: “Oh my God!  They killed Kenny!....You bastards!”

Mathews’ season-long success was recently noted in an interview with Coach Vanderhook after he beat UCI that he really hasn’t been hit much this season….he has had a couple of stretches in games where he was done in by his own wildness, but there was no game where the opponents raked him for a lot of hits.  Tonight was the night inevitably due to happen…..especially with the potency of an all right-handed-hitting Cal Poly line-up.

After getting the #8 hitter, Chris Hoo, to pop out, Mathews fell behind the #9 hitter, 2-0, who was given a green light and hit a double to leftfield.  Going back to the top of the order, the count went 2-0 to Mike Miller, who also got a green light and a solid single.  Mathews got the next batter to line to shortstop Anthony Trajano for the second out.  But Mathews then went 2-0 on the wrong hitter: centerfielder Mitch Haniger, who came into the series leading the BWC in home runs (7), RBI and slugging percentage.  Sitting on a 2-0 fastball, Haniger crushed a three-run homer to left-centerfield, giving Poly their first lead of the series, 3-2.

The 2,135 umpires wearing Titans gear in the stands were howling at plate umpire Larry Randall for ‘squeezing’ Mathews.  Of the six pitches ruled balls in amassing the three 2-0 counts, there were a couple of borderline pitches that could have gone either way.  My fellow umpires will probably disagree, but I thought Randall called a decent game and had a consistent strike zone.

The Mustangs were far from finished.  Still stuck on two outs, clean-up hitter Jimmy Allen walked and went to third when David Armendiraz went opposite field and dropped one just inside the rightfield line.  Nick Torres then delivered the second two-out, three-run homer of the inning deep to leftfield, giving Cal Poly a shocking 6-2 lead and leaving the crowd stunned.  Mathews retired the next hitter, but the damage had been done.

But these are the never-say-die Titans and they did not despair – they got right back up on their horses (mustangs, perhaps?).  Facing a crafty lefty who was leading the BWC in wins might have been a daunting task, but the Titans struck back quickly with a stirring two-out rally.  Anderson looked like he would breeze when he retired the first two hitters in the bottom of the fifth, but Trajano took aim at the charging first baseman and lined one over his head for an opposite field single.  Lopez went with an outside pitch and stroked a single to leftfield.  With the Mustangs defense playing very shallow, Lorenzen banged a ball deep to left-center for a two-run double that made it 6-4.  After Chapman was plunked by a pitch, Thomas then took advantage of the shallow outfield depth when he banged a game-tying two-run triple to left-centerfield.  Anderson was able to get Hutting to fly out to end the inning with the score tied, 6-6.

From there, it became a battle of the bullpens, which you’d expect to favor Fullerton. Coming off his dismal outing on Tuesday against Pepperdine (four hits and a warning-track sacrifice fly in the five hitters faced), Willie Kuhl was given a chance at redemption.  He looked very sharp in the sixth and seventh innings, striking out two men in each frame.

But Kuhl was matched on the mound by reliever Reed Reilly, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-hander whose flailing legs and arms delivery made his delivery hard to pick up.  Not nearly as big as Irvine’s Phillip Ferragamo but enjoying similar success, Reilly carved his way through the Titans batting order, throwing 1-2-3 sixth and seventh innings.

Kuhl continued to light it up with strikeouts, whiffing the first two he faced in the eighth inning, his fifth and sixth since entering in the top of the sixth.  But when Hoo doubled, Kuhl was faced by pinch-hitter Alex Michaels, the first left-handed hitter to bat for Poly in the series so far.  He had already enjoyed success in this role, with five pinch-hits to his credit coming in.  With Kuhl dealing strong, the Titans eschewed going to the bullpen for a lefty (either Tyler Peitzmeier or Dave Birosak).  Michaels lofted one deep towards the foul pole in rightfield…. Curving …..curving….not curving fast enough….clang!  The ball ticked off the pole for a two-run homer that gave the Mustangs an 8-6 lead, with all eight runs for Poly coming on two-out home runs.

Kuhl was allowed to continue.  With the Titans back on their heels after surrendering the lead, the next batter bunted for a base hit, which was followed by a walk and a wild pitch.  But Kuhl recovered and struck out the next batter – he struck out the side, but the Titans were now in a two-run hole.

With two outs, Hutting got the first hit off Reilly, an opposite field triple.  I thought we might see left-handed-hitting Williamson as a pinch-hitter, but Reilly was able to retire Greg Velazquez on a flyball to end the threat.

Kuhl, making his longest career appearance, faltered slightly in the ninth and loaded the bases on two singles and a walk, but Birosak came in and worked his way out of the jam.

Reilly was sailing along and he was allowed to finish, pitching a 1-2-3 ninth inning to lock it up and even the series.  He was the winner with a stellar relief performance, allowing just one hit and no runs or walks in four innings.  Nine different players had at least one of Cal Poly’s 16 hits, while Lopez, Lorenzen and Thomas had two apiece for the Titans.

Game 3:  “The Comeback Kids”

Cal Poly SLO Mustangs 000  110  002   0   -   4   12   1
Cal State Fullerton Titans 100  101  001   1   -   5     9   0

Now this was an exciting game.  With Long Beach State having already closed out their series win against Irvine, the Titans saw the game nearly slip away in the ninth inning when flame-throwing closer Lorenzen suffered his first blown save after a dozen successful conversions, but the Titans managed to tie it in the bottom of the ninth on a huge two-out hit by Deacon and they won in the tenth inning on a walk-off double by Lopez.

How did it happen?

The Titans finally got to face a hard-throwing right-hander, Kyle Brueggemann, which figured to be more to their liking than the litany of craft lefties we’ve seen lately.  After Grahamm Wiest retired the side in the top of the first, the Titans scored quickly on a single by Thomas, a stolen base and an opposite-field RBI single by Lopez.

Wiest was perfect through three: nine up, nine down.  But Cal Poly tied the score in the fourth on a single, stolen base and RBI single by that man Haniger.

Undeterred, the Titans responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the fourth.  With one out, Lorenzen hit a deep drive that appeared to strike the orange part of the top of the fence and bounce back in play, which means it’s a live ball, so he got into second with a double.  (I had a perfect view from just 420 feet away up in the stands behind first base and I’m certain the ball struck the net above the fence before it bounced back, which would make it a home run.  But the umpire called it a live ball and nobody on the field argued….so I assume they all missed it.)

After Hutting was hit by a pitch, Chapman burned the rightfielder with an opposite field double that made it 2-1, put runners on second and third with one out and sent Brueggemann to the showers, replaced by – guess what?  - a lefty.  J.D. Davis was summoned to pinch-hit, but he struck out and Legg was retired to end the threat.

But the lead was short-lived, as the Mustangs tied it in their next at-bat on a single, walk and RBI single by the #9 hitter, Denver Chavez.  Cal Poly had a chance to go ahead in the sixth when they had a double and single, but Coach Lee held the runner at third – presumably looking for a big inning – and Wiest got the next two hitters on a pop-up and easy grounder to first.  A Cal Poly parent I was sitting near was screaming at Lee for holding the runner – “That leftfielder has got absolutely no arm!”  I was curious how he knew that, considering Austin Kingsolver had just entered the game for his first appearance in the series.

The Titans manufactured a run in the bottom of the sixth using their traditional formula: “Get’em on, get’em over, get’em in.”  Lopez led off with a double, went to third on a sacrifice by Lorenzen and scored on a sacrifice fly by Hutting.  It gave Wiest a 3-2 lead heading to the top of the seventh.

Wiest retired the first two hitters in the seventh but then gave up a double to that pesky ninth batter, Chavez.  When leadoff man Mike Miller dropped a base hit in front of Kingsolver, Lee did not hesitate to send the runner with the potential tying run and two outs.  Kingsolver’s got to the ball quickly and his throw was accurate – catcher Deacon applied the tag and the lead was preserved.  I turned to Pops and said, “Hey, the kid with no arm just picked up his fourth outfield assist of the year!”

Wiest pitched an outstanding game.  I was most impressed with him in the eighth inning, with little margin of error and facing the 2-3-4 meat of the Cal Poly batting order.  He easily retired Wise, Haniger and Allen – all with assists to third-baseman Pedroza.   Wise and Haniger hit tappers and Allen tried to bunt his way on.

So we go to the ninth, leading by a run, and Lorenzen going to the mound, already 12-for-12 in save situations this year.  Enough fooling around – let’s get this deal done!

But you just knew Poly wasn’t going down without a fight.

Armendaeiz led off with a double inside the first-base bag.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Titans this year haven’t been playing the conventional “prevent doubles” defense by playing their outfielders extra deep and their corner infielders hugging the lines protecting leads late in games.  I like that philosophy – the “no doubles” defense opens up holes and often works about as well as the prevent defense in football that seems to prevent more wins than points.  But sometimes you pay the price.

Order seemed to have been restored when Lorenzen struck out the next batter and got a foul-out.  With two outs and the potential tying run at second, the middle infielders tried to hold the runner close to the bag, limiting his jump and lengthening how far he’d have to go to score on a base hit.  It came down to Lorenzen versus Hoo.

As I saw what happened next, second-baseman Legg was holding the runner close before moving back to his left to his normal fielding position just before the pitch was released.  Smack!  Line drive scorched to his backhand – through him into centerfield and the game was tied.  It would have been an excellent play had he caught it – but the ball rocketed past the outstretched glove of Legg and the score was tied, with Hoo on first.

Still the Mustangs weren’t through.  Lorenzen walked that gosh-danged ninth batter before leadoff man Miller hit another rope back up the middle, past the diving Legg, to give the Mustangs a 4-3 lead.  The house went silent; the mood was somber.  Miller stole second uncontested, but Lorenzen escaped further harm by getting Wise to fly out.

Facing hard-throwing right-hander Nick Grim, who was hoping to reap the benefits of the newly established lead, Hutting injected some energy when he led off the bottom of the ninth with a single up the middle.  The Titans eschewed having Chapman sacrifice.  Instead, he lifted a shallow flyball to rightfield that second-baseman Chavez went back on and made a very nice over-the-shoulder grab, hanging onto the ball when he hit the ground. With one out now, the Mustangs weren’t protecting against a bunt – so Kingsolver dropped a beautiful bunt down and easily beat it out.

With Legg due up, the Titans turned to Keegan Dale to pinch-hit in his first plate appearance since apparently being released from the witness protection program.  He hadn’t played since the Texas A&M series before making a pinch-running appearance on Tuesday, so it was a big spot to put him in.  Dale hit a slow roller toward second – they got the out at second but Dale beat the relay to first.

So now we’ve got two outs and Jared Deacon at the plate.  What happened next became a mystery in cyberspace.  The GameSlacker service apparently reported that Deacon had grounded out and recorded the game as a 4-3 win for Cal Poly. (The misinformation got so far that some bedraggled reporter for a Long Beach newspaper crowed about how his Dirtbags were in sole possession of first place in the BWC – a day later, the story remains uncorrected.) But that‘s not what actually happened in real life: Deacon lifted a base hit into right-centerfield to tie the score.  Pedroza was unable to plate the winning run, but the Titans had a second life and we moved to extra innings for the third time this season.

The Mustangs had a runner in scoring position with one out when Allen doubled in the top of the tenth, but Lorenzen retired the next two batters and the Titans had their first crack at an extra-innings walk-off win.  They wasted little time cashing in their chips.

With Grim still on the bump for Cal Poly, Thomas drew a four-pitch walk leading off.  Another classic moment of baseball strategy.  Do you have Lopez sacrifice the potential winning run into scoring position, taking the bat out of the hands of both your top hitters?  If Lopez succeeds with the bunt, they’ll automatically walk Lorenzen to set up the double-play and take their chances with Hutting and Chapman – which isn’t the worst thing for the Titans.  But the coaches decided to let Lopez swing away – and boy did that work out perfectly!

Lopez smoked one into the gap between the leftfielder and centerfielder.  He couldn’t have placed it any better – there was no chance of the ball being caught, so Thomas lit the afterburners right away and ripped up the basepaths.  It went as a walk-off double for Lopez and the Titans had a thrilling comeback win and a piece of the conference lead.

Lorenzen (2-0) got the win, but I’m sure he would have much rather have had the save.  Wiest pitched great against a very tough line-up on a warm, sunny day and limited them to just two runs in eight innings – a hard-luck ‘no decision’ for him.  Lopez was the only Titan with multiple hits: he had a single and two doubles, along with two RBI.


So what did we learn this series?

While there were some issues raised during the week – we can’t win games of home run derby and the young pitching staff may be due to hit the inevitable pocket of turbulence – the one thing that showed through was the determination not to lose and coming back after trailing.  We saw that trait early in the season when the Titans overcame 3-0 deficits to beat nationally ranked teams thrice (Florida once and Texas A&M twice).  Even in the Saturday loss, I was impressed by how the Titans took the six-run punch to the jaw and got right back to score four times and tie the game in their half of the inning.  The comeback win on Sunday was a genuine gut-check win.

I’m sure you saw today’s tweet from Kendall Rogers proclaiming Vanderhook to be in the discussions when it comes to national Coach of the Year honors – the toughness of this team reflects directly on not just Hook, but the entire coaching staff.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a team with a starting line-up where all nine batters hit right-handed (or left-handed, for that matter), which was the case with Cal Poly in the first two games of the series.  Left-handed-hitting Alex Michaels got the start in the outfield on Sunday after his big pinch-hit home run on Saturday.

The complete right-handedness of the Mustangs essentially either eliminated or minimized the roles of southpaws Tyler Peitzmeier and Dave Birosak out of the Titans’ bullpen: the only use of their left-handed relievers was when Birosak faced one batter on Saturday, which turned around switch-hitter Evan Busby.  With the strategy seemingly intent on limiting the bullpen to righties De la Fuente, Kuhl and Lorenzen, both Mathews and Kuhl may have been used deeper than usual under the game circumstances.

After a poor outing on Tuesday against Pepperdine, Kuhl was fantastic on Saturday night, with career highs in strikeouts (8) and innings pitched (3-2/3).  But after giving up a two-out double to Hoo in the top of the eighth, I thought for sure we’d see either Birosak or Peitzmeier when Michaels was sent up to pinch-hit, especially as he had already had five pinch-hits.   Baseball is a funny game: if Michaels’ long-ball bends a little sooner and doesn’t just barely kiss the foul pole, we’re sitting here now praising the courageous decision to stick with the righty, instead of asking “Why didn’t you bring in a lefty, you big dummy?”  It’s what makes baseball the unparalled greatest game.

Speaking of Hoo, for a guy who wasn’t supposed to be much of a hitter, we sure got to say “Hoo’s on first” a lot this series.  The sophomore catcher came in hitting .182 (just .152 in BWC action) after batting .203 last year as a true freshman.  He went 4-for-12 this series, including two huge clutch hits: the double on Saturday ahead of Michaels’ blast and the RBI single off Lorenzen on Sunday to tie the game in the ninth inning.

Without exception, everybody I spoke with was very impressed with the hitting ability of Cal Poly.  They were especially adept at hitting fastballs.  Most of the Titans’ pitchers this year do not rely on overpowering fastballs except Lorenzen, who can throw a pork chop past a hungry wolf. But the Mustangs hit the ball hard against fastballs all weekend, especially when they were ahead in the count and could guess ‘dead red.’

Outfielder Austin Diemer was dressed but unavailable for action this weekend, which altered some of the late-game defensive strategy for the Titans, although it really didn’t cause significant issues.

Williamson played the entire game on Friday when Diemer would have generally been brought in for defense late in the game.  A ball dropped safely between Lorenzen and Williamson that Diemer may have reached with his superior speed had he been in rightfield.  Kingsolver played centerfield when Lorenzen pitched on Sunday, and designated-hitter Thomas went to rightfield.  The versatility to move Hutting and Kingsolver around the outfield was beneficial.

Credit Rick “The Barber” Vanderhook with helping Lopez out of his recent slump.  Baseball is a game of superstition and rituals.  Managers of slumping teams have picked their batting order out of a hat or burned all their bats (wood bats, of course) to change the luck.  After getting shut out in back-to-back games against Oral Roberts and Arizona State, Hook traded places with third-base coach Chad Baum.  This week, with Lopez struggling and his batting average plummeting, Coach Hook “invited” Lopez into his office for a haircut.  With his follicles removed – perhaps along with the weight from his shoulders – Lopez responded by going 6-for-13 (.462), with 3 runs scored, 2 RBI and 2 doubles, including the walk-off hit in Sunday’s scintillating comeback win.

How strange was it rooting for UC Irvine this weekend?  In recent years, the Anteaters have been our most formidable conference rival, so it was strange rooting for them, even though their success would be to the detriment of the Dirtbags.  What was your first thought when you heard that UCI’s Andrew Thurman had pitched a no-hitter in the series opener against Long Beach State after taking a no-hitter to the ninth inning last week against Fullerton?  Mine was “perhaps we weren’t as bad against him last week as I thought at the time.”  Watching him live from the front row close to the plate, he didn’t look like he was doing anything special – I just thought we had a lot of bad at-bats and everybody was trying to hit home runs with the wind blowing out: ten flyballs and six strikeouts.  But when he went back-to-back, that was one of the most impressive things you could imagine.  With the Titans idle this weekend, I’ve already heard a couple fans making plans to go to the Irvine game (Friday night at 6:30 p.m. at Anteater Ballpark) to see what Thurman can do in his next start.

A popular sports argument is “what record will never be broken?”  There are a lot of great answers, but mine is Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters.  Two in a row is something that’s happened once in the history of major league baseball; can you imagine what it would take to throw three?

Vander Meer was in his first full season with the Cincinnati Reds in 1938 when he threw a no-hitter against the Boston Bees (later called Braves), striking out four and walking three.  The southpaw known best at that time for his streaks of wildness pitched four days later against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first night game ever played at Ebbetts Field.  He struck out eight and walked seven, including walking the bases loaded in the ninth before getting the Dodgers’ Leo Durocher to pop out.  Including the games before and after his two no-hitters, Vander Meer pitched no-hit baseball for a record 21-2/3 innings.

Don’t forget to support the Challenger Little League clinic at Goodwin Field this Thursday, April 26, at 5:00 p.m.  If you’ve never been there before for this event, I guarantee it is something that will stick with you for a very long time.

Okay, now it’s time to get ready for a Tuesday afternoon game at Loyola-Marymount University before the team is off for an entire week.  I hope to see you either Tuesday afternoon at LMU or Thursday evening at the Challenger Little League event.

Go Titans!

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