Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Lost Weekend for Titans

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans squandered an opportunity to keep pace or extend their Big West Conference (BWC) lead over the second place Long Beach State Dirtbags when they dropped two-out-of-three games at home against the eighth-place UC Riverside Highlanders.  The losses came in the wake of a 6-3 midweek home loss to the UCLA Bruins last Tuesday, making the Titans losers of three-out-of-four games for the week (and four-of-their-last six, dating back to the UC Santa Barbara series.)

The Titans’ lead in the BWC was reduced to one game over the Dirtbags, who took two-out-of-three at home against the hapless University of the Pacific Tigers.

With the 1-3 record last week, the Titans dropped from #8 to #12 in the Baseball America rankings – still more generous than I would rank them.  In all of the other recognized national rankings, the Titans are in the #15 to #19 range.  As of today, the Titans are #20 in RPI, as calculated by Boyd’s World.

Prologue:  We didn’t recap the UCLA Bruins game (I have to work once in a while) but there seemed to be some “carry-over” effect going into the weekend series against UCR, so I’ll go back and make a few observations.

My overall take-away from the game was actually pretty positive, with my thinking that “if we can make this many mistakes and still be tied going into the ninth inning against an outstanding team like UCLA, we should win games like that if we just play to the level of our capability.”

Make no mistake – UCLA is an excellent team, deserving of their lofty (#3) RPI status.  Their win last Tuesday against the Titans made them 11-0 in midweek games, which they extended to 12-0 last night by beating UCI.  I love their “foot to the throat” attitude to win those games, even to the point of using their closer in the eighth inning of a tie game in the midweek.  Time will tell if that proves to be a good long-term strategy, but you certainly can’t deny that a 12-0 midweek record greatly enhances UCLA’s 2012 resume.

In no particular order of sequence or importance, let’s recap what we saw:

A misplayed flyball in the second inning turned a sacrifice fly into a two-run double.  What should have been a 1-0 deficit became 2-0.

Horrific base-running.  Trailing 2-1 in the fifth inning, the Titans drove starter Grant Watson from the game with a two-out single by Matt Chapman and a walk to Anthony Hutting.  J.D. Davis greeted reliever Eric Jaffe with an RBI-single, but the cardinal rule of ‘never making the first or third out at third base’ was violated and the inning ended abruptly with Chapman just barely scoring the tying run before the out was recorded at third.

The sixth inning was devastating.  Anthony Trajano led off with a single and Jared Deacon attempted to sacrifice him to second.  The pitcher’s throw was late and sailed into foul ground along the rightfield line.  Trajano easily went to third, but Deacon was easily thrown out trying to advance to second by the rightfielder, who had backed up the play.  After Deacon was tagged out at second, the UCLA infielder alertly realized that Trajano had taken a wide turn at third and he was also easily thrown out.  It was a stunning play – the Titans had overcome a 2-0 deficit and had all the momentum: nobody out, runners on the corners, top of the order coming up – but then the screen went black like the final scene in “The Sopranos.”  I’m still not sure what happened on this play or whether Tony got whacked.  The base-coaching and base-running has actually been pretty good this year, but this one was a major head-scratcher.

Twelve runners were left on base.

Twice pitchers failed to cover first-base in time to retire batters who hit the ball to the right side of the infield.  One looked to me like there was plenty of hustle but just not enough speed; the other just looked like the pitcher fell asleep.

Challengeable coaching moves, like pinch-hitting a lefty (Clay Williamson) for a lefty (Deacon) against a righthanded pitcher when it necessitated bringing a third catcher into the game for late game defense.  I love Williamson’s bat and he put the ball in play with a hard grounder (fielder’s choice) that resulted in tying run on a UCLA throwing error, but the defense suffered badly in the top of the ninth when UCLA’s three-run rally, breaking a 3-3 tie, was aided by a wild pitch and passed ball.  Baseball is a classic game of tradeoffs: the advantage of Williamson over Deacon was better wheels to avoid a potential inning-ending double-play, but the trade-off was compromised defense.

It is also debatable whether relievers Dave Birosak and Jose Cardona were left in too long.  There was a lot of discussion on the national message boards about UCLA coach John Savage’s decision to use his closer, Scott Griggs, in the eighth inning of a tie game in the midweek, while the Titans eschewed the use of their closer, Michael Lorenzen, in the top of the ninth with the score tied.  Savage may have been right in the short term, but in the long term, I completely agree with the decision made by our coaches.  Pregame hype and crosstown rivalry notwithstanding, the game simply wasn’t important enough to use your premier player to pitch in a non-save situation.  As hopeful as we all were (at the time), there was no realistic path to a national seed even with a win over UCLA and subsequent series wins over UCR and the Dirtbags.

There were also ‘good things’ in this game.  Koby Gauna pitched very well and Chapman had three hits.  Richy Pedroza and Trajano had two each.

The time of game was 3:51, but it felt like five hours easily.  It’s easily to blame all this on Savage, but I think the Titans contributed to a lot of the slow pace also.  I’d love to see a stat on UCLA’s record in games that take longer than 3:30.

So despite all those obstacles, the game was still tied in the ninth inning against a very talented team on a deeply committed mission to win all its midweek games while our philosophy has been much more developmental with emphasis on success in weekend series.  Take away just one or two of those mistakes and the Titans win the game – no question about it.  Those were my thoughts as I warily worked my way to my car after that marathon, thinking how my morning alarm would be ringing in about twenty minutes.

How’s that for “a few observations”?

Game 1:  “Dealin’ Dylan”

UC Riverside Highlanders 100  000  001  -    2   6   2
Cal State Fullerton Titans 000  120  000  -    3   8   0

For most of his starts this season, the most vulnerable inning for Dylan Floro has been the first – if the opposing team doesn’t get to him early, they usually don’t get to him at all.  But his last start at UCSB was a major exception – he sailed through the first five innings almost flawlessly but then got hit around, allowing seven runs in the sixth and seventh innings.

The “usual” Floro reappeared last Friday against the Highlanders.  The Titans ace allowed a solo tally in the first inning before settling in to toss a gem, earning his conference-leading ninth win.  Floro outdueled Eddie Orazco (5-6, 2.45 ERA), one of the BWC’s premier pitchers.

Orazco held the Titans scoreless through three innings, despite scattering a hit in each of those innings.  He helped himself with a pick-off of Ivory Thomas, who had walked.  After the UCLA base-running debacle, the coaching staff was not happy with this inauspicious beginning.  Thomas was immediately replaced, to the chagrin of the Section K denizens: Ivory was our “Double-Double Player of the Game.”  Damn!  (The soundtrack of the Blues Brothers’ “Rubber Biscuit” got stuck in my head:  “If it don’t bounce back……hee, hee, hee… go hungry!  Bow, bow, bow!”)

The Titans finally put a run on the board in the fourth inning to tie the score, 1-1.  Orazco was uncharacteristically wild and walked Lorenzen and Anthony Hutting leading off.  After a sacrifice by Chapman put both runners in scoring position, Williamson drove in the tying run on an infield groundout.

The Titans scored their final runs of the game in the fifth inning and took a 3-1 advantage.  After Deacon led off with a single, he took off on a hit-and-run play.  Pedroza bounced a perfectly-placed high chopper over the first-baseman’s head into rightfield.  The outfielder charged quickly to try to make a play on Deacon, but in his haste, he misplayed the ball and Deacon scored, with Pedroza wheeling to third.  Velazquez grounded out to shortstop, driving in Pedroza.

The rest of the game story was Floro.  After the first inning, he faced the minimum 21 batters between the second and eighth innings, allowing just one hit over that stretch.

With a 3-1 lead going into the ninth, Floro was sent out to try to finish it up.  He was touched for a lead-off double on a blooper to leftfield.  He stayed in, as he was clearly still strong and had good ‘stuff.’  But the next batter hit a dinky chopper along the third-base line, which Floro fielded but his throw to first had no chance to beat the runner.  (His only play was probably to hope the ball would roll foul, but it was well inside the line when he picked it up.)

Now the go-ahead run was coming to the plate in the person of Vince Gonzalez, the #3 hitter in the UCR line-up.  Lorenzen was summoned to nail down the win.  He induced a tailor-made double-play ball that made it 3-2 but cleared the bases with two outs – a very solid exchange.  Lorenzen walked the next batter to keep the game alive, but secured the win and his sixteenth save with a flyball to centerfielder Austin Diemer.

Floro was the key to the win, allowing just six hits, two runs and no walks in 8.0+ innings of work.  Pedroza and Lopez had two apiece of the Titans’ eight hits.

Game 2:  “Walk on the Wild Side”

UC Riverside Highlanders 202  000  200  -    6   8   1
Cal State Fullerton Titans 001  020  00X  -    3   9   1

After watching this game, I felt Lou Reed’s pain (“Then I guess she had to crash; Valium would have helped that bash; She said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’; I said, ‘Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.’”)

The Titans entered play leading the nation in fewest walks allowed per nine innings – an absolutely incredible performance for any staff, let alone one relying on so many pitchers fresh out of high school or without previous Division I pitching experience.  On this night, the pitching staff walked ten batters – something they had not done since opening night of the 2004 season in a nightmarish 16-3 loss at Stanford.  (Starting pitcher Ryan Schreppell faced just eight batters that game: he allowed one hit, six walks and six runs in 1/3rd of an inning pitched. He was relieved by Scott Sarver, who also surrendered six runs and four walks.  Vinnie Pestano mopped up and allowed four runs but didn’t walk anybody.  Kudos to Mike Greenlee for this great factoid on his Twitter.)

Kenny Mathews started for the Titans and was suddenly down 2-0 just two batters into the game: a leadoff single by Eddie Young and a two-run blast by Phil Holinsworth, who did not start the series opener but came off the bench with a pinch-hit.  Although he did not allow more runs that inning, Mathews allowed a double and a walk and his leash became very short.

Mathews walked the first batter he faced in the second and was replaced by Dimitri De la Fuente, who threw a double-play ball to get out of the inning.

The Titans faced UCR right-hander Trevor Frank, who came into action 1-7 with an ERA of 4.02 and an opponents’ batting average of .297.  The Titans put two runners aboard in the first and one in the second, but could not deliver any runs.

De la Fuente walked two batters in the third, sandwiched around an RBI double that made it 3-0, and was replaced by Willie Kuhl, who struck out the first two hitters he faced but then gave up an RBI single to score one of his inherited runners.

Trailing 4-0, the Titans finally scored in the bottom of the third on a walk by Pedroza, a bunt single by Thomas and an error, and a sacrifice fly by Lopez.

Kuhl was dealing in the middle innings and he gave the Titans a chance to get back in the game.  But even his shutout innings (fourth through sixth) included three walks and a wild pitch.  Meanwhile, the Titans had pulled to within a run, 4-3, when they scored twice in the bottom of the fifth on back-to-back doubles by Matt Orloff and Thomas and another sacrifice fly by Lopez.  Even though they still trailed, the Titans had overcome 75% of the 4-0 deficit and momentum seemed to have clearly shifted their way.

After Kuhl and Frank traded scoreless sixth innings, Kuhl walked the leadoff man in the seventh and was replaced by Birosak, who retired one but plunked another and was replaced by Gauna.  The Highlanders had the leadoff man reach base in seven of nine innings, including one hit and six walks.

Gauna escaped harm in the seventh inning with two strikeouts, pitching on just three days rest after his 5-1/3 innings of work on Tuesday against UCLA.

But the feeling of an imminent Titans breakthrough was dissipated in the top of the eighth.  Gauna walked the #9 hitter leading off the inning, which must have had coaches Vanderhook and Saarloos searching for the cyanide capsules.  After leadoff man Young sacrificed him to second, it brought up Holinsworth with a man on second and first-base open. Do you walk the man who already hurt you deep early in the game to set up a possible double-play?  With all the unintentional walks, it’s hard to throw more gasoline on the fire with intentional walks, so the Titans pitched to Holinsworth: BAM!
Another two-run bomb made it 6-3 and the air went out of the building.  By this time of the evening, word had already spread about Pacific’s ninth inning rally to take the lead over the Dirtbags, so the frustration was compounded by the taste of opportunity lost.

When Frank (now 2-7) allowed a one-out single by Lorenzen in the bottom of the eighth inning, he was replaced by closer Ben Doucette, who got the final five outs in registering his fifth save of the season.

The Titans outhit the Highlanders, 9-8, led by Pedroza with three and Chapman with two.

Game 3:  “Eclipsed”

UC Riverside Highlanders 000  000  100  -    1   3   1
Cal State Fullerton Titans 000  000  000  -    0   6   1

You knew this game was going to be strange from the “get go.”  This was a big game in several respects, including keeping their streak of consecutive weekend series wins alive and avoiding a big RPI with a home loss to a lousy team and the implications it would have on the NCAA host site selections.

The Eclipse
It was also strange starting a Sunday game at 6:00 p.m.  Then came the lunar eclipse, which screwed up my camera.

The game featured a pitching match-up between the Titans’ Grahamm Wiest and UCR’s lefty, Dylan Stuart, who came in with a 6-6 record and an ERA of 4.18.  He had allowed opponents a respectable .275 batting average, but his biggest strength may have been his shutting down the running game: 3 pickoffs and only 10-for-19 success stealing against him.

The Titans began the night with a “Senior Day” line-up that included Orloff at second and Derek Legg at third, with Pedroza moved to designated hitter, which took away a slot for J.D. Davis, who has been wearing out left-handed pitching lately.

After Wiest threw a 1-2-3 opening frame, Pedroza led off with a single and the world seemed right again – until Stuart picked him off.

Wiest walked a batter in the second but had a double-play turned behind him.  Orloff stroked a two-out single – but Stuart picked him off.

Both pitchers were tough as nails and the game was scoreless after six innings – how the hell did this series turn into a nail-biter?  Wiest allowed only one hit through six innings – a fourth inning single by clean-up hitter Clayton Prestridge – although he did make his life more difficult with three hit-batsmen.

The Highlanders finally put a run on the board in the top of the seventh after the eclipse had passed.  Kyle Boudreau led off with a single, went to second on a sacrifice and scored on a solid double to rightfield by third-baseman Alex Rubanowitz.

Greg Velazquez led off the bottom of the seventh as a pinch-hitter and stroked a hard grounder headed toward centerfield, but shortstop Young ranged far to his left and dove, bounced twice and came up firing, nipping Velazquez at first base.  On the next play, Young showed great range to his right, making a great stop on a grounder deep in the hole by Lopez, but he had no play and Lopez was aboard.

We kept waiting for Stuart to falter and the Titans’ bats to finally show up, but he kept making big pitches and his defense was superb.  The Titans loaded the bases in the eighth after the first two batters were retired.  Legg singled and Chad Wallach walked, which led to the simultaneous entry of two pinch-runners: Kingsolver for Legg at second and Casey Watkins at first for Wallach.  Pedroza walked to load the bases and it seemed a virtual certainty that UCR skipper Doug Smith would pull his lefty after two straight walks and a right-handed hitter, Velazquez, coming up, but the coach was rewarded for his confidence in leaving the sophomore southpaw in the game.  Velazquez and Stuart battled before Velazquez squared up a ball that was caught in rightfield for the final out of the inning, leaving the bases loaded.

It was apparent that Coach Smith was going “all in” with Stuart, who retired Lopez to begin the ninth inning.  But Lorenzen found a gap in left-centerfield and rammed a double.  Chapman grounded out to second, with Lorenzen advancing to third and bringing Orloff to the plate.  Orloff battled and then hit a shot over the third-base bag.  Rubanowitz was covering the line (willing to give up single to his left to tie the game than risk double to his right that would tie game and put potential winning run in scoring position), so he dove and made an excellent backhand stab as he struck the ground.  He fired across the diamond to just nip Orloff and end the game.  It was the third time this season the Titans have been shut out.

Wiest (5-4, 2.37 ERA) was a hard-luck loser, despite throwing a complete game three-hitter.  Legg was the only Titan with two hits.


So what did we learn this past week?

This weekend’s series against Long Beach State has some whacky elements to it.  The Titans are basically playing for the possibility of hosting Regionals, while Long Beach State pretty much has to win the series to win the BWC’s automatic qualifier slot in the NCAA tournament.  Because the Regional hosts are determined and announced before the series finale will be played on Sunday, it is imperative that the Titans win both of the first two games to have any realistic chance of hosting.  Other than the pride of a conference title, the third game basically means little to the Titans: they will either have already been named as a #1 seed and host a Regional or they’ll be traveling somewhere as a #2 seed.

For Long Beach State, on the other hand, the series finale could be make-or-break to whether they get into the tournament.  The e-mail Long Beach State’s athletics department sent me had a heading: “Dirtbags vs. Titans This Weekend: WIN OR GO HOME!”  I think they understand their only path to an NCAA berth is winning the series.

With this scenario in mind, it will be very interesting to see how the Titans line up their weekend rotation to give them the best chance to win the first two games and to get on proper schedule for the playoffs.  While the rotation has been Floro-Mathews-Wiest, it would not surprise me to see it be Floro-Wiest-TBA in the series at Long Beach State.

Based on recent performances, you might rate Gauna ahead of Mathews for that “TBA” slot, but don’t discount the gem Mathews threw earlier in the season in the non-conference game against the Dirtbags: only one unearned in 7-2/3 innings, allowing five hits and no walks while striking out six.

There are all kinds of bracket projections floating around out there, which include Fullerton traveling (if we lose series and/or aren’t named as a host) to either UCLA, Stanford, Oregon or Arizona, with the most likely being Arizona.  Frankly, I don’t think a trip to Tucson is the worst possible scenario for the Titans.  Obviously they would prefer to be a host team, but my feeling is the Titans have been more focused in their out-of-town-in-a-hotel weekend series than they have been at home or traveling locally.  The Wildcats hit the spit out of the ball, while CSUF seems to have better pitching.  I wouldn’t mind making that trip at all, especially now that U-of-A plays its home games at Hi Corbett Field.  Traveling to UCLA, Stanford or Oregon – not so much.

But that’s putting the cart way before the horse – I still think we’re going to win the conference and put to rest all these travel scenarios.  I’m somewhere between “hopeful” and “optimistic”, perhaps conditioned by thirteen weeks of playing to the level of the competition, with few exceptions.  Long Beach State has a deep and talented pitching staff and the Titans know they have their work cut out for them – they won’t be caught looking ahead like they did this past weekend against Riverside.

The lack of quality and consistency from one BWC umpire to the next is appalling.  Billy Van Raaphorst called the game Friday night and there was nary a word from either side.  Billy might be pretty full of himself, but I believe he is far and away the best umpire in the conference.  (It’s easy to name the biggest stiffs – but can you name a “Top Five”?)  On Saturday, Jeff Henrichs did the plate and it was almost impossible to throw a strike – there was no such thing as a strike on the corner or at the knees – while Steve Fritzoni’s zone on Sunday made it almost impossible not to throw a strike.  It’s no excuse for the losses – the Highlanders simply did a better job adjusting to the strike zones than the Titans’ pitchers or hitters did – but it was nevertheless mind-numbing to even think we were playing the same game by the same rules from Saturday to Sunday.

The lack of power is concerning – not good when the Highlanders beat you a game with superior power – but the potential is there to have an occasional home run outburst, such as the three home run game at UCSB.  While power comes and goes, speed is constant – unfortunately, so is lack of speed.  It shows up in myriad forms: balls going through the infield or landing safely in the outfield; runners thrown out at first when opposing infielders dive and land on the ground before throwing; pitchers getting beat to first-base by opposing runners; just 44 stolen bases in 69 attempts.  Heading into the playoffs, the general lack of team speed is the one facet of the Titans game that has me most concerned.

I love the continuing extensions of the videoboard utilization.  The introduction of scores of other games in a huge, clear font that even us old farts can read was a nice enhancement this weekend.

Congratulations to Derek Legg and his bride, Karisa, who were married on Monday.

Congratulations also to the three seniors honored before Sunday’s game – Trajano, Legg and Nick O’Loughlin – as well as Lopez and Orloff, redshirt juniors who earned their degrees and marched with their class in weekend graduation activities.

Farewell, Mel!
Finally, congratulations and best retirement wishes to Mel Franks, who is retiring in June after 32 years supporting Cal State Fullerton athletics.  His impact on others has obviously been profound, as was evidenced by the touching videoboard messages from former coaches George Horton and Augie Garrido, as well as the loyalty and kind words from everybody I’ve ever met who worked with Mel.

I hope to see you down at Blair Field this weekend for what should be a classic battle.  (By the way, does anybody know what happened to that big stack of 2012 game tickets that seemed like it came in the mail just yesterday?)  All things considered, this team has given us a great season of baseball and we need to turn out to show our support for them this weekend.

Go Titans!

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