Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Titans' Great Escape Out of Santa Barbara

By Don Hudson

In a hard fought series played at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium in Goleta, CA against the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, the Titans won an emotional rubber game on Sunday, bouncing back from a 3-1 deficit to win 9-3, motivated by some ill-advised remarks made to the media by a Gauchos pitcher after the middle game shellacking, 7-1, suffered by Cal State Fullerton.  The Titans belted three home runs to take a commanding 9-0 lead in the series opener on Friday, but barely held on to win 9-7.

It was the eleventh consecutive weekend series won by the Titans, which enabled them to maintain their #8 position in the Baseball America rankings for the fourth consecutive week.  They hold a two-game lead over their nemeses from Long Beach; the Dirtbags lost 2-out-of-3 this weekend at UC Davis, but are likely to sweep the hapless University of the Pacific Tigers next weekend.  The Titans will play their final regular season series this weekend against UC Riverside.

See complete photo gallery of UC Santa Barbara Series

Game 1:  “Pitchers’ Duel?”

Cal State Fullerton Titans 500  211  000   -   9   13   0
UC Santa Barbara Gauchos 000  004  300   -   7     9   2

The expectations entering this series were that the Titans would be facing a formidable pitching staff that has quickly developed under first year coach Dave Checketts into one of the best in the Big West Conference, with three left-handed weekend starters, including two of the BWC’s best: Kevin Gelinas and Andrew Vasquez.  Unlike the “crafty” lefties known to give the Titans fits over the years, the Gauchos staff includes several power pitchers: they lead the conference in strikeouts, but also yield a high number of walks, hit-batters and wild pitches.

Gelinas took the bump Friday with a 1.69 ERA and .182 opponents’ batting average after coming back from early season injuries, so the outlook for Friday was that the Titans would need a gem from their ace, Dylan Floro, and hopefully win a low-scoring nail-biter.  Oops.

Gelinas looked both nervous and wild early: he walked Richy Pedroza and threw errantly on an attempted pickoff, allowing Pedroza to go to second.  After Ivory Thomas sacrificed Pedroza to third, Carlos Lopez drove in the game’s first run with a double.  After Michael Lorenzen popped out, Matt Chapman walked and Anthony Hutting drove in Lopez and Chapman with a bases-clearing triple.  But the inning wasn’t over: J.D. Davis used a compact swing to deliver a bomb that cleared the screen above the fence in left-field, giving the Titans a 5-0 lead.

The Titans nearly hit for the cycle in the inning, lacking only a single.  The 42-consecutive-singles streak that started at Arizona State seemed like an ancient memory.

While Floro mowed through the Gauchos’ line-up with three consecutive 1-2-3 innings to start the game, Gelinas continued to struggle.  The Titans had two hits in the second inning (single by Thomas and another double by Lopez) and again in the third (singles by Chapman and Hutting) but were unable to extend their lead.

But they scored twice in the fourth inning and drove Gelinas from the game.  Pedroza led off the inning with another walk and went to second and third on wild pitches.  Lopez reached on a fielder’s choice when Pedroza was caught in a rundown on his groundball.  Lorenzen then crushed a line drive that cleared the fence for his first home run of the season.  UCSB shortstop Brandon Trinkwon was injured on a freak play: Lorenzen’s ball hit in the net just above the fence and bounced back into the field, so the outfielder apparently thought he could deke the umpires that it was a live ball, so he threw it back in as though the play was continuing.  The throw hit something on the Uyesaka Stadium minefield and bounced and hit Trinkwon in the nose.  His immediate reaction was that it was broken, but he remained in the game after being tended to while the relief pitcher warmed up.

The Gauchos got their first hit of the game with one out in the fourth, a single by outfielder Lance Roenicke – who was promptly picked off.  Not exactly what Tom Emansky teaches you to do when you’re down by seven runs.

Matt Chapman homers
The Titans extended the lead to 8-0 in the fifth inning when pinch-hitter Jared Deacon delivered a triple to score Anthony Trajano, who had reached on an error.  A solo home run in the sixth inning by Chapman made it 9-0 and talk turned to why there is no mercy rule in Division I college baseball.  Even the outs were hit hard – probably the best run of quality at-bats all season.

But Checketts’ team showed why.  I was extremely impressed with his team’s attitude – even when they were down 9-0, they acted like it was just a flesh wound and they were undaunted by the task ahead.

The Gauchos broke through in the bottom of the sixth.  Floro was touched for two hits to lead off the inning, but after a strikeout, walk and flyball to Lorenzen that the runner on third didn’t dare to run on, everything seemed under control, leading 9-0 with two outs.  But give UCSB for stringing together a run of quality at-bats themselves: a two-run single and a two-run double made it 9-4 and the momentum had clearly shifted to the Gauchos.

The Titans had two hits but stranded both runners in the top of the seventh, so the game had an uneasy feeling as Floro was touched for four singles in the bottom of the inning and retired just one before giving way to Koby Gauna with the score 9-5 and the bases loaded.  From a 9-0 laugher, we now saw the potential tying run coming to the plate on a day that three balls have already left the yard.

 Gauna retired the first batter he faced on a sacrifice fly that made it 9-6.  On the next hitter, plate umpire Brad Hungerford called a balk on Gauna for not coming to a complete stop after coming out of “that thing Gauna does with runners on base.”  I had a field level view of it and thought Hungerford was absolutely correct.  But two pitches later, Hungerford called another balk that scored a run and made the score 9-7.  With the same great view if it, I thought Hungerford was absolutely incorrect.  Gauna came to a stop that was ‘perceptible’ and ‘discernible’ to everyone in the house but blue.  Gauna struck out the next batter to finally get out of the inning.

Lorenzen's 7-pitch save
With the recent lack of midweek games and the heavy workload carried by the starting pitchers – only one reliever (Jose Cardona) got any work in the sweep of UOP – the bullpen roles are still in a state of flux.  Gauna was called upon to pitch the bottom of the eighth and he responded with a stellar 1-2-3 inning against the middle of the Gauchos batting order.

Meanwhile, the quality at-bats of the Titans waned slightly and the game was uncomfortably close going to the bottom of the ninth.  But Lorenzen came in to close it out and he took all the mystery out of it, retiring the side in order to register his fourteenth save of the season.

It was one of those games where the losing coaching staff probably had a better feeling than the winners.

The home runs by Davis, Lorenzen and Chapman were the story offensively, along with two hits each by Lopez and Hutting.  Besides his three hits and home run, Chapman played a stellar defensive game at third-base.

Game 2:  “Looking Stupid”

Cal State Fullerton Titans 000  100  000   -   1    5   0
UC Santa Barbara Gauchos      001  102  21X   -   7  10   2

The Titans faced freshman lefty Andrew Vasquez, generally considered the leading candidate for BWC Pitcher of the Year this season, entering the game leading the conference in ERA (1.74) and strikeouts (86).  The Titans countered with their own southpaw freshman, Kenny Mathews.

Vasquez struggled with his control and gave up first-inning singles to Pedroza and Lopez, but he worked out of the jam scorelessly.  He yielded a walk and wild pitch in the second and two walks in the third, but he was ‘effectively wild’ and the Titans couldn’t deliver the key two-out hits when they needed them.  Vasquez’s pitch count was rising, but he was still throwing a shutout.

The Gauchos broke through with the first run in the bottom of the third on a single by Greg Mahle, a wild pitch and an RBI single by centerfielder Brett Vertigan.

The Titans responded in their next at-bat aided by Vasquez’s wildness.  Hutting was hit by a pitch and advanced on a wild pitch.  With two outs, Casey Watkins was hit by a pitch and Pedroza walked to load the bases.  Thomas followed with a walk that tied the score, 1-1, and brought Lopez to the plate.  But Vasquez settled down and retired Lopez on an easy grounder.

Mathews had his own streak of wildness in the bottom of the frame, allowing a single, two walks and a sacrifice fly to give the Gauchos a 2-1 lead.

The Titans had Vasquez on the ropes and he was pulled after allowing a bunt single by Chapman and a walk to Hutting.  His pitch count was at 100 and Coach Checketts later said that we was playing for the long haul in not risking leaving his freshman phenom out there too long trying to win one game.

Vasquez was replaced by Matt Vedo, who had pitched very well in a start last season at Fullerton, leaving the game with a lead which was subsequently coughed up by the Gauchos’ bullpen with a walk-off win by the Titans.  The Titans had extensive experience with him and anticipated that he would throw sliders in the dirt until you stopped chasing them – he’d eat you alive if you chased but was average at best if you made him bring the ball up.

Unfortunately, the Titans chased a lot of bad pitches and Vedo was completely in command.  He entered the game and struck out Davis and Trajano on pitches out of the strike zone.  Coach Vanderhook was demonstrably upset that his players didn’t stick with the game plan.

From that point on, everything went the Gauchos way.  After Mathews hit the first hitter he faced in the sixth inning, he was replaced by Dmitri De la Fuente, who gave up a couple doubles and two runs, making the score 4-1.  De la Fuente also gave up a two-run homer to Roenicke in the sixth inning to make it 6-1.  Even though they had seen a 9-0 lead evaporate just 24 hours earlier, the game seemed to be over for the Titans when they got down.  This is uncharacteristic for a team that has had so many thrilling comebacks this season, but I just didn’t feel it this day.

Cardona threw 1-2/3 innings and gave up one run on just one hit.  Lopez was the only Titan with more than one hit (he had two).

Give credit to the Gauchos for outplaying the Titans in every phase of the game.  Vertigan made a few excellent plays in centerfield and the UCSB coaches had the Titans played perfectly all game long.

While the Titans ate up the Gauchos hitting up the middle in Game 1, shortstop Trinkwon was positioned perfectly and ate up several groundballs that generally end up in centerfield.  Kudos also to the great bullpen performance by Vedo: he struck out five Titans and allowed just one hit in 3.0 brilliant innings of relief.  When Vasquez is out of the game in the fifth inning in a 2-1 game and you’ve got two runners on base, you had to feel pretty good about your chances if you are the Titans, but Vedo made a huge difference.

Game 2 Epilogue

The oldest rule in sports: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”  From the bottom of the sixth in the first game on, the Gauchos had pummeled the Titans by a margin of 14-1.  We got a taste of what it feels like to be Pacific and momentum was completely on the side of UCSB.

So what do you do?  Generations of wisdom is to “just shut up and come and play the next day.”  Is that what the Gauchos did?  Not exactly.

The winning pitcher in Game 2, Matt Vedo, shot his mouth off in the newspaper.  He was interviewed by Gerry Fall – who also wrote a great article in the Sunday paper about the impending retirement of Titans legend Mel Franks – a staff writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press who also does radio broadcasts for the Gauchos.  Vedo essentially threw his team-mates under the bus for letting his lead slip away after he left last year’s game against the Titans and then he came out with this gem:  “I knew they were a good-hitting team, but I know I have great stuff and can make hitters look stupid.  I made some of their better hitters look stupid, and I was loving it.”

I can’t say I disagree with Vedo’s opinions – but to say them in a media interview?  Probably not the brightest bulb on the circuit.

Probably the last we’ll hear about Vedo this series, eh?  Keep reading.

Game 3:  “Who’s Stupid Now?”

Cal State Fullerton Titans 010  020  015   -   9   11   2
UC Santa Barbara Gauchos          101  100  000   -   3     6   4

The Titans looked to be in their same somnambulant state when play began on Sunday.  After a beautiful Mothers’ Day pregame ceremony, the Titans squandered a leadoff single by Pedroza when they eschewed the bunt and Thomas hit into a double-play.

Titans pitcher seemed to have worked out of a mini-jam in the bottom of the first when Pedroza booted an easy grounder, but Trajano committed a two-out error to give the Gauchos an unearned run and continuing angst in the Titan Nation.

The Titans answered quickly, though, with an unearned run of their own in the second.  Lorenzen led off with a hard smash between the wickets of third-baseman Marc Venning for an error.  With two outs, Hutting (who had erased Lorenzen on a fielder’s choice) scored on an opposite-field double by Davis off UCSB starter Zac Edgington.

But the Gauchos quickly retook the lead, scoring solo runs in the third and fourth innings off Wiest to take a 3-1 advantage.  Vertigan and Trinkwon had doubles in the third to produce a run, and Mahle doubled in Joey Wallace, who had been hit by a pitch and stole second, to score a run in the bottom of the third.  Wiest escaped further damage with two swinging strikeouts to end the fourth inning.

The Titans showed they were alive and well with two runs in the top of the fifth.  Edgington walked Thomas and Lopez, who both scored on a double by Lorenzen.  A groundout sent Lorenzen to third, but he was cut down at the plate trying to score the go-ahead run when a pitch in the dirt bounced away from the catcher momentarily.  The score was tied, 3-3.

Edgington was relieved to begin the sixth inning by Jared Wilson, who had pitched effectively in the opener to keep the Titans at bay while the Gauchos mounted their gallant comeback bid.  Wilson and Weist swapped goose-eggs in the sixth and seventh innings.  But when the Titans mounted a rally in their half of the seventh on a Pedroza hit-by-pitch and a single by Thomas, the Gauchos brought in a right-handed reliever, who struck out Lorenzen to end the inning.  Yes, you guessed it: our old friend Matt Vedo had entered the game.

Apparently the Titans and their fans in attendance read the newspaper, because they were all over Vedo like I have never seen against an opposing player.  While many other teams’ fans love to heckle opponents, Titans fans generally root positively for our team and not negatively towards the other team or individual players.  But the words of Vedo just stuck in everybody’s craw and his entry to the game seemed to have an instantaneous incendiary effect on the team and its fans.

After Wiest threw a 1-2-3 seventh inning, the Titans were ready to get after Vedo in the eighth.

Chapman led off and hit a ball deep into the shortstop hole, which was backhanded by Trinkwon but thrown out of play, sending Chapman to second.  (It was ruled a two-base error, but I’d have called it a single and an error on the throw allowing the extra base.)  Chapman moved to third on a sacrifice by Hutting, bringing Clay Williamson to the plate.  Williamson had pinch-hit earlier for J.D. Davis when UCSB brought in a righty, despite J.D.’s two doubles in the game.

With the infield in and the score tied, Williamson ripped one on the ground that looked to be headed into leftfield, but Venning dove and made a great stop.  Chapman was off on contact and Venning had to right himself after the dive before throwing – Chapman was safe on a perfect slide under the tag and the Titans had a slim 4-3 lead.

The Titans fans were merciless on Vedo.  He responded in a very mature and classy manner: he grabbed his crotch and gestured with his junk towards the Fullerton side of the stands.

With the narrow lead and word already received that the Dirtbags had won their game up in Davis, the Titans went right to the closer, Lorenzen, after Wiest gave up a one-out double that put the tying run in scoring position.  Not wanting to surrender an easy steal of third, Lorenzen went without his usual high leg kick wind-up and pitched using a slide step – and he was still overpowering.  He struck out the first hitter he faced and then induced a routine flyball to end the inning.

Stupid is what Stupid does
The Titans tried to add an insurance run or two in the ninth against Vedo.  With one out, Thomas singled, followed by a surprise bunt single between the mound and first-base by Lopez.  It felt so good to yell at the pitcher, “Cover first, Stupid!”  Vedo’s grab seemed to move from his crotch to his throat from that point on.

With two runners on and one out, Lorenzen lined a sharp single to leftfield.  With the speedy Thomas on second, Hooky waved him around and a bang-bang play at the plate was anticipated.  Fortunately for the Titans, leftfielder Roenicke also anticipated the play and he booted the ball, taking away any play at the plate.  Lopez had rounded second and was retreating to second by the time Roenicke picked up the ball – all he had to do was lob the ball in, but he threw wildly and out of play, allowing Lopez to score and Lorenzen to go to third, to the delirium of the Titans fans.

I would have loved to have heard the words of the bench jockeys in the Titans’ dugout.  It got so heated that the first-base umpire issued a warning to Mathews – the language might have been saltier than the popcorn.  Trailing 6-3 and the wheels falling off, Checketts went to the mound to talk to Vedo, inducing the heartiest chorus of “Leave him in!” that I’ve ever heard.  Vedo stayed in – and gave up a single by Chapman to score Lorenzen and make it 7-3.

After Hutting reached on a fielder’s choice, defensive replacement Austin Diemer drove the final nail into Vedo’s coffin with a ringing double to centerfield.  Vedo was replaced by freshman Mahle, one of only two BWC nominees for the John Olerud Two-way Player Award (along with Lorenzen).

With Hutting at third and Diemer at second, still trailing by just four runs (e.g., within one swing of the bat), Mahle uncorked a wild pitch and made minimal effort to cover the plate.  Hutting scored easily and Diemer hustled all the way and scored from second, with an error charged to the pitcher for a nonchalant offline throw.  The score was 9-3, but it had the same effect as 90-3.

Lorenzen gave up a one-out single in the bottom of the ninth, but he started a double-play to end the game.  It had a far more euphoric feeling than any regular season game since perhaps the two Sunday wins at Texas A&M.

Wiest (5-3) earned the win, with Lorenzen posting his fifteenth save.  Lorenzen also had three hits and three RBI.  Thomas and Davis each had two hits in the win.


So what did we learn this weekend?

A few weeks ago I was involved in a discussion with Goodwin Field pals and the lament was expressed that “sliding in baseball has become a lost art” with the advent of the head-first slide.  If you appreciate the art of sliding, you’d have tipped your hat the past couple series to Chapman.  In the Pacific series opener last week, the Titans were trailing late in the game when he scored the tying run by sliding under the catcher’s tag on a contact play grounder.  He did essentially the same thing yesterday to score the go-ahead – and eventual winning – run against the Gauchos.  Likewise, the slide by Hutting in the Pacific series opener that resulted in a dropped ball and two runs scored was perfectly executed.

I’ve heard a couple comparisons that this year’s Titans are like the 1988 Dodgers – not great hitting or pitching or speed or defense, but just enough of each and a knack for winning.  Things like sliding don’t show up in the boxscore, but they have a big impact in the W’s column.

Congratulations to UC Santa Barbara, who just received a $50 million private gift for energy efficiency research and engineering programs from Jeffrey Henley, chairman of the board of software giant Oracle and a 1966 UCSB graduate.  I realize the money is earmarked for specific purposes, but wouldn’t it be nice if they took just a little of it and applied it to baseball facility improvements?

The playing field itself at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium seemed improved – that was the impression I got from the players and coaches, although some of the infield hops on Sunday seemed like it was still the minefield of yesteryear.  The campus and stadium location is amazing – UCSB has the potential to transmogrify into one of the great collegiate baseball shrines if they can round up some money and properly execute a facilities plan.  Lights would be great, but Eddy D Field at Pepperdine is as good as it gets and they don’t have lights.

Call me selfish, but the first thing I’d do is install indoor plumbing.  While the playing surface may have been marginally improved, the shit-houses actually got worse.  Two years ago they supplemented their disgusting Porta-Pottys inside the stadium fence with a trailer of bathrooms in the parking lot that were semi-sanitary and included running water.  But this year the trailer was gone.  At one point yesterday the umpire called time to get the Titans back in the dugout – they had formed a human shield to allow a teammate to deal with an immediate situation.

Look for the Titans vs. Gauchos to become a very heated rivalry in the coming years as first-year coach Dave Checketts institutes an aggressiveness and style of play missing during the “Brontosaurus Bob” era.  You could just feel a competitive element to his team that I never felt before.  I also understand that their recruiting classes will be markedly improved from the past.

I’m sure Checketts wasn’t happy that one of his players ran his mouth in the newspaper or that he responded to the crowd by groping his crotch, but my guess is that Checketts put him out there and left him out there to teach him a lesson in “if you’re going to shoot off your mouth, you’d better back it up with your actions.”

After the parade of left-handed Gaucho pitchers ended, I took up a nice perch on the home team side, right next to the Gauchos dugout for the second half of the game Sunday, so I could shoot left-handed hitters from their front.  Perhaps they were too busy surfing to have read the Sunday paper, but the Gauchos fans seemed genuinely baffled at the outburst of anger and catcalls from the Fullerton side directed towards their big-mouth pitcher.  They seemed to easily overlook his crotch grab on the mound directed towards the visiting fans – I’m sure his parents who were there to honor Senior Day and Mothers’ Day must have been proud of him at that moment.

The fans were especially upset at the passionate pleas of “Leave him in!” when Checketts went to the mound to chat with Vedo.  One fan threw a complete hissy fit while the coach was chatting with his embattled pitcher: “I’ve been coming to these games for ten years and these Fullerton fans are the rudest people I’ve ever seen…..They’re all a bunch of animals!”  As Checketts came back to the dugout sans his pitcher, I leaned over the rail and spoke directly to him: “Thank you!”  He gave me a double-take, so I said it again.  He said nothing, but his look was not one of tranquility.

I loved how Hooky had the last word in today’s Santa Barbara newspaper.  He was quoted by Fall, “Number 27 popped off and said ‘it was fun making them look stupid (on Saturday)’, so I think we made him look a little stupider today.”  Classic!

Let’s hope the momentum can carry over to the midweek game against UCLA.  Hope to see you out at the yard.

Go Titans!

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