Monday, May 28, 2012

Titans Put Dirtbags Out of Their Misery

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans went all the way down to the final game of the regular season to clinch the Big West Conference (BWC) championship by winning their best-of-three series against their dreaded rivals, the Long Beach State Dirtbags.  With the 5-1 BWC-clinching win, the Titans earned their 21st consecutive NCAA tournament invitation and their 34th in 38 seasons as a Division I baseball program.

The Titans will begin Regionals action against Michigan State on Friday in Eugene, OR.  That is the last place I saw the NCAA committee sending the Titans, but I guess they couldn’t resist the storyline of matching George Horton’s Oregon Ducks against his former team. There are additional back plots with Ronnie Prettyman on the coaching staff at Indiana State (volunteer assistant) and his father, Ron, is the Athletics Director against the Titans’ opening round opponent.  Also, Titans assistant Mike Kirby was on Horton’s staff at Oregon until joining Rick Vanderhook this season in Fullerton.

Game 1:  “Zero Never Wins”

Cal State Fullerton Titans 000  103  000  -    4   8   0
Long Beach State Dirtbags 000  000  000  -    0   6   2

The series opener featured the winningest pitcher in the BWC, Dylan Floro of the Titans, matched up with righthander Matt Anderson of the Dirtbags.  Floro generally has pinpoint control and Anderson is tough to hit but is known for streaks of wildness and high pitch counts, so it was a matchup seemingly favoring the Titans.

The hand played out almost as expected.  The first three innings were scoreless, although the Titans had runners on base every innings and went deep into the counts.  The Titans also threw some good leather behind Floro, with Michael Lorenzen making a great diving catch on a sinking line-drive in the first inning and Richy Pedroza snaring a hot-shot line-drive on a hit-and-run play in the third inning and converting it into a double-play.

The Titans scored the game’s first run in the top of the fourth, but momentarily let Anderson off the hook when they could not take greater advantage.  Anthony Hutting and Matt Chapman led off with singles.  A wild pitch negated the need for J.D. Davis to sacrifice, and he ended up walking to load the bases with nobody out.

Something unusual then happened.  Matched against a Dirtbags’ team with one of the best pitching staffs in the country, the value of each run was magnified.  With second-baseman Derek Legg due to hit, Coach Rick Vanderhook motioned him back to the dugout and Clay Williamson emerged from the dugout with a bat and helmet.  But before a pinch-hitter was announced, Dirtbags’ skipper Troy Buckley made his way to the mound for a conference.  During that break, Vanderhook and Legg conferred and Legg got a reprieve when he convinced his coach that he would have a good at-bat.  And Legg made good on his word, stroking a clean base-hit into rightfield to give his team a 1-0 lead.

With the bases still loaded and nobody out, the Titans looked on the verge of a crooked number, but the Dirtbags also flashed some leather and Anderson pitched out with no further damage.  Jared Deacon stroked a hard line-drive headed towards rightfield, but CSULB second-baseman Jeff McNeill made a great diving catch to rob him of a certain hit and the Titans left the bases loaded.

Clinging to their slim 1-0 lead in the sixth, Legg reached when hit by a pitch by reliever Matt Johnson.  (It was actually the second time he was hit during that at-bat, but Legg was previously waved back by plate umpire Tony Norris.)  With Legg running on the pitch, Deacon dribbled a swinging bunt towards third-base for a single.  The third-baseman threw the ball away trying to nab Deacon, resulting in Legg scoring and Deacon going to third.  The infield was drawn in trailing 2-0 when Pedroza hit a chopper to first-baseman Ino Patron, who slightly mishandled it and threw errantly to the plate to try to cut down Deacon, who was running on contact.  Ivory Thomas walked and Carlos Lopez delivered an RBI single to make it 4-0 and knock Johnson from the game.  Jake Stassi entered with the bases loaded and one out and induced a double-play, preventing the game from getting completely out of hand.

Floro came up big for the Titans when his team needed him most.  He was dominant throughout, although the Titans had him on the ropes in the bottom of the seventh and perhaps within one batter of being replaced by.  As the Titans continued to amass stranded runner – ten LOB in the game – the nervous feeling remained that despite the dominance of Floro, the Dirtbags were still within reach to win the game late.  Had Floro faltered in the seventh, it would have been interesting to see if the Titans would have gone right to their closer or taken a chance on a set-up reliever, which has been a position MIA recently.

The seventh inning began innocently enough for Floro, who had two outs with a runner on first when he gave up an infield single and his only walk of the game.  His face and body language had the look like when the low gas warning light comes on in my Datsun even though the fuel gauge says there is still an eighth of a tank.  After a conference with pitching coach Kirk Saarloos, Floro got out of the bases loaded jam by striking out designated hitter Michael Hill.  (Sign of the sagging fortunes of the BWC: a designated hitter with an average of .140 hitting eighth.)

The low fuel indicator light went off and Floro (10-3, 2.52 ERA) finished his complete game shutout in style, with a 1-2-3 eighth inning and just one single allowed in the ninth.  He finished with 117 pitches, scattering six hits while striking out five.  It was an excellent performance just weeks before the upcoming MLB draft.

For his efforts, Floro earned BWC Pitcher of the Week honors.

Lopez and Hutting led the Titans with two hits each.

Game 2:  “Stay of Execution”

Cal State Fullerton Titans 000  000  001  -    1   8   0
Long Beach State Dirtbags 004  010  00x  -     5   8   1

With the Regionals host sites determined prior to the series finale on Sunday afternoon, the Titans made an interesting gambit by moving Grahamm Wiest up in their weekend rotation to pitch the middle game.  Wiest had been in lockdown mode the past month, while the regular middle game starter, Kenny Mathews, had been up and down recently, so the move seemed inevitable.  Meanwhile, facing elimination from BWC contention with a loss on Saturday, Long Beach coach Buckley also made an interesting decision by keeping his usual rotation intact, going with lefty Ryan Strufing and keeping his undefeated ace, Shaun Stuart, in the Sunday slot where he had dominated.

Matt Orloff singled in the first inning against Strufing, but the lefty caught him moving early and retired Orloff on a 1-3-6 caught stealing.  It was the only hit allowed by strafing in the first three innings.
Wiest struggled with the strike zone of plate umpire Dave Gimbi, whose usual strike zone goes from the ankles to the bill of the cap, with corners spanning from Placentia to Yorba Linda.  But on this night, any pitch near the knees was a ball – which is where Wiest has lived all season.

In the bottom of the third, Wiest walked the #9 hitter leading off, which is rarely a good omen.  After a sacrifice and a flyout, Wiest had a chance to escape when shortstop Chapman made a great backhand grab of a two-out single that would have easily scored the game’s first run had it gone through the infield.  But Wiest left an 0-2 pitch over the plate to clean-up hitter Juan Avila, he drove a double to make the score 1-0 with runners on second and third.  As Brennan Metzger advanced to the plate with the highest batting average during BWC action this season with light-hitting McNeill on deck, I turned to my imaginary friend Nathan and said, “He’s not going to see anything near the plate with first base open.”

But I was wrong.  After spiking a hard line-drive foul ball on the first pitch, he slammed the next offering high and deep over the wall for a three-run homer that gave the Dirtbags a quick 4-0 lead.  It was a stunning moment for all and quite exhilarating in the Dirtbags Nation, especially because it was the first home run that they had hit at Blair Field since May 10, 2010.  (Let that sink in – they had gone over two full seasons without hitting a home run at their home field!)

From that point on, the story of the game was Strufing, who was in complete command of the Titans’ batsmen.  Wiest allowed another run in the fifth inning on a single, a balk and an RBI double by Avila.  Jose Cardona did yeomen work with three innings of shutout relief for the Titans.

Strufing came within one out of a complete game shutout.  He allowed the Titans’ lone run in the ninth on a single by Orloff, who took second on defensive indifference and came around on a single by Lopez and an RBI single by Chapman.  With the lead 5-1 and J.D. Davis coming up with two men on base, the Dirtbags went to their bullpen for Kyle Friedrichs.  Davis stepped out of the batter’s box with an 0-2 count and was admonished to return by Gimbi, but Davis took his time getting back in and was rung up on a ball about a foot outside to end the ballgame.

Orloff and Lopez each had two of the Titans’ meager five hit production.

Game 3:  “Bubbles’ Burst”

Cal State Fullerton Titans 000  000  410  -    5   7   1
Long Beach State Dirtbags 000  000  010  -    1   4   1

All that stood between elimination and the Dirtbags earning their first post-season berth since 2008 was Titans’ freshman lefthander Kenny Mathews, who was roughed up in his previous outing by UC Riverside, lasting just 1.0+ innings before getting a quick hook.  The question raged: would we see the UC Riverside Mathews or the one who dominated the Dirtbags earlier in the season, pitching 7-2/3 innings in the non-conference series and allowing no earned runs while striking out six?  Mathews was matched with Stuart, 7-0 and 2.21 ERA coming in – so it was imperative that Mathews throw his best game of the year.

It quickly became apparent that Mathews was up to the task – he pitched absolutely brilliantly, relying almost exclusively on a fastball that was hitting his spots.  But Stuart was equal to the task – he allowed just one batter over the minimum through six innings and just one hit.  The game was still scoreless, with the Dirtbags crowd incensed by a call at first base to end an inning when it appeared Lopez had been drawn off the bag on a throw.  Great stretch, Carlos!  (Translation: unless he wears size 38 shoes, his foot was probably off the bag.)

The tension mounted as we waited to see which pitcher would blink first.  Thomas opened with a single and the Titans eschewed the bunt, having Thomas attempt a steal:  “Safe!!!”  (He was probably out if the ball wasn’t dropped.)  Lopez did his job and advanced the runner to third on a grounder to shortstop.  With the infield in, Lorenzen tomahawked a ball over the shortstop’s head for an RBI single and a 1-0 lead.

After Lorenzen stole second uncontested, Hutting followed with a sharp sinking liner to centerfield.  Metzger closed quickly and nearly made a sensational diving grab, but the ball trickled out and the Titans had runners at the corners with just one out.  Stuart made quick work of Chapman, who fouled out to the first-baseman on one pitch.

Stuart quickly got ahead of Davis with an 0-2 count, but left a fastball intended to be outside over the plate and Davis crushed it for a three-run bomb that silenced the crowd and gave the Titans a 4-0 lead.  The ball landed in the street behind the park area behind the leftfield fence where fans tailgate before, during and after games.

I was particularly impressed with Mathews in the bottom of the seventh.  After knocking the other team’s ace out of the game with a four-spot, you hope your pitcher can sustain the momentum and get your team back in the dugout quickly.  Mathews did just that, retiring the meat of the Dirtbags’ order (Avila, Metzger and Guerra).

The Titans added an insurance run in the eighth on a leadoff single by Pedroza, an error, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Lorenzen.  The Dirtbags matched it in the bottom of the frame on an unearned run when Lopez dropped a throw to first which would have ended the inning with the shutout intact.
Mathews went out to start the ninth, but was replaced by Lorenzen after Patron led off with a single.  It was not a save situation, but Lorenzen continued his season of outstanding late relief pitching by inducing two easy flyballs and a grounder to Chapman to clinch the BWC title.

The game was a mirror image of the night before: the team that had a three-run homer won the game, 5-1, while the other team’s offense was completely shut down by a southpaw hurler.

The Titans made the most of their seven hits, as no player had more than one.  The big shot, of course, was the bomb by Davis.  But you can’t say enough about the performance by Mathews, who allowed just four hits and no earned runs in his 8.0+ innings, throwing just 82 pitches.  According to the school website, just seven of those pitches weren’t fastballs.

Back to the original question: could Mathews match his early season performance against Long Beach?  He not only attained it, he surpassed it – and on a very important stage.


So what did we learn this series?

We learned that rumors of the Titans’ demise were premature.  The vultures were circling above with Long Beach State and Cal Poly ready to claim a piece of a BWC co-championship and an NCAA autobid to the Dirtbags, but the Titans rose from the ashes on Sunday with a ‘statement’ win.  You’d have been wrong if you thought the Titans would play out the string on Sunday after the Saturday loss and learning before game time that they would not be a host for Regionals.

In reality, even a sweep of the Dirtbags (or, more specifically, the first two games) would still have left the Titans as a longshot to be selected as a Regionals host.  You can analyze this thing to death, but the sixteen selected hosts were the sixteen eligible teams with the best RPI (ASU was in that tier but not eligible for postseason action.  Pat Murphy – the gift that keeps on giving!)

Don’t blame the Saturday loss as the cause of not hosting.  The damage was much more impactful losing two games at home to UC Riverside the previous weekend.  But I’m not lamenting the travel assignment – winning post-season games on the road is a big part of the program legacy and this year’s team seems much more focused on the road than at home with all the distractions and perhaps false confidence.  The early wins at Florida, Texas A&M and Arizona State were impressive, but the mediocre 4-5 stretch to end the season could not be ignored.  The demise of the BWC is also an RPI-killer: runner-up Cal Poly ended up #65 in RPI, while the Dirtbags were #68.  Win or lose, games against Pacific and Riverside hurt your RPI.

FWIW: it is approximately 888 miles from Goodwin Field to PK Park in Eugene.
It always amazes me how the ACC is treated so kindly in the brackets and host site selection process, yet hasn’t won a championship since 1955 (Wake Forest).  How is it possible to go that many years without a championship team when you are constantly loaded with national seeds and Regional hosts?

Thanks to Dr. Dan Barber for the ‘shout out’ he gave me in his “Diamond Dust” notes in the game program this weekend at Blair Field.  Despite how Kendall Rogers slammed the NCAA tournament choice of Dan’s alma mater, University of Miami, over Kentucky as a host site, Miami had an RPI of #12 and that is the ultimate criteria factored by the committee.  They have won four national championships, but none since joining the ACC.

There can be nothing more suitable to honor those brave American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country on this Memorial Day than to watch the film titled “Our Soldier” honoring Cody Legg, who was killed in combat.  The film was produced by Matt Brown and Mike Greenlee – it is a very poignant interview with Derek Legg, his father (Dave) and brother (D.C.)  Check it out.

How does the season fly by so fast?  It seemed like just yesterday we were freezing our asses off on a Friday night in Gainesville, Florida…and then a few weeks later we were freezing our asses off on a Friday night in College Station, Texas…..and now we were freezing our asses off on a Friday night in Long Beach, California.  It goes by too quickly.

But now it’s time for the playoffs and the prospects of another memorable baseball road trip.  I was really caught off guard when they announced the brackets and the UCLA, Arizona and Stanford Regionals did not include Fullerton – by process of elimination, it left Oregon.  They don’t seed beyond the Top 8, but it still is pretty tough for a national seed to draw a perennial powerhouse like the Titans as a 2-seed.  I can’t wait for it to start!

Hope to see you there – Go Titans!

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