Monday, February 25, 2013

A Sweeping Texas Three-Step for Titans

Titans defeat TCU 7-2 (Friday), 6-2 (Saturday), 7-0 (Sunday)

By Don Hudson

FORT WORTH, Texas - The Cal State Fullerton Titans continued their impressive season start with a sweep of the then 22nd-ranked TCU Horned Frogs at Lupton Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.  In running their record to 8-0, the Titans moved up to #17 in the Baseball America rankings and skyrocketed thirteen places up to No. 9 in the USA Today baseball coaches’ poll.

The first two games were on TV, so most of you had a better look at it than me.  I’ll just try to sneak in a few of my own observations.

Game 1: Titans 7, Horned Frogs 2

The Titans amassed an early lead and saw TCU come back and threaten to tie the game or take the lead a couple times before the after-burners kicked in and broke the game open in the top of the ninth to win, 7-2, in the series opener played in chilly conditions.

The game was a battle between CSUF freshman Thomas Eshelman (now 2-0, 0.00 ERA) and TCU’s ace, lefty Brandon Finnegan, who was a hard-luck loser in the Frogs’ controversial 1-0 loss the previous weekend opening the season at Ole Miss.  Before the first hot chocolate was cold (no coffee sold at the stadium), Finnegan’s early wildness led to a 1-0 Titans lead.  Richy Pedroza walked on four pitches and advanced on a passed ball and a wild pitch before scoring on a groundout by Carlos Lopez.

Eshelman, who seems to have ice in his veins, was undaunted by the weather and the magnitude of the opponent: he struck out the side in the first and retired the first ten batters he faced until surrendering a single in the fourth inning to Jantzen Witte.  Finnegan matched zeros with Eshelman for a few innings, albeit while allowing at least one Fullerton base-runner each inning and escalating his pitch count.

The game was in the bottom of the fourth inning in approximately 50 minutes – my friend Brad observed: “Just what you’d expect in a Saarloos vs. Dietrich match-up.”  But then the game inexplicably changed pace and became UCLA-ishly slow and plodding.  The official game-time ended up 3 hours, 11 minutes.  Did I mention it was really cold?

The Titans chased Finnegan in a spirited fifth inning.  Austin Diemer reached base when he legged out a one-out infield hit, bringing Pedroza to the plate batting right-handed.  With a cold breeze blowing in mildly, TCU had their outfield positioned in about as close as you will see other than those “no outs, bottom of the ninth, winning run on third base” situations.  A Frogs fan next to me told his buddy, “If he lines one into centerfield, they’re close enough to turn an 8-4-3 double-play.”

Pedroza spoiled the strategy by launching a flyball to rightfield that burned the outfielder from the minute he hit it.  Diemer scored easily to make it 2-0 and Pedroza was on third with a triple, much to Finnegan’s chagrin, who apparently had a few things to say.  After a stare-down between Lopez and Finnegan and Carlos striking out and glaring out towards the hill, Matt Chapman drove a ball through the 5-6 hole for an RBI single.  As Pedroza raced home to score with the ball rolling in the outfield, TCU catcher Kyle Bacak hovered in the vicinity of the plate in Richy’s path.  As he approached the plate, Pedroza had a few words of guidance for the catcher to remove himself from the runner’s path.  (I won’t tell you the exact quote, but I’ll give you a clue:  think what Jesse Pinkman would say.)

Plate umpire Jon Wolfe ejected Pedroza from the game, which surprised just about everybody.  Even the base umpires, during between inning chit-chat with players and coaches, said they wouldn’t have run him.

The Frogs finally began to figure out Eshelman in the bottom of the sixth.  They got a solid leadoff single, a hard line-drive out and a two-out double that brought the tying run to the plate in the person of giant slugging first-baseman Kevin Cron.  On his first pitch, Eshelman got away with one: he threw high cheese that Cron barely missed and he fouled it off.  Eshelman, exit stage left … enter Koby Gauna, who induced a groundout to end the threat.

The Titans added a fourth run in the top of the seventh.  Keegan Dale, replacing Pedroza, led off with a bunt single.  Lopez hit a routine double-play ball, but the Titans got a break when it was booted and everybody was safe.  Dale advanced to third on a flyball and scored on an RBI single by Michael Lorenzen to make it 4-0.

But the Frogs had plenty of fight left.  Gauna had an uncharacteristic wild spell: he gave up a walk, a single, another walk and a two-run single.  But the Titans caught another break on a base-running miscue.  With two outs and runners on first and third, TCU had the man on first attempt to steal second.

Titans catcher Chad Wallach faked a throw to second and caught the runner on third wandering too far down the line.  The runner was retired in a rundown between third and home to snuff the rally.

Gauna continued to be wild in the eighth inning – after loading the bases on a double, wild pitch, walk and hit-batsman, Gauna gave way to lefty reliever Tyler Peitzmeier, whose Nebraska heritage undoubtedly included pitching games in cold weather.  Peitzy came in to face a left-handed batter, but TCU countered with right-handed hitting “Boomer” White, a squat (5-8, 195) catcher who has quickly become a fan favorite.  Peitzmeier got out of the bases loaded, go-ahead-run-on-base situation by inducing a groundout to freshman second-baseman Jake Jefferies, who entered the game when Matt Orloff was injured the prior inning attempting a bunt.  (Orloff’s right index finger was dislocated and believed broken, pending examination by a hand specialist this week.)

He Titans broke the game open with three runs in the top of the ninth, on a single by Dale, an RBI triple by Lopez, a wild pitch that scored Lopez, a J.D. Davis HBP, another wild pitch and a double by Lorenzen.  Not only did it give the Titans a comfortable margin, it negated the need to use closer Lorenzen in the series opener.  Peitzmeier threw a scoreless ninth inning to earn his first save of the season.

Eshelman racked up eight strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings and earned his second win.  Dale and Lorenzen led the offense with two hits each.

Game 2: Titans 6, Horned Frogs 2

(Photo Gallery)

Justin Garza
With the Titans facing a right-handed starting pitcher for only the second time in their eight games this season, plus having the injury to Orloff and a couple other players slightly dinged up from getting hit with pitches Friday night, it was a vastly different line-up that took the field Saturday for the Titans – but they once again got strong pitching from a freshman and timely hitting and came away with a 6-2 victory to clinch the series.

This was a battle between superb young righties: TCU’s sophomore Preston Morrison and Fullerton freshman Justin Garza (now 2-0, 0.68 ERA).

The Titans struck again in the first inning, aided by wildness and a fielding error.  Pedroza returned to the line-up and reached base to start the game on an error by Cron.  After a walk to Lopez and a double-play, the Titans’ two-out rally included a walk to Clay Williamson, an RBI infield single by Lorenzen, an Anthony Hutting HBP and a bases-loaded RBI walk to designated hitter Jefferies.

From that moment through the eighth inning, both pitchers pounded the strike zone and retired batters seemingly effortlessly.  Garza was tremendous and Morrison settled into a groove after his early wildness and matched zeros.  Garza wasn’t just good at the beginning – he was perfect until allowing a one-out single in the bottom of the fifth.  He received excellent defensive support, especially from third-baseman Chapman and shortstop Pedroza.

Jake Jefferies' grand slam
Morrison was equal to the task, retiring 19 of 23 batters and allowing just three singles and an HBP until he gave way to reliever Wiley Ferrell after Chapman dropped down a surprise bunt to open the inning and beat it out, diving headfirst into the base.  Holding a slim 1-0 lead and with Williamson at the plate, hitless on the young season, everybody in the ballpark figures he’s bunting … right?  Coach Vanderhook eschewed the bat and Williamson justified his confidence with a clean single.  One out later, Hutting delivered an infield single to load the bases for Jefferies – who delivered in grand style: a blast over the rightfield fence to plate four runs and turn the pitchers’ duel into a 6-0 advantage.

The Frogs finally got to Garza with a couple runs in the eighth inning (one earned, one unearned), but Davis came out of the bullpen to shut the door.  He entered the game with the tying run in the on-deck circle, but got out of the inherited jam with a groundout and strikeout.  Davis pitched a scoreless ninth inning and posted his first save of the year.

Freshmen Garza and Jefferies were the game’s biggest impact players.  Garza went 7-1/3 innings, allowing five hits, one earned run and striking out five while walking none.  With his grand-slam and bases-loaded walk, Jefferies had five RBI.

Game 3: Titans 7, Horned Frogs 0

(Photo Gallery)

Grahamm Wiest
The Titans’ early success has been predicated on one teammate picking up another.  In the series finale, Titans pitchers – most notably starter Grahamm Wiest – put the team on their back when fielding lapses created mayhem.  The Titans were charged with three errors – but only because of some generous scorekeeping to give a couple hits to their scuffling offense; it could have easily been five errors.  But it shows what winning baseball is all about – some days you win on fielding, other days on hitting and often on pitching.

After losing their first five games of the season – and two this series – TCU came out with energy and enthusiasm which got an immediate rush when leadoff man Derek O-Dell drove a sharp single to lead off the bottom of the first.  There was an early spark that, “Today is finally the day we get a win.”  But the air quickly left the building when the next batter popped up a bunt attempt and the runner was easily doubled off.

The Titans quickly took advantage of the Frogs’ deflated spirits when Lorenzen led off the second with a triple and scored on a sacrifice fly by Greg Velazquez.  They added another tally in the third inning on a single by Diemer, stolen base, wild pitch and a two-out bunt single by Chapman.  A 5-4-3 double play after a leadoff single in the bottom of the third kept the Frogs at bay.

The Titans put up three runs in the fourth inning against TCU’s freshman lefty, Alex Young, to give Wiest a 5-0 lead.  Singles by Lorenzen and Wallach, followed by a walk to Velazquez, loaded the bases with no outs.  After Jefferies was robbed of an RBI hit on a great catch by TCU centerfielder Cody Jones, Diemer reached on a fielder’s choice to avoid a DP and drive in a run.  After Pedroza walked, Lopez was grazed by a pitch with the bases loaded to drive in another run.  TCU reliever Nick Frey walked Chapman to force in another run.

After that, it got really ugly.  A couple balls ruled hits in the fifth inning put Wiest up against the wall, but he worked out of it with a strikeout and groundout.  Consecutive errors in the seventh inning gave TCU an opening, but Wiest took matters into his own hands with back-to-back strikeouts.  After Wiest issued a one-out walk in the eighth, Peitzmeier was summoned to face a lefty hitter.  Peitzy had a perfect day: one pitch, one out, done for the day.  Gauna came in and nailed down the final out of the inning.

TCU gave their closer, flame-throwing Andrew Mitchell, an inning of work in the ninth.  Despite his 96-97 mile per hour heat, the Titans posted two runs on a walk and stolen base by Diemer, a groundout by Pedroza and an infield single by Lopez.  A single by Chapman, a TCU error and a passed ball scored Lopez with the game’s final run.

Gauna threw a scoreless ninth to close out the Titans’ second combined shutout of the young season.  The first two batters reached on a single and an error, but Gauna struck out the next hitter and Davis made a couple good plays at first-base for the final outs.

Wiest (1-0, 2.03 ERA) scattered four hits in 7-1/3 innings and was at his best when there were runners on base, generally not of his own doing.  Chapman had three of the eight Titans hits, while Lorenzen added two.

So what did we learn in Texas?

Lots – about a lot of things.  But what I still haven’t learned – just how good is this team?

History can create unreasonable expectations: the last time the Titans started 8-0 was in 2003, when they were eliminated in a gut-wrenching loss in Omaha to Stanford just one win short of the CWS championship round.  Every other CSUF team that started 5-0 has made it to Omaha – expectations high enough yet?   But the teams beaten already have a combined 14-21 record and two (0-7 Nebraska and 0-6 TCU) are winless.  We’ll know a lot more after the home series against Oregon and Texas A&M.

One thing that jumps out at you: the team ERA is 1.62 and this series’ three starters (Eshelman, Garza and Wiest) have a combined ERA of 0.94.  They have allowed just 4 earned runs in 38-1/3 innings – pretty amazing.  When your starting pitchers are that stingy, you’re going to be ‘playing ahead’ much of the time.  The Titans have scored the first run in each of the eight games.  The last time they trailed was in the first game of the Nebraska double-header, 5-4, until Davis tied it with a single and Hutting put the Titans ahead with a pinch-hit home run.

Tyler Peitzmeier has had four stellar outings – whether he goes a couple innings or just one pitch to retire a left-handed hitter – as has Willie Kuhl.  Davis has also had three strong outings – two out of the bullpen and one as a midweek starter. It will take time for the middle and set-up relief roles to solidify, but so far the bullpen has been nearly as effective as the starters.

Kevin Cron
One of the keys to the series was how effectively the Titans pitchers handled Kevin Cron, the strapping (6-6, 245) first-baseman who set the all-time Arizona state record for career high school home runs (60) and who led TCU in batting as a freshman last season (.338), including six bombs despite missing nineteen games with injuries.  The Titans pitchers tossed a collar on him all weekend: he was 0-for-12.

Sidebar with Mr. Cron:  I have no idea what your walk-up song is called or who “sings” it (I’m lost with all contemporary music after Snoopy Dog Dog), but you might want to change it.  I like the beat, but the “I’m a big boy!” line that keeps repeating ad nauseum sounds great when you’re launching tape-measure bombs but doesn’t work so well when you’re in a slump.

If you’re wondering why Pedroza was allowed to play the game following his rejection, it is covered in a new 2013 rule which toughened the effect of ejections with automatic suspensions from subsequent games.

The key passage is “Those suspensions are applicable only to ejections for disputing, arguing or unsportsmanlike conduct or language, and not for ejections that are a result of other rule violations such as malicious slides or throwing at a batter."

That’s a nice demonstration of NCAA values: intentionally risking injury to an opposing player by such acts as “malicious slides” or “throwing at a batter” are deemed less offensive than talking back to the authority figures wearing blue?

About the only worse than a gambling hangover is a baseball hangover.  The Horned Frogs opened the season on the road against Ole Miss, an SEC team they had epic battles with in the 2012 Regionals.  The Horned Frogs were swept and all three games were gut-wrenchers, including some apparently brutal “homer” calls in favor of Ole Miss.  In the season opener, TCU lost 1-0 when a runner was called for interference in the ninth inning to end the game and take the tying run off the board – even the Ole Miss blogosphere agreed it was a screw job.

It just seemed to me like TCU is still suffering from that occurrence.  Certainly their fans are – every time Fullerton had a runner that arrived at a base, there was a chorus of “Interference!” shouts.  People – it’s baseball: you need to let things go.  As Dr. Ken Ravizza taught us, you need to flush those moments and move on.

In a related story, I still can’t believe umpire Mike Gilmore blew that call on May 24, 2008 at Blair Field in Long Beach, when Adam Jorgenson buckled the Dirtbag’s knees with a beautiful curveball that should have been strike three but “Crappy” called it a ball – and Long Beach rallied to score three runs in the bottom of the eighth and beat us, 8-6.  Or what about March 6, 2006 at Rice, when the bandits from Texas wearing blue shirts and robber masks blew a call when Blake Davis was safe a mile at first base and was called out, sending the game to extra innings before John Estes gave up a walk-off bomb?  Horrible calls, Blue!

But nothing compares to “the Pepperdine rule.”  In the 2004 Regionals, the crowd stood twice to cheer for what we all hoped would be the final out of the game.  Each time we stood and cheered, something bad happened and we ended up losing the game.  (It was obviously not fatal, but it sure felt like a dagger through our hearts at the moments.)  Nowadays, if you stand up at Goodwin Field to cheer for your team to get the final out of the game, you get a bunch of old geezers yelling at you.  Something bad happened almost ten years ago and it dictates that you not give your team the full-throated support it deserves at the end of the game?

Kirk Saarloos
TCU centerfielder Cody Jones made numerous outstanding defensive plays – he made spectacular plays coming (notably in Game 3 against Jefferies) and going back (took away extra bases from Lorenzen in Game 1 and Lopez in Game 2.)

It was nice to see Kirk Saarloos and to spend a few minutes with his parents, Linda and Larry.  They are about as nice a family as you could ever meet – it’s just hard to get used to them wearing any colors other than orange and blue.

The injury to Orloff will give more playing time to Jefferies and Dale, both infielders whose primary experience is at positions other than second-base.  It will be important that they hold down the fort defensively – Jefferies looks like the better stick and Dale more refined defensively.  This team has depth – I like how somebody steps up to pick up their teammate and there is enough margin of error that nobody needs to be expected to play flawlessly.

Dale Gribble
Something else I learned:  Hank Hill’s buddies from nearby Plano, Texas are loyal supporters of the Horned Frogs.  I was taking pictures from down the rightfield line and Dale Gribble (pictured) was talking my ear off about how great his team is … how lucky we were to beat them on Friday … how he almost went to Omaha but didn’t … how Schlossnagle was going to outcoach Serrano in the series … how to use duct tape to get an extra five years out of your hunting rifles.  I thought I was the only lucky recipient of his pearls of garrulous wisdom – until I saw him educating Hooky before the game on Sunday.  Poor Hooky – his face looked like the guy stuck in a slow, tiny elevator with the fat guy who just ate a bucket of beans.  I wonder if Dale called him ‘Serrano’?

That’s all for now.  It should be a great series with the Commissioner coming back to Goodwin Field with his Oregon Ducks.  Let’s get out and really get behind the Titans … but please remain seated if we’re ahead with two outs in the ninth inning.


Anonymous said...

Great recap as always, thank you for sharing.

But no coffee? What's the deal? Just forgot or is it against the TCU community to have a "stimulant." You might think I'm joking, but I'm not.

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