Monday, February 18, 2013

Great Weekend to Be a Titan

Titans defeat USC 3-2 (Friday)
Titans defeat Nebraska 10-5, 9-0 (Saturday)
Titans defeat Cal State Bakersfield 8-2 (Sunday)

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans kicked off their 2013 season in impressive fashion, riding the wave of strong pitching, powerful hitting and flashy defense en route to four wins against the USC Trojans, Nebraska Cornhuskers (double-header) and Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners.  The Titans will travel to Malibu on Wednesday for a battle of 4-0 teams, facing a Pepperdine squad who swept Western Michigan at home this weekend.  (The game was scheduled for Tuesday, but pushed back because of forecasted inclement weather.)

Titans 3, Trojans 2

Before an opening night sellout crowd of 3,508, the Titans eked out a 3-2 win over the USC Trojans.

The starting and winning pitcher was Thomas Eshelman, the first freshman to pitch a season opener for CSUF since 1987, when Mark Beck was a tough-luck loser as the Titans lost 1-0 in a midweek game against the St. Mary’s Gaels.

The Titans took an early 1-0 lead when Richy Pedroza led off with a single, went to third on an opposite field double by Carlos Lopez and scored on a sacrifice fly by Matt Chapman.

While the Titans looked like the “Lost Offense of 2012” for the next few innings, Eshelman was lights out: he retired the first fourteen batters he faced until his no-hitter/perfect game was broken on a hard groundball single with two outs in the bottom of the fifth.

Eshelman recovered to retire the next batter and nearly completed another 1-2-3 inning in the sixth ... except for an errant throw and a blown call.  Second-baseman Matt Orloff fielded a grounder but drew Lopez off the bag with a throw.  Lopez appeared to have applied a tag to the runner well before the bag, but umpire Stephan Fritzoni called the runner safe and refused to appeal to his fellow umpires for assistance, even though plate umpire Dave Gimbi was halfway up the line and had a better angle to see a tag.  (I have no problem with a blown call when everyone else there could both see and hear that a tag was applied – but the arrogance in not conferring with his fellow umpires made Fritzoni look far worse.)

Bad quickly turned to worse: with the inning extended, Eshelman faced USC shortstop James Roberts, who delivered a two-run homer into the leftfield screen to give the Trojans a 2-1 lead.  Eshelman remained on the ropes as he gave up two solid singles following the blast, but struck out the next batter to avoid further damage.

But the USC lead was short-lived.  Chapman led off the bottom of the sixth with a single to rightfield and moved up on a walk to designated hitter J.D. Davis.  Newly appointed USC coach Dan Hubbs, who replaced the just-fired Frank Cruz (more comments on that later), came to the mound to discuss strategy with Michael Lorenzen coming to the plate.  Expecting the Titans to have their pre-season All American player swinging away, Lorenzen placed a perfect drag bunt and beat it out for a single to lead the bases with nobody out.

Chad Wallach then smashed a line drive single to leftfield, scoring Chapman to tie the game.  But Davis was also waved around and was easily out at the plate – still haven’t figured why he was sent with nobody out and bases loaded.  But Lorenzen made it to third and was able to scamper home ahead of the throw from the pitcher on a squeeze bunt delivered by Orloff, which gave the Titans a 3-2 lead.

Richy Pedroza
Sophomore Willie Kuhl entered the game in the seventh and retired all six batters he faced over the next two innings.  He was aided by a spectacular backhand play by shortstop Pedroza in the eighth inning – Pedroza had earlier made a great play to his left.  Numerous fans that have watched or played pro and college baseball for decades described it as the best defensive play they had ever seen: (Video)

Lorenzen finished the game off with a 1-2-3 ninth inning.  He was aided by a superb diving backhand grab by leftfielder Austin Diemer, robbing the Trojans of a leadoff double and having the tying run in scoring position.

The Titans managed just six hits in the win, with no player having more than one.  A key difference may have been walks: Titans’ batters received six free passes while the pitching allowed zero base on balls to USC.

Titans 10, Cornhuskers 5 (Game 1 of Double-header)

(Photo Gallery)

The Titans hosted the visiting Cornhuskers, who are led by head coach and former major leaguer Darin Erstad and pitching coach and former Titans ace and volunteer assistant coach Ted Silva.  As a cold climate team, the Huskers have the unenviable position of not playing home games until March.  With temperatures back home in Lincoln on Saturday dropping from a balmy 38 degrees to a more seasonal 21, it was a perfect 85 degree Chamber of Commerce day at Goodwin Field when the teams took the field – the kind of day Ernie Banks would declare, “Let’s play two!”

The Titans took a 2-0 lead in the second inning on a pair of clutch two-out RBI singles by Jared Deacon and Pedroza, driving in Lorenzen (HBP and stole base) and Orloff (walked).

Meanwhile, starter Grahamm Wiest allowed no hits in the first three innings of shutout pitching.  The lead was cut in half in the fourth inning on a triple and RBI single, but Wiest retired the next three Huskers to hold onto a 2-1 margin, which was extended in the bottom of the inning when Lorenzen hit an opposite field home run, the first blast of the year for the Titans.

Nebraska threatened again in the top of the fifth with a pair of one-out singles, but Wiest struck out two batters to maintain the 3-1 lead.  But the Huskers broke through with two runs in the sixth inning on the strength of four singles and an uncontested double-steal.

In the bottom of the frame, the Titans took the lead back, 4-3, on a solo tally as Lorenzen reached on error, stole second and scored on another two-out clutch hit by Deacon.

Freshman Kyle Murray took the hill for the Titans in the seventh inning and was roughed up for two runs on a double, RBI triple and RBI single.  He was replaced by Tyler Peitzmeier, a native son of Yutan, Nebraska.  The first batter faced by Peitzmeier reached on an infield single, but the Titans got a break when the batter tried to advance to second on an errant throw but was easily retired, 6-3-6.  Peitzmeier shut the door with a flyball to end the inning, but the Huskers had taken a 5-4 lead.

Anthony Hutting
But the Titans counter-punched with three runs of their own in the bottom of the seventh.  Chapman dropped a base hit to rightfield and went to second when the ball was bobbled.  Davis dropped a single into right-centerfield to drive in Chapman with the tying run.  Anthony Hutting was summoned to pinch-hitter – and he blasted a drive into the screen in rightfield for a two-run bomb that gave the Titans a 7-5 lead after seven innings.

After Peitzmeier and Davis combined to pitch a scoreless eighth inning, the Titans put the game away with three insurance runs in the bottom of the inning.  Deacon and Lopez set the table with singles and scored on a double by Chapman (one RBI) and single by Davis (two RBI).  Michael Lopez pitched a scoreless ninth inning to close out the 10-5 victory.

Deacon paced the 13-hit attack with three, while Lopez, Chapman, Davis and Lorenzen had two apiece.  Titans pitchers gave up 12 hits but issued no walks for the second straight game.  Peitzmeier was the winning pitcher – a very nice feeling for a kid who grew up a fan of Nebraska athletics.

Titans 9, Cornhuskers 0 (Game 2 of Double-header)

Freshman Justin Garza made his much-anticipated Goodwin Field debut – and he did not disappoint.  The highly heralded right-hander is listed at 5-11 and 160 pounds, but his “stuff” is magical.  His first pitch when he stepped on campus last fall was clocked at 95 miles per hour.

The first batter Garza faced wasted no time and ripped a base hit into rightfield and stole second.  But the freshman quickly took command and struck out two batters to get out of the inning harmlessly.

The Titans scored twice in the bottom of the first on singles by Pedroza and Lopez, a walk to Chapman and a two-RBI rope by Davis.  The Titans scored thrice in the third inning to extend the lead to 5-0.  Lopez walked and was erased on a fielder’s choice, with Chapman reaching.  Davis stroked another single and advanced on an error.  Chapman scored on a wild pitch and Lorenzen drove in Davis with an RBI single.  Wallach belted an RBI double to plate Lorenzen.

While Garza was mowing Cornhuskers, the Titans made it 7-0 with two more runs in the bottom of the fifth inning.  Davis continued his torrid hitting with a double, followed by a walk to Lorenzen, a wild pitch and a two-run single by Wallach.  At that point, both coaches began emptying their benches.

Garza went six shutout innings, allowing two hits and registering six strikeouts.  He was succeeded by a scoreless inning each from fellow freshmen Joe Navilhon, Henry Omana and Bryan Conant.

The final two runs were scored on a bases-loaded walks to Chapman and freshman infielder Tanner Pinkston.  Davis (3 hits, 2 RBI) and Wallach (2 hits, 3 RBI) led the 11-hit attack, which was aided by an additional 11 walks from the undermanned Huskers pitching staff.

Titans 8, Roadrunners 2

(Photo Gallery)

BAKERSFIELD - The Titans journeyed north to Kern County to face the Roadrunners, winners of their first two games against Nebraska and USC and led by former CSUF assistant coach Bill Kernan, who has done an outstanding job since his appointment in 2007 and the baseball program launch in 2009.  The game on Sunday was played before a crowd of 1,358, the third straight day the program’s attendance record had been reset.

The Titans faced their third lefthanded starting pitcher of the new season, as crafty Jonathan Montoya, a high school teammate of Titans reliever Dave Birosak, made his return from Tommy John surgery a year ago.  Montoya retired the first two Titans he faced before a two-out single by Chapman brought the red-hot Davis to the plate.  Davis crushed a bomb deep to centerfield to give the Titans a quick 2-0 advantage.

Koby Gauna made his season debut on the mound for the Titans and was aided by an around-the-horn double-play in the bottom of the first inning.

The Titans extended their lead to 3-0 in the third inning on a single by Diemer, wild pitch, sacrifice by Pedroza and sacrifice fly by Lopez.  The Roadrunners posed a mild threat in the bottom of the frame when they had a pair of two-out singles, but Gauna registered a strikeout to end the inning.

J.D. Davis
Trailing 3-0 and with Montoya presumably on a short pitch count in his comeback performance, Kernen went to his bullpen early.  The diminutive (5-7, 157) lefty Montoya was replaced by the strapping (6-5, 210) lefty Chuck Buchanon, who dug himself a big hole by walking Diemer, Lopez and Chapman and bringing the dangerous Davis to the plate.  Davis stroked another deep drive which cleared the fence and the bases – his grand slam made it 7-0 and the rout was on.  Lorenzen followed with a double and scored on Wallach’s RBI single to make it 8-0.

Gauna continued to pitch effectively.  Based on the scoreboard radar postings, his fastball actually got stronger as the game progressed: 90-92 early and 93-94 later.  Both coaches emptied their benches mid-game and the score remained 8-0 until Bakersfield scored twice in the bottom of the eighth.  The first batter lined a shot into the gap in left-centerfield: Lorenzen got a good jump and almost made a great diving catch – he had the ball momentarily but it was dislodged when he hit the ground.  After an RBI single broke the shutout, Gauna retired the next two hitters before giving way to reliever Kuhl, who uncorked a wild pitch to score the second run for the Roadrunners.

The Titans had a narrow 10-9 advantage in hits, but the difference was the power of Davis, who drove in six runs with his two home runs.  Chapman, Davis and Diemer had two hits each for the Titans, whose pitchers issued no walks for the third time in four games.

So what did we learn this weekend?

After getting off to lethargic starts in recent season opening weekends, it was encouraging to see the Titans get off to such a strong start with all facets of the game clicking.  The “round robin” schedule was necessitated when the SEC’s Georgia Bulldogs backed out of its commitment to come to Fullerton for the opening weekend.  In hindsight, that may not have been a great move: the Bulldogs dropped their opening series at home against Georgia Southern.

One thing I really liked was how well the team “counter-punched” – every time a lead or tie score was surrendered in the tight games against USC and Nebraska, the Titans responded immediately with runs of their own.  That is always the sign of a winning team.

A couple of team stats jump off the pages: the Titans outhit their weekend opponents, .313 to .210, and coaxed 24 walks while allowing just 2 free passes.  Titans’ pitchers also had just one hit-batsman, while Titans hitters were plunked four times.  Two walks in 36 innings is amazing – continuing under new pitching coach Jason Dietrich what had become a trademark under the tutelage of Kirk Saarloos.

Freshmen Eshelman and Garza were especially impressive.  In the games and scrimmages I saw in the fall and spring pre-season, Eshelman was dominant and seemed unfazed by the level of competition.

Not only was he unflappable as a starting pitcher on opening night, but did you notice he shook off a sign on the second batter of the game?  That shows great confidence. I also liked that Eshelman was allowed to develop experience under fire when he was left in the game to finish the sixth inning after giving up the home run and two subsequent hits.

Garza was just plain dealing Saturday night against a Nebraska team with a reputation for crushing fastballs – they’d better order extra Klondikes when he pitches.

J.D. Davis had a monstrous opening weekend: batted .438 with two home runs (including the grand salami), 11 RBI, .471 OBP and .875 slugging percentage – plus he had two big outs on the mound as the Titans held a slim lead late in the first game against Nebraska.  For his efforts, Davis earned Big West Conference Player of the Week honors.

The defense was steady throughout and spectacular at moments.  Pedroza’s two “web gems” in the opener were spectacular, but he also had back-to-back “do-or-die” plays against Nebraska that he had to short-hop and make quick throws.  Lopez was also stellar with the glove: there were easily a dozen thrown balls he scooped out of the dirt.  Wallach was also solid behind the plate: he is a big target, he managed the pitchers well and he blocked balls in the dirt.  In the USC game, there were three foul tips he held onto for strikeouts that were tough plays – redirected off the bat and not the usual “clean” foul tips.

The large early leads in the nightcap against Nebraska and yesterday against Bakersfield afforded the opportunity to get a lot of players involved early in the season and especially allow the freshmen to “get their feet wet” at the collegiate level.  Eighteen players batted and thirteen pitchers were used – Davis did both.  As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see how the 35-player roster is used, especially in terms of preparation for the 2014 season when this year’s large class of seniors moves on.

Lopez and Lorenzen are tied in the stolen bases department: 3-for-3 each.  Did you ever think you would be reading those words?  Lorenzen’s speed was a weapon in the wins: besides the pilfered bases and the wide swath of outfield turf he patrolled, Lorenzen scoring the winning run on Orloff’s squeeze bunt in the opener was “pure speed.”  He also outran the baseball and escaped a rundown play and made it safely back to third base in the first game against Nebraska, which resulted in a subsequent run that was huge at the time.

Another statistical note: the Titans had five sacrifice bunts and two sacrifice flies, while their opponents had neither.  It is an inherent byproduct of early leads and stingy pitching that doesn’t issue free passes – it takes away “small ball” from the other team’s toolbox.

Baseball is a game of delicious nuances.  Lorenzen led off the bottom of the eighth inning and was retired, leaving him minimal time to hustle down to the bullpen to get warmed up for his ninth inning closer role.  When the second batter was quickly retired, Orloff took his time going to the plate and was called back to confer with Coach Vanderhook.  They chatted up a storm and Hooky rubbed his neck until Orloff purred like a satisfied housecat.  Orloff then put team ahead of self and took some pitches to give his closer more time in the bullpen, eventually drawing a walk.  It’s small things like that which don’t show up in the boxscore but are all part of playing “Titans baseball.”

While I love baseball’s nuances, I wish somebody would write down clear and unambiguous instructions on the proper way to adhere to all the “unwritten rules.”  An odd situation happened in the game on Sunday which created a little buzz on the message boards – let me throw in my two cents worth on “Buntgate.”

One of the unwritten rules is that when a team holds a large and insurmountable lead in the game, it removes starters and does not make “aggressive” moves on offense:  no attempted stolen bases and “station to station” base-running on hits.  There are also unwritten rules about bunting: you don’t bunt for a base hit when you have a big lead or the opposing pitcher has a no-hitter going late in the game.

None of these unwritten rules particularly make any sense – why is it okay to swing away to get hits but not bunt for hits - but they are rooted in “respect for the game” and the long-term view that if you’re in the game a long time, you’ll be on the receiving end of ass-wuppings sometime down the road and your opponents will always remember how you treated them when the spikes were on the other foot.

The ambiguity of the unwritten rules isn’t clear about how big the lead must be or how late in the game before it is to be treated as “insurmountable”.  Bakersfield still had four innings to bat and they showed they are capable of putting up runs in bunches – they had scored nine runs in each of their two season-opening wins.  It was a warm day game with the ball carrying well in a small field – 327’ down the lines and 390’ to centerfield.  Shutting it down too early can bite you in the ass – do you remember the game in 2011 against the Dirtbags when our 9-0 lead after two innings turned into an 11-9 deficit before a late rally gave us a 14-12 win?

The Titans held an 8-0 lead going to the top of the sixth inning on Sunday.  CSUB had its infield back in anticipation of “sit on the lead” offense – so Diemer dropped a bunt down the third-base line and easily beat it out for a hit.  You can’t fault him for doing what he is supposed to do: get on base leading off an inning.  Diemer is one of several talented players fighting for playing time in the two corner outfield positions, along with Kingsolver, Hutting, Williamson and Velazquez.  The “unwritten rules” might be interpreted that he ought not to have bunted in that situation, but there was certainly no intent to ‘show up’ the other team.

But there are more unwritten rules, like the one that says “If you think the opposing team is showing you up, your pitcher should drill the next hitter with a fastball in the ribs.”  Whether true or not or whether CSUB Coach Bill Kernen felt it or not, the Fullerton staff took pre-emptive measures: Kingsolver entered as a pinch-runner and was apparently instructed to “right the wrong” by getting picked off without effort to avoid being tagged out.  I understand the second-guessing and criticism of this move, but I think the greater good was served by defusing the situation before play got chippy – the last thing we needed was for Pedroza to get drilled with a fastball as a retaliatory move under the game’s unwritten rules.

Sidebar with USC Athletics Director Pat Haden:  I don’t get it.  Your football coach: tanked the preseason #1 team in the country into an unranked 7-6 group of underachievers; lied about who he had voted for in the polls; petulantly stormed out of press conferences; had players illegally switching jersey numbers in the middle of a game to run a trick play when leading by six touchdowns; threw a student manager under the bus when caught putting underinflated footballs in play against the high-powered Oregon Ducks; refereed locker room fights after losing to a crap team in a crap bowl game; and watched his much-ballyhooed recruiting class take cover at campuses throughout the nation -- and you fire the baseball coach for a ticky-tack minor first-time infraction (for too many hours of organized activities)!  Rhodes Scholar?

Speaking of A.D.s: there was a lot of positive feedback as fans entering Goodwin Field on Friday were greeted by Jim Donovan, the newly appointed Director of Athletics, and Steve DiTolla, Senior Associate Athletics Director.  It was a classy gesture and well-received – along with the tributes to former Titans now playing MLB that the fans now see when entering the facility.  Along with the unveiling of the new orange uniforms and the first home sell-out since 2007, it made for a great fan experience.

That’s all for now – I’m looking forward to road games this week at Pepperdine and TCU.  The first weekend was impressive, but the cancellation of the Georgia series resulted in downgraded level of competition, so we’ll learn more about this exciting team in the next four games.


Anonymous said...

Great job Don !!!!!!!! RT

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