Monday, March 18, 2013

Hot or Cold, Titans Sweep Oral Roberts

Titans at Oral Roberts: Won 5-0 (Friday), Won 6-2 (Saturday), Won 7-4 (Sunday)

By Don Hudson

TULSA, Okla. - The Cal State Fullerton Titans displayed a balance of pitching, hitting and defensive prowess and swept its three-game series this weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma against the Oral Roberts University (ORU) Golden Eagles.  With the wins, the Titans’ record improved to 16-3, the team’s best start since 2009.  They also stayed at No. 8 in the latest Baseball America rankings. The Golden Eagles have lost nine consecutive games, the longest losing streak in program history.

Game 1: Titans 5, Golden Eagles 0

The series opener was the “must win” game for both teams, as ORU sent its ace, Alex Gonzalez, to do battle with Fullerton freshman Thomas Eshelman.  With ORU in the midst of its current losing streak, a Titans loss in the opener could have put the series on tilt and become an RPI-killer.  Gonzalez showed he is the ‘real deal’, befitting his ranking as a Top 50 MLB prospect who shut the Titans down into the eighth inning last season at Goodwin Field.

There was an early hint of the Titans’ game plan against Gonzalez when Lopez grounded out on a full count: the best chance to do damage against Gonzalez was likely to be late in the game if the Titans could get his pitch count high.  It was ultimately a successful strategy, made possible by Eshelman matching zeroes with Gonzalez for the first six innings.

Eshelman had to work out of a few jams, as the Golden Eagles had runners on base in five of the seven innings he worked.  But every time the pressure was on, he was at his best, notably ending the second inning with runners on second and third and fourth inning, when he also stranded two runners.

Meanwhile, the Titans didn’t hit a ball out of the infield in the first four innings, with just an infield single by J.D. Davis, with nine outs on groundballs and three strikeouts.  The first signs of the bats coming to life were when Michael Lorenzen hit a deep flyball to lead off the fifth and Jake Jefferies lined a single into rightfield.

With a 0-0 score going to the top of the seventh, Davis led off with a walk.  Against such a great pitcher, do you have Lorenzen bunt him over?  Nah.  Lorenzen was allowed to hit away and justified Coach Vanderhook’s confidence by driving a base hit through the right side.  Chad Wallach struck out, but the runners both advanced on a passed ball with Jefferies batting.  After falling behind in the count, Jefferies took three straight borderline pitches – Blue’s strike zone get very tight at an opportune moment for the Titans, as Jefferies walked to bring Anthony Hutting to the plate with one out and the bases loaded.

Hutting came through with perhaps the biggest hit of the series, as he went with Gonzalez’ pitch and lined a two-run single to left-centerfield to give the Titans a 2-0 lead.  With ORU showing little offensive capability this season, the two run lead felt insurmountable.  Adding injury to insult, Jose Trevino, the sophomore catcher who played for Team USA last summer and had hit a two-run blast against the Titans last year, was injured attempting to avoid a tag at first-base.  He was hobbled but remained in the game, although he was out the rest of the series and was a significant loss to ORU both offensively and defensively.

The Titans defense rose to the occasion in the bottom of the seventh.  After surrendering a one-out double that brought the tying run to the plate, Eshelman was replaced by Koby Gauna, who was ‘lights out’ in the Texas A&M series the previous weekend.  The first batter Gauna faced, pinch-hitter Austen Colt, hit a rocket headed towards the leftfield corner for a certain double – but third-baseman Matt Chapman made a spectacular diving backhand stop.  It would have been amazing just to field the ball – but his rocket throw across the diamond was perhaps even more impressive.  Gauna struck out the next batter to retire the side.

Gonzalez pitched the eight inning as his pitch count mounted – he ended up throwing 120 pitches.  The wheels came off the wagon, as Lopez was involved with the first of several base-running capers that somehow worked out for him all weekend.  Lopez drove a ball into the rightfield corner and was held up at second by Vanderhook, but he kept going and made it safely to third with a leadoff triple.  One out later, Davis grounded a ball back to the mound and Lopez headed home on contact.  Lopez artfully dodged being tagged out in a rundown play that allowed Davis to get to second, but then somehow managed to escape safely back to third base.

With first-base open, Lorenzen was walked intentionally to load the bases.  On Gonzalez’ 120th and final pitch, Wallach walked to make it 3-0 and the door to the bullpen was opened.  ORU reliever Nathan Garza fielded Keegan Dale’s safety-squeeze bunt and, realizing he had no chance to get Davis at home, he headed towards first-base and underhand tossed the ball to retire Dale.  But Lorenzen never stopped coming around third and easily scored – when is the last time you saw a batter get two RBI on a squeeze bunt?  Game, set, match.

With the Titans building a 5-0 lead with the three insurance runs, there was no need to use closer Lorenzen.  Gauna was masterful, retiring all eight batters he faced to earn his first save of the season.

In what seems to have become a Friday tradition this year, the Titans had just six hits but made the most of them.  Lopez had two hits, while Hutting and Dale each had two RBI.  In earning his fourth win, Eshelman extended his walkless streak to 35 innings, going 6-1/3 innings and allowing six hits.

Game 2: Titans 6, Golden Eagles 2

(Photo Gallery)

The Titans clinched the series with a 6-2 win on Saturday afternoon behind eight dominant innings by freshman pitcher Justin Garza and home runs by Richy Pedroza and Lopez.

Richy Pedroza's First Home Run
Facing ORU’s second acclaimed right-hander, Drew Bowen, Pedroza didn’t even wait for the usual road game chorus of lame “batboy” barbs before driving his first career home run into the bullpen in rightfield.

The Titans posted a second run in the first frame as Lopez singled and continued his base-running odyssey.  With Trevino (who had thrown out 6 of 9 would-be base-stealers this season) injured, the Titans opted to test backup catcher Sam Parker early.  But Lopez broke early and Bowen stepped back off the slab and ran him down.  But Bowen threw wide of second, so Lopez was credited with a stolen base and advanced to third on the throwing error.  A groundball by Lorenzen gave the Titans a 2-0 lead before Garza took the hill.

As has been the case all season, Garza mowed through the ORU batting order in the first two innings.  The Titans added another run to make it 3-0 with a two-out rally that produced a run on a double by Lorenzen, a Hutting HBP and an RBI single by Wallach.

Garza got into his only hint of trouble in the bottom of the third when he allowed one run on a single, balk (perfect motion home but simply didn’t release the pitch) and a two-out bloop single.

Bowen departed after four innings and Chapman greeted reliever Gavin Glanz with a four-pitch walk, followed by a single by Davis.  The Titans manufactured a run with a small ball flashback: Lorenzen sacriced both runners along and Hutting delivered a sacrifice fly.

There was bonus adrenalin whenever the Titans had runners on base: backup catcher  Parker had a serious case of the yips throwing the ball back to the mounds:  high, low, wide, bounced, etc.  It placed additional stress on the ORU pitchers and infielders.

Justin Garza
The Titans added a fifth run in the top of the seventh with the aid – for the second straight game – of a botched rundown defense.  Davis doubled and went to third on a flyout.  When Hutting hit a groundball fielded by the drawn-in infield, Davis initially headed home and quickly retreated when the catcher took the throw, getting into a rundown and allowing Hutting to advance to second before escaping safely back to third base.  It was déjà vu all over again from the play with Lopez and Davis the night before.  Wallach then delivered a sacrifice fly to score Davis and make it 5-1.

With a lead that felt like twice as much as it actually was, Garza continued to mow.  Lopez crushed a home run in the top of the eighth that nearly shattered the scoreboard façade.

Garza left after eight innings with a team-high nine strikeouts, giving the bullpen to get some work.  It became uncomfortably close as reliever Jose Cardona faced three batters and allowed a single, walk and committed an error attempting to start a double-play, which brought Willie Kuhl into the game in what had become a save situation (with the tying run in the on-deck circle.)  Kuhl quickly restored order, retiring the three batters he faced, including two strikeouts.

Lopez and Davis led with two hits each.  The Titans left 12 runners on base – this game could have been a whole lot more lopsided than 6-2.

Game 3: Titans 7, Golden Eagles 4

The Titans were able to overcome another episode of their recent bout of sloppy fielding on Sundays, perhaps impacted by the frigid conditions after two days of near-record warm temperatures, and completed their second road sweep of the season (TCU previously).  The Titans overcame three errors and thirteen runners left on base.

The Titans had a chance for an early lead on a first inning single by Lopez and walks to Davis and Lorenzen, but Hutting hit a seed that stayed up just long enough for the rightfielder to make a play.  It was the first of three times the Titans left the bases loaded this game.

The Golden Eagles touched up starting pitcher Grahamm Wiest for two runs in the first on a pair of singles sandwiched around a double and took their only lead of the series.  But as has happened all season, the Titans counter-punched and came back with three runs when they batted around in the third inning.  Lopez singled, Chapman was hit by a pitch before Davis hit a line drive towards centerfield.  In the grandstands, it looked like a 50/50 outcome whether it would be caught, but both runners got a great read and advanced two bases, with Lopez scoring the first run.

Lorenzen’s RBI single tied it up and the Titans took a 3-2 lead on a passed ball.  Jefferies subsequently was hit by pitch and Jared Deacon walked, but the Titans left the bases loaded for the second time.

Lopez continued his hitting and base-running clinic in the top of the fourth: he singled, stole second, went to third on a balk and scored on an errant attempt to pick off Chapman, who had walked.

But Wiest was unable to hold the lead and ORU tied the game, 4-4, with a pair of runs on four hits and a sacrifice in the bottom of the fourth.  He escaped further damage by striking out the final batter of the inning.

The Titans left the bases loaded again in the fifth inning and the crisp execution of the two previous games was missing.  But Hutting came through with another clutch two-out RBI hit, this time driving in Davis, who had singled and stolen second.

Now leading, 5-4, I thought Wiest’s day might be done, but he pitched a sharp 1-2-3 sixth inning.  Davis took the hill in the bottom of the seventh and pitched a scoreless frame, leaving the potential tying run in scoring position.

The Titans added an insurance run in the top of eighth on a Lopez HBP, walk to Davis, wild pitch and RBI groundout by Lorenzen.  Chapman was ruled out on batter’s interference during an attempted hit-and-run play, which may have prevented this from being even more damaging to ORU.

After Davis threw a scoreless eighth inning, the Titans extended their lead to three on a single by Dale, who stole second, went to third on a groundball and scored on a wild pitch.  The injury to catcher Trevino was clearly a major factor in this series.

Lorenzen entered the game in the ninth inning with the same 7-4 score as last week against Texas A&M.  Again, it was not a textbook save – he gave up a single, balk and walk – but he struck out the dangerous Chris Williams to end the game and complete the sweep, to the delight of the few dozen fans who jumped into their heated cars and ran over to Mickey D’s to grab some hot coffee.

Lopez and Davis again led the way with two hits each.


So what did we learn in Tulsa this weekend?

We learned it can be sunny and in the high 70’s one day and the next day it is windy, frigid, blustery, dark, wet and ominous.  And J.L. Johnson Stadium in Tulsa outdid TCU’s Lupton Stadium:  not only was there no coffee, but no hot chocolate either.  After most of the “crowd” wore shorts and tee-shirts on Friday and Saturday, Sunday became a battle of survival, with the winner being the one with the most layers.  My five layers of shirts/sweatshirts/coats paled in comparison to my neighbor, who claimed, “My suitcase is empty – I’m wearing every article of clothing I brought with me for three days.”

I’m sure the Arctic conditions had something to do with it in Tulsa, but can anybody explain why the defense seems to fall apart every Sunday after stellar performances in the first and second games?  Eshelman (4-1, 1.29 ERA) and Garza (5-0, 0.99 ERA) have set the bar so high that the ‘Sunday guy’ practically needs the type of virtuoso performance Wiest delivered at TCU, so it makes it all the tougher for him when he has to get four and sometimes even five outs in an inning.  Wiest has respectable numbers (3-1, 3.86 ERA) and will generally give the Titans a significant differential against most teams’ Sunday guys, but he is suffering in the Battle of Comparisons to his freshmen brethren.

For an old (opened in 1978) facility, I found J.L. Johnson Stadium rather comfortable.  It has 2,418 seat-back chairs and the sight lines are great.  It has a distinctive cantilevered roof covering the seats behind home plate between the dugouts.  The roof is fantastic in inclement weather, but it also blocks the light from the poles on both sides of home plate from illuminating the area on the field behind home plate.  Coupled with the fact that the lights in the stands were triggered by a timer that apparently did not spring ahead in spring, there was about an hour after sunset where everything behind the plate umpire all the way to the parking lot were essentially in darkness.

But did I mention they don’t sell coffee or hot chocolate?

Another stadium quirk: there are no distances posted on the outfield fence.  The dimensions are pretty conventional – 330’ down the lines and 400’ to centerfield – so I don’t know why they keep it such a secret.

Another sign this team could be something special: three different pitchers recorded saves in the sweep of the Golden Eagles: Gauna, Kuhl and Lorenzen.  Five pitchers have at least one save: Lorenzen leads with six, with Davis, Tyler Peitzmeier, Gauna and Kuhl having one each.

Trivia question: can you name the two pitchers who shared the team lead in saves in 2004 during the Titans’ last championship season?  After Chad Cordero moved onto pro ball after the 2003 season, the 2004 team relied on dominant starting pitching and a ‘bullpen by committee’, where the co-leaders in saves had just two each.

There were contributions galore this series.  Outstanding pitching by starters Eshelman and Garza.  Outstanding relief pitching by Gauna, Kuhl and Davis.  Lorenzen scoring from second on a bunt.  Chapman made some eye-popping plays at third base. Pedroza’s first career bomb. Keegan Dale came off the bench each game and made a contribution offensively and defensively.  Lopez went 6-for-13 with six runs scored, while Davis was 5-for-10 with five runs scored.  Davis eased up his swing and dropped balls all over the field.

Not only do the Titans have depth in the pitching staff and throughout the line-up, we even got to see some capable third-base coaching this weekend by Chad Baum’s understudy, some guy named Vanderhook.  (Hell, this team even has depth in Vanderhooks!)  Congratulations to the recently expanded Baum family.  While Baumer was back in California with his family, Vanderhook took over in the third base coaching box.

After the Golden Eagles botched rundown plays two games in a row, a fan with an “F” hat yelled, “Don’t you guys play ‘pickle’ in Oklahoma?”  This was definitely one of the worst fielding teams I’ve seen in a long time – just as FBF told us to expect in his series preview.  While I always read his previews prior to every series, I especially like to reread them after the series has been played to see if what he told us to look for came true on the field.  It’s amazing how often he absolutely nails a series down to its finest details.

Answer to trivia question:  Mike Martinez and Ryan Schreppel led the 2004 Titans with two saves each, while Jason Windsor and Vinnie Pestano had one apiece.  If I recall correctly, the team only had two or three saves heading to Omaha in 2004.  It shows that if you are really strong at numerous other facets of the game, you can compensate elsewhere.

So long from Oklahoma – I’m about to make like the Joads and head to California.  The two midweek games against Nebraska will be another challenge to the Titans’ pitching depth, but I’m looking forward to it.

1 comment:

Bill Christensen said...

Hey Don, my favorite TITAN roadtrip was Omaha in '09. It was great to see historic Rosenblatt and the surrounding neighborhood. I had fun at the TITAN House an meeting fans from other teams. Since we were the first to be 2&Q, I had time to see Omaha, and especially enjoyed the historic train depot. Thanks again for your great commentary; let me know where you find some good chicken-fried-steak, Bill