Sunday, March 31, 2013

Titan Tidal Wave Wipes Out Pacific

Pacific at Titans: Won 9-2 (Thursday), 11-6 (Friday), 25-0 (Saturday)

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans accomplished what no other team had done so far this season (go figure): they swept the University of the Pacific Tigers in a three-game series that began Big West Conference play.  The Titans outscored the Tigers, 45-8, but the games really weren’t as close as that sounds.

With the wins, the Titans reached the mid-point of their season with a record of 24-4, their best start since the 1996 team won 31 of its first 33 games.  The Titans are tied for first in the early BWC standings with Cal Poly SLO (who swept UC Davis) and UC Riverside (swept UC Irvine).

Game 1: Titans 9, University of the Pacific Tigers 2

Freshman Thomas Eshelman was matched with Pacific’s Michael Benson, who entered action with a record of 2-1 and ERA of 2.17.  Benson was a hard-luck loser in the series opener last year in scenic Stockton, as he allowed just two earned runs in 7-2/3 innings against the Titans.  The Tigers held their own the first half of the game and held a slim 1-0 lead going to the bottom of the fifth inning before the Titans scored a touchdown and took a commanding 7-1 lead.

Thomas Eshelman
Benson is a talented young (sophomore) pitcher and was a good benchmark for Eshelman’s development.  Benson went through the Titans order the first time giving up just one hit, began to get hit more the second time and then got knocked out of the game the third time through the line-up.  Eshelman, on the other hand, was consistent throughout his eight-inning stint, allowing just four hits while equaling his career best with eight strikeouts.  He walked none, but you already knew that.

The Tigers scored the game’s first run in the top of the third on a leadoff triple by Tyger Pederson and a foul-ball sacrifice fly to second-base.  With the injury to third-baseman Matt Chapman, the Titans inserted Jake Jefferies into the line-up at second-base and moved utility-man Keegan Dale to third, with J.D. Davis resuming his normal role as designated hitter.  Jefferies had a long run to catch the ball in foul ground in shallow rightfield and had no chance to stop his momentum away from the plate and throw out the speedy Pederson.

The Titans showed signs of offensive life against Benson in the bottom of the fourth on solid singles by Davis and Michael Lorenzen, but were unable to get on the scoreboard.

But Jefferies got the fifth inning going with a line-drive single to leftfield after fouling off numerous 1-2 pitches.  Even with the Tigers expecting a bunt by Austin Diemer, he dropped the ball beautifully towards third-base and easily beat it out, bringing up Dale, the team’s best bunter.  Even with the Tigers expecting a bunt by Dale, he dropped the ball beautifully towards third-base and easily beat it out.

(Second verse, same as the first.)

With the Tigers’ cage rattled by consecutive bunt hits, Benson faltered and walked Richy Pedroza on four pitches, tying the score at 1-1.  Carlos Lopez quickly untied with a sacrifice fly to centerfield.

With Davis batting, Benson uncorked a wild pitch, removing the double-play situation.  Davis promptly scaled a two-run single up the middle to give the Titans a 4-1 lead.  Wallach followed with a single and advanced to second when the leftfielder misplayed the ball.

With Wallach taking second, it left first-base open with Lorenzen coming up.  Do you walk him and try to get out of the inning with a double-play against the next batter, Anthony Hutting?  Nah – Tigers’ skipped Ed Sprague opted to pitch to him and the first pitch Benson threw him was deposited deep and over the wall in left-centerfield to give the Titans a commanding 7-1 lead.

The Tigers stirred slightly in the top of the sixth.  Pederson again started a rally with a leadoff single and went to second on a sacrifice (curious call, bunting a runner over trailing by six runs against a good-hitting team like Fullerton) and scored on a solid single down the rightfield line.  Was this about the time Eshelman would get lit up?  Leading 7-2, he got a nice break when the next hitter, Erik Lockwood, hit the ball hard back through the box.  The ball looked like it was heading into centerfield for a hit, but it hit the pitching rubber, ricocheted to shortstop Pedroza, who started an inning-ending 6-4-3 double-play.

While Eshelman shut down the Tigers with back-to-back 1-2-3 seventh and eighth innings, the Titans scored solo tallies in each frame against the Pacific bullpen.  Chad Wallach lofted a double deep to right field, went to third on a bunt single by Lorenzen and was driven in on an RBI single by Hutting.  The Titans scored their final run in the eighth on consecutive one-out singles by Pedroza, Lopez and Davis.
Tyler Peitzmeier pitched a scoreless ninth inning in relief of Eshelman.

The Titans notched a season high (albeit soon to be surpassed) of 16 hits, with Davis and Lorenzen pacing the offense with three hits and three RBI each.  Pedroza, Wallach and Diemer had two hits each, with both of Diemer’s coming in the fifth inning rally.

Game 2: Titans 11, Pacific Tigers 6

The anticipated pitching match-up between the Titans’ freshman phenom Justin Garza and Pacific transfer Cory Popham (2-0, 2.18 ERA coming in) never materialized, as Popham left with an injury in the bottom of the first inning after surrendering four unearned runs.

Jake Jefferies goes for the cycle
But the story of this game wasn’t pitching – it was Jefferies hitting for a cycle: a two-run single in the first inning, two-run double in the third, one-run triple in the fifth and topping it off with a line-drive two-run homer in the sixth.  He drove in seven runs and became the first Titan player to have a four-hit game in the 2013 season.  See video of Jefferies’ cycle.

Garza gave up a sharp leadoff single, but then retired the side, including a pair of first-inning strikeouts.  Popham’s defense failed him quickly: with one out, second-baseman Pederson booted a groundball by Lopez and then compounded the problem by throwing the ball wildly.  Lopez was safe on the boot and was awarded an extra base on a second error on the play: Pederson’s throw bounced off the trashcan that just happens to be inside the visitors’ dugout.  After Davis walked and Wallach struck out,
Lorenzen came up with two on and two out.  After a wild pitch opened up first-base, Coach Sprague might have learned something from the series opener and he opted to intentionally walk Lorenzen.

But Hutting drew the first of his three walks and drove in Lopez with the first unearned run.  A balk by Popham made it 2-0 and put two runners in scoring position for Jefferies, who hit a sinking line-drive to rightfield that appeared to have initially been caught on a great diving play by the Pacific outfielder, but the ground caused a fumble and Jefferies had the first leg of his cycle and the Titans had a 4-0 lead.  Sprague came to the mound for the second time of the inning accompanied by the trainer, and Popham left the game because of injury.

The Titans added a run in the second to make it 5-0 on a triple to centerfield by Pedroza and an RBI groundout by Lopez.  The lead was stretched to 7-0 in the third when Jefferies, batting left-handed, hit an opposite-field double to drive in Wallach and Lorenzen, who had both singled to start the inning.

Garza fgaltered slightly in the fourth and gave up one run on a single, wild pitch, deep flyball and another wild pitch.  The Tigers squared it up against Garza in the top of the fifth and scored twice to make it a game again, with the Titans’ lead cut to 7-3.  Garza surrendered a single and back-to-back doubles.  Plate umpire Carl Coles’ strike zone seemed to shrink about 50% from the game’s previous four innings, a fact apparently noted by Titans’ pitching coach Jason Dietrich when Coles came out to break up a meeting on the mound.  Coles had a short wick and ejected Dietrich without any visible argument – which resulted in a classic moment with Dietrich leisurely walking through the infield right in front of the red-faced umpire while toting his backpack.  (If anybody got a picture of Dietrich leaving the game wearing his backpack, please send me a copy.)

But the Titans answered with two of their own in the bottom of the fifth.  Lorenzen led off with a walk and appeared to have easily stolen second but was inexplicably called out by umpire Bradley Hungerford. (Brad is a very nice guy and he hustles and works hard on the field – but he blows easy calls on a regular basis.)  Hutting drew a walk and Jefferies rifled a shot into the gap in right-centerfield for an RBI triple, making it 8-3.  Diemer then drove in Jefferies with an RBI single to make it 9-3.  The Tigers escaped additional damage when the Titans left the bases loaded.

Garza left the game after six innings with the Titans enjoying a comfortable six-run lead, having allowed seven hits but also recording seven strikeouts (Klondike!).  Peitzmeier came in for the third straight game (including the 3-2 midweek loss against Loyola Marymount) and pitched a scoreless seventh inning.

Hutting drew a two-out walk in the bottom of the sixth to bring up Jefferies, who already had a single, double and triple.  Jefferies got ahead in the count and crushed a 2-1 fastball deep to rightfield – it got out and bounced off the screen above the rightfield fence in a hurry.  (Without the screen, the ball might have knocked over a tree or two in the Arboretum.)

Freshman pitcher Joe Navilhon came in to pitch the eighth inning with the Titans ahead, 11-3.  The Tigers jumped all over Navilhon as if he was Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy fame.) The first batter he faced, Lockwood, hit a deep bomb to leftfield to make it 11-4.

The next batter hit a hard smash past first-base into the rightfield corner.  It was like déjà vu all over again to Hutting’s inside-the-park home run against Oregon, except this time the Titans were on the bad side of the formula.  Rightfielder Greg Velazquez tried to prevent a triple by signaling for a ground-rule double as the ball bounced around the visitors’ bullpen in foul ground, but Blue didn’t buy it and Brett Sullivan circled the bases with an uncontested inside-the-park home run.  The back-to-back home runs made it 11-5.

A double by Pacific catcher Jason Taasaas brought Coach Hook out with a hook – side-arming right-hander Michael Lopez was called in from the bullpen to try to quell the Tigers’ onslaught.

Michael Lopez induced a groundball from the first batter he faced, but a high throw from Jefferies drew Carlos Lopez off the bag (error on Jefferies) and there were runners at the corners with nobody out.

But Michael Lopez got a 4-6-3 double-play to break the Tigers’ momentum, with the Titans’ lead now cut to 11-6.

The Titans left the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth and there was an uneasy feeling, but Michael Lopez got three quick groundball outs to end the game.

Garza (6-0) was the winning pitcher, with great offensive support from Jefferies and his 7-RBI cycle.  Hutting walked three times and scored each time.  Pedroza was the only other Titans with multiple hits (2).  Lopez did a great job in relief, getting seven consecutive groundballs against a team that had been hitting the ball hard all over the field until that time.

Game 3: Titans 25, Pacific Tigers 0

The Titans completed the series sweep in dominating fashion, scoring 25 runs on 25 hits and posting a shutout.  It was the Titans’ most lopsided win since beating Cal Poly SLO, 27-2, in 2004.

Perhaps the less said about this game, the better.

Michael Lorenzen's grand slam
The Titans scored nine runs in the first inning – and it wasn’t even their biggest inning of the game.  With one out, Lopez singled and advanced on a wild pitch before Davis and Wallach walked, leaving no place to put the red-hot Lorenzen, who hit a towering grand-slam to make it 4-0.  Hutting went back-to-back, hitting his fourth home run of the season right after Lorenzen’s fifth.

A solid single by Jefferies made it a quick day for starter Michael Hager, the first of seven pitchers for Pacific on the day.  The most effective may have been shortstop Dustin Torchio, who allowed just one run in the bottom of the eighth.  After a single by Diemer, Pedroza delivered a two-run single and Davis hit a two-run double and the score was 9-0.

Grahamm Wiest was staked to the big lead and he pitched aggressively and effectively.  His biggest challenge may have been running back and forth from the dugout to the bullpen – he went to the bullpen twice during the first-inning rally and twice again during the eleven-run sixth inning.  Wiest (5-1) went seven innings, scattering five hits and striking out four, allowing no walks.

The Titans held a 12-0 lead going into the bottom of the sixth and had already begun emptying their bench and playing station-to-station baseball.  Then things got really ugly for Pacific, as the Titans scored eleven runs on just five hits, aided by five walks, a pair of errors and a third-strike passed ball that could have ended the inning 20 minutes sooner.  The Titans sent 17 batters to the plate, nearly batting around twice.  The hits were a leadoff single by Dale, an RBI triple by Pedroza, a pinch-single by freshman Allan Kennedy, an RBI single by Pedroza and a three-run double by Kennedy.

Yeah, scoreboard totals are correct
Koby Gauna and Willie Kuhl each pitched a scoreless inning in relief of Wiest.

Pedroza had four hits, scored four runs and drove in four on two singles, a double and a triple.  Lorenzen also had four RBI on his grand slam.  Lopez, Lorenzen and Dale each had three hits.  Substitutes Kennedy (single, double and three RBI) and Clay Williamson (two triples) also made significant contributions.

That must have been one long ride back to Stockton.


So what did we learn this week?

It’s hard to draw any conclusions playing against teams like Pacific.  The impressive thing is that the Titans are handily beating up the teams they are supposed to beat up – there seems a fiercer ‘killer instinct’ that was lacking the past couple years when the team often played to its level of competition.

As you can imagine, the offensive stats more closely resembled a slow-pitch softball team.  Pedroza had the most hits (8-for-17 with 7 runs scored and 5 RBI), while Lorenzen had highest average amongst starters (.583 on 7-for-12 with 4 runs, 7 RBI, a double and two home runs, including a grand slam.

Jefferies led with 8 RBI (on 7-for-14 with 5 runs and his cycle.)  Stats that would generally make headlines were “ho-hum” in this series: Lopez and Wallach both hit .364 (4-for-11 each), while Davis hit .417 (5-for-12 with 5 RBI).  As a team, the Titans batted .415 (51-for-123) with 45 runs scored and 41 RBI.  Chad Baum doesn’t get hit that hard in batting practice.

Pacific coach Ed Sprague
Don’t try to ‘big league’ us:  the Titans are 7-0 against teams coached by former major league ballplayers.  The Titans swept Nebraska (coached by Darin Erstad) four games and Pacific (Ed Sprague) three games by a combined score of 82-14, averaging nearly twelve runs a game.  The fewest runs scored by the Titans in those seven games were in the 8-7 win in the first game against Nebraska.  If college programs want to hire former pros, perhaps they should consider a pitcher or two.

If you don’t think there was rampant steroid use in major league baseball, consider the 1996 season in which three teams (Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners) broke the all-time season home run record and seventeen players hit 40+ home runs (the previous high was eight in 1961, when expansion diluted major league pitching staffs.)  Brady Anderson, a speedy 32-year-old 170-pound former UC Irvine Anteater outfielder, hit 50 home runs that season after hitting just 72 in his previous eight major league seasons.  At the time, just a dozen players in MLB history had accomplished that feat, including Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenburg, Johnny Mize, Ralph Kiner, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Cecil Fielder and Albert Belle.  Ted Williams never hit 50 bombs in a season, but Brady Anderson did.

By pure coincidence, Ed Sprague hit 36 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1996.  He had hit 18 the year before and 14 the year after.  That was also the year admitted juicer Ken Caminiti hit 40 bombs, one behind Todd Hundley’s 41.

Was 1996 just an anomaly for home runs?  Maybe the balls were juiced, the mounds lowered, the bats corked, the strike zones squeezed, the pitchers’ arms tired, the pitch calls stolen or some other combination of factors that created a display of power back in an era where MLB was battling the NFL, NBA and emergent sports with more appeal to younger generations for retention of its ‘national pastime’ identity.  But it underscores the unfair concept of ‘guilt by association’ and how all statistics from that era are considered somewhat dubious.  When average players put up extraordinary numbers like they did in 1996, there is no way to know which ones were legit and which ones were cheating.

The Titans ended up 16-4 during Mustache March.  That’s a lot of games for a month – I really liked the way the roster was used during the non-conference part of the season and how the roles have solidified moving into conference play.  Of the 35 players on the roster, just two (pitchers Shane Stillwagon and Miles Chambers) have yet to play and presumably will redshirt – I have never been a proponent of carrying 5-6 non-medical redshirts on a roster.  There are fourteen pitchers with four or more appearances – I can’t remember seeing that before.

Thomas Eshelman’s streak of 50.0 innings without issuing a walk has drawn much attention, but I am intrigued by an ancillary statistic: he hasn’t thrown a wild pitch.  This might be obvious, but you can only throw a wild pitch with runners on base, so when you have given up zero walks and hit just one batter, there is great mathematical reduction in your opportunities to throw wild pitches.

The Titans have had 52 batters hit by pitch, while opposing hatters have been plunked just 15 times.  There is also big gap in wild pitches: 17 allowed and 36 received.  There is a similar advantage in passed balls: 4 allowed and 14 received.  Chad Wallach’s defensive improvement has been incredible: he had 11 passed balls in 2012 in limited duty as second or third catcher while learning the position ‘on the job,’ but has yet to have a passed ball halfway through the 2013 season.

Jake Jefferies’ natural cycle (e.g. he got the single, double, triple and home run in order – did you even know they had a term for that?) was great to watch, but what impresses me most is his productivity.  Jefferies has 16 RBI on just 15 hits.  Hutting is even more productive: he has 17 RBI on 15 hits.

Does anybody remember the last time a Titan hit for a cycle prior to Jefferies?  I had never seen it happen here and nobody I spoke with or read cited a previous Titan cycle.  In fact, I seldom recall even being in the situation of thinking that “All so-and-so needs is a _____ to complete his cycle.”  The day after Jefferies did it, Lorenzen (needing triple) and Pedroza (needing home run) came up a couple times each with a cycle in reach.  With the Titans leading by three touchdowns, conversation in the stands shifted to:  “With this lopsided score, which is more likely – a triple by Lorenzen or a home run by Pedroza?”  The consensus was that a triple by Lorenzen would be less likely because of station-to-station base-running in a blowout game, especially if there was a runner on base in front of him.

Lorenzen has taken over the team lead in batting average (.365), runs (25), hits (38), doubles (7), triples (3 – tied with Pedroza), home runs (5), RBI (28), HBP (8) and saves (8).  Not bad – I’m willing to excuse him for also leading the team in striking out and grounding into double-plays (tied).

New UCLA basketball coach
Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like when baseball teams dog pile until they win the College World Series or when basketball teams cut down the nets before winning the NCAA championship game.  Winning your Regionals is thrilling and you obviously can’t make it to the championship game without successfully achieving that milestone, but it is just a step along the journey.  There was even a coach recently who cut down the net after winning the Mountain West Conference championship game – then five days later lost to 14th-seeded Harvard!  What do you do with your MWC championship game net after you tank to Harvard in The Dance?

In a related story, why don’t NCAA hockey teams cut down the nets when they clinch a berth in the Frozen Four?

Congratulations to the seven former Titans who are on Opening D ay major league rosters, including first-timer Khris Davis (Milwaukee Brewers).  Others are Reed Johnson, Mark Kotsay, Kurt Suzuki, Vinnie Pestano, Brett Pill (disabled list) and Justin Turner (disabled list).

That’s all for now and I can’t wait for the game Tuesday night at Jackie Robinson Stadium against the UCLA Bruins, who were undefeated all last season in midweek games and have yet to lose midweek this season.  It has been part of their success platform in recent years – with so many RPI-killers awaiting the Titans on their remaining schedule, a road win over UCLA would be very beneficial.

I hope to see you at JRS and then again next weekend at UC Davis.

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