Monday, March 25, 2013

Titans Find a Way to Reach Imperfect 10

Titans at Long Beach State: Won 6-0 (Friday), 8-6 (Saturday), 2-1 (Sunday)


By Don Hudson

LONG BEACH - With a sweep of a three-game nonconference road series over the Long Beach State Dirtbags following a pair of midweek wins over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Cal State Fullerton Titans (21-3) ran their current winning streak to ten games, matching the team’s season-opening success.

With the 5-0 week, the Titans moved up to #5 (from #8) in the Baseball America rankings, as several highly ranked teams lost weekend series.  The Titans also moved up to #6 (from #9) in the USA TODAY coaches’ poll.

Four of the five games were a mixture of both well-played and sloppy baseball – the 5-0 week could just as easily have turned out 2-3 or even 1-4.  But good teams find ways to overcome mistakes and win games – there were certainly some unique demonstrations of this team’s strength on display last week.

Let’s first cover the weekend series against the Dirtbags and then take a quick look back at the midweek games against Nebraska.


Game 1: Titans 6, Long Beach State Dirtbags 0

Michael Lorenzen
Of the five games played last week, the series opener against Long Beach State was the best performance start-to-finish by the Titans.  Freshman pitcher Thomas Eshelman (now 5-1, 1.07 ERA) was once again the dominant player in the game, as he carried a perfect game into the fifth inning and pitched seven shutout innings, allowing one hit and facing just one batter above the minimum.  While Eshelman had zero strikeouts, he extended his career-starting streak to 42.0 innings without walking a batter.  Incredible!

With many Titans fans still stuck in their cars on the 405 or 605 freeways – the Dirtbags now start their nights games at 6:00 instead of the 6:30 we were so accustomed to – Michael Lorenzen gave Eshelman all the run support he would need when he belted a solo home run to leftfield in the second inning against LBSU starting pitcher Shane Carle.

The Titans added a second run in the third on a leadoff single by Austin Diemer, a sacrifice by Richy Pedroza and an RBI single by Carlos Lopez.  The svelte Lopez moved into scoring position with his ninth stolen base of the season (in just ten attempts), but Carle made good pitches when he needed them most to avoid further damage.

Meanwhile, Eshelman was pounding the strike zone and letting his defense make plays behind him.  First inning: 1-2-3.  Second inning: 1-2-3.  Ditto the third.  Ditto the fourth.

Thomas Eshelman (File Photo)
 After retiring the first two Dirtbags in the bottom of the fifth (14-up-14-down), freshman catcher Eric Hutting (e.g. Anthony Hutting’s brother) hit a solid line-drive into rightfield.  The speedy Austin Kingsolver charged quickly and contemplated attempting a diving shoe-string grab, but in light of the score, inning and depth of the field behind him (348 feet to the fair pole) in the event the ball got past him, he made a smart move by playing the ball on one hop.  (I loved Eshelman’s quote in Earl Bloom’s article in the Orange County Register: “I don’t mind giving one up to Eric, he’s Anthony’s brother and my friend.”  Very gracious!)

The top of the sixth proved painful to the Titans.  Matt Chapman led off by getting hit-by-pitch and made a hard slide into second-base breaking up an attempted double-play on a groundball by J.D. Davis.  Chapman appeared to hit the bag hard with his left leg and remained on the ground for several minutes as he was tended to.  Chapman remained in the game, but it was obvious on his subsequent throws and at-bats that this was not your garden variety “spit on it and shake it off” injury.

Carle was touched for an unearned run in the top of the seventh.  Chad Wallach led off with a walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice by Keegan Dale and to third on a wild pitch.  Pedroza hit a routine grounder to shortstop that was booted and gave the Titans a 3-0 lead and a modicum of breathing room.
 
The Dirtbags went to the bullpen, which proved perilous the first couple games.  Pedroza stole second and Lopez walked, but Chapman fouled out to avoid the Titans putting the game out of reach.

But the next inning put it away for the Titans.  Lorenzen hit a one-out double into a gap, then beat the return throw to third-base after Kingsolver legged out an infield single.  Wallach was hit by pitch to load the bases and then Dale walked to drive in the fourth run.  Diemer put the game out of reach with a two-run single to make it 6-0.

With the Titans’ lead extended, Davis came out of the bullpen and closed it out with two shutout innings.  He gave up just a nubbed infield hit in the ninth, as the Dirtbags sent just 29 batters to the plate in the game.  Eshelman had thrown only 75 pitches, but Hooky decided to shut him down with the big lead after the lengthy top of the inning.

The Titans made the most of their six hits, with two each by Lorenzen and Diemer.  It’s more than a statistical oddity that the Titans have managed exactly six hits in five of their six Friday games this season.  (The only exception was when they pounded out nine hits in a 7-2 win in the opening game against TCU.)  It amplifies the impact of the stellar pitching performances this year by Eshelman.

Game 2: Titans 8, Long Beach State Dirtbags 6

(Photo Gallery)

What a great day to be a Titans fan – witnessing the Dirtbags snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before their stunned crowd at Blair Field.  Behind talented left-hander Jake Stassi, the Dirtbags roughed up the Titans’ super-freshman, Justin Garza, and held a commanding 5-1 lead into the eighth inning before suffering a complete meltdown and lost a game with a bizarre finish, 8-6.

Garza entered action with a record of 5-0 and 0.99 ERA – which rose to 1.99 after allowing five earned runs on seven hits and two walks in 4-2/3 innings of labor.  It was really the only time he has been hit all year – he just seemed to be missing pitch locations and the Dirtbags legitimately beat him up.  Garza and Eshelman have made it look too easy so far in their nascent Titans careers – in the long run, a game like this will be an invaluable developmental tool.

The Dirtbags notched a solo tally in the first on a leadoff double, a wild pitch and an RBI groundout.  They extended the lead to 3-0 with a pair of third-inning runs on a walk, single and two-out triple by Titans arch-nemesis Ino Patron.  (Is it just me, or does Patron hit around .800 against Fullerton?)

The Titans showed signs of life in the fourth inning when Pedroza led off with an infield single and went to second on a balk.  I loved the quick thinking by Lopez, who realized there was nothing to lose after the balk was called and he took a wild hack at a pitch about a foot over his head.  After Pedroza advanced, Lopez came back to the plate and stroked a base hit.  Pedroza scored when Davis hit into a 5-4-3 double-play.  Lorenzen and Wallach followed with singles, but Stassi got out of the inning with the help of a great stop by shortstop Michael Hill to rob Jake Jefferies of an RBI hit.

In the bottom of the fifth, a walk and two singles loaded the bases with one out for the Human Fireplug, Patron, who notched his third and fourth RBI of the game with a double.  That sent Garza out and brought in Willie Kuhl to pitch for the Titans.  In an omen of good things to come, Kuhl left two runners in scoring position by striking out the next two batters.

The Titans had runners on base throughout the middle innings, but could never break through against Stassi.  He pitched very well – avoided allowing strings of hits or compounding danger with walks or hit-batsmen.

Stassi left after 7 innings and 92 pitches thrown with a comfortable 5-1 lead, and handed the ball over to the Dirtbags bullpen.  If you’re a Titans fan, this is where the fun began.

The eighth inning began innocuously enough for reliever Ryan Millison, who got Lopez to ground out leading off.  Little did he know that would be the only out he would record.  Davis battled and started the rally with a solid single to centerfield, and then Lorenzen was hit by a pitch.  Wallach grounded deep into the shortstop hole for an infield hit to load the bases and bring the tying run to the plate, with Lorenzen beating the throw to second on an attempted force-out.

The free-swinging Jefferies ground out a tough at-bat and eventually drew a walk that made it 5-2 with the go-ahead run coming to the plate.  Exit Millison, enter Jon Maciel out of the Dirtbags’ bullpen.

With the southpaw Stassi out of the game and facing a right-handed reliever, Mr. Clutch, Anthony Hutting, was sent up to pinch-hit.  As he always seems to do in RBI situations in close games, Hutting delivered a single that drove in Lorenzen to make it 5-3.  Pinch-hitter Clay Williamson struck out after a lengthy battle, which brought Jared Deacon out of the Titans’ dugout – the third left-handed pinch-hitter of the inning.  Maciel plunked Deacon with a pitch that scored another run to make it 5-4 and bring up Pedroza with the bases loaded.  This is when all hell broke loose.

With the bases loaded and Kingsolver pinch-running for Deacon at first, Maciel and Pedroza locked horns and ended up with a full count – which was very significant in the game’s outcome.  With a full count and two outs, all three runners were moving on the pitch.  Pedroza hit a slow hopper towards shortstop – there was no way Hill could get Pedroza at first, so he threw to second, where Kingsolver was easily safe.  Jefferies easily scored the tying run, but with the throw going to second and the runners going on the pitch, third-base coach Chad Baum kept Hutting wheeling and he beat the throw home and scored the go-ahead run.  Pedroza took off for second and drew a throw – which prompted Kingsolver to try to score all the way from first.  Kingsolver just might have made it, but slipped between third and home and was tagged out as he was flopping like a sturgeon the last twenty feet of the journey.  The side was retired, but the Titans had gone from moribund to holding a 6-5 lead.

A trio of relievers each picked up an out in the bottom of the eighth.  After Kuhl retired the first batter, lefty Tyler Peitzmeier was summoned to pitch to a left-handed hitter, but Long Beach countered with a right-handed pinch-hitter, who Peitzmeier came back and got to ground out after falling behind in the count, 3-0.  Koby Gauna came in to face another pinch-hitter, who tried to bunt his way on but was retired on nice play by Davis, subbing at third-base for the injured Chapman.

The Titans padded their slim lead with two insurance runs in the ninth.  Lopez led off with an infield single and Davis followed with a single to rightfield with Lopez running on a 3-2 count.  After Davis advanced on a wild pitch, Lorenzen drove in Lopez with a sacrifice fly and then headed to the bullpen to warm up if he would be needed in the bottom of the ninth.  Wallach’s RBI single drove in Davis to make the score 8-5.

The bottom of the ninth started innocently enough: Gauna struck out the first hitter before giving up a single to the speedy Jeff McNeill, who took second on defensive indifference.  The Titans never like to make things easy: the next batter grounded to Lopez, but Gauna dropped the throw as he covered first-base and the tying run came to the plate.  Exit Gauna, enter Lorenzen.

The first hitter Lorenzen faced grounded out to third, driving in a run to make it 8-6 and bringing Patron, who had already driven in four runs with a double and triple, to the plate.  But Lorenzen was throwing in the mid-90’s and struck him out to finish the game and clinch the series.

The Titans had 15 hits: seven singles in the first seven innings against Stassi and then eight singles in the next two innings against the bullpen.  Lopez and Wallach had three hits each, while Pedroza and Davis had two each.  Kuhl (1-0, 2.25 ERA) was the winner in relief, with Lorenzen earning his seventh save of the season.

Game 3: Titans 2, Long Beach State Dirtbags 1

(Photo Gallery)

The Dirtbags suffered their second consecutive gut-wrenching loss – an appealing win to Titans fans everywhere.

This was your atypical Sunday game – when both teams tend to amass high totals of runs and hits and churn through a bunch of relievers.  Fullerton’s Grahamm Wiest (4-1, 3.29 ERA) and Long Beach’s David Hill got locked into a tight pitchers’ duel, with Wiest getting the best of it by the thinnest of margins.

The Titans threatened in the second on singles by Lorenzen and Deacon, sandwiched around an error, but could not score and left two runners aboard.  Long Beach catcher Eric Hutting made the big play by throwing out Lorenzen attempting to steal, the first time he has been retired after four successful pilfers.  Wiest also stranded two runners in the second after surrendering singles to Richard Prigatano and Eric Hutting.

The Titans took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth.  Lorenzen was hit by a pitch and tagged up and advanced to second on a deep flyout by Anthony Hutting.  After a walk to Williamson, Deacon drove in Lorenzen with a single.  Hill averted more damage when he induced a double-play grounder by Kingsolver right near the second-base bag – one of the few places you can double up Kingsolver with his speed.

The Dirtbags threatened to tie it up when they got a runner to second on a bunt single and error, but Wiest retired the next two batters and the Titans held their slim one-run lead.

The Titans added a second run in the fifth inning when Dale led off with a walk and Pedroza spiked a long double to rightfield.  A groundout moved Pedroza to third with one out and the 3-4-5 hitters coming up, but after walking Davis, Hill retired Lorenzen and Hutting to work out of the jam.

The Dirtbags notched a run in the bottom of the fifth.  Jonathon Serven led off with a bunt single (generous home team scoring – I would have called it an error and the run would have been unearned) and went to second on a sacrifice.  But “that man” got us again – Patron doubled to make the score 2-1.

For the next few innings, it was a nail-biter – multiple opportunities, but no runs cashed in by either side.  The top of the eighth was especially frustrating for Fullerton.  Hutting went opposite-field to lead off with a double against reliever Josh Frye and Williamson did a nice job pulling the ball to the right side to move him to third.  But Deacon was unable to put the ball in play on a suicide squeeze attempt and the Hutting brothers played a brief game of pickle before Anthony was tagged out.

Grahamm Wiest
Wiest was in “lockdown” mode in the bottom of the eighth – two flyballs to Lorenzen and a strikeout.  When the Titans went quietly in the top of the ninth, we sat in the stands biting our nails to see if Wiest would come out to pitch the inning or if the coaches would go straight to Lorenzen.

Wiest came out to start the inning and gave up a leadoff single to Long Beach’s Michael Hill on his 103rd and final pitch of the game, prompting Lorenzen to take over pitching duties.  Lorenzen was greeted by a single by Richard Prigatano – his third hit of the day – which put the tying run on second and the winning run on first with nobody out.  A sacrifice bunt moved both runners ninety feet closer to a potentially joyous outcome for the Dirtbags after Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss.

With the infield back to prevent a disastrous two-run game-ending single, the Titans were prepared to concede the tying run, but were hoping Lorenzen could strike out Eric Hutting and avoid putting the ball in play.  But Hutting battled and lifted a 2-2 pitch into medium-shallow centerfield.  Kingsolver made the catch and threw home, with Hill sliding in just ahead of the throw to tie the score, with Prigatano still hugging second-base as the potential winning run.

But hold the phone!  As soon as Hill left third-base, the Titans bench in unison began yelling that the runner had left early.  (Author’s confession: I didn’t see it, as I was looking through the camera lens to line up a shot of the play at the plate. Everybody I spoke with later said he had left at least two steps early.)

Long Beach Scoreboard ... In Denial
It seemed an eternity as the next batter scuffled around before finally entering the batter’s box and plate umpire Bill Van Raaphorst put the ball back in play – the Dirtbags must have known what was about to transpire.  Once time was back in, Lorenzen calmly stepped back off the mound, took a few strides towards third-base and flipped the ball to Dale, appealing that the runner, Hill, had left the base before the ball had been touched by the outfielder.  Third-base umpire Ramon Armendiraz emphatically gave the “Out!” sign, which stunned the fans on both sides.

Has anyone ever seen a game end on a walk-off appeal play?  It’s one of those plays that, even if the runner did leave early, you just never expect Blue to make the call. The play occurred right in front of the Dirtbags’ third-base dugout and they did not argue the call at all – the Dirtbags fans booed lustily as the umpires exited the field, but there were no coach’s arguments.

Wiest was magnificent: he allowed just one run on seven hits (at least two were generous scorekeeping) and struck out nine batters while allowing no walks.  Deacon had half of the Titans’ six hits and raised his season average to .409.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Let’s take a quick look back at the two midweek games against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  The two wins completed a sweep of the four-game season series, which began with a double-header at Goodwin Field on the opening weekend of the season.

Tuesday, March 19: Titans 8, Cornhuskers 7 (11 innings)

The less said about this game the better.  Hooky said it was the ugliest game he’d ever been involved with as a coach – he wasn’t kidding.  But the Titans overcame a boatload of self-inflicted wounds (like fiver errors, fourteen hits allowed, rally-killing double-plays to end three consecutive innings, leaving the bases loaded, etc.) and came back from an early 4-0 deficit to win the game in extra innings.

Tom Emanski would be puking in the dugout if he saw a replay of this game.

The wheels came off defensively for the Titans right away.  With Gauna starting on the mound, the leadoff man hit a line-drive right at shortstop Pedroza, who dropped the ball and compounded the calamity by throwing the ball away.  It was leniently scored as a hit-and-an-error; it could have easily been ruled a double error (one on the drop, another on the overthrow.)  But damage was averted when the next batter lined out to second-baseman Dale, who threw back to Pedroza to double off the napping Husker runner.

Gauna was roughed up for four runs in the second inning – two earned and two unearned.  Ugliness.  There were five hits, two more errors by Pedroza and another one that could have easily been ruled an error.  The Cornhuskers were hitting the ball hard, but were also enjoying extra outs being handed to them.  It was a fluke occurrence: Pedroza has been amazing in the field all season and just had an awful night defensively.

The Titans scored four runs with two outs in the bottom of the third to tie the score.  After singles by Deacon and Dale around a couple outs, Kingsolver got the Titans on the board with a clutch two-out, two-run single and took second when the Huskers threw to the wrong base.  After Davis (making his first career start at third-base) and Tanner Pinkston (batting clean-up in his first career start as a Titan) walked, Lorenzen delivered another two-out, two-run single and the game was tied, 4-4.

But the momentum shift was temporarily interrupted when Nebraska answered with a solo tally in the top of the fourth to retake, the lead, 5-4.  Gauna allowed two singles and uncorked a wild pitch in the inning.

It was like watching a tennis match.  The Titans came back with two runs in the bottom of the frame and took a 6-5 lead.  Deacon walked, went to second on a wild pitch, to third on a single by Diemer and scored on a sacrifice fly by Dale, which also allowed Diemer to advance into scoring position.

Pedroza gave the Titans the lead with an RBI single.  It could have been much bigger, but the Huskers escaped on a strike-him-out-throw-him-out double-play to end the inning.

Gauna gave up a leadoff single in the top of the fifth and gave way to Kuhl, who promptly made a two-base error on an error pickoff attempt that advanced the runner to third, where he scored on a sacrifice fly to tie the score, 6-6.

From that point on, the game took on a different kind of ugly.  The pitching and defense got better for the next few innings, while the offenses stalled.

Willie Kuhl
Kuhl was awesome against a Nebraska team renowned for crushing fastball pitchers but who struggled with Willie’s assortment of sliders, curveballs and change-ups in various locations.
 Kuhl was the biggest difference in this game, pitching 4-2/3 innings and allowing just one unearned run and striking out eight batters (tied his career best).

Tied 6-6, the Titans had an assortment of Nebraska bullpen arsonists on the ropes but hit into rally-killing double-plays to end the fifth and sixth innings empty-handed.  Coaches Vanderhook and Darin Erstad (Nebraska) must have been fitted for straitjackets during this match.

The Titans took a short-lived 7-6 lead with a single run in the bottom of the seventh on a Kingsolver HBP, double by Davis, walk by Pinkston and bases-loaded Lorenzen HBP.  But the nest wave of relievers came in and the Titans left the bases loaded.

Kuhl allowed an unearned run in the top of the eighth as the tennis match continued, tied 7-7.  He gave up a single, stolen base and a runner advanced on a throwing error and scored on another single.  But just when it looked like Kuhl had run out of gas in by far his longest outing of the season, he got a second wind and struck out the side.

Peitzmeier replaced Kuhl with two runners on base in the top of the ninth and he induced an inning-ending groundout.  The Titans had the potential winning run in scoring position in the ninth but could not deliver a walk-off hit.  Peitzmeier and the Huskers’ Josh Roeder swapped scoreless tenth innings.

Peitzmeier walked one and struck out two in the top of the eleventh before the Titans summoned right-handed side-armer Michael Lopez to face a tough right-handed batter.  Lopez threw exactly one pitch – a strike – and catcher Deacon threw a seed to second-base to retire the would-be base stealer.

Michael Lopez
Without benefit of a hit, the Titans managed an unlikely comeback win in the bottom of the eleventh, making “Swoop” Lopez a one-pitch winner.  Kingsolver was hit by a pitch leading off.  When he stole second, the Huskers pitched around Davis and walked him – although Blue seemed to get very tight with his strike zone all of a sudden.  Kingsolver alertly stole third, putting the winning run just ninety feet away for pinch-hitter Chapman, who along with Carlos Lopez had been given the night off to give playing time to others.  Chapman hit a hard chopper that nearly went over the shortstop’s head, but the defender made a good play and looked Kingsolver back to third while retiring Chapman.

With Davis taking second on the play, Lorenzen came up with first base open and he was intentionally walked.  Carlos Lopez had a chance to deliver a walk-off win, but he popped the first pitch he saw straight up in the air for an infield fly rule out.  It then became a battle between pitcher Roeder and batter Deacon.  Finally, Deacon drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch to drive in the winning run, just shortly before daybreak.

While the Titans committed five errors – which could have been more – and allowed fourteen hits, they at least didn’t issue many walks (just two) and had ten strikeouts.  Nebraska pitching allowed fourteen hits, eight walks and three hit-batsmen, surely to the chagrin of pitching coach Ted Silva.

Davis and Lorenzen led the Titans with three hits each, while Kingsolver, Deacon and Dale had two each.  Dale made a few excellent defensive plays at second-base.  Kingsolver also scored three runs and had two RBI, a triple and two stolen bases.

It was truly one of the ugliest games you will ever see on a baseball diamond – but also peculiarly entertaining.  The sparse crowd still there at the end enjoyed an adrenaline rush of exhilaration with the walk-off win.

Wednesday, March 20: Titans 10, Nebraska Cornhuskers 4

This was a classic “Johnny All-Staff” game as both teams were playing their fifth game in six days.  When all was said and done, the back end of the Titans’ pitching roster was superior to what the Huskers could trot out after a three-game weekend series against UC Irvine and the extra-innings game the previous night at Goodwin Field.

Freshman lefthander Bryan Conant got the start for the Titans and allowed two runs in three innings, followed by Henry Omana (one run in 2/3 inning) and David Birosak (one run in 1-1/3 innings).  None was especially distinguished, but they got good experience and kept the Titans in the game until they turned a 4-2 deficit into a 10-4 lead with an eight-run sixth inning.

The inning began innocently enough, with Wallach and Diemer both hit by pitches.  Trailing by two runs and two runners on with no outs, everyone in the ballpark expected a bunt by Williamson.  He did as expected – dropped a nice bunt towards third base which turned into a base-hit when the pitcher and third-baseman converged and played a brief game of Hacky Sack with the baseball.

This brought Chapman to the plate, who had been struggling recently with the bat and had been moved into the leadoff spot to get him an extra at-bat or two with Pedroza given the night off.  Chapman ripped a rope into rightfield for a two-run single that tied the score, 4-4.  Lopez then gave the Titans a 5-4 lead with an opposite field RBI single.  After Chapman and Lopez executed an uncontested double-steal, Davis drove them both in with a two-run single that made it 7-4.

After a pitching change and a force-play, Jefferies stroked an opposite field double into the leftfield corner that made it 8-4.  Wallach tripled – yes, you read that right – to make it 9-4 and scored on a wild pitch to make it a big 10-4.

After that, it was a parade of substitutions and pitching changes for both teams.  Kyle Murray, Jose Cardona and Joe Navilhon combined to shut out the Huskers the final four innings of the game.

The Titans scored their ten runs on ten hits, led by Williamson, Chapman and Davis with two apiece.  Murray earned the first victory of his brief career.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

So what did we learn during this 5-0 week?

We learned that they don’t rig the 50/50 games at Blair Field: Carlos Lopez’ mom won for the second time.

There were some very strange games this week, a nice indication of this team’s ability to find a way to win.  While the best the Titans played this week was the Friday shutout in the series opener at Blair Field, it’s easy for me to choose the most impressive win: the Tuesday debacle against Nebraska.  If a team can do so many things to give away a game yet still manage to win, they must be pretty darn good.

The next time you’re at Goodwin Field, check out the new placard in the recently named Nick Hurtado Bullpen (leftfield home side.)  Very classy.

The Titans play four home games this week: a Tuesday night nonconference game against Jason Gill’s Loyola Marymount squad before beginning Big West Conference action Thursday night against the University of the Pacific Tigers.  This will be the final time the Titans and Tigers play a conference series, as Pacific will be moving to the West Coast Conference beginning in the 2013-2014 academic year.  The biennial trip to scenic Stockton has been replaced by Hawai’i – I’m okay with that.

Somebody recently asked me to “name the worst place you’ve ever visited to watch Titans baseball.”  The question actually stumped me, especially when the rules were qualified to be somewhere far enough away that it necessitated staying overnight – that precluded listing Riverside or Northridge.  I’m probably the wrong guy to ask – I don’t hit the nightspots, I never go sightseeing and I abhor doing ‘touristy’ things, so 70% of my response to a road trip destination is tied to the ballpark and the ballgames.  The other 30% is based on comfort and logistics (e.g. hotels, transportation, parking, traffic, weather, etc.) plus restaurants.  If I find a great greasy spoon Mom’n’Pop diner in a town we visit to play baseball, it just don’t get no better than that.

The easy choice would be to pick Stockton – but I have to say I have enjoyed each trip to the series against the University of the Pacific.  I like Klein Family Field and the Titans have generally played well there.  I found a great steakhouse in Stockton (a really unique place – I think it’s called “Outback”) and you can get a nighttime discount on gasoline (if you’re willing to risk getting carjacked at gunpoint.)  Not only is there a greasy spoon I like in Stockton (the Duck Nook), there are a couple in Lodi well worth the extra fifteen minute drive.

Some of my favorite destinations turned out to be places where I wasn’t expecting much.  Playing Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg turned out to be perhaps the most enjoyable baseball trip I’ve ever been on, although it’s hard to surpass LSU.  (Had the Titans won just once in Baton Rouge, the LSU trips would be the clear-cut winner in the “best baseball trip destination” competition.) The three game sweep against Southern Miss was the hottest I’ve ever seen the Titans play and the Golden Eagles fans were knowledgeable, friendly and hospitable.  Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn was amazing.  Plus I got to meet one of my all-time idols, Southern Miss alum Ray Guy.

Rabid fans that fervently support their teams but are respectful of both the game and their opponents are high on my list – Texas A&M and Arizona stand out for their creative, well-informed heckling.

(At the other end of the spectrum – you know the fans are idiots when their best form of heckling is “Left….right….left….right.…Sit down!” when an opposing player is returning to the dugout after striking out.)

Believe it or not, I didn’t find Tulsa all that great.  I was extremely excited when I found Porky’s Kitchen on Yelp – until I got there and learned Porky was the 12-year-old girl who waited on me and that she hands you a packet of dry, powdered Cremora after asking if you want cream for your coffee.

Cremora might be okay in prison, but I generally prefer my corn syrup solids, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, sodium caseinate, dipotassium phosphate, salt, monoglycerides, silicon dioxide, artificial coloring, sodium tripolyphospahe, sugar, carrageenan, datem and artificial flavors to come in liquid form.  It’s just a personal preference, I guess.

Even the worst chicken fried steak has some semblance of ex-animal buried somewhere deep amidst the batter and grease – but I never found it at Porky’s.  It was more like ‘chicken fried fry.’

Readers, you take over – please comment on your favorite and least favorite Titans baseball trip destinations.

With the help of some previous opponents – most notably Texas A&M, Nebraska and Oral Roberts – the Titans moved up to #3 in RPI following their road sweep of the Dirtbags.  The next few weeks are likely to drag down the Titans’ RPI based on the schedule weakness:  weekend series against Pacific (RPI 169), UC Davis (226) and UC Santa Barbara (141) before locking horns on the road against Cal Poly SLO (35).  Other than winning their own games, the Titans need the teams on this year’s schedule to win as many games as possible (except against us, of course).  Come on, TCU!

The biggest negative of the week was the ankle injury suffered Friday night by Matt Chapman.

Kendall Rogers tweeted that Coach Vanderhook had told him Chapman is likely to be out 4-6 weeks.

The silver lining for Chapman’s injury is that it comes now and he has time to be fully healed in time for tougher late season series and the playoffs.  It is hard to replace the #3 hitter in your batting order who is also such a superb fielder and tenacious player.

I’ve been watching Titans baseball since 2003 (relatively short compared to many fans and readers), but Chapman is the only third-baseman I’ve seen during that period worthy of comparison defensively to Ronnie Prettyman.  I would rate them on par as far as fielding the ball (range, backhand, charging balls, robbing opponent hits, defending bunts, etc.), with Chapman having a stronger arm but Prettyman more consistently accurate with his throws.  While it’s hard to compare players from the BBCOR era to those before, Prettyman’s offensive contributions tended to get lost in the shadow of higher profile teammates.  In his three years at Fullerton, Prettyman played 197 games (195 as a starter) and had a career average of .332 with 51 doubles, 11 triples, 11 home runs and 124 RBI.

Davis is likely to get the bulk of playing time at third-base, with Dale perhaps used as a late inning defensive replacement and when Davis pitches.  It’s going to be interesting to see how the third-base situation impacts the way Davis is deployed as a pitcher.  Davis (3.07 ERA, .236 opponent batting average) has been effective in his recent relief appearances.  With Chapman and Matt Orloff both out with injuries, the infield depth is becoming an issue.  One of the unsung heroes in this year’s improvement has been the versatility of Dale, who has played all four infield positions.

If you’re looking for an unsung hero this week, try reliever Willie Kuhl.  He made monumental contributions in the Tuesday win over Nebraska and Saturday he was the winning pitcher against Long Beach State.  In the two games, he gave his team 7-2/3 outstanding innings in long relief, allowing just three hits, no earned runs and two walks while registering twelve strikeouts.  Kuhl, Gauna, Davis and Peitzmeier are becoming a formidable bridge between the starters and the closer, Lorenzen.  Michael Lopez and Jose Cardona also sport 0.00 ERA’s out of the bullpen.

I’m from the school of “expect the worst and hope for the best.”  This 2013 Titans team is making it very hard to not “expect the best” – but teams have a way of setting you up for a disappointment when you begin to expect them to always win.  Any lifelong Red Sox fan from my generation can attest to that – look no further than Bob Gibson beating us three times in the ’67 World Series, Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in ’78, Bill Buckner in ’86, Grady Little leaving Pedro in the game too long against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and 2011’s September Swoon, fueled by fried chicken and beer.  Other sports emotionally kill you too.  I still suffer from Franco’s “Immaculate Deception” and “the Tuck Rule” game that denied the Raiders.  More recently, the Syracuse Orange basketball team (tied with Fullerton baseball as my favorite teams) started this season 17-1, looked like a cinch to be a 1-seed in March Madness and was ranked #1 at one point – before going 8-8 in the next stretch of games.

Moral of the story:  I’m loving every second of this Titans season, but not loading Omaha into my GPS just yet.

That’s all for now.  We’ll see you around the yard and please leave your comments about favorite and least favorite Titans baseball trip destinations.

1 comment:

William Roemer said...

Don,

Best road trip...hands down one word...

Omaha

Best,
Bill Roemer