Monday, March 11, 2013

Titans Get Best of Aggies, Again

Titans vs. San Diego: Lost 7-2 (Tuesday)
Titans vs. USC: Won 11-4 (Wednesday)
Titans vs. Texas A&M: Lost 6-1 (Friday), Won 2-0 (Saturday), Won 7-6 (Sunday)


By Don Hudson

Last season, the Titans visited College Station to play the Texas A&M Aggies and they won two intense “could have gone either way” games after losing the opener, 6-1.  Last weekend, the Aggies returned the visit to Fullerton and you’ll never believe what happened: the Titans lost the opener, 6-1, but then came back to win a couple of close “could have gone either way” games.

With the series win, the Titans (13-3) moved up two slots to #8 in the Baseball America rankings on the strength of consecutive weekend series wins against opponents from the Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences.  The Titans, who were 3-2 on the week including a loss at San Diego and a win at USC, dropped one slot to #9 in the USA TODAY coaches’ poll.


Game 1: Texas A&M Aggies 6, Titans 1

This was a game that the Titans had numerous ways they could have won, but it simply wasn’t meant to be.  It was cold and rained throughout part of the game – not quite as inclement as what we faced last year at A&M, but a night where I wish they sold Snuggies in that Titan-Mobile behind the third-base stands.

Saying goodbye to Nick Hurtado
The game featured a match-up between the Titans’ Thomas Eshelman and TAMU’s Kyle Martin, a big right-hander who was a side-arming reliever last season but an over-the-top Friday starter this year.  The game lived up to its billing, as Martin and the Aggies held to a slim 2-1 advantage over Eshelman and the Titans until the wheels came off the wagon in the ninth inning.

There were early signs that the Titans were out of sorts on a very sad Friday when the team attended the very moving funeral services for teammate Nick Hurtado.  Richy Pedroza and Matt Chapman had singles, but Martin got the next two hitters and left two runners aboard.  The Titans had the leadoff man aboard in each of the first four innings, but trailed 1-0, as the Aggies scored an unearned run on a double by Blake Allemand, an error and an RBI single by Cole Lankford.

As Martin kept the Titans off the scoreboard, his Aggies teammates got to Eshelman for a second run in the top of the sixth on a double by pesky leadoff man Mikey Reynolds, a sacrifice and a groundout by Allemand.  Having seen Reynolds play six games in person, he is a terrific shortstop and obviously a team leader.

The bottom of the seventh was a golden opportunity for the Titans to at least tie the score and perhaps take the lead.  Martin continued to breeze, as he retired the first two hitters before walking Keegan Dale.  A&M coach Ray Childress went to his bullpen and brought in a lefty, A.J. Minter, to get the switch-hitting Pedroza turned around.  Minter made it interesting when he walked Pedroza and Carlos Lopez to load the bases before giving way to righty closer Jason Jester, who promptly walked Chapman to make it 2-1 with the always-dangerous J.D. Davis coming up.  But Jester won the battle and threw a high fastball past Davis to leave the bases loaded.

From that point on, Jester was dominant, setting the Titans down in order in both the eighth and ninth innings and registering his fourth save.  Meanwhile, the Aggies broke the tight pitchers’ duel open with four runs on five hits off Eshelman and reliever Willie Kuhl before Tyler Peitzmeier came in and retired the only batter he faced.

The Titans were outhit, 9-6, with Pedroza leading the way with two.  The key to the game was runners left on base:  the Aggies stranded only two runners, while the Titans left nine aboard.  Even though the final score makes it sound one-sided, just one or two hits early in the game or in the seventh inning would have sent Michael Lorenzen to pitch the ninth inning with a lead.

Game 2: Titans  2, Texas A&M Aggies 0

This was another match-up that lived up to its billing as a pitchers’ duel, with Titans’ freshman Justin Garza (4-0, 0.95) besting Aggies’ right-hander Daniel Mengden (now 3-1).

Both pitchers were terrific through four scoreless innings, with Garza allowing just singles in the first and third innings, but actually being slightly outpitched by Mengden, who mowed down the first eleven Titans he faced until Chapman’s two-out single up the middle in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Justin Garza
The Titans finally got to Mengden in the fifth inning – literally.  With one out, Lorenzen smashed a one-hopper through the box that struck Mengden, who was immediately wincing in extreme pain.  Already impressed with his pitching ability, the Fullerton crowd was appreciative that he shook off the effects of the ball striking his pitching arm (biceps area) and remained in the game after several warm-up throws.

Lorenzen showed no mercy – he stole second and made a calculated risk to try to advance to third when the throw to second bounced into short leftfield.  Michael didn’t react immediately – he took off only after a momentary scan of the terrain – and simply outran the ball and was just barely safe at third.  Taking the extra base produced the eventual game-winning run on a long opposite field sacrifice fly by Davis.

The Titans picked up an insurance run in the sixth inning with the ball never leaving the infield, although we also got an unwanted dose of ‘left on base blues.’  Austin Diemer led off with a soft liner towards second-base, which dropped softly to the ground and Diemer easily beat the throw to first.

(You knew as soon as the fielder didn’t grab it in the air that Diemer would beat it out.)

Even with the Aggies expecting Pedroza to bunt Diemer into scoring position, Pedroza dropped down an artful bunt and there was no play.  Lopez next – same play: uncontested bunt single to load the bases with no outs.  Big inning, eh?

Chapman was hit by a pitch to drive in a run and make it 2-0 and it looked like Mengden would finally yield.  But he bore down and struck out Chad Wallach and Anthony Hutting before retiring Lorenzen on a flyball.

Lankford gave the Aggies hope with a double leading off the top of the seventh against Garza, but Diemer made a nice catch of an opposite field drive by catcher Mitchell Nau, who crushed the ball all weekend.

Koby Gauna relieved Garza (who threw 109 pitches in seven innings) and pitched a scoreless eighth inning, allowing a single and stolen base.   Lorenzen came in to pitch the ninth and earned his fourth save, allowing just a two-out hit by Nau.

As was the case in all three games, the Aggies outhit the Titans (7-6 in this game).  The Titans had six hits – including two by Diemer – but only two hits out of the infield.  Garza, Gauna and Lorenzen all made big pitches when needed and were given stellar defensive support.

Game 3: Titans 7, Texas A&M Aggies 6

(Photo Gallery)

This was a strange game.  Strange days indeed.

Grahamm Wiest pitched a scoreless first inning, aided by a 4-6-3 double-play started by Keegan Dale despite the runner going on the pitch, before coming to bat against TAMU’s Rafael Pineda.  Pedroza led off with a walk – and the A&M bullpen got working immediately!  After a ball to Lopez, the second batter, Childress came out to mentor his pitcher.  After Lopez walked and Pineda fell behind in the count against Chapman, Childress was back with perhaps the earliest non-injury hook I’ve ever seen a weekend starter subjected to.

Chapman walked to load the bases, before reliever Grayson Long struck out Lorenzen on a called strike that looked high and away.  But Hutting and catcher Jared Deacon both walked with the bases loaded to give the Titans a 2-0 lead with the bases still loaded.  But Long escaped further damage by picking Chapman off third-base – it brought a chilling sense of déjà vu to those with painful memories of the debacle against North Carolina in the first game of the 2006 College World Series.  Strange days indeed.

Wiest retired the first two batters in the second but then loaded the bases on a single, hit-batsman and another single – already trailing 2-0, the Aggies held their runner at third.  But Wiest struck out the next batter to get out of his first jam of the day.

Keegan Dale
The Titans made it 5-0 with three runs in the second, but left the bases loaded and the game just barely in the Aggies’ grasp.  Diemer led off with a single, went to second on a sacrifice by Dale and scored on a double by Pedroza.  A balk and an RBI single by Lopez made it 4-0, and walks to Chapman and Lorenzen gave Hutting an opportunity for a fielder’s choice RBI.

After Wiest threw a 1-2-3 third inning and the Titans scored on a triple by Dale and double by Pedroza to take a 6-0 lead, it seemed like the only question is whether the game would complete nine innings before travel restrictions kicked in.

But the Aggies didn’t roll over.  It seemed harmless enough when Nau doubled and scored on a single by Lankford to make it 6-1 in the fourth inning, but Wiest seemed to be in control.  But the Aggies ground out great at-bats and scaled the ball the rest of the afternoon – even their outs were hit on the screws.

The Aggies hit the ball all over the field in the fifth inning, scoring thrice on four hits to make it 6-4.  With two outs and runners at the corners, Lorenzen made a great diving catch to rob Troy Stein of an RBI hit that could have tied the game had it gone into the gap where it was seemingly headed.

Davis relieved Wiest and pitched a scoreless sixth inning, aided by Deacon thwarting a stolen base attempt after a base hit.  He also threw a scoreless seventh inning, with the Titans’ two-run lead looking mighty slender the way the Aggies were swinging the bats.

Greg Velazquez led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a high bouncer over the infield and into leftfield corner.  It might have been his second double of the day, but Velazquez has been slowed recently with leg issues and he held up at first and was replaced by a pinch-runner, freshman infielder David Olmedo-Barrera (a.k.a. DOB).

In perhaps one of the game’s overlooked moments, Deacon managed to get a bunt down with two strikes on him, moving DOB into scoring position, where he scored a crucial insurance run on an RBI single by Pedroza.

After Davis was touched for two singles in the top of the eighth, he gave way to Gauna, who came in with one out looking for a groundball.  Bingo!  Gauna induced a 5-4-3 double-play and another Aggies threat went by the board.

So we move to the ninth with Lorenzen on to protect a three run lead.  Game over, eh?  In the immortal words of Shemp’s replacement Stooge, Joe Besser, “Not so fast!”  These Aggies just never say die.

Lorenzen was greeted by two sharp singles and he loaded the bases with a walk after posting a strikeout for the first out of the inning.  With the bases loaded, up came Nau, who wore out Titans pitching all weekend.  This time was no exception – he delivered a two-run single to make it a nervous 7-6 game with the tying run at second and the go-ahead run at first with just one out.  Lorenzen got the second out on a flyball to rightfield and seemed to have ended the calamity when he threw high cheese past Lankford to strike him out.  But alas, the ball sailed past Deacon to the screen (passed ball) that loaded the bases and kept the game alive.  Fortunately, the knots in my stomach were unraveled when Lorenzen got the final batter to ground out to Chapman and lock down the 7-6 win.

Both teams had 17 combined hits plus walks: 15 hits and 2 walks for the Aggies and 9 hits plus 8 walks for the Titans.  The Aggies left ten runners on base, while the Titans stranded eight.

Pedroza led the way with three hits and three RBI, while Diemer and Velazquez had two each.  I thought Dale also had an excellent game: a triple, run scored, walk, sacrifice and some good defense, including two big double-plays.  Wiest (2-1, 3.33 ERA) earned the win, with Lorenzen posting his fifth save, albeit the most nervous save of his two-year tenure as closer.

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Since work interfered with doing recaps for the last two midweek games, let’s take a quick look back.

San Diego Toreros 7, Titans 3

A small group of hearty but hungry Titans fans met at Phil’s BBQ prior to the game at the new Fowler Park at Cunningham Field on the beautiful University of San Diego campus.  Not only have I never had a bad meal at Phil’s, I don’t think I’ve even had a bad morsel.  For me, it was baby back ribs, fries, corn on the cob and shared an order of onion rings.

The new stadium is fantastic – the Toreros received a generous $13 million donation from Ron and Alexis Fowler and they turned that former eyesore into a great ballpark.  The contrast from former to new couldn’t be starker – it would be like showing up at Cal State Northridge and having Matador Field magically transmogrified into Camden Yards.

Coming off the series win against the Oregon Ducks, the Titans made a couple line-up shifts to work on a few things, most notably A.J. Kennedy making his first career start behind the dish and Chad Wallach playing first-base.  Carlos Lopez actually began the game as the Titans’ first-base coach.  Lopez later entered the game, but it broke his streak of 52 consecutive games started.

The Toreros scored two runs in the bottom of the first off J.D. Davis on the first of two home runs by Kris Bryant.  Both of Bryant’s blasts were ‘no doubt about it,’ as was the solo homer hit by USD’s Connor Joe.  The first home run drove in the only runs scored against the Titans all season in the first inning of a game.

But getting back to Phil’s, what I really like about their corn on the cob is that it is the full-sized ear served in the husk – no ‘cobbette’ at Phil’s.  Others in our group raved about the pulled pork and beef tri-tip sandwiches.

There were some encouraging signs for the Titans.  Michael Lopez had two sharp shutout innings and Jose Cardona made his 2013 debut and threw 1-2/3 scoreless innings in relief.  Cardona shook off rust, but it was great to see him out there again.  Matt Chapman had a single and a triple, while Austin Kingsolver lined a home run inside the right field fair pole.  Even though they managed just eight hits, the Titans hit several other balls hard but right at people, including a couple double-play balls.

I just don’t understand how Phil’s can serve those huge pulled pork or tri-tip sandwiches, slathered in barbeque sauce and accompanied by a huge side of Cole slaw for just $6.95.  The worse news yet: rumors abound that there is going to be a Phil’s BBQ in Anaheim.  My diet can deal with one trip a year to play the Aztecs or Toreros and the obligatory homage to Phil’s – I’m going to hang onto all my old fat clothes just in case these rumors of a local Phil’s BBQ prove accurate.

Titans 11, USC Trojans 4

On $1 hot dog night at USC’s Dedeaux Field, the Titans broke their brief two-game losing streak with an early offensive outburst before weathering some anxious moments later in the game as a parade of Titans pitchers displayed uncharacteristic wildness.

Things started badly for USC when their shortstop’s throw drew the first-baseman off the bag and allowed leadoff man Pedroza to reach on error.  Lopez drove in Pedroza with an RBI double and scored on an RBI single by Hutting after Chapman walked.  Lorenzen singled in Chapman and the Titans gave Gauna a quick 3-0 lead.

The Titans’ prosperity continued with a five-spot in the second inning.  After a leadoff single by Dale and a sacrifice by Pedroza, Lopez singled and Chapman delivered an RBI double.  Wallach, elevated into the cleanup position in the slightly revamped batting order, drove in two runs with a single.  After Hutting singled, Lorenzen hit a two-run triple and the Titans had an 8-0 lead.

Hutting made it 10-0 with a two-run home run in the fourth inning, his third of the season (including the inside-the-park job against Oregon.)

Gauna coasted through five innings and earned the win, allowing just three hits and no walks, along with five strikeouts.

That’s when the Titans’ pitching turned from baby back ribs at Phil’s to $1 hot dogs at Dedeaux:  a quartet of relievers gave up seven hits, four walks and two hit batsmen over the next 3+ innings until Cardona entered the game in the ninth and restored order with a couple strikeouts.

Hutting and Lorenzen led the 15-hit offensive attack with three hits and three RBI each, while Lopez and Wallach contributed two hits each.

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So what did we learn this week?

Part of the success the Titans enjoyed this weekend was shutting down the Aggies’ aggressive running game.  Coming into the series, A&M had been stealing bases with virtual impunity.  The Titans ended up stealing five bases (in seven attempts) while allowing just two pilfers (in three attempts) by the Aggies.  This success was possible by following the script: good pitching (Friday and Saturday nights) and getting a big early lead (Sunday).

As a team statistic, the “LOB” (runners left on base) is of paramount importance.  Winning baseball follows the old axiom:  “Get’em on, get’em over, get’em in!”  High team LOB totals are generally bad news, although low numbers may reflect a poor OBP (on-base percentage) moreso than clutch hitting to drive in those runners that make it aboard.  For example, the Titans have stranded 128 runners to just 106 by opponents, but the team with more LOB’s has a 13-3 record.  The comparatively low LOB’s by opponents is reflective of the stingy batting average (.235) allowed by Titans’ pitchers.

Team LOB totals should only be considered in the context of the ratio of runs scored by runners reaching base (by hit, walk, hit-by-pitch or error) to runners left on base.  For example, ten runners left on base in a game sounds bad, eh?  But is it as consequential to have ten LOB when you score fourteen runs in the game, versus ten LOB when you score just one run?

But as an individual statistic, the LOB (runners left on base when the batter makes the final out of the inning) is grossly misleading, as was evidenced throughout this weekend.  Suppose Player “A” leads off with a walk and goes to third on a double by Player “B”.  Player “C” can deliver a run with a hit, groundout or flyball, but he strikes out.  Player “D” suffers the same fate.  Player “E” bats with two outs and now a groundout or flyball will do no good.  Player “E” hits the ball deep, where it is caught on the warning track.  Player “E” is charged with two LOB, while none are charged to Players “C” and “D”, whose failures are arguably greater.

Mitchell Nau
The only way this individual stat would mean much is if LOB’s were charged to every runner not driven in by the batter regardless of how many outs there are.  In the aforementioned example, “C”, “D” and “E” would all get charged two LOB’s.  Obviously, it would become a “different” stat and the sum of the individual players would exceed the team’s total.  But don’t you think it would be more meaningful?  A player’s ratio of RBI to this newly redefined LOB would become an excellent metric of run production.

Can you recall an opposing player hitting the ball as consistently hard as A&M’s Mitchell Nau (#30)?  He went 5-for-10 with two doubles and three RBI, but it seems like even his outs were lasers…..In a related note, the hackneyed Abbott-and-Costello “Nau” (pronounced “Now”) puns every time the kid came up to bat grew real old real fast.  Even the classic “Who’s on First” routine isn’t funny after you’ve heard it a few hundred times.

I really like the series played in recent years against TCU and Texas A&M – both are excellent programs and great places to visit as a fan.  It would be great to see both series extended for at least a couple more years, but I suspect that by moving up to stronger conferences, TCU (Big 12) and Texas A&M (SEC) will no longer need to play strong out-of-conference games against powerhouses like Fullerton in order to raise their RPI’s.  While I’d love to see those series continue, it would be understandable if they both scheduled home games against out-of-conference cupcakes in the future.

Austin Diemer
Diemer’s Redemption:  I couldn’t help but benchmark the development made by Austin Diemer from the 2012 series at Texas A&M to the just-completed series this year.  You can literally measure from Game 2 of last year to Game 2 of this year.  At the time we played the Aggies last year in a weekend filled with downpours and severe lightning storms, Diemer was a freshman outfielder barely hitting his weight.  When he struck out in the ninth inning of a 5-5 game on a couple feeble swings, he received a solid hour’s worth of “mentoring” in front of the dugout, re-enacting the swing he took and how he should have swung the bat, while the field was deluged by a classic Texas rainstorm with hail and lightning bolts dancing all around.  It was brutal to watch – but fascinating to subsequently see his strength and perseverance.

Guess what – it worked.  From that moment on, his hitting improved remarkably, ending the 2012 season at .370 with .414 OBP.  This year Diemer is batting .393 with .500 OBP.  In Game 2 (e.g. the one year anniversary of his special tutelage) against A&M, he went 2-for-3 with a double and followed it up Sunday with two hits and a stolen base.  Kudos to the kid for working his ass off to become a key contributor, but credit also to Hooky for knowing what buttons to push.

It was a week of ‘firsts’ for some of this year’s freshmen: A.J. Kennedy, Tanner Pinkston and Nico Darras had their first hits, while David Olmedo-Barrera scored his first run.  Eshelman and Garza have already accomplished so much that it’s hard to even think of them as freshmen.  Eshelman has 26 strikeouts and zero walks in 28-2/3 innings – incredible!  Garza has been nearly as good: 21 strikeouts to just three walks in 28-2/3 innings of pitching.

Kingsolver’s home run at USD was also the first of his career as a Titan.  He hit a ball earlier this year at Pepperdine where he was robbed of extra bases when the center fielder made a great catch at the deepest part of the ballpark.

I am really looking forward to this week’s trip to Tulsa to play three games against the Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles (5-9 overall, 1-6 at home).  The Golden Eagles are mired in a five-game losing streak, having been swept at home this weekend by Dallas Baptist University.  They hope to get back on track with a game on Tuesday at Texas before coming home to host the Titans.

It should be especially interesting to benchmark the Titans’ year-over-year progress by seeing how well they fare against ORU’s Alex Gonzalez in the Friday opener.  If you recall, Gonzalez pitched a gem last year against the Titans in the series finale: he went 7-2/3 innings and gave up just five hits with six strikeouts in ORU’s 3-0 shutout victory.  While his record is just 1-3 this season, he sports an ERA of 1.20 and has a 34-4 ratio of strikeouts to walks in 30 innings, allowing opponents a batting average of just .220.

There’s one word for series like this:  dangerous.  With their record and mediocre RPI and ISR, anything less than a sweep is damaging for the Titans.  But the Golden Eagles always seem to play close games with the Titans and they have a formidable ace in Gonzalez.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

But what do the Titans have to do with the awesome food at Phil's?

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