Monday, March 4, 2013

Titans Handle Ducks With Heavy Hearts

Titans defeat Oregon 8-2 (Friday), 5-2 (Saturday), lose 9-1 (Sunday)

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans (10-1) took their home series against the Oregon Ducks and moved up to the #10 position in the Baseball America rankings, while moving up one spot to #8 in the USA TODAY coaches’ poll.  By winning the first two games against former coach George Horton’s Ducks, the Titans established an all-time program best with ten consecutive wins to start the season.  The Titans are also #8 in Boyd’s “unofficial but extremely accurate” RPI rankings, just a scant .001 points behind the #7 Presbyterian College Blue Hose.

Game 1: Titans 8, Oregon Ducks 2

Thomas Eshelman
The opening game, a match-up between the Titans’ freshman Thomas Eshelman and the Ducks’ sophomore Jake Reed figured to be a low-scoring battle of pitching and defense.  The Ducks entered action with a 7-1 record and were ranked 6th-8th in most polls (7th in USA TODAY coaches’ poll) and 14th by Baseball America.  Oregon arrived with a sensational record of just two errors committed, albeit with all eight previous games this season played on fake turf (four at home at four at Hawai’i).  Bob Aspromonte was playing third-base for the Houston Astros the last time a ball took a bad hop on fake turf, so it is difficult to extrapolate that record to playing on real dirt and grass.

The ball didn’t bounce so kindly for the Ducks on this evening and the Titans rode the complete game pitching performance of Eshelman to win the series opener, 8-2.  Four of the eight runs allowed by the Ducks were unearned.

While Eshelman allowed the first two earned runs of his collegiate career, he continued to pound the strike zone: six strikeouts, zero walks and 74 of 95 pitches thrown for strikes.  For his effort, which improved his record to 3-0, Eshelman earned Big West Conference Pitcher of the Week honors.

Eshelman and Reed matched perfection through the first three innings: nine up, nine down for both sides.  The Ducks finally got a runner aboard with two outs in the fourth when Brett Thomas was plunked by a 0-2 pitch and scored on a solid double by Ryon Healy.  Eshelman was momentarily unsettled and committed a balk, but worked out of additional harm on a groundout.

As they have done all season when allowing runs, the Titans quickly responded with a run in the last of the fourth on a leadoff single by Richy Pedroza, a walk to J.D. Davis and a clutch two-out RBI single by Anthony Hutting.

The Titans took a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth on three of the ugliest runs in history – on just one hit.  After a leadoff single by catcher Chad Wallach, Clay Williamson had a great at-bat that gets lost in the shuffle.  After a fouled bunt attempt, he got into a 0-2 hole before grinding out a tough at-bat and walking, which set the stage for Keegan Dale to sacrifice both runners into scoring position.  Wallach scored on a wild pitch, with Williamson taking third.  After Pedroza walked, he moved up to second and Williamson scored on another wild pitch.  Lopez flied out and Pedroza to advanced to third, after which he scored on a passed ball.  It was a totally uncharacteristic breakdown of a George Horton-coached team.

The Ducks responded in the top of the sixth, though, with a run of their own on two doubles and a sacrifice, to cut the Titans’ lead to 4-2.  Eshelman worked out of the jam by retiring the cleanup hitter, Healy, who represented the tying run at the plate.

Hutting's inside-the-park home run
The Titans put the game out of reach in the bottom of the sixth with a four-run rally, which started when Hutting slammed a sizzler between Healy and the first-base bag, down into the right field corner that has become the home of the visitors’ bullpen.  A little attempted chicanery by the Ducks backfired.

As right fielder Kyle Garlick raced to retrieve the ball, Hutting appeared that he would easily leg out a triple.  Garlick raised his hands – perhaps the work of a small ad hoc quorum formed by the bullpen crew – and tried to induce a ground-rule double call from first base umpire Johnny Pineda.  Blue never signaled stoppage of play. It might have worked if Garlick had gone “all in” with the ruse, but after he threw the ball back to the infield, the Duck’s goose was cooked.  Third base coach Chad Baum never stopped pumping his arm and Hutting circled the bases and slid head-first into home with an inside-the-park home run.  I had to look twice to see if it was Hutting or Baumer who actually slid home.

After that, the Ducks flew south.  Wallach walked and Williamson lined a sharp single but would have been stranded – save for a two-out error on a routine grounder to second, which allowed Wallach to score to make it 6-2.  After a pitching change, stolen base by Dale and walk to Pedroza, Carlos Lopez dropped a two-run single in to make it 8-2 and give Eshelman all the breathing room he needed to just hammer the strike zone and finish it off alone.

The Titans scored their eight runs on just six hits, aided by six walks, three hit-batsmen, wild pitches, a passed ball and a critical error.  By winning their ninth straight game, the Titans surpassed the 2003 team for the best start of a season in program history.

Game 2: Titans 5, Oregon Ducks 2

Whatever elation the Titans players may have felt after the Friday victory was quickly replaced by profound grief and sadness.  Shortly after completing the series-opening victory, the players received a text advising them to return to the field, where they were informed that teammate Nick Hurtado, 21, had passed away after a lengthy and gallant battle with bone cancer.

Courtesy of Robert Hanashiro (USA Today)
The Titans took the field that night with heavy hearts.  With Nick’s family in attendance, there were numerous poignant and touching moments, some public and many private.  Nick’s number 56 jersey was in the Titans’ dugout and Lopez wore the number in his honor.  “56” was on the scoreboard much of the night and served as great inspiration for the team – you just knew in your heart there was no way they were going to lose on this night.

With hard-throwing freshman Justin Garza throwing for the Titans against Oregon lefty Tommy Thorpe, each run and hit figured to be at a premium.  After a moving moment of silence in Nick’s honor, action began.  The leadoff hitter for Oregon, second-baseman Aaron Payne, ripped a scalder down the first-base line in almost the exact spot that Hutting’s inside-the-park home run had gone the previous night.  Just as we were hoping right-fielder Austin Diemer would retrieve the ball quickly and hold him to a double, the lithe and nimble first-baseman Lopez dove and made a spectacular play to record the out.

It looked like a long evening – which it turned out to be – for home plate umpire Pineda when he missed an obvious catcher’s interference call with Pedroza leading off.  But Pedroza came back and singled, followed by a single by Lopez.  Just as it looked like Thorpe was going to wriggle off the hook, Michael Lorenzen launched a high drive down the left field line.  There was no question it had the distance – the only doubt is whether it would stay fair.  Perhaps aided by an angle, the ball struck high up on the left field fair pole and the Titans had a quick 3-0 lead.

Courtesy of Shotgun Spratling (CB Daily)
As has been the case in each of his starts, Garza worked quickly, threw strikes and mowed through the line-up in the early innings.  Through five innings, it was the pitching battle we expected, as Thorpe got into a groove after giving up the three-run bomb to Lorenzen in the first inning.

The Ducks finally got to Garza in the top of the sixth, squaring the ball up and scoring two runs on back-to-back one out singles by Scott Heineman and Healy and a two-out gap-job triple by Garlick.  With the lead cut to 3-2 and Garza on the ropes for the first time of the season, Titans’ freshman second-baseman Jake Jefferies made a huge defensive play – perhaps the turning point in the series – when he dove and made a great backhand stop to rob Ryan Hambright of a hit that would have tied the game.

Hit the Titans – they’ll hit you back!  As they have done all season so far, the Titans responded quickly when their opponents scored.  Lorenzen got the Titans’ first hit off Thorpe since the first inning when he led off with a double, before Wallach was hit by a pitch to put two runners aboard.  Dale was summoned to pinch-hit for Jefferies and he did his job perfectly – a sacrifice bunt to advance both runners.  After a series of coaching moves to play the old lefty/righty match-up maneuvers, it ended up left-handed hitting Jared Deacon pinch-hitting for the Titans against righty reliever Jeff Gold for the Ducks.  Deacon delivered a flyball to medium center field and Lorenzen slid across the plate just ahead of the throw to give the Titans a 4-2 edge on the sacrifice fly.

Diemer then hit a seed to deep center field for a triple to drive in Wallach and give the Titans an insurance run.  The ball was spanked, but after seeing the center fielder from TCU rob the Titans time after time the previous weekend, it was nice to see a ball finally find turf in what had been a black hole against the Horned Frogs.

The insurance runs also took the pressure off Garza and allowed his stint to be extended.  He gave way to closer Lorenzen in the ninth.  The Ducks made it semi-interesting: after ripping a leadoff single against Lorenzen, the next batter laced one between the 3-4 hole which was headed to right field and would bring the tying run to the plate with no outs.  But second-baseman Dale dove to his left and made the play to first.

Garza (3-0) allowed just two runs on six hits in eight inning pitched, with four strikeouts and just one walk.  Lorenzen earned his third save of the season, while also leading the offense with his home run, double and three RBI.  For the second night in a row, the Titans beat a highly ranked opponent with just six hits.

Game 3: Oregon Ducks 9, Titans 1

Despite having their best hit output of the series – ten – the Titans finally saw their winning streak ended at ten games.  While the 2013 team surpassed the 2003 Titans by winning their first ten games, they will need to continue winning to match the 15-1 start posted by their 2003 brethren.

This was the “it’s bound to happen” game which the team was probably overdue for.  Give credit to the Ducks – they made the big pitches when they had to and they hit the ball hard.

Grahamm Wiest
The game started off “business as usual” for the Titans – Grahamm Wiest threw a 1-2-3 first inning and Pedroza (walk) and Lopez (single) got on and it looked like Fullerton would add to its cumulative 14-0 first inning advantage so far this season.  But facing Oregon freshman lefty Cole Irvin, the Titans pushed both runners along on a sacrifice by Matt Chapman but stranded them when J.D. Davis popped up the first pitch and Lorenzen chased a high fastball and struck out.

The Ducks took a 2-0 lead in the second inning on a pair of unearned runs.  Thomas led off with a single just under the glove of the diving Jefferies.  The next batter hit a routine double-play ball to shortstop Pedroza, but his throw to second was over the head of Jefferies and both runners were safe and advanced into scoring position.  An RBI single by Hambright and a safety squeeze plated the two runs.

The Ducks scored their third run – all unearned – in the top of the fourth.  Garlick walked with one out and Wiest had him caught straying far off the bag, but threw wildly on his pickoff attempt and Garlick made it safely to third on the two-base error.  Garlick was driven in on an RBI single by Hambright.

The Titans scored once in the bottom of the fourth to cut their deficit to 3-1 on a single by Davis and an RBI double by Jefferies.  The Titans had further chances the following inning when Diemer and Lopez singled, but Irvin was at his best with runners on base, retiring the dangerous Chapman and Davis to escape peril.

The Ducks posted six runs over the next three innings against Wiest and a trio of relievers (Willie Kuhl, Bryan Conant and Henry Omana).  With the Ducks holding a comfortable 9-1 lead, both coaches gave some playing time to their reserves.  All six Titans pitchers – the aforementioned plus Kyle Murray and Tyler Peitzmeier – gave up at least one of Oregon’s 14 hits and only Murray and Peitzmeier did not allow a run.  It was another solid outing for Peitzmeier (1-0, 0.00 in five appearances.)

Jefferies and Lopez were the offensive bright spots for the Titans with three hits each.  Jefferies’ hits included two doubles and the team’s only RBI.  He also made another outstanding diving backhand play in the field.

So what did we learn this weekend?

Everything that happens between the white lines on a baseball field is trivial compared to the tragic loss of a young man whose smile and spirit were indomitable.  My heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Nick Hurtado, who left us far too soon, but left an impact that will endure throughout the rest of the lives of the legion of people he touched.

Courtesy of Yvonne Bovee
The outpouring of love and remembrances following word of Nick’s passing has been monumental.  The impact of his remarkable life is captured by the myriad posts on his Facebook page.  Kudos to Long Beach State and UC Irvine for the moment of silent each observed before their home games on Saturday.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at Goodwin Field during the moment of silence, looking down on the field and seeing his Titan brothers with arms locked in prayer.  With the words pouring straight from the hearts of his Titans brothers – players and coaches – it went:

"Ladies and gentleman, at this time will you please rise and join the student-athletes, alumni, coaches and the Cal State Fullerton community for a moment of silence. 

Last night, Titan Baseball lost a member of its family, when pitcher Nick Hurtado passed away after a battle with cancer. Nick was a tremendous part of the Cal State Fullerton Baseball team, and will always be remembered as a brother to his teammates. He led by example with his work ethic, and cherished every moment he was able spend with his teammates.

Nick never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, and always approached his fight with that demeanor; whether it was a hitter or cancer, Nick never gave up, and competed until the end. Now as No. 56 prepares to toe the rubber for the first time in heaven, he will always be in our hearts and souls forever. 

We love you Nick,

Your Brothers"

Nick’s funeral will be at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, March 8, at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, located at 4201 Eucalyptus Avenue, Chino, CA 91710.  Nick’s mom has encouraged guests to wear Cal State Fullerton T-shirts or gear.  There will also be a viewing on Thursday evening, March 7, from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. at Thomas Miller Mortuary, 1118 E. 6th Street, Corona, CA 92879.

Nick with Mom Patty
To help his family deal with the costs of many years of medical bills and the funeral, donations can be made by check (to Patty and Tony Hurtado, 465 N. Orange Street, Orange, CA 92866) or by PayPal.

Why is it that your baseball mood is determined almost entirely by your last game, whether as player, coach or fan?  As much as I’d like to brag about the amazing action that resulted from two such superbly talented and coached teams clashing in a budding “rivalry series”, the reality is that the Ducks stunk on Friday, the Titans stunk on Sunday and only Saturday’s game was terrific.  In his column last week, Eric “Stitch-Head” Sorenson ranked this series as the #1 place to be for college baseball this weekend, and I left slightly disappointed it didn’t deliver on those high promises, albeit glad that the Titans had won the series.

The series was dominated by freshmen pitchers from both sides:  Eshelman and Garza for the Titans and Oregon’s Irvin, who each improved their records to 3-0.  Is this the start of a new trend in big time college baseball?  There have always been great arms arriving on campus as freshmen, but you can’t help but be impressed with the savvy and maturity that these guys have displayed in stepping right into key roles for their respective programs.  It’s almost unthinkable that freshmen would dominate in the Friday and Saturday starter roles this early in their development.

The Titans had ten home runs for the entire 2012 season and already have seven in just eleven games in 2013.  It’s not a team that can live and die playing Earl Weaver Ball, but it’s nice to know that it is in the team’s arsenal.

Another thing I’ve been impressed with is how the team has received contributions from so many players and positions (both defensively and in the batting order.)  While the Titans’ 3-4 hitters went a combined 1-for-21 with zero RBI in this series against Oregon’s outstanding pitching staff, Davis carried the team opening weekend and Chapman was awesome at TCU and in the previous games.  Wallach (.367 BA, .467 OBP) and Lopez (.349 BA, .431 OBP) have been the steadiest hitters so far, but they too will go through mild slumps and somebody else will pick it up. Jefferies and Dale both turned in stellar plays at second-base subbing for the injured Matt Orloff.  Diemer is following up on his strong freshman season (.370 BA, ,414 OBP) with impact (.389 BA, .522 OBP) batting ninth, with his playing time increased because opponents have started left-handed pitchers in 8 of the 11 games so far.

This is a very difficult game to play well – you’ll rarely (if ever) have everybody clicking at the same time, so it’s nice to know you have so many ways to win games.

Pursuit of Hirsute: with shades of the 2009 journey which led to Omaha, there seems to be a movement afoot for another Moustache March.  This team seems extraordinarily united, but activities like this seem to just strengthen those bonds.

In a related story, I love listening to Bill Handel on his Saturday morning Handel on the Law program on KFI-640.  He is a wordsmith and a wiseass – two traits I admire.  Last week, when a caller identified himself as “Bear,” Handel asked him, “With a name like ‘Bear,’ are you hirsute?”  The caller responded, “No – we were originally from Poland.”  Classic!

Tomorrow night’s game against the San Diego Toreros (7-4) will be an interesting test for how well the Titans move on from Sunday’s loss and flush it out to sea.  The unranked Toreros are playing very well: after being swept in three games at home by San Diego State to start the season, USD has gone 7-1, including a road win at Coastal Carolina before sweeping their way through the UNCW Tournament played this past weekend in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The Toreros posted two shutouts and outscored their opponents (Gardner-Webb, UNC-Wilmington and Stony Brook) by a combined 22-4 score.

The two mid-week games – weather permitting – will be another showcase for the Titans’ pitching depth, which was on display when the Titans began the season with 5 games in 5 days and 8 games in 10 days.  Not only were the extended outings by Eshelman and Garza against Oregon impressive for the moment at hand, they also allowed the Titans to win a series against a ranked opponent and still have Koby Gauna and J.D. Davis fresh for games at USD (Tuesday) and USC (Wednesday).

I can’t wait to see the new Fowler Park and Cunningham Field, which made its debut this season.

Oh, who am I kidding?  What I’m really looking forward to is going to Phil’s BBQ (3750 Sports Arena Boulevard in San Diego, next door to the old San Diego Arena that was the home of the NBA’s Rockets and Clippers and the ABA’s Conquistadors.  (Do you remember when the San Diego Conquistadors gave Wilt Chamberlain a massive $600,000 contract to be their player-coach in 1973-74, but the Lakers sued and he was not allowed to play?  As a coach for the Conquistadors, Wilt was somewhat disinterested, including the time he missed a game so he could autograph books.)

That’s all for now – hope to see you around 2:30 at Phil’s BBQ, which should leave plenty of time to make it over to watch the Titans take BP. Phil’s was featured on Man vs. Food.  Out.

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