Monday, May 20, 2013

Titans-Eaters: The Rest of the Story

UCI at Titans: Won 5-2 (Friday), Won 3-2 (Saturday), 7-5 (Sunday)

By Jim Venuto 
(A Letter From a Fan)

“Now, for the Rest of the Story ...”

“In a 14-pitch at-bat, in which Lopez fouled off nine straight, he eventually won the encounter, lacing a RBI single into right field as the Titans took a 3-2 lead when Jefferies crossed the plate.”

That sounds exciting, but there’s much more to the story...and it’s true.  It happened this weekend. The incident above was actually on national TV (ESPN) Friday night.  The funny thing about it:  Lopez was laughing between pitches, every pitch after his sixth foul tip.  He kept looking over to his teammates on the Cal. State Fullerton bench and smiling and laughing.  This was an important game. Fullerton needed to win to maintain a top-8 seed in the NCAA Regional tournament, where, like NCAA basketball, the top 64 teams play. But in baseball, the final 8 teams come to Omaha for the College World Series.  Fullerton was rated 4 or 5, depending upon the poll, and Irvine was rated 24-26.  Irvine wanted to win to remain in the top 45, as 18-19 teams win automatic berths by winning their leagues or conference tournaments, and the UC-Irvine Anteaters were in 4th place in their conference with no year-end tournament to allow them to qualify for an “at-large” berth.

Anyone that played baseball knows fouling off nine consecutive pitches is difficult, rare, and almost never done.  It wasn’t 6, 7, or 8 consecutive pitches; it was exactly 9.  Incredible.  And it was, indeed, nine (9) consecutive pitches against Irvine’s top reliever.  Most batters would have been extremely nervous and sweating, and maybe Lopez should have been.  But the camera showed, and the ESPN commentators pointed out, that Carlos flashed a big smile and was “giggling.”  Actually, he had fouled off two (2) other pitches in the same at bat, but they were not part of the “nine straight.”  Perhaps the smiling and giggling kept him loose.  Fullerton won the game in the bottom of the ninth.  Now, for “the rest of the story ...”

I was lucky enough to have dinner with Carlos and his father, when I drove down to Tulsa about 3-4 weeks ago to watch Fullerton play three games against Oral Roberts.  I went out to dinner with a friend from Fullerton, Don Hudson. When I arrived at the restaurant, Don was sitting with Carlos and his dad.  The elder Lopez was a tall thin man (probably 6’2”) that wore a Panama (straw) hat to all the games. I had met him before - in Dallas when I attended a series of games against TCU, last year.  The older Mr. Lopez remembered me only because I was the “guy from Nebraska”.  And I remembered him because he was always smiling and seemed to know everybody and he was always relaxed and happy-go-lucky.  So, I sat at the same restaurant table for about an hour and talked to Carlos, his dad, and Don Hudson, while we ate barbequed ribs. It was a “delightful” experience, and I came to like Carlos (and his dad) more.  I also learned Carlos is an excellent student, a “fifth-year senior” that was not drafted last year, like most 3 and 4-year Fullerton players.  There had been considerable concern that he might not come back this year and play baseball.

Last fall, he enrolled (I believe in Fullerton’s graduate school).  He had decided to play baseball one more year.  The Fullerton players seem to appreciate Carlos; he is humble, works hard, plus he’s quiet and friendly – one of those guys that “never says ‘boo’.”  And he smiles a lot.  Interestingly, by the time the baseball season started in February, he had lost 35 lbs. and was trim, faster, and going into Friday night’s game, he was batting .330+ in 199 at bats. Also, he had recently been selected by the NCAA as one of 10 NCAA baseball student-athletes who excel both on and off the field for a 2013 “Senior CLASS Award.” (To be eligible for the award, a student-athlete must be classified as an NCAA Division-I senior and have “notable achievements in four areas of excellence – community, classroom, character, and competition.”)  I don’t mean to “name-drop” by telling you I ate dinner with Carlos; I wanted you to know he is a good kid and a good student ... and I ate dinner with him.

Anyway, I promised you “the rest of the story ...”

After he won the game Friday night on national TV, Fullerton was down in the bottom of the ninth to Irvine Saturday night, also, and up steps Carlos Lopez, again. That’s right, bottom of the ninth, two out, probably a 3-2 count.  What does he do? “One swing of the bat from Carlos Lopez, and No. 4 Cal State Fullerton left UC Irvine on the field with a two-out walk-off home run in Saturday night’s 3-2 series-clinching victory at Goodwin Field.”

But I promised you “the rest of the story ...” and that’s not it. That was last night. What about today, Sunday?

This afternoon, Sunday, May 19th, Fullerton was down yet again, this time 5-2, and going into the ninth inning, still down 5-4. “Entering the ninth, trailing the Anteaters, 5-4, UC Irvine reliever Mitch Merten surrendered a leadoff single to Jake Jefferies and issued a one-out walk to Richy Pedorza. The Anteaters’ Evan Brock then came to the mound, and for the third day in a row, Lopez came to the plate with the game on the line. The fifth-year senior delivered, again. He took Brock's 1-1 offering and left UCI on the field with a three-run walk-off homer to right.”  The Cal. State Fullerton Titans (45-8) are now assured of winning their 27th conference championship in 39 years. (They didn’t play baseball before then.)  Let’s hope the Titans get to Omaha for the CWS so you can see how much fun this team is to watch, and so you can see, and maybe even meet, Carlos...and his dad.  (His dad will be the one wearing a Panama hat.  And he’ll likely be smiling.)

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