Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Titans' Near-Miss in Area (Code) 951

Titans at UCR: Won 14-7 (Friday), Won 12-0 (Saturday), Lost 7-6 (Sunday)

By Don Hudson

The Cal State Fullerton Titans went on the road and won another Big West Conference series, extending their winning streak to seven games by beating the UC Riverside Highlanders handily on Friday and Saturday evenings before dropping the finale on Sunday.  Despite the loss on Mothers Day, the Titans gained a game in the standing over the weekend over the second-place Cal State Northridge Matadors, who lost two-of-three at home against the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.

The Titans continue in contention for a national seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament selection process, on the strength of: no lost series; 11-4 record against RPI Top 50 teams; 23-4 road record; #9 in RPI, but leading country in “adjusted wins” in system that applies 0.7 factor for home wins and 1.3 for road wins; and probable conference champion.  As we’ve seen before, it can all go up in smoke without a strong finish, but the Titans are in about as strong a position as could possibly be for a team outside the elite “BCS” conferences.

Game 1: Titans 14, UC Riverside Highlanders 7

(Photo Gallery)

In a pitching match between the Titans’ righty Thomas Eshelman and the Highlanders’ lefty Dylan Stuart, the Titans jumped ahead with four runs in the second inning.  J.D. Davis led off with a single, with Michael Lorenzen then hit by a pitch.  Chad Wallach sacrificed both runners along and reached base when Stuart’s throw to first was wide of the bag.  Greg Velazquez gave the Titans a 2-0 lead with a two-run single.  Two outs later, Pedroza singled to drive in Wallach and Lopez singled to drive in Velazquez and make it 4-0.

Eshelman's short and sweet outing
The Titans scored a solo tally in the third to make it 5-0.  With two outs, Wallach doubled and scored when Velaquez hit a hard bouncer over the third-baseman for an RBI single.  The Titans added another run in the fourth when Pedroza reached on an infield single and advanced to second when the ball deflected off third-baseman Joe Chavez before scoring on an RBI single by Lopez.  (It was a curious scoring call on Pedroza: Chavez tried to short-hop the ball and it hit him in the shins and bounced into foul territory – not unusual on that alabaster-plaster infield.  It should have either been called error-all-the-way or double.)

Meanwhile, Eshelman was coasting along, allowing an occasional base-runner, but twice escaping with the aid of double-plays, including a nifty 4-6-3 twin-killing with the runner going on the pitch in the fourth inning.

The decision to give Eshelman a short day of work became a no-brainer when the Titans put up four more runs in the top of the sixth, with Stuart left on the mound as the ‘sacrificial Friday lamb’ to preserve the bullpen for the remaining two games.  Pedroza drew a one-out walk, followed by a single by Lopez.  Matt Chapman then hit the ball over the centerfielder’s head for a two-run double before scoring on a two-out double by Lorenzen.  Wallach’s double drove in Lorenzen to make it 10-0, essentially ending the night for both Stuart and Eshelman.

With a 10-0 lead, the Titans removed Eshelman after five shutout innings and gave their bullpen some much-needed work.  Michael Lopez was touched up for two runs in the bottom of the sixth on a single, double and a pair of groundouts.

The Titans made it 14-2 with four runs in the top of the seventh.  Matt Orloff led off with a single, advanced on a walk to Pedroza and scored on an RBI single by Lopez.  Chapman followed with a two-run triple past diving rightfielder David Andriese and scored on a double by Davis.

With the game easily in hand, the Titans played sloppy baseball for the final innings.  The bullpen gave up seven runs (including three unearned) and eight hits in four innings of work.  Lopez was followed by Willie Kuhl, David Birosak and Jose Cardona, who struck out two batters sandwiched around a two-run single to end the game.

Eshelman improved his record to 9-2.  Lopez led the 17-hit attack with four singles and three RBI.  It was great to see Lopez jump on the first pitch for each of his hits and burn ‘the book’ on him that he always takes the first pitch.  Wallach was 3-for-3 before making an early exit.  Pedroza, Chapman, Davis and Velazquez each had two hits, with Velazquez equaling his career high with three RBI.

Game 2: Titans 12, UC Riverside Highlanders 0

(Photo Gallery)

The Titans jumped all over UCR starter Ben Doucette for eleven runs in the first two innings and rode the strong pitching of Justin Garza and a quartet of relievers in shutting out the Highlanders, 12-0.  Ten of the eleven runs in the first two innings were scored with two outs.

Garza improves to 11-0
Pedroza worked a full-count leading off before drawing a walk, and advanced to third on a hit-and-run single by Chapman.  Davis followed with an RBI single to make it 1-0.  After Lorenzen struck out and both runners advanced on a wild pitch, the Titans put up five more runs in the first inning to make it an early blowout.  With first base open, Riverside coach Doug Smith opted to pitch to the scorching-hot Wallach rather than walk him to set up a potential double-play – he may have been second-guessing himself when Chad crushed a three-run bomb to leftfield to make it 4-0.

Velazquez walked and Jake Jefferies singled before Austin Diemer laced a bases-clearing double – it should have been a triple, but Diemer was called out at third on an absurd call – twice in two nights Diemer was obviously safe but called out when he had already popped up and was dusting himself off.

The Highlanders posed a mild threat in the bottom of the first when they got a one-out walk and single against freshman righty Garza, but he struck out the clean-up hitter and got the final out on a foul-out to catcher Wallach.

Doucette appeared to have settled down in the second when he retired the first two Titans before Chapman launched a towering home run over the screen in leftfield – Happy birthday, Mom!

Davis followed with a single and Lorenzen hit a double on a chopper over the third-baseman’s head.  Okay, I’m certain Coach Smith learned his lesson and won’t pitch to Wallach, who has a single, two doubles and home run so far in four at-bats in the series, with an open base.  You know that definition of insanity?  They pitched to Wallach and he scalded a base hit to drive in both runners.

Have you ever thought you were saying something to yourself only to realize it was spoken aloud?  I was standing next to the UCR dugout behind third-base when my thought somehow slipped out: “Why the (bleep) are you pitching to that guy with an open base?”  Just as I said it, a couple of Riverside players jogged by headed towards the bullpen.  As they heard it, one nodded and the other muttered “No shit.”

It may have been a moot point as Velazquez followed Wallach with a home run to make it 11-0.

A 5-RBI day for Wallach
From there, it was simply a question of how long Garza would throw and whether there would be a recurrence of the late inning sloppiness from the night before.  While the Titans’ bats were stymied for six innings of shutout relief by UCR righthander Angelo Lingos, Garza threw zeros for five innings before Cardona, Tyler Peitzmeier, Kuhl and Koby Gauna each threw a scoreless inning.  By the fifth inning, every Titans’ starting position player had been replaced except Pedroza.

The Titans scored their final run in the top of the ninth on a double by A.J. Kennedy, a walk to Orloff and an RBI single by Pedroza.

Twelve different players got at least one of the Titans’ 17 hits, with two each by Wallach, Pedroza and Chapman.  The sixth spot in the order was very productive: two hits, a home run and five RBI by Wallach; a pinch-single by Nico Darras; and the double by Kennedy.

Garza improved his record to 11-0 with five innings of shutout work, allowing just three hits.

Game 3: UC Riverside Highlanders 7, Titans 6

(Photo Galleries: Game / Mother's Day)

In a recent article, we quoted the famous words of Senkichi Awaya (mayor of Hiroshima in 1945):  “What the f*@& was that?!!!”  The same could be said about the first inning on Sunday, in a game played on a miserably hot day with no clouds to give even a brief respite of shade.

After feasting on lefthanded pitching for two nights, scoring 26 runs (combined) and banging out 17 hits each game, you knew it would be different Sunday against a righthander, Zach Varela, who came in with a record of 3-0 and 0.92 ERA.  Reduced hitting by the Titans was expected – but the Highlanders coming out of the gate with six straight hits and a walk against the Titans’ Grahamm Wiest was completely unexpected.

It looked like “same old, same old” when Pedroza led off the game with a single, but Varela worked out of it scorelessly.

Devyn Bolasky led off with a chopper over the head of third-baseman Chapman for a single – have I mentioned how awful the infield is at the Plex?  Joe Chavez followed with a groundball single into rightfield that advanced Bolasky to third.  Clayton Prestridge followed with a groundball double between Chapman and the third-base bag to make it 1-0.

With two runners in scoring position, the cleanup hitter, David Andriese, lifted a routine pop-up into shallow leftfield.  The runner on third retreated and was not going to attempt to score, assuming the ball would be caught for just the first out.  But the ball was not caught, as shortstop Pedroza was blinded by the blazing sun and the high sky in the 951: it fell harmfully for an RBI single to make it 2-0.

Francisco Tellez then found a hole between Lopez and the first-base bag with a groundball single to load the bases.  Kyle Boudreau then grounded a single through the 5-6 hole to make it 3-0.  The fourth run scored on a walk to Nick Vilter and the fifth on a 4-6-3 double-play.

The Highlanders took it to the Titans for another run in the second on a hit-batsman, throwing error by catcher Jared Deacon, stolen base and RBI groundout.  I liked the confidence displayed by the Titans coaching staff, playing the infield back in the second inning, already trailing 5-0.  Although the late-inning comeback fell short, it showed a calm demeanor and they didn’t hit the panic button.

Trailing 6-0, the Titans finally got on the board in the top of the fourth with an unearned run against Varela.  Lorenzen reached on a bad-hop (go figure) infield single, went to third on a single by Anthony Hutting and scored on a groundball (reached on error) by Jefferies.  Varela escaped greater harm by inducing an inning-ending double-play ball.

But the Highlanders stayed tough, responding with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning off reliever Koby Gauna on a triple by Chavez and an infield groundout to make it 7-1.  Even in the fourth inning, the Titans demonstrated confidence in their offense by playing the infield back.

Peitzmeier entered the game in the bottom of the fifth and was sensational, throwing 3-2/3 innings of scoreless relief, giving his teammates an opportunity to chisel away at the UCR lead.

The Titans cut the deficit to 7-3 in the top of the sixth on a walk to Davis and two-out RBI hits by Hutting (double) and Jefferies (single).  After Wallach (who had entered the game after Deacon was injured running to first-base) walked, Coach Smith replaced Varela with southpaw Mark Garcia.  The Titans countered with pinch-hitter Velazquez, who grounded out to end the threat.

Pedroza led off the seventh with a single and advanced on a wild pitch and a groundout.  With the dangerous right-handed heart of the batting order coming up (Chapman, Davis, Lorenzen, Jefferies, Wallach), the Highlanders went to their righthanded closer, Trevor Frank, and decided to keep the game in his hands.  Chapman grounded out, with Pedroza scoring to make it 7-4.

The Titans drew to within one run with a pair in the top of the eighth.  Hutting singled, went to second on a wild pitch and scored on an RBI single by Jefferies.  Wallach then crushed another shot into the gap in left-centerfield to make it 7-6.  Wallach remained in the game as the potential tying run with one out, but after Clay Williamson flied out, Diemer was sent in to pinch-run.  Pedroza struck out swinging to end the rally, after a 3-1 pitch that looked about ten inches outside was called strike two.

Even though Frank had entered in the seventh and the Titans had scored in three consecutive innings, there was never a thought of bringing in any other pitcher – nobody picked up a ball in the UCR bullpen.

Lopez led off the ninth and blooped a single into “no man’s land” in leftfield.  Chapman squared to bunt the potential tying run into scoring position – then drew back and perfectly executed the “slash” play, driving a hard groundball base-hit past the charging infielders.

This is when baseball strategy is at its best.  You’ve got your clean-up hitter at the plate in Davis, who swings a great bat but is not often called on to bunt (two sacrifices in 46 games played).  The “baseball book” says to play for the tie on the road and the win at home in this situation.  You have two very skilled bunters (Keegan Dale and Matt Orloff) available, but if you bring them to the plate, all uncertainty is removed.  It is further complicated by Davis also being the pitcher, so the designated-hitter was eliminated when he relieved Peitzmeier in the bottom of the eighth.  More complication?  Your options with closer Lorenzen (in the event you tie the score or take the lead) are also impacted by having already having removed outfielders Austin Kingsolver and Velazquez for pinch-hitters.  It’s what makes baseball so incredible.

Davis fouled off a bunt attempt, squared to bunt and took a ball, showed bunt when the pitcher stepped off the rubber to check the runners and finally popped out on a bunt attempt.  In a game that is remarkably easier to play, coach and umpire from up in the bleachers, I would have let him swing away.

Lorenzen and Frank then battled, with Michael finally reaching on an infield single smothered by the shortstop – the third hit of the inning for the Titans.  I felt great about our chances, with two clutch hitters due up, Hutting and Jefferies.

But Frank battled with the bases loaded and one out.  He threw six straight strikes to Hutting, including four that were fouled off, before slipping the seventh pitch past him for a called third strike.  Jefferies then flew out to centerfield to end the game.

Hutting had three of the dozen Titans’ hits, with Pedroza, Lorenzen and Jefferies having two each.  Jefferies had three RBI.  Wiest (8-3) took the loss, going just two innings and allowing six earned runs on seven hits and a walk.  It was his shortest outing as a starting pitcher in his Titans career.


So what did we learn out in the 951 this weekend?

Somebody at UC Riverside has a sense of humor.  In the Saturday boxscore under “Weather,” where they usually post the game-time temperature and whether it is sunny, cloudy or precipitous, they listed “really, really hot.”

When you score 32 runs on 46 hits in a three-game series, some batting averages are going to go up.  Including freshmen Darras and Kennedy each going 1-for-1, there were twelve players hit .333 or better for the series.  Wallach led the way with a monster weekend: 6-for-7 (.857) with a slugging percentage of 1.714, including two singles, three doubles and a home run.  The only out he made was a warning-track flyball.

Pedroza (6-for-12) and Velazquez (3-for-6) each batted .500, with Velazquez contributing five RBI and a home run.  Jefferies batted .429 (3-for-7 with 3 RBI) while Lopez hit .385 (5-for-13 with 3 RBI).  Five players hit .333: Chapman (5-for-15 with double, triple, home run and five RBI); Davis and Lorenzen (both 4-for-12); Hutting (3-for-9) and Orloff (2-for-6).

Peitzmeier stellar
The big early leads on Friday and Saturday afforded the Titans the luxury of resting their super-frosh, Eshelman (65 pitches) and Garza (63 pitches), after five innings of shutout pitching each.  The bullpen hasn’t had much work recently because of the strength of the starting rotation and dearth of midweek games late in the season, so the rust was apparent on Friday night.  But the bullpen was fantastic on Saturday and Sunday, which will become very important if the team has any hopes of making a deep run in the playoffs.

I’m not sure what was more brutal: Mothers Day at the home of Pamela and “Jellybean” Joe Bryant or getting fried like an egg in the metal bleachers watching the first inning of the game on Sunday.  Let’s call it a toss-up.  It was just one of those games.  For a groundball pitcher like Wiest, most days you have a lot of balls hit within range of an infielder and there are some that find a hole.  Other days, you have balls hit hard but right at the fielders.  This was that odd day when every groundball found a hole – give credit to the Highlanders for hitting the ball down and hard on that booby-trapped infield of theirs.

As bad as the start of the game was and how exasperating it was to leave the bases loaded in the ninth, there were some very encouraging things that happened that day.  Even after digging themselves a deep hole, the Titans fought hard and nearly climbed all the way out.  The relief pitching was stellar, particularly Peitzmeier – maybe growing up pitching in the sweltering Midwest summers made him the perfect man for the assignment.  Hutting had a big day at the plate – he seems to be “Mr. Sunday” recently.

More than the loss, I was concerned about how the Titans lit up left-handed pitching all weekend but struggled against right-handers.

Baking in the sun on a 101 degree day, my mind tends to wander.  I contemplated the correlation between “good control” and “pitching effectiveness.”  While ERA is the legacy metric used to assess pitching effectiveness, sabermetricians have added a slew of new categories.  Some of my favorites are: CERA (Component ERA, which is an estimate of his ERA based on his K, H, 2B, 3B, HR, BB, HBP pitching line); FPOM (counts when outs are made on the first pitch); RRA (a function of how many inherited runners a relief pitcher allows to score); and my favorite, pNERD (expected aesthetic pleasure of watching an individual pitcher.)  I have no idea how pNERD is calculated, but I can intrinsically appreciate the difference in ‘aesthetic pleasure’ between watching a pitcher who works quickly and throws strikes versus the human rain delays and guys that habitually run deep in the count.

It got me thinking about a measurement of control that we will call WTF:  Wild Thing Factor.  WTF is the total number of walks, hit-batsmen and wild pitches allowed per nine innings.  The fifteen pitchers used this season by the Titans are listed in table in order of WTF; the ERA is not part of the calculation but is included for reader convenience:

A few observations:

The calculation treats wild pitches as mathematically equivalent to walks and hit-batsmen, which is a debatable premise: wild pitches advance runners but don’t put men on base, unlike walks and HBP.  But one can argue a wild pitch may be more damaging than a walk or HBP.  A walk or HBP may be strategic and can set up a double-play, while there is nothing positive about a wild pitch, which can allow up to three runners to advance and can take away double-play situations without ever setting up a DP.  (Since I was the one out there baking in the sun on Sunday, I get to make the rules.)

Even the term “wild” can be a misnomer.  To me, “wildness” equates to pitches that arrive at unintended locations.  While no pitch is released with intent to arrive at the backstop, many pitches that arrive in the dirt out in front of the plate were intended for that exact location in order to get the batter to chase an unhittable pitch, with greater susceptibility to wild pitches an intrinsic byproduct of that pitch selection.  Similarly, hit-batsmen are often strategic and not always indicative of wildness.

There was not data available to subtract intentional walks, but the Titans rarely deploy that maneuver, so it should not skew the metrics in any substantive manner.

There is not an exact correspondence between WTF and ERA in measuring pitching effectiveness….but there certainly is some degree of correlation.  I love quirky statistical anomalies like Lopez’s and Birosak’s WTF being identical to their ERA. It’s also just one more tangible metric of how great Eshelman has been – his WTF of 0.71 is sick!  It also shows the control displayed by Gauna and Peitzmeier, who sometimes tend to fly under the radar. I also like the reflection on Garza’s control: he lights up radar guns and strikes out a lot of hitters, but he should also be recognized for excellent control.

You can’t draw much meaning from small data sizes – especially with small samples sizes of innings pitched. For pitchers with fewer than 10 innings, it is essentially statistically insignificant. But I think it is very noteworthy that WTF paints a stark contrast between the overall Titans’ pitching and their opponents’: Titan pitchers allow just 2.73 walks, HBP and wild pitches per nine innings, while their opponents allow 7.20.  The WTF gap (2.73 vs. 7.20) may be more revealing than ERA (2.54 vs. opponents’ 5.45.)

UC Irvine has a team ERA of 3.29 and WTF of 4.19 (as of Monday), so both are appreciably better than the average Titans opposing pitching staff.  Expect intense, well-pitched battles this weekend at Goodwin Field.

Baking and whittling in the 951
If it wasn’t for Cal State Northridge (and arguably UC Davis), the Riverside Sports Complex would be the worst facility in the BWC, and generally one of the worst in the West.  The infield is a landmine and the outfield is sloped more than the Oakmont Country Club.  The lights in the intramural field behind the stadium are far superior to those at the baseball field (which raises the philosophic question – are no stadium lights better than bad lights?)  There is no PA speaker working on the visitors’ side – we could hear the noise from a distant freight train louder than the National Anthem.  The tin can seating structure gives you a backache during night games and a backache plus third-degree burns during day games with that intense 951 sunshine blazing its way through the photochemically-enhanced ozone layer.

If it wasn’t for the terrific $2.50 hot dogs, free refills on soft drinks and that cool old guy that sits in the stands and whittles every game, I wouldn’t have anything nice to say about that place.  The dude playing the bagpipes was pretty cool too.

Hypothetically speaking…if you were an umpire, how would your calls be impacted by a blowout score?  I’ve watched a few games over the years and even umpired a couple when I wore a younger man’s clothes.  I think it is perfectly fine – even expected – that you will open up your strike zone in a blowout.  But I never found it right to intentionally blow safe/out or foul/fair calls just to get the game over faster.  Sure, you supersede the “tie goes to the runner” premise to get outs on close plays when the score is lopsided – but I never wanted to embarrass myself with absurd, blatantly wrong calls just to get the game over.  There were a couple of calls Friday and Saturday nights that would have been embarrassing to make even if the score was 50-0 at the time.  What are your thoughts?

Haven’t these playoffs been amazing this year?  Growing up in the era of George “Punch” Imlach, Hector “Toe” Blake, Lorne “Gump” Worsley, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Eddie Giacomin, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, etc., there is nothing better than a playoff series between “Original Six” teams.  The Bruins’ shocking comeback from a 4-1 third period deficit to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in overtime was amazing – the first time a team ever overcame a three-goal third-period deficit in a seventh game of a Stanley Cup playoff series.  Now it’s on to a series against the New York Rangers, another of the Original Six.  The Rangers have a hot goaltender, which can be the great equalizer in a seven-game series. And the match-up between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings (both Original Six teams) renews one of the greatest sports rivalries – that should be a riveting series.

I’m really looking forward to Senior Day at home on Tuesday in the game against UCLA.  It will be very interesting how the deployment of seniors affects the line-up and pitching selections in this game, which has significant RPI impact potential for both teams as they near the finish line and look to strengthen their resumes for post-season seeding and host site selection.  I found it fascinating how the coaches prioritized winning the conference game on Sunday and didn’t “hold back” their bullpen stalwarts (Gauna, Peitzmeier and Davis) against Riverside to set up the pitching for the UCLA game.  I understand and agree with the strategy – they needed to push the pedal-to-the-metal to give them breathing space in the BWC and put them in position to clinch before playing Northridge the final weekend series.

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