Heading into the weekend road series with Tulane, the Cal State Fullerton Titan Baseball team had a record of 1-7. To say that is very “untitan-like” is an understatement. Many Titan Baseball fans were ready to abandon ship after losing to Nevada-Reno mid-week and dropping to 0-4.
Although the start of the 2018 has been inauspicious and downright depressing, there is no need to hit the panic button and write off the season as a failure. The Titans can right the ship and within a regular season that includes over 50 games, there is plenty of room to improve and make a run in the postseason.
Let’s closely exam the symptoms of the slow start for the 2018 Titans:
Level of competition: Opening the season on the road against Stanford we knew was going to be a tall task. Factor in the Cardinal was already ranked preseason Top 20 depending on the poll you considered, they are now 8-0 and ranked between four and eight depending on the poll. Add in the revenge factor of Stanford wanting to extract some additional pain on the Titans for bouncing them in their own postseason Regional, the Titans getting swept, although painful, was up against a buzz saw to open the season.
Beating Houston on Friday night gave the Titan fans some solace that the losing streak was finally over but that feeling was quickly fleeting after dropping the series at home to the Cougars. Getting pounded by UCLA mid-week did not help bring much comfort either despite both Houston and UCLA are highly regarded and highly ranked in the numerous college baseball polls.
Stat geeks will point to the lowly offensive production, or lack thereof, as the culprit for the slow start. Hard to argue with batting stats of .207/.302/.255 heading into Tulane will not win you a lot of games if it continues. Others would argue that pitching and defense has always been at the forefront of the Titan style of baseball. Highly anticipated dominant pitching has been slow to materialize even from Friday ace Colton Eastman.
Unfortunately, Andrew Quezada, the Cypress College transfer, has struggled over his first two starts, recording a 8.71 ERA. Colton Eastman did not look like he had shaken off the rough appearance he had in Omaha. Facing Stanford to open the season, Eastman allowed seven hits and five runs (four earned) in just 4.1 innings. Let’s not even discuss the Tanner Bibee debacle that was his Sunday start vs. Stanford, recording only one out and allowing four runs before being pulled.
That’s how Titans fans got to this point but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This 2018 Titan squad has quite a few more games to go before entering Big West Conference play and to compete for the automatic bid into the NCAA postseason tournament. The 2018 Titans have both time and history on their side to turn it around.
Here are the fact and they are irrefutable. Two-thirds of the Titans 2017 weekend rotation was lost to the draft (Connor Seabold & John Gavin) and six of the nine regular batters were also lost to either the draft or graduation. Any other fan base would be happy to have a rebuilding year after going to Omaha the previous year. But that’s not the expectations of Titan fans. Titans fans are accustomed to reloading rather than rebuilding.
The talent level is there on campus. It just has not been a “plug and play” process this early.
Ruben Cardenas is now healthy and is taking over for Hunter Cullen who graduated. Mitchell Berryhill is also coming around and will be a fine replacement for Scott Hurst who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Dillon Persinger was drafted by the Cleveland Indians and it will take the non-conference schedule to find the regular 1st baseman in either Jake Pavletich or freshman Jace Chamberlain. Daniel Cope is showing signs he can call a good game behind the plate and is showing signs of power and production with a bat in his hands. Spending a season of watching Chris Hudgins before getting drafted by the Royals organization will prove time well spent for Cope.
Third base is still a work in progress in that Pavletich has been seeing more time at the hot corner with the emergence of Chamberlain at first. Zach Weller and Brett Borgogno will battle each other and Pavletich to replace last year’s third baseman Taylor Bryant who departed via the MLB draft. By the time Big West Conference plays starts, one of those three should have the hot corner locked down by earning it with the bat and a glove.
The talent is there but there is no ignoring the fact the Titans entered the Tulane series 1-7. By comparison, Oregon State lost a grand total of six games all of last year and that includes the two losses to LSU in the College World Series. To be considered not only a contender for the College World Series but to be in consideration for the postseason, the Titans will need to put together some late season win streaks. But the Titans are no stranger to putting it all together late and at just the right time.
Take a look at the 2014 Titan Baseball season. The Titans came into the season highly regarded and were ranked No. 1 in the majority of the college baseball polls. That team seemed to believe their own preseason press clippings and stumbled to a 18-17 record by late April. After losing the series to Long Beach State in early May, the Titans were barely above .500 with a 22-20 record. A late season push got the Titans an invite to the playoffs where they eventually advanced to the Regional Finals against host Oklahoma State.
In 2015, The Titans were sluggish all season before turning it on late. By March 24, 2015, the team was below .500 with a 11-12 record. That team went on to finish the season strong yet again, hosting a regional in which they did not lose a game. They went onto the Louisville Super Regional against the heavily favored Cardinals and advanced to the College World Series.
Two season ago in 2016, after losing the non-conference series with Long Beach State, their record sat at 12-11. From that point on, the 2016 Titans went 24-12 and yet again were invited to the postseason.
Just last year, the start to the season was not stellar either. This time last year, the Titans also dropped their first mid-week contest to San Diego State much like they did to Nevada-Reno this year. Headed into the third weekend series of the year, the 2017 Titans were only 4-3. From March 24th to April 1st, the Titans lost five in a row including getting swept by the dreaded Dirtbags, one to UCLA and to lowly UC Riverside. The 2017 Titans limped into the playoffs despite placing third in the Big West Conference standings. 2017 proved to be another good year by advancing to Omaha for the 18th time despite a sluggish regular season performance.
And while we are mentioning Oregon State, their nearly flawless regular season record of 54-4 did not equate to being anointed the national champions based on their regular season. The Beavers were bounced by LSU before even making it to the College World Series Championship Series. The Titans track record and Oregon State’s recent history goes to show, it is not how you start but rather how you finish.
With still a lot of college baseball to be played this season, it is not prudent to throw in the towel on 2018. Coach Rick Vanderhook set up the 2018 schedule this way intentionally. Hooky would rather have his teams face tough competition on the road with high RPI ratings in order to prepare his squad for conference play. Win your conference and you are in the postseason. You can’t go to Omaha if you don’t make the Regionals.
Looking ahead, the early tests of playing Stanford and Houston will pay dividends. Although playing Oregon State in Corvalis could be a humbling experience since they have not lost yet this season but could also be a confidence builder. The Beavers are not invincible and have shown signs they can give up runs. Both Cal Poly SLO and Ohio State plated seven runs and eight runs respectively when they played Oregon State. If the Titans can come away with a win and split the series on the road, that will be a huge boost.
The Titans then return home to host a three game series vs. Grand Canyon which is a winnable series. The final non-conference series sees Long Beach State come into Goodwin Field March 23-25 which will help shape the rest of the season for the Titans. The Dirtbags are not dominating to open the season either and this could be an excellent barometer of how the conference schedule may play out.
Win the Conference = go to the postseason: The teams expected to finish at the top of the league are all under .500 this young season. Long Beach State, Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara are all below .500 in the win column but have faced some very stiff competition. The Dirtbags’ schedule is as grueling as they come facing St. Mary’s, TCU, Arizona State, Ole Miss and next weekend will play Texas A&M on the road.
Cal Poly has racked up losses to Oregon State, Gonzaga, New Mexico, Grand Canyon and even San Jose State. You think their fan base might be a little unnerved over those early losses?
UC Santa Barbara looks even worse in that they opened the season by getting swept at San Diego State, losing to Mississippi State and Texas A&M-Corpus-Christi and then ended February by losing to Fresno State.
Also consider the state of the Big West Baseball Conference is uncertain right now. Just a few weeks in and Hawaii, Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine are the only teams above .500. All three are not expected to contend for the Big West title although Northridge is expected to be improved.
Consider the injury to Long Beach State starting pitcher John Sheaks has a lot of Dirtbags’ fans panicked for the future of their season. Sheaks was the front runner for LBSU’s Friday night starter spot and he suffered a UCL tear in practice prior to the start of the season. That would be as if Fullerton’s Colton Eastman tore his UCL in early February. How much would Titan Baseball fans be freaked out by that?
Other Big West teams have yet to iron out their weekend rotations and starting line-ups just as the Titans are still a work in progress. Coming into the Stanford series, all Titan fans thought it was going to be Eastman Fridays, Andrew Quezada Saturdays and freshman Tanner Bibbee on Sundays. The drubbing Bibbee took in Palo Alto showed he may not be ready to take on a weekend starting role just yet and that is why Junior Blake Workman, thought to be the mid-week starter and set-up man on the weekends, is now starting on Sundays.
Method to the Madness: Has the beginning of the 2018 Titan Baseball season held up to expectations? Absolutely not. Has is gone according to plan? Maybe.
Although there are doubters of Vanderhook or “Hooky Haters” among the fan base, Coach Vanderhook makes no bones about intentionally scheduling a grueling, non-conference schedule. The method to the madness is to see what type of team he has going into conference play. That way there is no doubt as to who to put on the line-up card each day.
Last year, the DH spot was up in the air until Hank LoForte separated himself from Jake Pavletich, JT McClelland, Boston Romero, Niko Pacheco and Daniel Cope who Hook all tried at the DH spot. Keep in mind that it took some time in the non-conference for Hook to convince Dillon Persinger to make the move to 1st base.
Persinger arrived on campus from JC thinking he would play second base. Sahid Valenzuela arrived as a freshman as a natural short stop. But the return of Timmy Richards for his senior year with the sole intent of getting back to Omaha one more time prompted everyone to shift to their left. Sahid moved to second and Persinger adapted to first base quite nicely.
Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back on the 2017 season, finishing third in the Big West, going 1-5 against hated Long Beach State in the regular season, losing to UC Riverside on a Friday, dropping two of three vs. Cal Poly, losing to UC Santa Barbara at home and losing to Cal State Northridge was not what Titans fans wanted or expected. Going to Omaha for the 18th time in program history and getting their ticket punched at Blair Field against their biggest rival, was all the convincing Titan fans needed last year.
Cal State Fullerton Baseball fans have high expectations every year. That comes with the territory and why players choose to come to Fullerton. The players have high expectations of themselves and are willing to make sacrifices just to be on the team.
Andrew Quezada was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 20th round of the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft. Quezada chose Cal State Fullerton over the signing bonus and playing in the minor leagues straight of Cypress College. (Paul Campbell, RHP from Clemson, was drafted behind Quezada and signed for $50,000.)
Back-up catcher Nick Ciandro passed on a scholarship offer from Cal State Bakersfield in 2016 and an offer from Austin Peay in 2017 in order to walk-on to play with the Titans. If JC kids are turning down scholarship offers to come and play for your program and pay your institution to do it, you have the winning tradition and high expectations that student-athletes of this caliber want to be around.
After securing the first series win of the 2018 season with a 9-6 victory over Tulane on Saturday, the Titans went for the sweep On Sunday. Unfortunately seven Titan players failed to make curfew and Coach Rick Vanderhook was the one making the rounds doing bed checks. All seven players were suspended for Game 3 vs. Tulane and were banished to the first base bleachers. The Titans went on to lose that game, as you might expect, losing 9-3 to the Green Wave. (The “Fullerton 7” issue will be addressed in another blog post coming this week.)
Prior to the Sunday loss, the Titans seemed to be putting things together. Ruben Cardenas had three doubles on Saturday which was part of a 15 hit day. Mitchell Berryhill extended his team-best hit streak to seven games, as he recorded a base hit, a run scored and a career-high three RBI in the win. Jake Pavletich notched a season-high three hits while scoring a run and recording an RBI.
If you shrug off the two wins in New Orleans as being against inferior competition, consider this. Vanderhook has much respect for Tulane and said in the New Orleans Advocate, “That team’s going to play in June (in a regional), at least in my eyes,” said Vanderhook. “They are physical. They are strong. They hit the ball with authority and can really bust the gaps as well.”
The sample size is small but if this upward trend continues, the panic of starting 0-4 and 1-7 may quickly fade.
Don’t abandon ship just yet Titan fans. There still is a long way to go before full panic mode can set in.