Jan. 9, 2010
Fullerton, Calif. - With a stockpile of pitching and a potentially potent offensive line-up, Cal State Fullerton baseball looks poised for another run at the school's fifth national title.
The Titans are coming off two straight winless College World Series appearances, and the first under third-year Coach Dave Serrano in 2009.
"We went into Omaha excited about where we stood and what kind of team we were and we truly walked away disappointed. We felt we had the team to play for the national championship and we fell way short," Serrano said.
Last year's "First to Practice, Last to Play" rally cry got them to Nebraska in June in good shape, but uncharacteristic pitching woes and a lack of clutch hitting sent the Titans packing. They became the first of the "elite eight" to have their flag lowered outside of Rosenblatt Stadium.
Fast-forward seven months and the future looks promising.
Fullerton has a wealth of returning talent that includes an entire weekend pitching rotation, a closer, and a couple of top-round draft pick defenders up the middle to go along with a Top 5 recruiting class.
"We have a solid core of young men who are leading this team and we will do everything on and off the field possible to not allow ourselves to fall short in the event we find ourselves in Omaha again in 2010." Serrano said.
If the Titans are to get back to the College World Series in 2010, their pitching is sure to be one of the reasons. Serrano believes the Titans will be very deep and strong on the mound, where the Titans have produced at least one All-American every year since 1998.
The trio of Titan arms that carried the workload in 2009 will likely continue to do so in 2010. Slated to headline the Fullerton rotation are Daniel Renken (Jr., Cypress, Calif., Orange Lutheran HS), Noe Ramirez (Soph., East Los Angeles, Calif., Alhambra HS) and Tyler Pill (Soph., Covina, Calif., Covina HS), while Nick Ramirez (Soph., Anaheim, Calif., Katella HS) will return as the team's closer. All four of the hurlers achieved All-American status a year ago. The foursome accounted for 34 wins, seven saves and a 3.24 combined ERA and helped the Titan staff compile the nation's fourth-best ERA in 2009.
Renken, according to Serrano, didn't have the fall that the staff was expecting, but figures he will be the guy he hands the ball to on Friday nights. In that role for the first time last season, Renken was 11-3 with a 2.69 ERA and ranked second in the Big West in strikeouts.
With Pill likely becoming a bonafide two-way player and playing right field when he isn't pitching, Noe Ramirez will likely continue where he left off in the Saturday night slot. Serrano likes the way Noe Ramirez performed in the fall and is pleased with his growth on the mound. Along with Pill, Noe Ramirez was named the Big West's Co-Freshman pitcher of the Year in 2009 after posting a 9-2 record with 100 strikeouts (a Fullerton freshman record) and a 3.33 ERA.
On the mound, Pill has been "Mr. Consistency" throughout the fall, mimicking the methodical routine that saw him go 11-3 with a 4.06 ERA and set the Fullerton freshman record for most victories. Serrano is also very pleased that the right-hander has successfully added another pitch to his repertoire.
Despite any success they may have had last year, the returning core will have to continue to push as the Titan staff is deep - eight deep - says Serrano.
"We have our choices, and time will tell who is actually deserving of pitching in our weekend rotation and starting our midweek games."
This year the Titan skipper feels different than he did in 2009 when he was hoping that team's hitting might have to carry the Titans through the beginning of the season. Though he feels this year's offense will be just fine, the pitching has the ability to grab the bull by the horns early and carry the club through the first part of the year.
"Hopefully, we will see 3-to-4 guys separate themselves from the others as the starters, then we will filter everyone else into the other roles as they present themselves," Serrano said.
Others vying for spots in the rotation are Dylan Floro (Fr., RHP, Merced, Calif., Buahach Colony HS), Kevin Rath (Jr., LHP, Las Vegas, Nev., Silverado HS), Raymond Hernandez (Jr., RHP, Elk Grove, Calif., Consumnes River College), Collin O'Connell (Soph., RHP, Riverside, Calif., Arlington HS), and David Hurlbut (Soph., LHP, Concord, Calif., Diablo Valley College).
Floro, a 20th-round draft pick by Tampa Bay in 2009, will push the returners for a starting role.
"He has electric stuff on the mound and is pitch-ready," Serrano said of the youngest of two Floro brothers on the staff. "We are very lucky to have him here in Fullerton.
"A pitcher who has made big strides since last season has been Kevin Rath," Serrano continued. A southpaw from Las Vegas, Rath made five midweek starts and 10 relief appearances for the Titans in 2009. At times he showed dominance of the strike zone (9 strikeouts in 4.2 innings of relief against Oral Roberts), while struggling with his control at others.
"He has a ton of potential, and, if he continues to make strides in his performance, he can bolster our rotation as well as make us deeper in the pen."
A pleasant surprise for Serrano has been the steady performance of the newcomer Hernandez.
"He's a sinker-slider guy with a great change who ranked consistently as our top-performing pitcher throughout the fall. He can pitch in any spot we want him to. He can start, work middle- or long-relief, set up or even close if we need him to. I think when it is all said and done, you might see Hernandez's name up there with the most appearances on the team. He's that kind of guy."
Hernandez transferred to Cal Sate Fullerton after two seasons at Consumnes River College where he was a CCCB Northern Californian All-American in 2009.
O'Connell impresses the coaches whenever he is given the opportunity. The lanky right-hander's performance ranked in the top four all fall long with progressive signs of improvement. He was 1-0 with a 1.74 ERA in just 10 innings of work as a freshman in 2009.
Hurlbut is another MLB prospect who chose Fullerton over pro ball. The lefty was a 42nd round draft pick (Minnesota) out of Diablo Valley College where he struck out 77 in 66 innings for the Vikings as a freshman.
The leading candidate to close out ballgames will again be Nick Ramirez (Soph., Anaheim, Calif., Katella HS), and a new position to his collegiate resume may provide for some interesting late-inning warm up routines and glove switches.
"He did nothing to disappoint me after he took over the closing role last year," Serrano said. "He is our closer, but we will be in a different situation this year though because it's looking like he is going to be our starting first baseman."
Nick Ramirez proved to be a value to Serrano's young 2009 pitching staff, providing a 3-1 record and a team-leading seven saves in 41.1 relief innings down the stretch while serving as one of the team's designated hiters.
"If we need to mix it up, Hernandez, a righty, could complement Nick, (a lefty) as another closing option as well as the likes of Ryan Ackland (Sr., RHP, Yorba Linda, Calif., Esperanza HS), Kyle Mertins (Sr., RHP, Placentia, Calif., El Dorado HS) and some of the starters... we wouldn't hesitate to use Dylan Floro, Hurlbut or Rath in certain situations. Even Derrick Dingeman (Soph., RHP, Lakewood, Calif., Lakewood HS), who we've dropped down to a low 3/4 arm slot, could work in the closer role."
The 2010 Titans will have a strong offensive lineup with a good mix of left- and right-handed bats, and will have ample arms to contend on a national level on the mound, but where Serrano sees this year's squad lacking is defensively, where last year they set the school record for the best single-season fielding percentage (.976).
"This team is going to have to commit to being a championship defensive team," Serrano said. "We are going to hit well and execute on the offensive end, but we are going to have to pick up the ball and throw it across the diamond accurately more times than not or else we will be making it very tough on ourselves."
The Titans are looking at a number of players to fill out their defensive line-up, most of whom saw little or no time defensively in 2009.
The exception is at shortstop. Having recorvered from a clean break of both his tibia and fibula (leg) last summer with Team USA, two-time All-American Christian Colon (Jr., Corona, Calif., Canyon HS) will be back come opening day.
Colon had a stellar sophomore season (.537, 8 HR, 40 RBI) that saw him lead the Big West in hits and earn recognition as one of the best shortstops in the nation by the College Baseball Foundation.
Though the shortstop was cleared by doctors mid-fall to participate in team activities, Serrano had Colon sit out the entire fall session.
"I think we made a wise decision to not press him back into action right away - giving his leg time to heal completely before putting it to the test," Serrano said.
"And where we are now, we couldn't be happier with the way he has healed, and gone about getting better. If you look at him now, you would never know the trauma his leg was in just a few short months ago," Serrano said. "He has come back as a bigger and stronger athlete and we will be blessed to have him back at 100 percent when we start back up in January."
Nick Ramirez will be getting his first crack at the defensive lineup at first base after serving out his rookie campaign as one of the team's designated hitters and top relievers. He cracked 10 home runs and sizzled for the first half of 2009 before coming down to earth and finishing with a .287 average and 31 runs driven in.
The second and third base roles have yet to be set in stone, but the lead candidates for the vacancies are Matt Orloff (R-Fr., Simi Valley, Calif. Simi Valley HS), Corey Jones (Jr., Camarillo, Calif., Camarillo HS) and Joey Siddons (Sr., Camarillo, Calif., Oxnard College).
Orloff looks to be the front-runner to be the opening day starter at second with Jones penciled in at third.
Siddons' athletic ability could lend a hand at both second or third, but back problems limited his fall activity and the Titan staff is waiting to see how well his body reacts to the rest. As a newcomer in 2009, Siddons earned the starting spot at third base midway through the year after serving as a role player to begin the season. He finished with the team's second best batting average at .371 and can be a spark at the top or bottom of the line-up.
Orloff, the younger brother of 2009 Brooks Wallace Award winner, Ben Orloff (UC Irvine), is not the strongest or fastest guy on the diamond, but Serrano is confident in the infielder's determination.
"Matty doesnt bring the most God-gifted ability to the table, but what he does bring is mentality," Serrano said. "He does things the right way - everyday - and that's what Titan baseball is all about. He just goes about it every day, grinding it out, working his tail off. That hard work will eventually pay off for him."
Jones is coming off a redshirt year recovering from a leg injury suffered two summers ago. The left-handed hitting infielder saw his first action in a year last summer in the Northwoods League, where he was named the league's MVP as his team's shortstop. A versatile glove, he can play all the positions on the infield, but is the leading candidate to start the year at third base.
The outfield will have a different look than it did a year ago, with its only remaining member, Gary Brown (Jr., Diamond Bar, Calif., Diamond Bar HS), shifting over to stake his claim in centerfield. The speedster who saw time at all three spots in the outfield last year, is a preseason All-American and can cause havoc anywhere you put him in the line-up. Brown was third in the Big West in 2009 with 23 stolen bases and will get his chance to use those legs to run down the flies as the outfield captain.
Coming out of fall workouts the leading candidates to flank Brown are freshman Anthony Hutting (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., Tesoro HS) and Pill.
Pill, a 2009 Freshman All-American as a pitcher, looks like he will join Nick Ramirez as the team's second two-way player. Pill is scheduled to start on the mound on Sunday's but will put on his bigger glove and play right field the rest of the time. Pill came to Fullerton with all intentions of using both his bat and arm, but his success on the mound outweighed his bat and limited him to just 26 at bats (.269) in 2009.
A former Titan batboy and the cousin of former Titan and current San Francisco Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand, Hutting will get the chance to make an impact right away. He comes to Fullerton after passing up a chance to play in the Texas Rangers' organization (38th round pick).
"Anthony has not missed a stride since stepping foot on this campus," Serrano said. "He has a beautiful left-handed swing and will play one of our corner outfield spots. Right now left field looks like where he'll end up."
Hutting is coming off minor surgery on his hand that took place just before Thanksgiving, and he should be ready when January workouts resume. Serrano and the Hutting family thought it was wise to take care of the problem before it became a nuisance amidst the regular season.
Also pushing for some outfield playing time are rookie newcomers Casey Watkins (Fr., Saugus, Calif., West Ranch HS) and Ivory Thomas (Fr. Los Angeles, Calif., Downey HS). Serrano feels Watkins could hit for some power and may have the strongest arm of any Titan player, and that Thomas' athletic ability may have an impact as the Titans season progresses.
Managing the pitching staff from behind the plate will fall on the shoulders of either senior Billy Marcoe (Sr., Belleview, Wash., Eastside Catholic HS) or newcomer David Carillo (Jr., Glendora, Calif., Mt. SAC) - or both.
Marcoe has had an impressive year of growth coming into his first full season as the senior member of the catching brigade and may just make make his mark with the staff throughout the season. The right-handed hitting Marco batted .294 and drove in 10 runs in 68 at bats in 2009.
"Billy has shown all the qualities of a leader, just as Dustin Garneau did last year," Serrano said. "Even though he may not have the physical attributes of an everyday catcher, he has gotten his body in tremendous shape, and I think he is ready to hit the scene running."
Carillo, a junior college All-American in 2009, comes to Fullerton after two years at Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC).
As it stands, redshirt freshman Carlos Lopez (Northridge, Calif., Crespi HS) is the frontrunner to be the team's designated hitter. Titan fans may recognize the name, but did not see Lopez perform in 2009 due to season-ending knee surgery.
"Carlos is going to be in the middle of our lineup, and could be one of the best hitters in college baseball," Serrano said. "I feel pretty safe in saying that. There aren't many pitches that you can get him out with. He's just a pure, professional hitter. I love to label him like that, because that is what he is."
This year's baseball schedule has quite a different look to it. The Titans will be making just two road trips out of the state of California (Washington and Arizona), with no travel east of Tucson. There will be no trip to Stanford and they weren't able to work any dates with USC into their book. Thirty of the 56 games will be within the friendly confines of Goodwin Field, and they will not have an opening weekend series with just one team, but with three. So why all the changes?
Serrano attributes the Titans' western-heavy schedule to a couple of factors. One being the new coaching staff has taken the schedule in their own personal direction, the other, the program's budget mandates it.
"And it's not just our budget here, or just in the state of California. Programs all around the country have tighter budgets now. It has started to take its effect on travel and the scheduling of games," Serrano explained.
"When we look at our schedule compared to other schedules that we see around the country, we might have more of a western region-look to our schedule this year, but by no means would I ever consider this an easy schedule. We play some good programs, some great programs. The only thing I think we are really losing out of this - and I hope we don't - is that we aren't going to get to play in the really hostile environments that would help us prepare for possible postseason match-ups."
The 2010 schedule will kick-off with a bang as former Titan player and long-time Head Coach George Horton will make his return to Goodwin Field as the enemy as he and his Oregon Ducks will face off against the Titans on opening night.
"It will be pretty special to open up with Oregon and to compete against Coach Horton again," said Horton's former pupil and assistant coach. "We have both come to an agreement that it is a no-win situation for either of us.
"I think it will be great for the fans. It's great for the community. And I'm hoping he's looking at it as a great opportunity for him to come back and be recognized for everything he did for this program.
"It's going to be neat to see Oregon come down here. It will be the first time they play in Goodwin Field. It will be neat to see their colorful green and gold uniforms and it will be interesting to see which ones they break out against the Titans on opening night."