Feb. 1, 2006
A year removed from the lingering pomp and circumstance of a 2004 national title and seven months from being left on the turf of Goodwin Field to watch the Sun Devils of Arizona State celebrate, the Cal State Fullerton Titan baseball team is locked and loaded, ready for a return to Rosenblatt Stadium in 2006.
"Last year was disappointing, we wanted to get back to the College World Series and play in that final game, but we came up one run short. So yes, there is definitely a fire burning there," said tenth-year skipper George Horton. His Titans saw a five-run lead fade away on that Super Regional Sunday afternoon, a 9-8 loss that kept the Titans out of Omaha for the first time in three years.
But they are back to try again. At least a good majority of them are back. In what could have been a major rebuilding year, five of the eight starting position players will return to their regular stomping grounds in 2006. Like apples from a tree, 14 Titans were plucked off the 2005 roster by Major League Baseball in the draft, potentially leaving no returning starters on the field. To add insult to injury, senior utlility infielder Mark Carroll signed a free-agent contract, taking the Titan loss to a possible 15 players. But when Horton got word that not only would he get his three redshirt sophomores back, but also a pair of juniors, his outlook for 2006 brightened considerably.
"We understand the system. We embrace our relationship with Major League Baseball. We know that kids come to Cal State Fullerton to get an education and play baseball, but we also know that when the time comes, we have to let them go," Horton explained."They come to develop their skills and get stronger, and when it is time, we shake their hand and say good luck."
"We are very fortunate to have (John) Curtis, (Brett) Pill, and (Blake) Davis come back to us for their junior seasons," said Horton, "And we were pleasantly surprised by the return of `Red' (Justin Turner) and Danny (Dorn), both of whom turned down significant amounts of money to come back and play. We are very blessed."
The Titans did part ways with 10 of their players, though, most significantly Big West Conference Co-Player of the Year and All-American Sergio Pedroza, Big West Pitcher of the Year and All-American Ricky Romero, and All-Big West Conference third baseman Ronnie Prettyman. Pedroza provided the sock in 2005, something the `06 Titans will need to replace. Pedroza's 16 home runs gave opposing pitchers an obstacle in the No. 3 spot in the lineup, while Romero, a No. 1 draft pick by the Blue Jays, was just as valuable for the Titans, going 27-9 over his last two seasons. Prettyman, the tough-as-nails third baseman that Horton compared to former Titan Tony Martinez as "the best third baseman he has ever seen in college baseball," will surely be missed on the hot corner. Prettyman provided defense and stability at the bottom of the lineup, hitting a team-leading .327 from the seven-hole.
Though a few changes between the lines may happen, Horton, the reigning Big West Coach of the Year, will return to battle with the same three assistant coaches.
"This will be our coaching staff's second year together. I expect there will be more cohesiveness between us, which will translate into us becoming a better team. If all goes well, you will see that in our players."
Assistants Jason Gill and Ted Silva will return to their posts for their second year, while long-time third base coach Rick Vanderhook begins his 20th season, second as the head of the offense. Gill will continue to work with infielders and hitters, and hold down the first base coaching duties while Silva will handle the pitching staff. Horton will likely be right there with Silva, with his finger on the pulse of the staff as well, trying to find arms to fill a void left by the departure of three of the Titan's four starting pitchers.
"Our biggest loss is really the fact that we lost our entire starting rotation from last season," Horton commented. "We will need to replace our weekend starters ... but we've got some guys. (Wes) Roemer will be back in the mix somewhere, as well as Jared Clark and Lauren Gagnier.
Horton, the two-time National Coach of the Year, has a very optimistic, yet realistic expectation for the 2006 Titans, stating, "you may see a better version of the Titans as the season goes along, but we have a positive nucleus coming back from last season, and they have a willingness to work hard. They are a very talented group of young men and they have accepted every challenge we've given them thus far."
Davis was a first-team All-Big West shortstop and jumped his batting average from the previous year 30 points to .325, while playing magnificently in the six-hole. The speedy left-handed hitter hit a whopping eight triples and stole a team-leading 17 bags from the lead-off position, where you can expect him to be again in 2006. This summer Davis became the Titans' 15th US National team member as he started 16 of 20 games for Team USA at short.
Turner is the prototypical No. 2 hitter with the ability to bunt, hit-and-run, hit for average (.324), and run the bases. More than his hitting abilities, his defense has proven invaluable to the middle of the Titan infield. He brings an intangible knowledge of the game that has been the centerpiece of the Titan infield for the past three seasons. Turner's .992 fielding percentage in 2005 was the highest fielding percentage ever by any Cal State Fullerton infielder. He committed just two errors in 263 chances.
Pill might be one of the players the Titans look to fill the role as power hitter, once held by Pedroza in 2005 and Kurt Suzuki in 2004. Pill showed signs of greatness last year, hitting for both power (9 HR) and average (.327), while holding down first base with the best of them. He quietly saved the infielders and the Titan pitching staff with a big frame standing on first. Pill led the team in average, at bats, and runs while trailing Pedroza's team-leading 58 RBI by just one.
Third base has remained the question mark throughout the Fall and into the January workouts. There is a dead-heat between returner Evan McArthur, who was Prettyman's late inning replacement, and newcomer Bryan Harris. Both have played exceptionally well thus far and have very similar skills to offer. Whoever ends up in the starting line up at third, watch for the other as an option at designated hitter.
Look out for redshirt freshman Joe Scott to be the first up as a defensive replacement off the bench. Horton has commented that he offers an advanced level of defensive skill and can likely fill a lot of roles.
The Titans lost Pedroza and Bobby Andrews to the draft, but don't let that deceive you. There is plenty of depth remaining in the Fullerton outfield.
The smooth-swinging lefty Dorn will be back for his senior season to patrol left field like he has the past three seasons. His average was down in 2005, but his power numbers were up, as he hit 10 bombs while driving in 49 RBI. He has been a model of consistency for the Titans, with Coach Horton comparing him to major leaguer Garret Anderson. Dorn, with 162 career RBI, is the leader among all returning collegiate players in the country. Look for Dorn's power numbers to improve as he fills out the middle of the Titan lineup.
In center field, the coaching staff couldn't be happier to have 2004 Freshman All-American Clark Hardman make his return after missing most of 2005 with a shoulder injury that required surgery on his throwing arm. Hardman, who hit .341 in 2004 and .500 in 12 at bats in 2005, will complete the Titans' defensive strong-hold up the middle. Though his arm may not be at its strongest early on, look for Hardman to be a welcome addition back to the Titan lineup.
Utility outfielder Brandon Tripp and senior Joe Turgeon will be fighting for the Titans' right field job. Tripp who may have an edge having played in 54 games last season, hitting .343 and pounding four home runs in 99 at bats last season. But don't count out the speedy Turgeon, the eldest Titan senior, who has amassed a career .306 average over three seasons in the pinstripes. He has the needed tools to compete for the right field position and might just get some playing time.
J.D. McCauley will likely fill the role of the Titans' fifth outfielder. Also, look for McCauley to step into the DH role on occasion.
The Titans have again optioned to carry a load of catchers, but may only look one to two deep. Penciled in at the outset will be starting catcher John Curtis, who hit only .234 in his first full season as catcher, but was a durable and reliable leader for the pitching staff in 2005. Saddled with the expectations former Titan Suzuki left him, Curtis handled the pitching staff with confidence and threw out 27 percent of the runners trying to steal against him.
Recovering from the loss of three pitchers that won a combined 28 games may not be the easiest thing to do. However, the Titans have enough reliable arms to get them to where they need to go. 2005 Big West Freshman Pitch of the Year Roemer will likely headline the Titan staff as he is the only starter returning from last season's squad. The 2005 Fullerton Regional Most Valuable Player, went 7-3, averaging 7.2 innings per start. Sophomore Clark will likely get his chance to shine after 5 midweek starts last season. The hard-throwing righty went 1-1 in his first collegiate season, striking out 17 hitters in 25 innings. Junior righty Lauren Gagnier may make the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation, bringing a good location and a change of speed to the staff. Last season, Gagnier was 3-0 with a 3.40 ERA in 21 appearances out of the pen. Transfer Ryan Paul (L.A. Pierce College) and returner Adam Jorgenson may make a run at the starting rotation as well. Again the Titans will rely on bull pen ace Vinnie Pestano as their closer. Pestano tallied 13 saves in 34 appearances, striking out 49 in 50.1 innings. The middle relief looks much like it did at the end of last season with lefties John Estes, and Dave Pherrin, and right handers Jorgenson, Brian Stevens, and Jeff Soulage ready to contribute. Look for newcomers Justin Klipp and Harris to possibly break into the staff. Harris, a third baseman, has shown that his arm may benefit them on the hill as well. The Titans are also cautiously anticipating the return of 2003 Freshman All-American Dustin Miller, who is continually building arm strength and endurance throughout January.