It seems like a broken record.
Cal State Fullerton steps in to a regional they have no business winning and not only win the regional, but sweep the entire thing and head to the Super Regional round. They don’t stop there, instead winning the best of three series and making another trip to college baseball’s mecca.
Such was the case for the Titans in the Stanford Regional this season. The Cardinal, second in the Pac 12 behind national #1 seed Oregon State, looked like a solid bet to advance and face off versus the winner of the Long Beach Regional. Stanford dominated a solid Sacramento State squad and had tons of pitching to take on the Titans in the winner’s bracket.
Fullerton, coming off a 13-2 win over BYU in their regional opener, showed that they could pitch as well in beating the Cardinal 4-1 to move to the regional final. Stanford fought back to force a rematch, but the Titans again easily handled a solid Stanford offense to the tune of a 4-2 win in the regional final. The Titans followed that up, winning two of three over Long Beach State to earn yet another College World Series berth.
Though they are not in a “power” conference, they are one of the most storied programs in all of college baseball. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament 38 times, only missing out in 1985, 1986, 1989, and 1991. That is 38 appearances in 42 seasons and a 26 season tournament streak.
They have done it with multiple coaches, as Augie Garrido (7x), George Horton (6x), Larry Cochell (2x), Dave Serrano (1x), and Rick Vanderhook (2x) have all led them to College World Series berths. Garrido (3x) and Horton (1x) have even led the Titans to the ultimate prize of a national championship.
Okay, Cal State Fullerton has the credentials to be mentioned with the best of college baseball historically. What does that mean about this team? Are they really a team that could make a run and win the 2017 national championship?
In case you were living under a rock and missed the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers win last year, any team is capable. But yes, the Titans can win the whole damn thing and I happen to have a few reasons why.
Surprising depth on the mound:
Connor Seabold (11-5, 3.01 ERA), a junior from Newport Beach, has been the Friday night starter for the Titans since the early portion of last season. Seabold has more than held his own versus quality competition and may not be a shutdown starter, but he has the ability to keep his team in the game no matter the situation.
John Gavin (8-2, 2.67 ERA) is a more than capable #2 pitcher and has feasted during the second game of the series all season long. He threw a complete game shutout in a must win game versus Long Beach State last Saturday. The ability to throw a pitcher like Gavin in the second game gives the Titans a bit more freedom to take chances when facing #1 Oregon State on Saturday.
Then you have the emergence of Colton Eastman (2-0, 1.09 ERA). Eastman made very few starts in the regular season but was limited in innings pitched throughout the season while other pitchers had their shot at the #3 spot. He has been let loose in the postseason in making a start versus Stanford in the regional and Long Beach State in the Super Regional. All he did during those two outings was pitch 13.2 innings without giving up a single earned run and earning wins in both games. Batters are hitting .070 during the postseason versus Eastman.
They don’t beat themselves:
More often than not, the difference in NCAA tournament games is in the error column. A team can do everything else perfectly, but a misplaced throw or booted grounder at the wrong time can turn a one-run inning into a huge rally. The Titans are one of the best fielding teams in the nation with a .981 overall fielding percentage.
Of the regular position players on the team, only two have more than five errors on the season. Big West Freshman of the year Sahid Valenzuela (.988) has only three errors in 246 total chances on the season, joining Chris Hudgins (.985), Dillon Persinger (.995), Taylor Bryant (.995) and the rest of the Titans for one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
Conine shuts the door in the ninth:
Closer Brett Conine is one of the best relievers in the game when the Titans need an out. He hasn’t given up more than one run in any save situations all season long. The only times that he has struggled on the mound occurred when he was brought into a game that was out of reach in either direction.
Conine was impressive in the regional versus Stanford, pitching three total innings and giving up a single run. He was only asked to pitch once in the Super Regional versus LBSU and came through, albeit while ageing the coaching staff in the process. As long as Conine isn’t asked to go beyond two innings, he is tough to beat.
A tough schedule gave them confidence:
One of the advantages of being a name program like Fullerton in this day and age is the fact that good teams are willing to accept game offers. The Titans played three game sets versus Stanford, UNLV, Houston, Gonzaga, USC, and New Mexico throughout the non-conference portions of the season. They played UCLA twice, Saint Mary’s, San Diego, Arizona, and Arizona State as well. That’s a who’s who of west coast college baseball. Playing a schedule like that built the Titans for a run in the tournament.
Getting hot at the right time:
Just like a hot goalie can lead a surprise team to the NHL final, the right players finding their stride at the right time can turn a pretender into a contender for the national crown.
Leading batters Scott Hurst (.332/12 HR/39 RBI) and Sahid Valenzuela (.324/24 RBI) have gone a combined 11-49 (.224) so far this postseason. In their places stepped Timmy Richards, Chris Hudgins, Dillon Persinger, and Hank LoForte. Hudgins and LoForte had the two worst averages in the regular season, but have combined to bat .357 with 12 RBI and two home runs in the postseason. If those batters continue to mash the ball, the Titans will be tough to stop.
Finally, in the immortal words of Bethune-Cookman in the Gainesville Regional, “Why not us?” Cal State Fullerton is already in the CWS for the 18th time, so why stop now? Why can’t they beat Oregon State, run the table, and win their fifth national championship to move into fourth all-time on the national title list?