When Jim Schlossnagle was the coach at UNLV during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, his teams played an annual early-season series against Cal State Fullerton. While wins typically tend to be hard to come by for most teams when they play the Titans, Schlossnagle found those series to be quite valuable.
"Every year they're so well-coached, and Southern California kids play baseball year-round, so anything you're not good at, they expose it,"
said Schlossnagle, who has been the coach at Texas Christian since 2004. "So you learn pretty quickly where you stand and what areas you have to get better at. For me, that's the brand of baseball that I like to play, and I would prefer that our program plays. You tell your team, 'You see what they're doing? This is where we want to be.'
"From a [Ratings Percentage Index] standpoint, I used to have the theory that you don't want to play top-10 teams; you want to play good teams but not the great teams because if you don't win, it's useless in terms of the RPI. But there's value if you can win a game or two because later in the season you get those bonus points that help you [with NCAA tournament seeding]."
So when Schlossnagle's good friend Dave Serrano became coach at Fullerton in 2007, Schlossnagle jumped at the chance to schedule a home-and-home series with the Titans. CSF opened at TCU in 2008 (with Fullerton winning two of three), and the Horned Frogs will repay the visit this weekend.
This year more than ever, Cal State Fullerton is constructed to play that brand of baseball that Schlossnagle so admires. In preseason All-America shortstop Christian Colon, junior center fielder Josh Fellhauer and sophomore third baseman Gary Brown, the Titans have a trio of exceptional athletes who will wreak havoc with their speed and their line-drive bats. All three excel at small ball, just as veterans Joe Scott, Jeff Newman and Corey Jones do. Senior first baseman Jared Clark and junior outfielder Khris Davis provide big power potential, though Serrano said the Titans are still waiting for Davis to become more consistent in all phases and tap into his considerable talent. Freshman Nick Ramirez will start at DH immediately, adding a crucial left-handed power source.
The Titans also should be extremely strong defensively, with elite defenders up the middle in Colon, Scott, Fellhauer and catcher Dustin Garneau. Brown, who figures to take over for Fellhauer in center field next year thanks to his plus-plus speed, moves from left to third base this year to shore up a hole, and Serrano said he is still working on slowing the game down and playing under control, but he flashes great instincts at the hot corner, particularly on slow rollers.
The lineup's proficiency at the plate and in the field takes pressure off a talented but somewhat inexperienced pitching staff. Sophomore Daniel Renken will start Friday night, followed by polished junior college transfer Kyle Witten on Saturday and touted freshman righty Tyler Pill on Sunday. Pill -- who missed time in the fall after suffering a collapsed lung in a freak incident one night in his apartment -- has bounced back strong in the spring and beat out junior righty Michael Morrison for the Sunday job.
Pill has shown an 89-91 mph fastball, a good curve and a plus changeup, according to Serrano. Morrison has shown even more electric stuff but his command isn't yet where it needs to be, so he'll likely begin the year pitching in relief on weekends and starting midweek. Strike-throwing sidearmer Ryan Ackland begins as the closer in a bullpen that will rely on several newcomers.
"We know we'll be challenged, but we'll be protected by an exciting lineup, an attack offense that will put pressure on a lot of teams,"
Serrano said. "We'll play phenomenal defense in the infield and the outfield. We'll have a lot of veteran leadership on the field every day. It will allow this pitching staff to kind of grow up so they don't have to carry the load out of the gate. We want them to start carrying the load as we get to conference play."
Like the Titans, TCU will start a heralded freshman Sunday in right-hander Kyle Winkler, who dazzled with a 91-94 mph fastball and a sharp 78-81 mph breaking ball at the team's alumni game (Schlossnagle said Winkler was more impressive than alums Lance Broadway, Jake Arrieta and Sam Demel). Saturday starter Sean Hoelscher, a sophomore righty, is equally capable of dominating with a sinking 88-93 mph heater, a good changeup and a hard-breaking slider. But ace Tyler Lockwood, a junior righty, relies on location and pitches to contact.
"A lot of our guys pitch down in zone, and get a lot of balls hit, especially to the left side," Schlossnagle said. "We've been top-10 in the nation in defense the last two years [with a .976 fielding percentage that ranked sixth in 2008], and it's really important that we catch the ball. If you don't play defense behind Lockwood, you're going to be in trouble."
Fortunately, the Frogs have a sublime defender at second base in senior Ben Carruthers, and another steady senior at third in Matt Carpenter. But perhaps the key player for TCU is freshman shortstop Taylor Featherston, who must replace departed defensive whiz Bryan Kervin. Featherston has shown good instincts and an excellent arm in intrasquads, and he has flashed some power at the plate.
Power is an area in which TCU should be much improved in 2009. Carpenter led the team in homers with 11 last year thanks to a late-season power surge, and he'll get more help in the middle of the lineup from junior-college transfer Matt Curry, a Matt Stairs type with a powerful left-handed bat. Right fielder Matt Ellington -- an RBI machine -- is back for his senior year, and junior first baseman Matt Vern provides some pop as well.
Like Fullerton, the Frogs will rely on youngsters in the bullpen, especially power-armed freshmen righties Kaleb Merck (who will start as the closer thanks to a heavy fastball up to 93 mph and a bulldog mentality) and Erik Miller (who owns a deceptive three-pitch mix and reaches the low 90s as well). And just as Morrison is the X factor on the mound for the Titans, strong-armed righties Steven Maxwell and Greg Holle could take TCU to another level.
Maxwell, the team's best prospect, is mostly recovered from Tommy John surgery and worked in the 88-91 mph range in his last intrasquad outing; he'll start Tuesday against Dallas Baptist. Holle's offseason progress was slowed by bad weather when he went home to New York for the holidays, and he's about two weeks behind the rest of the staff with his arm strength and endurance, according to Schlossnagle. When he's back to 100 percent, the Frogs will have the option to structure their pitching staff a number of different ways, just as the Titans will.
Clearly, this series is not just valuable for the Horned Frogs. Fullerton will also benefit from the early-season test.
"Jim and I have an agreement: We hope to carry this series on for years to come," Serrano said. "We think it's good to get to another region of the country and play other good teams. We both play in environments with good weather this time of year.
"To me, on paper [the Frogs are] kind of under the radar a little bit, but they've got some guys back and they're going to be a challenge."
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