Commentary

Titans will rely on pitching versus TCU

Updated: February 26, 2010, 1:40 PM ET
By Aaron Fitt | Baseball America

Meaningful Matchup

[+] EnlargeGary Brown
Matt A. Brown/For the RegisterCal State Fullerton centerfielder Gary Brown can make a difference for the Titans as they face TCU this weekend.

Texas Christian at Cal State Fullerton

As Cal State Fullerton prepared to open its season against Texas Christian a year ago, Titans coach Dave Serrano said he expected his veteran lineup to carry the load early and take the pressure off his young pitching staff. By the stretch run, he said, he hoped his talented arms would be ready to shoulder a larger burden.

Fullerton's season went according to plan; after dropping two of three at home to TCU that first weekend, the Titans won 11 straight games en route to a 47-win season and a trip to the College World Series.

The entire weekend rotation -- righthanders Daniel Renken, Noe Ramirez and Tyler Pill -- is back this spring, and the Titans now turn to their arms to be a steadying presence while they try to replace six departed everyday regulars.

"This is kind of a reversal from last year," Serrano said. "Last year our offense had all the experience and it allowed the pitching staff to find their niche; this year the opposite will be true."

Once again, the Titans dropped two of their first three games -- getting stunned by Oregon in Friday's opener and getting shut out by Pepperdine on Saturday. Serrano credits the strong pitching his club faced the first two days, but he adds that Renken did not do a good job handling the emotions of Opening Day and the hoopla surrounding former CSF coach George Horton's return to Goodwin Field.

"Obviously the weekend didn't go as we had planned, but it is Week One, and it allows us to go back to the drawing board and see what areas we need to improve on," Serrano said. "Obviously the first weekend isn't going to change the way we feel about our club. We faced some really good pitching out of the gate, and we expect to beat good pitching, but we didn't handle it very well. From the pitching perspective, I thought that we pitched well but we didn't pitch well enough. In the 27 innings that we played, I think we pitched really well in 23 of them, but the four that we didn't cost us the games."

Of course, there is no reason for Serrano or anyone else to change their expectations for the Titans after one bad weekend. Consider this: In 36 seasons, Fullerton has gotten off to a 1-2 or 0-3 start 14 times. Eight of those 14 years, the Titans reached the College World Series, and only once did they fail to make regionals (1991).

Now the Titans -- who will be without Serrano on Friday and Saturday as he serves a three-game suspension for making contact with an umpire during an argument Saturday -- face a Horned Frogs team that should look similar. TCU has a deep, experienced pitching staff surrounding a talented lineup that is relying on some new faces to fill holes. Of course, TCU does not have a pair of preseason All-Americans up the middle like Fullerton has in shortstop Christian Colon and center fielder Gary Brown, but the Frogs got big contributions from their newcomers in a season-opening sweep of a quality Sam Houston State club.

Physical freshman outfielder/catcher Josh Elander (8-for-10 with six RBIs), speedy freshman center fielder Kyle Von Tungeln (3-for-12), and junior-college transfers Jerome Pena (5-for-11) and Joe Weik (4-for-10 with five RBIs) all started the first three games and impressed coach Jim Schlossnagle.

"I guess the most pleasing thing on the weekend was the new guys and how they handled their first Division I experience," Schlossnagle said. "Elander and Von Tungeln, I just watched how they handled the experience. We broke the attendance record for a three-game series here, so we had good crowds. The way they played the game, they were not fazed at all. Elander did not have a good fall -- he had maybe two or three hits all fall -- and not a good spring either, but he's a game guy. He had some really good at-bats, made two or three good plays in right field, and then Sunday we put him behind the plate and he caught better than he had.

"Von Tunglen was impressive. We've never had a legit left/left guy who can run but also hit the ball out of the ballpark and hit some doubles at the top of the order. We've always been looking for that guy, but hadn't found him. To this point, he looks like a special player. And Pena played second base well, and he played shortstop on Saturday and was adequate there. He's an electric guy, got a lot of tools. So for one weekend, we're fired up about it."

As for that other newcomer you might have heard about -- freshman lefthander Matt Purke, an unsigned first-round pick who turned down seven figures to enroll at TCU -- the early returns were good. Purke got the start Saturday and got the victory, striking out eight and walking one over five innings, though he allowed four runs (three earned) on seven hits. After allowing three runs in the first two innings (all with two outs), Purke settled into a groove.

"The next two innings he really started to pitch with his breaking ball," Schlossnagle said. "[Pitching coach] Randy Mazey did a good job, and changed the grip on him about two weeks ago -- he picked it up quick. The breaking ball is really his third best pitch, but he threw it well. It's a curveball, 77-78 mph, not a slider. With his fastball, he was anywhere from 91-93 sitting until the fifth, with a lot of life to the fastball, and up to 96-97 according to our board. Against a lot of guys who could run, he did some good things to manage the run game, which he'll certainly have to do this upcoming weekend. He handled adversity pretty good. He threw the changeup good too -- that had been his go-to pitch up until the breaking ball came on the last couple weeks."

With the nation's No. 4 recruiting class, TCU's young talent compares well with any team's, and Schlossnagle said he is excited about the way his youngsters approach the game. But he knows what is in store this weekend.

"So far, so good," he said, "but certainly life's going to change a little bit this week going to Cal State Fullerton, and all the things you have to deal with when you play Fullerton -- all the short- game things, their tendency to try to pick pitches, and they're tough on the bases. We try to play that way, so we try to prepare them in intrasquad games, but you never know until you get out there."

Marquee Mound Matchup

Sonny Gray vs. Gerrit Cole

There might not a better pitching matchup this whole year than Vanderbilt's Gray vs. UCLA's Cole on Friday at Jackie Robinson Stadium, in the first day of the Dodgertown Classic. The two flame-throwing righthanders are two of the top four prospects in the sophomore class, and they were teammates with Team USA last summer, when Cole went 4-0, 1.06 and Gray went 3-1, 0.75.

"You're talking about two premier arms," Bruins coach John Savage said. "A premier program in Vanderbilt, Coach [Tim] Corbin, Sonny Gray. And then the summer that Gerrit had with USA. Two projectable high draft picks in the '11 draft. It should be fun to see those two good arms."

Regarding the prospect of facing Cole, Corbin said: "[Gray] doesn't talk about it too much, he just looks at it as a challenge to go out West and play somebody different. I just think he likes that challenge more than anything else. But I'm sure he'll like competing against his friend -- he thinks a lot of Gerrit."

Both pitchers got off to strong starts in their teams' season-openers Friday. Cole allowed two runs on just one hit and no walks while striking out nine in a win against Southern. Savage said he sat at 95-97 mph for his entire outing, topping out at 98.

"I thought he was pretty good -- he attacked the glove, had a pretty simple approach," Savage said. "He looked good, the velocity was good, and I think his secondary stuff was solid. We're just kind of taking that next step, moving the fastball more to both sides of the plate. The changeup is advancing in the right direction, and the slider has improved. He's got a lot of confidenceI think he matured even more with the help of USA Baseball in the summer, playing with the best players in the country.

"His whole overall persona has improved. His stuff's always been there -- that has never been a question. It's more about emotions, handling things. Now it's more of a mature approach, conditioning, all the things that go into being a legitimate guy. He's learning to be that type of guy around the clock, not just on the field, and that is a big thing."

Gray, meanwhile, is learning what it takes to be a successful starter after spending most of last spring and summer in a relief role. Corbin said the key for Gray is to be efficient and keep his pitch count down so the 5-foot-11, 195-pounder can work deep into games. He did just that last Friday against Niagara, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out eight over eight shutout innings.

"We were just looking for him to string out his pitch count as long as he could, be judicious with his pitching, and he did -- he got to the eighth inning," Corbin said. "It's like any good power pitcherand that was also the issue with David Price. His pitch count would be so high because of the aluminum bat making it easier to put the bat on the ball, and his pitch count would get up there in the fifth or sixth. Sonny's a lot like Price -- he's a sponge, he picks things up really quick. He's just a fast learner."

Gray has similar fastball velocity to Cole, but while Cole will use all three pitches, Gray attacks hitters mostly with his fastball and his vicious power curve. "The other things are under construction," Corbin said.

Friday will be the first major test of 2010 for both pitchers. For the fans in Westwood, it might be the biggest treat of the season.

Under The Radar

Maine pitching

Maine was swept in its opening weekend by Lamar, but the Black Bears held their own against a warm-weather opponent from a larger conference, losing the Friday and Sunday games by a combined three runs.

"We pitched really well against Lamar," Maine coach Steve Trimper said. "I am very excited with our arms. We've finally got the guys in place."

Two freshmen really stood out for Maine in Sunday's 17-inning loss to Lamar. Starter Jeffrey Gibbs, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound righthander from Toronto, allowed four runs on seven hits and a walk while striking out six over 5 2/3 innings, but evaluators came away from the game buzzing about his stuff. He sat at 90-92 mph for his entire outing, touching 94-95, and showed good command for his entire repertoire, which also includes a quality 82-83 mph slider and feel for a changeup.

"Gibbs is the real deal for us," Trimper said.

Steve Perakslis, a 6-foot-1 righty from Massachusetts, allowed just three hits over 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief. His stuff was nearly as good as Gibbs' -- he worked with a 91-93 mph fastball, according to Trimper. And the Black Bears have another power arm who did not even pitch in the opening weekend. Redshirt sophomore righty Kyle Benoit was sitting at 92 mph in his last live throwing session this week, Trimper said.

Trimper said the key for his talented young pitchers is to throw strikes. If they do, Maine could steal a win or two this weekend against a North Carolina team that had to work hard to score runs in a season-opening sweep of George Washington.

Streakin'

Jordan Ribera, 1b, Fresno State

One of the last remaining pieces from Fresno State's 2008 national championship team, Ribera had a strong opening weekend, going 7-for-14 (.500) with three home runs and five RBIs to power Fresno to a 3-1 series win over Nebraska. But more impressively, he continued his streak of late-game heroics, which dates back to the end of last season.

The Bulldogs trailed 5-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth in Friday's season opener, but Brennan Gowens tied the score with a two-run double. Ribera stepped up next and cracked a walk-off, two-run homer to right field. It was his third game-winning home run in his last five contestshe delivered a pair of ninth-inning game-winners in the 2009 Western Athletic Conference tournament against New Mexico State as Fresno completed its mad dash through the loser's bracket to the WAC title.

Ribera's knack for coming up big when it matters most dates back to his freshman year, when he started just 16 games but delivered home runs against Rice and Georgia in the College World Series. But now the 6-foot, 220-pound lefthanded hitter is developing a more polished approach and becoming a more dangerous all-around hitter.

"Jordy is coming into his own," Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said in an e-mail. "He had some big home runs in Omaha as a freshman and the game winners in both elimination games in last year's WAC tourney at Hawaii. His swing is becoming a stroke and he has been doing a great job using the opposite field with two strikes. We are very proud of his development."

Slumpin'

Jake Eliopoulos, lhp, Chipola (Fla.) JC

Elioupolos was a second-round pick by the Blue Jays out of high school in Ontario last June, but he failed to sign with Canada's lone big league team before the Aug. 18 deadline, deciding instead to enroll at Chipola. Maybe he should have signed when his stock was at its apex last year, because it is on the decline now.

Eliopoulos was shelled by Bryce Harper's CC of Southern Nevada team in an 11-5 loss Saturday, allowing eight earned runs on three hits and five walks over 2 1/3 innings (though Harper himself was 0-for-2 with two walks in the game). That dropped Eliopoulos to 0-1, 8.25 through 12 innings over four outings.

"Eliopoulos was not good," said one scout who saw the lefthander earlier this season. "He needed to sign last year. His fastball is below-average, his breaking ball is below-average, his changeup is just fringy. He's a lefty with a good body, an OK delivery, and you're trying to project on him, basically."

Eliopoulos will try to get on track this weekend, as Chipola takes on Miami-Dade, Middle Georgia, St. Petersburg (Fla.) and Kanakee (Ill.).

Stat of the Week

11,588

Louisiana State's paid attendance for its Opening Day game against Centenary, a school record. The actual attendance of 9,914 was also the highest in school history.

The Tigers' average paid attendance in their first three-game series was 10,992 -- more than 3,600 fans more than second-place Arkansas. Here's a list of the 10 schools with the highest average opening weekend attendance (a more comprehensive list is available at www.NCBWA.com):

Thirty schools averaged at least 1,200 fans per game in the first weekend, and 65 individual games drew more than 2,000 fans.

Scouting Report

Texas

Preseason No. 1 Texas was shocked by New Mexico in the opening weekend, losing two out of three in Austin. After winning Friday's opener behind a dominant performance from ace Taylor Jungmann, the Longhorns carried a one-run lead into the ninth inning Saturday with a chance to clinch the series. But junior righthander Chance Ruffin surrendered two runs in the ninth, allowing the Lobos to even the series. In Sunday's rubber game, Texas managed just one run on eight hits, losing 3-1. But one National League scout who was on hand for the series said Texas fans have nothing to worry about.

"Saturday's game, that was one they probably should have had. [Brandon] Workman pitched well enough to win, but he didn't have his best stuff. He can just dominate a game when he has everything working for him. He was 90-95 -- good velocity. His fastball was elevated, and they made him pay for it when he left it up. New Mexico showed some resilience -- they really fought back. They got some timely hits when they needed to, their situational hitting was really good. Their pitching was OK, and they moved enough guys in there that Texas couldn't really bear down on one. You thought Texas would have gotten them the next time through. Ruffin threw well -- he got the loss but his velocity was 90-94, when the highest I'd seen him in the fall was 89-91, so he was dialed in. His slider was crisp, but they were on it, like they knew what was coming. The guy [Justin Howard] who hit the game-tying homer was a lefthanded hitter, and he hit a hard slider at 84 right on his hands; you think the only way he could have hit that is if he knew it was coming. You have to give New Mexico credit, especially in the second game, to fight back from 5-2, to be able to fight back in the ninth to tie it, then tack on another one to put them up 6-5. Then they had a freshman keep the lead in the bottom of the ninth. I think that was a momentum-builder for that Sunday game.

"On Sunday, [Austin] Dicharry was OK, a little tight to start with, and then he settled in, got on top of his curveball, and it was a pretty good pitch. He pitched good enough, then [Andrew] McKirahan came in, a situational lefty, he did a good job both days. I think I counted 11 times Texas hit the ball on the nose, but New Mexico was playing really deep with this lefthander who was 84-86. The guy throwing, [Mike] Lachapelle, was a soft-tossing lefty, and they were hitting balls hard but right at people. As those guys get deeper into the game, they get more confidence. Sometimes he kept them off balance, and when they did laser it, it was right at outfielders. [Russell] Moldenhauer had a lot of balls hit well but had nothing to show for it. [Kevin] Keyes clubbed some balls, as did [Cameron] Rupp. Brandon Loy's a good, athletic player, and Connor Rowe -- I don't worry about their bats; their bats will be fine. I can't remember a game that I've seen that there were more well-hit balls right at people. It was almost like a basketball game, when you say there's a lid over the rim."

In The Dugout

Gauntlett Eldemire, of, Ohio

Eldemire, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound center fielder, put up huge numbers as a sophomore in 2009, batting .313/.443/.682 with 21 homers, 56 RBIs and 11 stolen bases, yet he was largely overshadowed by All-America teammate Marc Krauss, a second-round pick by the Diamondbacks. But this year Eldemire is the Bobcats' main attraction, and scouts are certain to take notice of his well above-average speed and intriguing raw powera package that makes him a possible top-two-rounds pick in his own right. Eldemire got off to a solid start in Week One, homering in a loss to Elon on Saturday and going 2-for-4 with a double and four runs scored in Sunday's win against Towson. BA's Conor Glassey caught up with Eldemire after Saturday's game.

Well, it's opening weekend. You went out there and hit a home run and made some nice catches. How are you feeling?

I'm just still trying to get my swing back because, you know, it's our first time going outside. Back home, there's still snow on the ground right now. So, I'm just trying to see pitching -- we all are. Just trying to get in the groove of things.

I noticed you were real patient up there. Was that part of that -- just wanting to see more pitching?

Yeah, the coach was telling me to be more patient because I was real aggressive in other at bats and I was trying to pull everything. I wasn't thinking up the middle and backside. I did that in the last at-bat (which was a home run) and actually hit it back side.

You guys lost a big bat in Marc Krauss to the draft. How's the team looking this year?

It's more of a team, actually. Because last year we relied on Marc a lot. This year we have only four seniors, so we have a lot of young guys and a lot of newcomers. So we're trying to get everything back in a groove. So, I don't know how we're going to be doing this year. It's more of an experiment. I think this weekend was more of an experiment, because we hadn't been outside. And we have a lot of new, freshman pitchers, so we'll see how it goes.

You guys play a tough out-of-conference schedule this year with Middle Tennessee State next and then Vanderbilt after that. Are you excited about the challenge that presents?

Yeah, I'm actually excited to see what we can do against good competition. That will only make us better, playing good teams instead of killing teams like 10-nothing, actually seeing good pitching. And then when we go back to the MAC and see better pitching, we'll know how to handle better pitching. So, it's better for us to play better teams, I think.

Growing up, you played basketball too, right? What was it about baseball that made you choose to go that route?

Yeah, I played soccer too. But my dad had me start playing baseball since I was five. I only played soccer since I was 11, but I've always liked baseball. My dad said I've always hit the ball far and stuff like that, so I just stuck with baseball. I like soccer and basketball. I'm not really a good basketball player, I could just jump so they had me down low to get a lot of rebounds and things like that. I wasn't a big scorer.

Could you dunk?

Yeah, I could dunk. It's not really that hard. But soccer I really liked. I played forward and was usually one of the fastest people on the field, so they could just kick it up and I would score. Soccer's more fun because you can control the game yourself instead of like baseball, where the pitcher controls the game.

All right, so I have to ask, as someone who has never been able to do either, and never will, what's better: dunking on somebody or hitting a home run?

(laughs) Ooh… depends on the situation. Probably dunking on somebody because it shows you're more of a man than the person. It depends on the kind of dunk and the situation, but I'd probably say dunking. Because with the metal bats, you know everybody can hit a home run.

You had a breakout season last year by hitting .313 with 21 home runs. What are you working to improve this year?

Probably hit the ball more back side. Think more up there and see how they're trying to pitch me because the coach says they're trying to keep everything soft away, so I'm thinking about that. Because last year they were concentrating on Marc a lot, and I was leading off a lot last year too, so I was seeing a lot of first-pitch fastballs I was swinging at. Now they have me batting in the middle of the order, so I'll be seeing more offspeed and things like that, so I just need to work on hitting the ball more back side.

Tell me about your summer. You were out here in North Carolina for Team USA trials, right?

Yeah, it was pretty fun. I went out there for four days before I got hurt. I got a stress fracture. I was feeling pain in the second-to-last series we had, but I thought it was just shin splints. You know, shin splints leads to a stress fracture if you don't take care of it. So, I was just icing it, but it got worse. They said I had a Vitamin D deficiency. So I'm taking Vitamin D pills and I'm fine. I was back in eight weeks.

Oh, good. Has it affected your speed at all?

No. It actually helped because I worked out all August in New York with a speed-strength guy and I actually got my 60(-yard dash) time down a little bit.

Which leg?

It was my left tibia, in my shin bone.

OK, well I have to ask: You have one of the best names in college baseball. Is there a story behind your name?

I'm actually the third. It comes from my great-grandfather. His father was white and his mother was black. And, you know, this is back then like 70 years ago with all the discrimination and things like that. My great-great grandfather is from Germany, that's how I get the last name, and my great-great grandmother is from Jamaica. And they said, with him being mixed, his life would be like running through the gauntlet, so that's why they named him Gauntlett. I don't know why he named my dad Gauntlett and then he just named me, so I guess I've got to keep the chain going.

For more information on college baseball, check out Baseball America.