LONG BEACH, Calif.—Dave Serrano had a hop in his step as he walked back toward the dugout from his postgame meeting with his players in right field.
"Now that's Titan baseball," he said. "That's Titan baseball."
It wasn't the prettiest victory—once again, Cal State Fullerton squandered plenty of scoring chances, leaving 10 runners on base, and Long Beach State helped advance its own demise with bushels of mistakes. But the Titans grinded out a 4-3 win on a chilly Monday night at Blair Field to salvage a nonconference series win against their long-time rivals, and a 2-2 start to the season. It was enough for Serrano that his team battled, and executed when it mattered, both at the plate and in the field.
"I'm really proud of our guys," Serrano said. "We were so disappointed in the first three games, even though we got a win Saturday in the nightcap against Long Beach. I'm so proud of how we responded. The coaching staff was pretty bothered—not with the results of the losses, but just the way we were playing baseball. I thought tonight we dug in a little bit, we scrapped and clawed, and that's where our mentality has always been for the history of this program. We can't live on the entitlement that the program is established; we have to maintain that. We went out there tonight and we did that."
Bushels of scouts were on hand for the rare Monday night college matchup between interesting draft-eligible righthanders—Fullerton's Colin O'Connell and Long Beach's Branden Pinder. Both pitched well, but O'Connell got the win, allowing just one run on five hits and no walks while striking out six over seven innings. He attacked hitters with a 90-91 mph fastball with good life and a 79-82 slider that he could get hitters to chase out of the zone or throw for a strike to freeze them.
"His flexibility is unbelievable—so loose, tall, downward plane," Serrano said. "He kept the ball down in the zone, mixed it up well. You're talking about a guy that three years ago walked on this campus, was about 6-4, about 160 if his uniform was wet. Now he's 6-6, 205. He came into this program throwing 82-84, now he's throwing in the 90s, and it's a downward plane with a hard slider, and a changeup we didn't have to utilize that much but he has, and if it continues to get better it will make it harder on opponents."
Pinder largely matched him, minimizing the damage from four Long Beach State errors. He left after hitting the leadoff man in the seventh, finishing with four strikeouts, no walks, two runs (one earned) on three hits over six-plus. Against a Fullerton lineup that featured eight lefthanded hitters (counting the switch-hitting Richy Pedroza), Pinder pounded the outer half with an 88-91 mph sinker and a good 78-82 changeup, and he mixed in an 80 mph slider, especially on the back door against those lefties.
His best Houdini act came in the fifth, when two errors and a hit batsman helped the Titans load the bases with one out. But Pinder struck out Austin Kingsolver on a changeup low and away, then got the dangerous Nick Ramirez to fly out to left, stranding three.
"He was good, he was really good. That was very encouraging that he pitched around things that occured to him," Long Beach coach Troy Buckley said. "I thought he threw the ball great, and I thought their guy threw the ball very well. He's got to keep the ball down—he's got that sinker and the slider has improved. His velocity's up, which is going to help his changeup, so there'll be a little more separation as far as starting the bat sooner. For him to handle all those lefthanded hitters was something he didn't do last year, so that's really encouraging."
Buckley was upbeat about his team despite its four errors, four hit batsmen, three wild pitches and two runners thrown out on the basepaths—including a man at third in the eighth inning on a great relay from Fullerton third baseman Walker Moore. As it happened, Moore was a central figure in the game; he entered as a pinch-hitter for Anthony Hutting in the seventh and delivered an RBI double down the left field line, then scored when another pinch-hitter—Michael Lorenzen—singled through a drawn-in infield two batters later. Moore also singled to lead off the ninth and scored three wild pitches later, giving the Titans a 4-1 lead. That run proved crucial after the Dirtbags rallied for two in the ninth.
"We got a lot of guys in the game, a lot of guys' feet wet," Serrano said. "Michael Lorenzen in his second game, after a tough day Saturday in his first game against North Carolina, comes up and gets a big pinch-hit. Walker Moore, Mr. 10th man in college baseball—he can play every position but catch—comes off the bench, gets two big hits for us, and makes a great relay on the ball down the line to get the guy at third, which was huge on that double down the line. I'm as proud of this team after a game as any game in a long time. That was a pretty special win right there."
And Buckley discovered that his young team can hang with the Titans, who have had Long Beach's number in recent years. In the rain-altered three-game series, Long Beach earned an 8-5 win Sunday in between a pair of competitive one-run losses.
"Like I told the team, they did a lot of good things this weekend. They played with a really, really good team over there, all three games," Buckley said. "We have to take care of the little things, and when you don't against a good team, they'll have a chance to beat you. They took advantage of it, you've got to give them some credit, but we've got some things we need to clean up as well. But I'm really proud of the guys. That's three games against a top 10, top 15 program that knows how to play the game. If these guys can't walk away from here feeling that they can compete with anybody, then I don't know what to say to them. But I think they do, they're doing things the right way."
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