Weekend Preview: Cal State Fullerton Surging Despite Injuries

SEE ALSO: Complete Top 25 Coverage SEE ALSO: Weekend Preview Coverage Mike Lananna and Teddy Cahill look at college baseball’s biggest series heading into the weekend

For Cal State Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook, writing out a starting lineup every day has become a game of “Who’s healthy?”

(1) Louisville at North Carolina State
(9) Arizona at (2) Oregon State
(21) Oklahoma State at (3) Texas Christian
(4) Louisiana State at (13) Florida
(5) Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State
(6) Clemson vs. Boston College in Kingston, R.I.
Alabama at (7) South Carolina
(8) Texas Tech at Wichita State
Miami at (10) North Carolina
(11) Mississippi at Kentucky
Jackson State at (12) Florida Gulf Coast
(14) Florida State at Notre Dame
(15) Louisiana-Lafayette at Troy
Maine at (16) St. John’s
Utah at (17) Stanford
Arkansas at (18) Missouri
Duke at (19) Virginia
(24) Oklahoma at (20) Baylor
(22) Washington at Oregon
(23) Michigan at Maryland
Towson at (25) East Carolina

The Titans lost senior shortstop Timmy Richards for eight games due to a groin injury. They’ve been without sophomore outfielder Ruben Cardenas with a back injury. Sophomore righthander Colton Eastman, a member of the weekend rotation, has only pitched in three games with an elbow/forearm strain. Yet, even with all of those injuries, the Titans have managed to win their last eight games and 11 of their last 12, surging to No. 5 in the latest Top 25 with a 15-5 record. The Titans will try to extend that winning streak in a nonconference weekend at Long Beach State (10-9). “It’s been a juggle,” Vanderhook said. “So guys are stepping up. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do. And right now they’re not playing with much of a pressure on them. They’re going out and enjoying each day one at a time. “We’ve only practiced two days in three weeks with so many games. So maybe Allen Iverson was right. Maybe we don’t need to practice.” Even though the specific components have varied this season, Fullerton’s general formula for winning remains the same as it’s always been—pitching and defense. The Fullerton staff’s 2.05 team ERA ranks third in the country, only behind No. 1 Louisville (1.92) and No. 2 Oregon State (1.06). Fullerton’s junior duo of righthander Connor Seabold (2-3, 2.83) and lefthander John Gavin (3-0, 1.65) have been stingy on the mound, with Gavin coming off of an eight-inning, two-hit, 14-strikeout performance against New Mexico. In Eastman’s absence, sophomore righthander Gavin Velasquez has gone 2-0, 2.30. And sophomore righthander Brett Conine has seized the closer’s role, earning four saves in 10 appearances and pitching to a 1.23 ERA. “Obviously, we’re pitching,” Vanderhook said. “When you only give up a few runs, you only have to score one more than the opponent. We’ve been pretty lucky on doing that. We’ve had a lot of one-run games. We’ve handled them. And it’s not easy to win one-run games. I’m happy how we’ve learned how to do it, and we’ve done it different ways. Taylor Bryant’s been a sparkplug right in the middle of it.” The Titans have played in nine one-run games and have won six of them. Bryant, a redshirt junior third baseman, missed most of last season with a concussion, but he’s blossomed offensively this season, batting .375/.500/.609 with two homers in 64 at-bats. “He always sees the ball good,” Vanderhook said. “He’s got good eyes. As a freshman his first 20 at-bats—10 strikeouts and 10 walks—and it was like, ‘Dude, are you ever going to swing?’ He’s more confident and comfortable and last year missing the whole year probably got under his skin a little bit, and I think watching what guys do and picking up things, he got himself a little more intelligent as a hitter.” Vanderhook also praised senior outfielder Hunter Cullen, who has batted .286/.348/.452 while filling in for the injured Cardenas. The coach said Cullen has been one of the team’s two sparkplugs along with Bryant. Though just one game over .500, Long Beach State has won four out of its last five games—including a win against Texas Christian—and should provide a stiff challenge for the Titans. On Friday night in particular, the Titans will have to contend with ace Darren McCaughan, who is 2-1, 3.15 on the year and was named Big West Conference pitcher of the year last season. As his team gets healthier, Vanderhook will continue to plug and play, and so far he’s pushed all of the right buttons. There could be good news on the horizon in regard to Eastman, who is slated to begin a throwing program Saturday. His return would only make a pitching-rich team even richer. “I can’t tell you when he’s going to come back,” Vanderhook said, before joking, “I told our guys we’re doing fine, and if and when he comes in, you get a legal shot of steroids.”

— Michael Lananna

Top 10 Showdown In Corvallis The second weekend of Pacific-12 Conference action provides a showdown between No. 9 Arizona and No. 2 Oregon State. The Wildcats, last year’s College World Series runners-up, travel to Corvallis, Ore., to face the Beavers, this year’s conference favorites. In addition to their lofty ranking in the Top 25, both teams also rank in the top five in RPI, according to WarrenNolan.com. The two teams have succeeded with contrasting styles this season. Through Wednesday, Arizona led the nation in scoring, averaging 10.2 runs per game. Oregon State, meanwhile, led the country with a team ERA of 1.06. Arizona swept the series last season at Hi Corbett Field, but Oregon State will have home-field advantage this season. The Beavers are 7-0 this season at Goss Stadium.

Florida, LSU Meet In Battle Of Heavyweights The Southeastern Conference season began last weekend with several surprising results, including Auburn’s stunning sweep against Florida. Now, No. 13 Florida (14-8) returns home looking to get back on track against No. 4 Louisiana State (16-5), which opened conference play with a sweep of Georgia. While Florida has struggled on the road this season, going 1-6, the Gators have played much better at McKethan Stadium, where they are 13-2. Now, it is LSU’s turn to go on the road. This will be the Tigers’ first true road series of the season and they are just 1-4 in games outside of Alex Box Stadium. Friday night’s game will feature a matchup between righthanders Alex Faedo and Alex Lange, who were both Preseason All-Americans and spent last summer as teammates with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Both juniors are coming off poor starts in their 2017 SEC debuts, and will be eager to get back to form in what will be a heavily scouted game.

Big Ten Favorites Clash The Big Ten Conference begins its league season this weekend with a showdown between No. 23 Michigan and Maryland. While the Terrapins were the preseason favorite, the Wolverines (16-4) are off to a strong start this season and have established themselves as title contenders. The Terrapins (12-7) went 1-5 in the first two weekends, but have bounced back and are 11-2 since. Both teams have gotten solid pitching this season. Maryland’s rotation of Brian Shaffer (2-1, 1.65), Taylor Bloom (3-2, 3.86) and Tyler Blohm (4-1, 1.79) has been particularly tough, and lefthander Andrew Miller (0-0, 0.00, 3 SV) has established himself as a top reliever. Michigan has a team ERA of 3.22, led by ace Oliver Jaskie (3-0, 2.60) and closer Jackson Lamb (2-0, 0.00, 5 SV).

— Teddy Cahill

Off the Wall The opening weekend of play in the Mid-American Conference features a series between the two defending division champions, as Kent State (East) travels to Ball State (West). Both teams are off to strong starts again this season, and enter the weekend as the lone MAC schools ranked in the top 100 in RPI (Kent State 33rd, Ball State 66th). Baseball America caught up with Golden Flashes lefthander Eli Kraus (3-2, 4.60). The junior has taken over as Kent State’s Friday starter this season and is looking to lead the Golden Flashes (12-6) to another MAC title and NCAA tournament appearance. Q: What has been the key to Kent State’s success so far this season? “I think we’re just a mentally tough team. We’re pretty resilient, really one through nine in the lineup. We’re really mentally tough and I think it carries us well through games, whether we’re playing the No. 1 team in the country or anyone else. We’re confident, we’re resilient, we’re very, very hard working.” Q: Kent State has a strong tradition of pitching success. What is it like to be a part of that now? “You hear of the kind of the legends when you’re being recruited. It’s almost surreal playing at a program that’s produced so many high-caliber pitchers and has such a high-caliber pitching coach. Coach (Mike) Birkbeck is, in my opinion, the best pitching coach in the nation. You ask anyone that’s ever gone to Kent or currently goes to Kent and they’ll say the same thing. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to play for this program, for this coach.” Q: What is the most important thing you have learned from Birkbeck (the 2012 College Assistant Coach of the Year)? “The most important lesson I’ve learned without a doubt is to trust my stuff. By that I mean he’s really driven home the point that outs are outs no matter how you get them. In high school, everybody that pitches at the Division I level was able to strike out anyone they want at the high school level. You get in college, it kind of changes. Better hitters, better approaches. So he really, really taught me that getting outs quickly, one fly ball, one ground ball or whatever it might be, keeps you in the game longer. The importance of keeping your defense in play and not letting them get lazy when you strike everybody out or walk everybody. Just to trust my stuff and get outs with what I have.” Q: What is your warmup music and how did you pick it? “Originally, I picked “Money” by Pink Floyd. I’m a huge classic rock fan. Then after listening to the walkups in the home opener (Tuesday) night, I switched to “Slide” by Calvin Harris. I picked that because I like it and it’s also good music for my fans and my teammates and it’s a cool-sounding song.” Q: What is your go-to Chipotle order? “I get a burrito bowl. I get brown rice. I get no beans—never get beans, I hate beans. I get the fajita (mix), chicken and then I get a little bit of mild salsa, corn salsa, lettuce, cheese, sour cream. And then I eat my bowl by dipping the chips into the bowl and eating it like a taco salad I guess. I eat Chipotle like five or six times a week.”

— Teddy Cahill

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