Ti­tans’ map had no com­fort zone

Cal State Fuller­ton reaches Col­lege World Se­ries with a gritty post­sea­son.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Chris Dufresne

Cal State Fuller­ton’s base­ball sched­ule looked as if it had been con­cocted by a mad man.

“Like some evil sci­en­tist who made a stupid plan that could have killed him,” Ti­tans as­sis­tant Chad Baum joked this week.

It was, in fact, fourth-year Coach Rick Van­der­hook’s idea to test an untested team with 25,000 fre­quent­flyer miles.

Dr. Franken­hook passed out an itin­er­ary that looked like a Spinal Tap come­back tour: Clear­wa­ter, Fla., Bloom­ing­ton, Ind., Col­lege Park Md., Lin­coln, Neb.

“Good evening Honolulu!”

Van­der­hook put his play­ers in ev­ery con­ceiv­able time zone, bad-hop and IHOP sit­u­a­tion. Got them in­volved in

tough, one-run games in Fe­bru­ary hop­ing it would lead to tough, one-run wins in June.

The Ti­tans’ spir­i­tual guide teaches “be­ing com­fort­able be­ing un­com­fort­able.”

“We ran the gant­let,” Van­der­hook said. “And as stupid as I called my­self at the be­gin­ning, well …” Well, look now. Fuller­ton, to the sur­prise of three other teams in an NCAA re­gional and Louisville in a su­per re­gional, has ad­vanced to its 17th Col­lege World Se­ries in search of its fifth na­tional ti­tle.

The Ti­tans (39-23) open Sun­day in Omaha against de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pion Van­der­bilt.

This is not Fuller­ton’s most tal­ented team. There is no Tim Wal­lach or Phil Nevin or Mark Kot­say. Chad Cordero is listed on the ros­ter sheet but he’s a mem­ber of the pro­gram’s op­er­a­tions staff.

Fuller­ton’s cleanup hit­ter, Jerrod Bravo, has not hit a home run.

The Ti­tans in­tro­duced 16 new po­si­tion play­ers this year who had to be forged over fire and over time.

The team opened the regular sea­son by los­ing three of its first four games and dropped seven of nine from March 10-25.

A team built on pitch­ing also lost a front-line starter, Justin Garza, to sea­so­nend­ing el­bow in­jury early in May.

The Ti­tans were 22-20 on April 28 when, Van­der­hook said, the sea­son turned with a scrappy, 5-3, 12-in­ning win at USC. Van­der­hook didn’t see the end be­cause he had been ejected. (“I didn’t like the strike zone,” he said.)

USC had been 25-0 when lead­ing af­ter seven innings un­til the Ti­tans tied the score late and won in ex­tra innings.

“Ev­ery­thing changed,” Van­der­hook said. “The at­ti­tude changed. It was them against the world.”

Usu­ally a team, at some point, de­vel­ops an iden­tity. Baum, a for­mer Ti­tans player in his ninth year on the staff, said he no­ticed some­thing odd about this year’s group early in the spring.

“We didn’t re­ally didn’t have one,” he said.

Iden­tity would be formed from lessons learned along a long, lone­some high­way. A team ei­ther comes to ac­cept bad re­sults or gets tired of it.

“We got tired of it,” Baum said. “We made a choice. The hard sched­ule, get­ting our butts kicked, the plane rides, it gave us some grit and at­ti­tude.”

The Ti­tans mor­phed into a rag-tag col­lec­tion caught some­where be­tween base­ball’s Dead Ball era and the Gashouse Gang.

Fuller­ton’s spine is dis­pro­por­tion­ally aligned around one power hit­ter, David Olmedo-Bar­rera, who has as many home runs, 10, as the rest of the ros­ter com­bined. That’s a ra­tio com­pa­ra­ble to Babe Ruth’s sen­sa­tional first year with the New York Yan­kees, 1920, when he hit 54 home runs while the rest of the team had 61.

Call Olmedo-Bar­rera “The Ti­tan of Swat.”

Ac­tu­ally, the ju­nior is as shocked as any­one he has de­vel­oped home-run power since ar­riv­ing out of La Cañada’s St. Fran­cis High. “I hit two home runs in high school,” he said.

Olmedo-Bar­rera matched that to­tal in Mon­day night’s dra­matic, 11-in­ning, win over Louisville in the de­cid­ing game in a be­stof-three su­per re­gional.

The player dubbed “DOB” sent Fuller­ton to Omaha when he scraped his sec­ond home run off the out­side of the left-field foul pole.

Or did he? The con­tro­ver­sial call was con­firmed by NCAA re­play of­fi­cials.

“It’s still pretty sur­real,” Olmedo-Bar­rera said two days later. “I can’t re­ally be­lieve that hap­pened.”

The left-handed bat­ter con­fessed the homer was pow­ered by the 95-mph fast­ball of Louisville’s Zack Burdi. “He throws plenty hard enough for that ball to go,” he said.

Van­der­hook refers to his other play­ers as “lit­tle rats.” They are hack­ers and grinders. The Ti­tans have won games the last two week­ends on a walk-off, bases­loaded walk, and when a bat­ter was hit with the bases loaded.

Fuller­ton’s .265 team bat­ting av­er­age ranks No. 197 na­tion­ally, but the Ti­tans rank fourth in hit-by-pitches (95).

Fuller­ton is No. 207 in home runs with 20, but is No. 13 in sac­ri­fice bunts (65). The pitch­ing staff ’s earned-run av­er­age is No. 8, at 2.84.

This is how Ti­tans get it done: They are con­di­tioned to be un­fazed and at their best when the other team thinks the game is over.

They got com­fort­able be­ing un­com­fort­able.

“We are trained,” Olmedo-Bar­rera ex­plained, “to find a way to be OK with that.”

All the ra­zor nicks, knot­holes and lessons learned co­a­lesced Mon­day night at Louisville, in the elim­i­na­tion game, when the Car­di­nals took a lead into the eighth in­ning.

Louisville starter Josh Rogers pro­vided a spark when the emo­tional pitcher taunted the Ti­tans bench af­ter strik­ing out Tan­ner Pinkston in the sev­enth.

“He was bark­ing at me,” said Baum, the Ti­tans third­base coach.

Baum rushed the field to com­plain to the um­pires as Ti­tans play­ers looked on. “Our guys took of­fense to it,” Baum said. “Some­one pointed to our dugout.”

Base­ball is a su­per­sti­tion-steeped sport where cer­tain acts are deemed to be fate tempt­ing. Baum re­called he said to him­self, “Let the base­ball gods take that kid where he needs to be taken.”

Rogers seemed rat­tled by the trou­ble he caused and was pulled af­ter go­ing 2-0 to the first hit­ter he faced in eighth.

Ti­tans play­ers were more in­ter­nally mo­ti­vated by Rogers’ ges­tur­ing. “At that point we were right where we wanted to be,” Olmedo-Bar­rera said. “They think they have it won.”

Trail­ing by two in the eighth, the Ti­tans worked the bases loaded and, with two outs, Bravo slapped a sin­gle through the left side of the in­field to tie the score.

Olmedo-Bar­rera’s pole shot in the 11th was the ex­cla­ma­tion, but as he noted: “With­out Bravo my home run was noth­ing.”

The road-war­rior Ti­tans did not re­turn home af­ter the win, mov­ing di­rectly from Louisville to Omaha.

This team is used to late check-ins and early check­outs. The Ti­tans go West to East as well as they do top to bot­tom.

Van­der­hook pon­dered it all as he pe­rused sec­tions of his lineup card:

Lead­off man Josh Var­gas: “Te­na­cious.”

Cen­ter fielder Tyler Stieb: “Lit­tle strong per­son who can run.”

Cleanup man Bravo: “Grinder.”

Pinkston, first base: “Re­ally set­tled the de­fense down.”

Timmy Richards: “Play­ing phe­nom­e­nal short­stop.”

Catcher A.J. Kennedy: “Per­sis­tent, a Jeff Mathis at our level.”

Sec­ond base­man Tay­lor Bryant: “Best de­fen­sive player on the field.”

Van­der­hook just laughed when asked about ace Thomas Eshel­man, who had a win and a save against Louisville.

“Re­mark­able,” Van­der­hook said of the pitcher who owns a 1.58 ERA while walk­ing only seven bat­ters in 1311⁄3 innings.

And what of un­con­ven­tional “closer” Tyler Peitzmeier, who re­cently pitched five shutout innings of re­lief against Ari­zona State and five more innings Mon­day against Louisville?

Van­der­hook said he went to visit Peitzmeier on the mound dur­ing the Ti­tans’ gru­el­ing, 14-in­ning re­gional game against Ari­zona State and Peitzmeier chirped: “What are you do­ing here? Go back to the dugout.” And Van­der­hook did. The Ti­tans ex­pect to hear, “What are you do­ing here?” the sec­ond they touch wheels down in Omaha. It ties in nicely to the theme of the sea­son.

And while Louisville was thrilling and dra­matic, the Ti­tans are back in lock-down mode pre­par­ing for Van­der­bilt as if they’re al­ready down two runs.

Cel­e­bra­tions are nice, but it’s time to get un­com­fort­able again.

Ti­mothy D. Easley As­so­ci­ated Press

DAVID OLMEDO-BAR­RERA leads Fuller­ton in home runs, in­clud­ing a big one in the su­per re­gional.

Ti­mothy D. Easley As­so­ci­ated Press

COACH RICK VAN­DER­HOOK said ev­ery­thing changed for Cal State Fuller­ton with a mid­sea­son victory over USC. The Ti­tans were 22-20 be­fore that game.

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