FRIDAY, June 4, 2004
It was a beautiful day for baseball. Clear skies and temperatures in the high 70's. The Fullerton flags were flying high and proud in the Goodwin Field parking lot just before 3:00, when the Fullerton Regional's first game would get under way. A small crowd of Titan tailgate regulars (Titan Nation, they jokingly call themselves) had already gathered. Since this game was between #1-seeded Arizona State and #4 Pepperdine, only a few of the faithful went in to watch the beginning. The others just enjoyed their afternoon off with some good Titan talk, barbecue, and red cups full of delicious "apple juice".
I'd bought a full-session pass so I went on up to the game, fully expecting to witness ASU blow out a sub-.500 Pepperdine team. What I saw instead was a game that would have national repercussions and set the stage for a regional experience I could never have imagined. ASU had gambled and started their #2 pitcher against Pepperdine's nominal ace. This is not an uncommon tactic for the #1 seed to use against the #4 seed. Some coaches will even go deeper into their pitching staff. It can be a huge advantage in a four-team tournament. Not so for the Sun Devils. Pepperdine stayed close until ASU's starter began to falter in the 5 th inning, and then blasted the Sun Devil bullpen. Final score: 15-5 Pepperdine. ASU, the top seed in the Fullerton regional and #7 seed nationally, had just been dumped into the loser's bracket of this double-elimination tournament.
The upset was big news down at the tailgate party and Titan fans now saw a clear path to the tourney championship. All we had to do was take care of business against our first opponent, #3 Minnesota, and then Pepperdine the following night. We'd get to Championship Sunday with our admittedly thin pitching staff hardly scratched while the team we faced would have their bullpen in a shambles after fighting their way through the loser's bracket. It seemed too good to be true, and it was.
The Titans and Golden Gophers sent ace against ace. Jason Windsor, Big West co-Pitcher of the Year against Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Glen Perkins in front of a packed house. Titan fans were waving orange strikeout towels that had been given out prior to the game by the Diamond Club. A table had been set up in the parking lot for kids to have bright orange F's and elephant heads painted on their faces. Big kids even got in on the act, some sporting orange beards and mustaches.
Jason was his usual rock-solid self and the outcome was never in doubt. The Gopher batters were mystified, striking out 11 times while only managing one run on five hits. The Titan bats gave Perkins a rude welcome, notching seven runs on 10 hits in a balanced attack. Final score: 7-1 Titans. Next victim on the menu: Pepperdine. They'd pulled a rabbit out of their hat against ASU, but there wasn't a Titan fan among those at the victory celebration who thought they could do it again. They'd struggled against lefties all season and we had Ricky Romero on deck. We all knew it was going to be ugly, but we had no idea how ugly!
SATURDAY, June 5, 2004
Titan Nation was open for business by 11:00 on Saturday with plenty of Titan fans on hand to monitor the outcome of the elimination game between ASU and Minnesota. Food and coolers were plentiful, including a case of Carl's Junior Six Dollar Burger patties provided by Diamond Club recruiter and ex-batboy Larry Young. While the Titan faithful partied, things were going well inside the stadium. ASU was winning, but they'd been forced to start their ace and use their closer for more than three innings. The Gophers went down fighting, though, ending the game with the bases loaded and the winning run on 1 st . Final score: ASU 6, Minnesota 4.
Now, all the Titans had to do was to beat Pepperdine and watch them and ASU deplete their pitching staffs against each other. Things were looking good for the Titans as painted fans filed in for the 3:00 game under a hot summer-like sun.
Things started out as expected, with the Titans jumping out to a 3-0 lead after three innings while pitcher Ricky Romero kept the Pepperdine bats in check. Things started to turn sour, however, when our right fielder misplayed a fly ball with two out in the Pepperdine 4 th . Two runs scored and it was suddenly a 3-2 ballgame. The Titans gained a little breathing room by manufacturing a run in the 5 th and Romero made that stand up until the Pepperdine 7 th , when Cory Brightwell homered over the center field fence. Titan fans are unsure of what happened in the 8 th . Romero pitched to two batters, walking one and striking one out. Then he was lifted in favor of Vinnie Pestano to pitch to right-handed batter Steve Kleen, who walked on a full-count pitch. Ryan Schreppel then came in to strike out the next two batters in convincing fashion.
The Titans carried their 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth (Pepperdine was the designated home team). With two outs, Pepperdine had a runner on 3 rd when Nick Kliebert, 8 th in the Pepperdine batting order, shot a single through the right side of the infield. Tie ballgame. Ryan got us out of the inning with the next batter, but the Titans were now in a deadlock and did not even have the home field advantage in this game.
Titan fans were breathing easier after their team scored two runs in the 10 th , but they'd also left the bases loaded. Not good. With one out in the Pepperdine 10 th , Kleen blasted a solo homer just to the right of the scoreboard. Schreppel rallied against the next batter, striking him out looking, and was one strike away from victory with an 0-2 count on Chad Tracy before giving up a single past Ronnie Prettyman at 3 rd . The rest is history. Brightwell came up and sent an 0-1 pitch over the wall not far from where Kleen's had gone. Walk-off home run. Game over!
Titan fans filed out in shocked disbelief. That was the kind of thing we did to other teams. It wasn't supposed to happen to us! Nobody could remember a defeat as heartbreaking as that in a game as important as that. Furthermore, the team had just 50 minutes to recover before having to face ASU and Erik Averill. Members of Titan Nation clutched their red cups with white-knuckled grips as they sat or wandered with glassy eyes and numb expressions. Anger seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. People were angry at the pitcher, the coaches, and even the Titan broadcaster. Large quantities of apple juice were consumed and food was defiantly thrown on the grill.
Fans were glum about our prospects. Although we still had Mike Martinez going on the mound for us, he hadn't pitched a complete game all season. This was his first year as a pitcher and it was believed that he hadn't built up the stamina to go all the way for us, hard as he throws. We'd have to go to our bullpen. Having just used Schreppel, only Vinnie Pestano had more than 30 innings or so and he was coming off a sore shoulder. Nobody else had demonstrated much consistency. ASU was a strong-hitting team. The prospect of surviving until Sunday did not seem bright. How would the team react so soon after such a tragic defeat?
Meanwhile, the Titan coaches were telling the team that if they were to win this tournament, someone would have to do something special. To their credit, every single player on that team picked themselves up off the ground and decided to be that someone. The result, I feel, was three of the most amazing games in the history of Titan baseball.
The 1200 fans who went home missed the game of Mike Martinez's life, a complete-game shutout of a team that had only been shut out twice since 1995. Ten hits, seven strikeouts, two walks. It may not have been a perfect game, but it was the perfect medicine for Titan fans and a team with their backs to the wall. The Titan offense got the job done, too, and the result was a 5-0 victory that gave us back our Sunday.
After the game, the exhausted but happy fans cleared out quickly. We'd gotten to Sunday and now anything seemed possible. That night the last thing we'd wanted was to play a double-header. For Sunday, it was what we wanted most.
SUNDAY, June 6, 2004
A good night's sleep seemed to have rejuvenated the members of Titan Nation. There was plenty of good cheer and grub for the barbecue. Optimism reigned supreme. People dared to talk about a victory celebration after the second game and whether we'd host the super regional. Rumor had it that all of our pitchers had stepped up and told the coaches they were ready to go. We knew that Pepperdine was also out of pitching and that the Titans were the better-hitting team. Everyone expected a couple of 20+ run slugfests.
The big question was who our starting pitcher would be. We knew that Pestano, who had the most innings of those still available, was probably not yet 100% so it would be between Sarver and Gagnier who had similar numbers but less than 30 innings of experience each. Since it was well-known that Pepperdine had struggled against left-handed pitchers all season, the consensus was that Sarver would start. It didn't really matter much, since we figured that we'd use a string of our little-used bullpen staff.
Sure enough, Sarver did get tabbed for the start. That was about all that happened according to expectations, however. Surprisingly, neither team scored until Pepperdine's David Uribes launched a solo home run over the fence in left-center. Through three innings, the Titans had only 1 hit off of Brandon Boesch. I doubt anybody expected a 1-0 game after three innings. Despite the home run, Sarver kept plugging away. He didn't strike out many, but he didn't walk many, either. The Waves were making contact, but the Titan defense was rock-solid.
Then, in the Titan 4 th , all hell broke lose for Pepperdine. Four hits, two Pepperdine errors, and two hit batters resulted in six runs for the Titans. That was all Sarver would need as he stayed in there inning after inning, throwing strikes and daring the Waves batters to hit them. Meanwhile, the Titan bats had come to life against two Pepperdine relievers, pounding them mercilessly. Like Martinez the night before, Sarver had stepped up and gotten the Titans one win closer to the championship by pitching a complete game of his own, allowing just the one run on six hits. We'd gotten nine fabulous innings from a bullpen pitcher who'd pitched only a hair more than 22 innings all season. That is something special!
Down in the parking lot, fans could smell a championship. The Titans had the momentum and word was that Jason Windsor would start the game. Everyone expected him to go about two innings to give us a step up and a chance for an early lead. Other bullpen pitchers could pitch one or two innings each, hopefully keeping the Waves off balance.
The rest will forever be a part of Titan lore. Jason, on one day of rest, pitched not two, three, four, or even five innings. He pitched six shutout innings on only 64 pitches! The overanxious Waves helped him out with a lot of early-count fly balls and ground outs, but the fact remains that not one Wave reached base from the 2 nd inning through the 5 th ! All this was accomplished with nothing more than well-placed fastballs and change-ups.
Jason went to the mound in the 7 th inning only for Titan fans to get a chance to give him the standing ovation that he deserved. His mother, who'd been watching the game from The Perch, was crying with joy and pride, receiving congratulating embraces all around. Another fan was chatting away at me while I was watching all this and trying to keep my own eyes from misting up in front of him. I think pitchers' moms go through a special kind of torment, agonizing with each pitch to the point where they sometimes can't even watch. I sincerely hope that moments like Jason's mom experienced when the crowd roared its appreciation for his ironman performance goes to make up for that in some small way.
The Titan bullpen held firm as the Titan batters once again pummeled the dregs of the Pepperdine pitching staff, failing to score only in the 7 th inning. Final score: 16-3 Titans.
Two wins to Omaha!
Ira and I decided to have a celebratory dinner at the appropriately named Elephant Bar in Laguna Hills. While we were eating, I reflected on how this tournament had been sort of a microcosm of the Titans' regular season. High expectations at the beginning, followed by seemingly insurmountable adversity, then ending with unprecedented achievement. There may have been Titan teams with more talent, but few or none that have been tempered in a crucible of adversity like this one has. These Titans are a true team in every sense of the word, each member accepting his role and stepping up when called upon. The national championship is theirs for the taking.