Ask Dave: Long Beach, Regionals and Beyond

TitanCentral.com got together again with Titan coach Dave Serrano on Wednesday. In this installment we talk about the upcoming Long Beach State series, the regionals, the team, the past and the future.

TitanCentral.com: Let's start off with Long Beach Series. Obviously it's not for the Big West title but how important is this series?

Coach Dave Serrano: Well, it's certainly different. This is probably the first year in a long time it's not for the (Big West) championship but there is still something at stake. Obviously, second place is at stake and, whoever wins this series, probably has the inside track as one of the west coast regional hosts.

Nothing's in stone on that but I would say whichever team comes out of this winning two of three and finishes in second will have, I think, a lock to having a host site for the regionals.

TitanCentral.com: Do finances play any part in determining this?

Coach Serrano: No, the finances, I don't think, mean as much anymore. Obviously the NCAA is about money but I think the way they've structured it now... I think if it was about money we wouldn't have gotten a regional the last couple of years. I think we probably bid close to the minimum and I think they were rewarding it to the teams that should be getting it.

TitanCentral.com: How many bids do you think will the Big West receive?

Coach Serrano: I'm hoping three. I think there's a chance for four depending on how Irvine and Cal Poly (SLO) finish out and how this Long Beach series goes. I think the league is warranted four this year. I know last year there were three and there's been years where it's just two but I think the Big West is one of the up and coming conferences in the country right now. This might not be the year to gauge it yet...

Obliviously we're a little bit down, even though we're having a strong season record-wise. Long Beach is a little bit down but with a strong record, Northridge is definitely on the up with a lot of experienced guys and Irvine has shown they can mix with the big boys. Cal Poly (SLO) is on its way up as well. You're talking five teams right there who are good, solid, Division I baseball teams. By us sweeping the two games with UCLA last night I believe that finished off the season with the Big West going 32-31 versus the Pac...

And looking across the country I think the race is wide open across the country. I don't see one clear-cut team where you can say, "Boy, we sure hope we don't play them." I know on the west coast it's definitely wide open. I don't think there is a team you are going to be fearful of. Obviously we struggled against Stanford and we obviously struggled against Northridge but I like our chances if we play those teams again.

TitanCentral.com: The just released new rule for the selection of the regionals and teams. What do the coaches feel about that? Will the West get three sites?

Coach Serrano: I hope we do. I think (this rule) can be a little bit of a smoke screen for them to regionalize this more. I think we already saw how it affected softball. Because of the strength of the teams, I think it's going to affect how many west teams go to Omaha. If they put us all in the same brackets and mix us up between three regioanls and pair us up in the Super Regional, this might be the first time in awhile you don't see two or three teams (from California) in Omaha. Those days could be over now with the west teams beating each other up.

I've always said, and I've been fortunate enough to experience the south, the east and all that in my coaching days at Tennessee, I don't think those teams realize how easy they have it and how much they can pad their schedules. Their non-conference midweek games are filled with patsies. We don't have a patsy during the midweek. There are no easy games in the midweek for us or any of the other local teams here in southern California.

In the SEC, you play 30 conference games which means you play 26 non-conference games. You can basically pad your schedule to get 20 to 22 wins in non-conference games. Like I said, if you take our non-conference, you can't look at our schedule and say, "Yeah, of those 32 games we going to go 28-4," there's no possible way with the teams we play. I just think teams have good records across the country because day-in and day-out they are not playing the schedule teams on the west coast are playing.

TitanCentral.com: Assuming we get a bid, last year we used Kirk Saarloos in game two. Is this something you are thinking of doing with Wes Littleton? Of course, this would depend on where you are seeded...

Coach Serrano: We're blind right now because we don't know who's in the regional and we obviously need to get into a regional. I would say our chances are pretty good of getting in but your putting yourself in someone else's hands now. This year it's more of it's one game at a time where last year we were a little more secure... We'll just have to wait and see on that.

TitanCentral.com: As far as pitching, who do you see stepping up in the post season? Anyone throwing the ball really well right now during practice?

Coach Serrano: I've said this all year long, but I really feel Darric Merrell is close to breaking out of this season-long slump. You can't fill up an indicator on pitching four innings of an intra-squad game on Saturday or one inning against UCLA last night but he's just worked too hard. We've cleaned up some mechanics of his front shoulder and I will be stunned, shocked and surprised if he doesn't give us a much better outing this Sunday against Long Beach State.

TitanCentral.com: Okay, we hate to ask this again... Are Jason Corapci, Chris Stringfellow and Merrell just pressing too much? Not that we want to bench them because Jason and String are awesome defensively but whats going on here?

Coach Serrano: I think they are all in different roles this year and they haven't, probably, adapted to it. Darric was a role guy last year on the mound. He was between two seniors that had a lot of success and, not taking anything away from him, but he didn't have as much pressure. He wasn't the guy (opponents) looked to. Jason was in a different role last year, I think Chris was also in a different role last year. They were surrounded by a lot of good players and they had good seasons themselves. This year they have probably put undue pressure on themselves where they've had to be the guys and you can't do that in this game. You just have to be yourselves and do what you can do. Sure they haven't lived up to their part to this point but really, after this weekend, we can accomplish what we want as the new season starts next weekend. If they can hit .400 going through the regionals I'm sure everything will be forgotten to this point.

TitanCentral.com: How about Chief? how's he feeling?

Coach Serrano: This bye week came at a good time. We've ridden his back a lot and mostly because, some of the set up guys, besides Spider, have not played to their roles like we wished they would. With the bye weekend I think we saw the real Chief with the first game back. Against UCLA he was phenomenal. He threw 11 pitches and there wasn't one pitch you can say was a bad pitch. That was the guy we were used to seeing and he said he felt fresh again... He never turns down the ball. I'm always asking him, "How do you feel today," and he'll say, "Coach, I can give you two." We've probably put too much trust in his hands. There's times where he's been fatigued after coming off a two-inning stint that we probably should have went with someone else.

But I've learned something that has trickled down from coach Horton which has trickled down from coach Garrido when he was here and that is sometimes you'll go with mentality over stuff. What I mean by that is there might be a guy with a fresh arm down there but you have a guy who has a little bit stronger mentality and I think this game is all about mentality. To this point this season I think we've done that, we've gone more mentality than with a guy with good as stuff. There's not a person in this program who doesn't think Chief has the mentality of a closer and you want that guy out there when the games on the line.

TitanCentral.com: Can't argue with that. How about the catching. Suzuki seemed to have won the position early in the season and then he got hurt. Is he still hurt or has P.J. won the job outright?

Coach Serrano: Kirk is not a 100%. It's been a bad year for him getting nicked up. First it was the back and he was getting healthy and getting close to being back in there and sharing the duties with P.J. -- they both have done a phenomenal job --but now Kirk has the hand injury. It doesn't prevent him from catching but it does prevent him from swinging the bat effectively. But I think we have a good situation. Those are two guys that compliment each other and they compliment the pitching staff. They bring different things to the table. They are both, in their own ways, leaders which you want as a catcher. I think it's a good situation. It's too bad for Kirk because he probably would have shared time with P.J. but P.J.'s done a phenomenal job for us.

TitanCentral.com: It seems like we get hit-by-pitch quite a bit. Is this something you actually teach?

Coach Serrano: It's part of our offense, to be honest with you. It's part of our mentality and game plan. It's not like we're asking guys to get hurt but it's about on-base percentage and getting something going for the team. If a team tries to pitch in we're not going to back from it because it gives us a base. If it hits us and it's not going to put us out of the game or injure us... I think the guys who have done that for us, the Costas, the Comforts, the Fitzgeralds, the Smeyers, all done the line, I think those are true team guys. From the coaching staff down to the teammates, it is appreciated. There's really no difference between a guy getting a hit or driving one up the middle. It's a runner on first base and you can't have enough of those.

TitanCentral.com: Recruiting. A newspaper reported J.P. Howell is transferring in, can you comment on this?

Coach Serrano: Can't comment on that at this time. We are recruiting him.

TitanCentral.com: How about the other recruit recently announced as signing, J.D. McCauley? Is he a backup plan in anticipation of losing some of the guys we signed earlier this year?

Coach Serrano: I've watched J.D. all year and he's one of those kids that continues to grow on you. He's a great athlete, a great center fielder from El Dorado High School, which is a very prominent program here in Orange County. Sometimes what we get caught up in is that we think the grass is greener somewhere else. I felt, watching JD this year, here's a guy right down the street from us and is going to make a good college baseball player.

I think as a coaching staff we are thrilled to this point, as of May 22nd, 2002 of next years recruiting class. Talk to me on June 22nd, 2002 or a month after that and I might be scratching my head thinking we're struggling. We do have some very fine athletes and good players and we have a lot of left-handed hitting coming in which is much needed. We have speed coming in but those are also things Major League Baseball looks at too. We have some good pitchers coming in with good arms. We have a lefty from Stockton, Ca., by the name of Ryan Scheppel and a JC pitcher named Dustin Scheffel out of Sacramento City that we think are going to be immediate impacts but Major League Baseball sees the same thing. We'll know a little bit more after the names are called on June 4th and 5th but we like what we have on paper right now combined with what we have coming back.

Jordan DeJong is the only pitcher who has made a big impact that we lose and he will be tough to replace but the majority of the team is coming back. We're going to miss guys like Stringfellow, Comfort and Klosterman but we feel we have some guys coming in who can replace them and more than that.

TitanCentral.com: It looks like one of our best signings Scott Moore will be a top 10 pick, any chance we see him in a Titan uniform?

Coach Serrano: Scott Moore is going to be a very high pick. That's one, right now, that we can anticipate... it's going to be very hard to think he's going to be part of the mix. If he is, that's great for the Titans. You have to be realistic and we will be lucky if Scott Moore goes anywhere past the second round in the draft and he could go as high as the first round.

TitanCentral.com: Tells us about the expectations for this team and if they have been met? Is this the kind of year you expected or have they outperformed or underperformed?

Coach Serrano: I think this team has performed well. I think we thought we had some shortcomings going into this season and we've talked about that over the year, left handed bats, speed, not a lot of depth and I think this team has performed at a pretty good level most of the season. We didn't reach one of our goals, and that's to win the conference, and that's not satisfactory to us but nothing has been taken away from us. Teams have won the National Championship that haven't won conference championships. It's about getting hot at the right time and having the right team chemistry and we do have the team chemistry. It's just a matter of us playing the best baseball we can over what we have left. I wouldn't sell this team short on anything because they have overcome some things, at times, we didn't think they would be able to overcome.

You have to give props to Northridge. They handled their part of the schedule better than us and handled us in our own ballpark. There's nothing to be ashamed of and they are well-deserving of the outcome of their season to this point.

Nothing has been taken away from this team yet. It's always a four-step drill: our goal is to win the conference, our goal is to win a regional and then a Super Regional and then to win the National Championship. We didn't win the conference but that doesn't mean the other three steps have been taken away from us.

TitanCentral.com: Okay coach, thanks once again for your time. I know it's a very busy time of the year for you and the Titans and good luck against Long Beach State.