Ask Dave: Recruits, Team USA and much more...

Today (Monday) is the first day of school at Cal State Fullerton, so we couldn't think of a better time to post our first installment of Ask Dave. TitanCentral, aka Jeff Bebe, talked to Titans assistant coach/pitching coach Dave Serrano to get his thoughts on the incoming recruiting class and various other topics. The interview was conducted on Friday, but we did check back with Dave today (Monday) to confirm that everyone who's expected to be in class is indeed in class -- and they are.

TitanCentral.com: Let’s talk about the three guys who spent the summer with Team USA -- Wes, Chief and Costa -- have you talked to them since they returned?

Coach Dave Serrano: I’ve seen Wes and Chief, I’ve not seen Costa, obviously he lives up in Visalia, but we’re very proud of them and their accomplishments, not just baseball-wise. I actually received a phone call from Steve Cohen, who is the general mananger of Team USA and he called me and he wanted me to relay it to the rest of the staff. It was just, “Thank you.” His exact message was, “Thank you, and I just want to tell you that Shane and Wes and Chad were great people, let alone great players. They were great ambassadors for USA Baseball, great ambassadors for their country.” That, you know, you deal with a lot of phone calls, some negativity, you see a lot of things written when things go bad, and all that, like coming off last year’s season, but when you hear something like that, it makes everything worthwhile. I mean, to hear that message about how proud that guy was to deal with them and he just called me and thanked me for the kind of people they were, let alone great pitchers and a great player. Just to know they were representing our school in that manner was very rewarding for the whole staff.

TitanCentral.com: What about the players themselves; did you get their thoughts on what the experience was like for them?

Coach Serrano: It was a great experience. I know that it got pretty tiring. They were -- it was different than most Team USA summers -- they were on the road every single day. A lot of times (in past years) they play some games out of Tucson, which is their home base, but this team was on the road, I think, for close to 60 straight days. And I met up with them in Cleveland and saw them play a weekend series. They said that was the only negative thing, that they were bouncing from hotel to hotel, from plane to plane, from bus to bus. They were just never really able to settle down and relax in one place for more than two or three days.

TitanCentral.com: Because of that schedule and the fatigue factor, is there a chance those guys may be held back a bit during fall practices, to rest up a bit?

Coach Serrano: We’ll be conscious of that, that we know their bodies are tired. There are some other guys like that who played summer ball. Every year we take that into account, and give them a little time off. Not too much time, but enough time to give them a chance to refuel their batteries and get it going again, so we don’t hurt them. There’s nothing that any of them need to prove right now, it’s just a matter of keeping them healthy and keeping them in shape.

TitanCentral.com: That makes sense. Regarding the other guys who played summer ball, anybody else have a breakout summer? Maybe someone like a Jared Eichelberger?

Coach Serrano: Jared played Connie Mack ball, so it’s really hard to say because Connie Mack, you know, is younger age kids. But I know Jared had a good summer. And I’m excited about the way some of our recruits that I saw playing this summer have played. Also, I think Darric Merrell, numbers-wise, it didn’t look good for him, but he was happy with the way he threw. I talked to him on the phone the other day and he seemed more confident and, you know, I think that none of us know what really happened to Darric last year after his freshman year, but I would be shocked if he didn’t come back to his form like was the first year. I don’t know if it was a bump in the road or if it was sophomore jinx, or what. But with his mentality and his work ethic, I would be shocked if he didn’t come back and have a great junior year for us.

TitanCentral.com: Merrell was going to be my next question, but since you mention Merrell, let’s talk about pitching in general. I know it’s a cliche, they say you can’t have too much pitching, but it really looks like this year’s team, with the guys coming back and the promising recruits, it really looks like there’s has quite an abundance of pitching -- would you say this could be one of the best Titan pitching staffs ever?

Coach Serrano: On paper, yeah, I would not disagree with that. On paper, I think the pieces are in place. With the guys we have coming back, with what they’ve experienced, you know, with being All-Americans, being Team USA guys, you know, with pitching for two years here. I would say, yeah, we have a chance to be pretty special on the mound. But I think it’s like every year we have to prove something again. We have a lot to prove here. We have to prove that last year was a fluke, and we are not a fourth-place program in our conference, and I know the coaching staff will be taking that approach, and I’m sure it will be passed on to the players. And like I said, on paper we can say, yeah, we’re going to be great on the mound, but if we take that approach, I can guarantee we won’t be great because you have to work for greatness, and not just expect it to happen. I know my job will be as tough as ever before because we are going to have a lot of guys that have had success and because we have some younger guys who I think can really contribute to this team on the mound this year. The numbers are there, the quality is there, but now it’s about keeping up the focus. We were looked at as a pretty good pitching staff last year, but we weren’t looked at as a good team. And that’s the aspect of this program that’s most important -- how the team does -- not how an individual does, or how a certain part of the team does.

TitanCentral.com: Talk about the recruiting class coming in, how do you compare this class to the class of two years ago?

Coach Serrano: Well, I kind of chuckle when people ask me that because, to me, I don’t think a recruiting class can ever be judged within the first couple of years. I think the impact isn’t felt until a couple years down the line. I think we’re going to reap the benefits this year of the recruiting class from a couple years ago, and even though it was ironic that first year (for the 2001 class) we went to Omaha, yet fell short, I don’t think that was a result of that recruiting class as much as it was the one that Kirk Saarloos, Bacani and all those guys came in with three or four years before that. So, I think we’re excited about it, we addressed some definite needs. We held on to some guys and our fingers are all crossed, we’re very confident -- in fact they’re all down here now, it’s just a matter of getting them into class on Monday. We fell short in some areas still. We went out and our pursuit was for a lot of left-handed hitters and we didn’t get as many as we wanted to. I think you might have e-mailed me or someone e-mailed me the other day about Josh Bartusick (left-handed hitter from Fountain Valley), that his name is still on the list. He is not coming to school, he is not eligible, NCAA-wise. He’s going to go a local junior college. Johnny Defendis, as you know, is going to another school (Rutgers), Brad Van Winkle from Sac City is going to be a semester recruit because he still has to fulfill some academic obligations at the junior college. But that aside, the guys we have coming in, we’re excited about what we have. Very excited, actually. It’s been a long time since we’ve kept a fifth-rounder (Shawn Scobee) from signing, and coming to school. That’s exciting, and we feel that Shawn will represent a big part of this program -- when that happens, who knows? But we think we have something special in him, something special in Bobby Andrews, Justin Turner, Dan Dorn, I mean, the list goes on and on. And that’s aside from the two left-handed freshman pitchers we have coming in (Ricky Romero and Ryan Schreppel). And the thing that goes unnoticed on this year’s team, and that I think shouldn’t go unnoticed, and I know he still has to do it and prove himself is maybe the top recruit out of last year’s class, Dustin Miller, who never threw an inning because of injury. He’s back and he’s almost at full strength again, so that just adds another prominent name of quality for the pitching staff.

TitanCentral.com: Yeah, he is kind of the forgotten guy, isn’t he?

Coach Serrano: He would’ve been a big factor on last year’s team, so ... but adding the two left-handers is huge, and we have some younger left-handers off last year’s team (John Estes, Tim Jimenez) who hopefully will develop into what we thought they’d develop into -- I think they will. But I don’t think we can judge this class until a couple years down the road. But, as a staff, we are very excited about it, and there’s not a guy on that list that we’re not excited about what his future is going to be as a Titan.

TitanCentral.com: What about Johnny Defendis, obviously it would be a longshot, but let’s just say he has a good year at Rutgers and his father changes his mind and decides it would be best for him to play in a higher-profile program, is there a chance we might see him in a Titan uniform in 2004?

Coach Serrano: I don’t think the door is closed there. Obviously, they respect and appreciated how we handled that. We could’ve gone the other way and basically prevented him from playing at any Division I school for two years because that’s what the rules state if he isn’t released from his scholarship -- he would have had to sit out two years if you don’t fulfill your obligation to that institution you signed with. We didn’t do that. We didn’t want to stand in his way. We never want anyone here that doesn’t want to be here. There are circumstances that came up with him. We don’t agree with them, but we’re not going to stand in his way. I don’t think the door is closed, but we need to move on. And I think we finally have gotten to that. It was a devastating blow July 17th when I received that phone call because, to all of us, he was a prominent player that we had in the mix. But we’re beyond that now, let’s move on with the guys that are coming to Fullerton and that we’re all excited about and we’ll go from there.

TitanCentral.com: Defendis was considered one of the top speed guys coming in, correct?

Coach Serrano: Yes, I would describe him probably as a Shane Costa-type player.

TitanCentral.com: So does that leave Robert Andrews as the main speed guy coming in?

Coach Serrano: Well, we sat down the other day and went over some of the names, and Bobby Andrews is the burner of the guys coming in. But I think we have improved our team speed just by the type of athletes we have coming in. Shawn Scobee runs well, Sergio Pedroza runs well, Neil Walton runs well, Blake Davis runs OK, Justin Turner runs OK. So we’ve helped ourselves in that regard. It’s one thing to go get speed, but obviously those are the two things we fall short on it seems like all the time (in recruiting) -- speed and power. Well, I shouldn’t say all the time, but we have fallen short in speed and power. Well, guess what? Major League Baseball is looking for those same two things. And, unfortunately for us, the same guys that we’re signing are the same guys they like. But we’re excited about Bobby Andrews and Shawn Scobee and Dan Dorn and all the those guys coming in.

TitanCentral.com: Because these recruits coming in are so highly regarded, do you think these freshmen have more of a chance to contribute right away, maybe more than in previous years?

Coach Serrano: I’m not speaking out of line here, because I’m not the head coach, but I think Coach Horton would state the same thing, that I don’t think there’s a job on the field that is secure this year. I think that it’s pretty wide open ...

TitanCentral.com: Even Shane Costa?

Coach Serrano: Well, obviously, he is the incumbent. Shane Costa is a guy who obviously is going to wind up in there, but I think it’s pretty wide open. We weren’t satisfied with what happened last year, I’m not saying anything against the young men that we coached, we just weren’t satisfied with the results, and I think it’s pretty wide open for whoever wins the job. We do have some guys coming back that it’s going to take something special to beat out, but we think we have a lot of good players that can win those nine spots.

TitanCentral.com: That’s obviously good to hear for the freshmen.

Coach Serrano: But that’s how it is every year, to be honest with you. I mean, we don’t recruit a guy hoping he’s going to play in two or three years; we recruit a guy hoping he plays that first year. That’s why the Shane Costas, Chad Corderos, Wes Littletons and Darric Merrells blossom because they get playing time that freshman year, so by their junior year, when most guys are going to leave, they have a lot of experience underneath them. You think back to Smith and Saarloos and Bacani, those are all kids that played early on in their career. And it means something towards the end.

TitanCentral.com: What about, looking ahead, recruiting for 2004, I’m sure you attended the recent Area Code Games at Blair Field, anything you can comment on there?

Coach Serrano: That’s something I can’t comment on, I mean names, but obviously, we’re going to have to replenish our pitching. I anticipate us losing five guys (to the draft), that’s including the four juniors -- Ingle, Merrell, Littleton, Cordero -- plus Sean Martin, a senior. It would be a shock to me if we even had one of those guys back, let alone two. So we need to replenish that, but we do have guys in the cupboards right now that will be key for us. But we need to replenish the pitching staff. Position player-wise, we’re going after a limited amount and we’re going after special guys and we’re going after power and left-handed hitting again.

TitanCentral.com: OK, back to this year, any Division I transfers, like Chris Klosterman last year?

Coach Serrano: No, we do most of our stuff through recruiting and we didn’t fall short this year, so our guys coming in are incoming freshmen or JC transfers.

TitanCentral.com: So Travis Ingle is back?

Coach Serrano: Yes, Travis Ingle is back. Yes, he’s back. That was a false rumor on TitanCentral, like some of them are (laughs).

TitanCentral.com: What about guys who might not be coming back?

Coach Serrano: Travis Esquibel has transferred to another school, what school I’m not aware of, I’m not sure if it’s a Division I school or a JC, but he still has one year remaining of eligibility at a JC. Chad Robbins, who pitched only an inning or two last year in one of the games against an NAIA school, has transferred to go to another school, which is in his best interests. Randy Tymchak is retired due to the fact that his arm injuries never subsided.

TitanCentral.com: What about injury-wise, how’s Jason Corapci doing?

Coach Serrano: Jason Corapci, I just saw him the other day, his rehab is going well. He said his shoulder is feeling fine. Kurt Suzuki is back in the mainland, saw him the other day, his wrist has recovered well. He’s ahead of schedule. Mike Martinez, last time I checked, he had disc surgery, and he was recovering well. And Blake Garrett just had surgery the other day on his arm, and I have not talked to Blake yet, but from what I’ve heard, his surgery went well. So we have a little bit of a banged-up crew right now, to be honest with you. But all the signs are good, that all those guys that did have surgeries have been repaired and now they’re on the mend and they’re coming back.

TitanCentral.com: Let’s talk about leadership. A lot of people thought that was a problem with last year’s team. Chris Stringfellow seemed to take more of an active role as the season went on, but he’s more of a quiet guy by nature -- as opposed to the team from two years ago, with guys like Bacani and Brett Kay, they had so much leadership on that team. So is it something where the coaches will go to a particular player and ask him to take a stronger leadership role?

Coach Serrano: Well, I think you can. I think, as a coaching staff, and again, I’m not speaking out of line, I don’t think you can create leaders. I think that’s something that comes from within. Obviously, you can point out kids like the Shane Costas, the Chad Corderos and the Sean Martins and the Darric Merrells and the Jason Corapcis and the Mike Martinezes. All those guys should be great leaders. They’re all great people. They’re all fine young men. And they’re fine players. But some of them lead by example and some of them will lead vocally. And I think we have a core of guys returning that are into the right stuff and stand for the right things, and whether they’re vocal leaders or not, I think they will be great examples for all the young, good athletes that we have brought in to follow their lead. And even if they don’t ever say a word to them -- which we hope isn’t the case -- if they just follow their lead and their example, these young men are being taught by fine people.

TitanCentral.com: On that note, talk a little bit about the Titan tradition. This year, there are several recruits coming in from out of the local area -- Sacramento, Stockton -- and they may not be specifically aware of the Titan tradition and what it means to be a Titan. Is this something where you have the veteran players talk to the incoming players from Day 1, making sure they understand what it means to be a Titan?

Coach Serrano: That’s not just the players, that’s our part, as coaches to talk them through and show them. Coach Horton puts a big focus on that -- on what is a Titan, it’s not just wear the uniform and be a Titan, there are things you have to do to be that type of player. It’s not just be the greatest baseball player in the world. But you need to go to class and be respectful of what it means to be a student on this campus and in the community. And all that stuff goes hand in hand, and none of it’s more important than the other. I mean, we don’t just look at great players and not care what they do off the field -- it’s all important equally to us. A Titan’s a Titan, and a Titan isn’t just a great baseball player, and that’s the truth. I mean, we have great Titans that will never play an inning for us -- that can be a bullpen catcher, a guy that throws BP. A Titan is not just a great baseball player, he’s a guy that does things right in all aspects.

TitanCentral.com: Let’s talk about fall practice. A lot of people don’t know exactly what fall practice entails and how it might differ from regular-season practice.

Coach Serrano: Well, we’re regulated by days. We only have so many days we can practice in a year. Our fall practice this year will begin on October the 11th, that’s our official fall practice, that’s when our whole coaching staff will be there with the whole team for six days a week, 20 hours a week. And we’ll go from October the 11th through November the 2nd, and we’ll introduce a lot of things in the program, keep it simplified, but we’ll introduce things in the program, so that when we come back in January, we don’t have to start all over again. We’ll give them points that they can hold on to, and work on on their own, and when we come back in January we put all the pieces of the puzzle together. They have stuff they’ll be doing on their own. We have, in the fall, there’s 4-on-1 time, where a coach can be with four players at a time to work drills, or throw bullpen, or hit. And that’s 2 hours a week the kids can do that, so there’s different things but it’s not a lot of team-structured stuff until that time from October 11th through November 2nd.

TitanCentral.com: And for those who are wondering, those official fall practices are open to the public?

Coach Serrano: Yes, exactly.

TitanCentral.com: And the Family Day, I know people are wondering about that, is Nov. 2?

Coach Serrano: Yes, that’s November the 2nd.

TitanCentral.com: OK, let’s go back to the regionals last season. There was a lot of talk during the regionals about the West Coast teams getting the shaft in the pairings by being lumped together in the same regionals. And that the California teams might protest by getting together and not bidding for any regionals this coming season, so they’d be forced to send the West Coast teams to possibly easier regionals. Is that something you’ve heard about?

Coach Serrano: I’ve heard the talk. I just don’t see all the coaches getting together to do that. There are programs out there that have been hurt by this, but to be honest with you, to a man, I don’t think it affected us last year. I mean, we kind of deserved what we got. In our mind, we weren’t representative of a true Cal State Fullerton season, so being sent up to Stanford to the toughest regional was probably what we deserved, and what playing 56 games got us to do. We were fortunate just to get into a regional, to be honest with you. So who are we to complain about where we were sent? Where I think our complaint was was more to the respect of the other teams on the West Coast, and how we (the West Coast in general) did get slapped down, and year in and year out it does seem like that is the case. But by no means was our argument because we felt we got hurt by it because we felt we deserved what we got. But because of our pride for the other West Coast teams that we compete against, we feel that it is the strongest area of college baseball but it’s just the unknown because we don’t get glamorized as much as other schools do by Baseball America or other organizations out there because we’re not the big, so-called, schools.

TitanCentral.com: You can also look at it from the other side and say that Stanford received the toughest No. 4 seed of anybody in the country.

Coach Serrano: The way I look at it, to be quite honest with you, we probably affected, by being sent to that regional, probably affected Long Beach State from having a chance to beat Stanford -- because, when we lost that game to Stanford that night, then came back to beat San Jose State, and Long Beach lost to Stanford, if it would’ve been a typical 4th seed, I guarantee you Long Beach State probably wouldn’t have pitched Jered Weaver in that Saturday night game. So they would’ve had Jered Weaver for Sunday instead, and they would’ve probably pitched backwards and pitched one of their down-the-line guys. And they would’ve still had one of their horses to go against a Stanford team that was not really swinging the bats that well at that time of the year. So instead they get matched up against their archrival and it’s a big game and it’s for the end of your season or to move on to the next day, and they weren’t going to mess around, just like we weren’t.

TitanCentral.com: Yeah, and Baseball America said you were the best No. 4 seed ever.

Coach Serrano: From namesake, we probably were. For the tradition of the school, and all that. But again, I think, as a coaching staff, we didn’t, and again, nothing against the young men that we coached because we thought they were fine young men, but as a team, we weren’t a typical Cal State Fullerton team, talent-wise.

TitanCentral.com: What about the schedule for 2003, any changes since the last revised one came out?

Coach Serrano: No, no changes. It’s a tough schedule, it’s not a real exciting schedule as a player and a coach, we don’t go to any real glamorous places. But it’s a tough schedule, and we’re going to have our hands full against our opponents day in and day out.

TitanCentral.com: How does somebody like Minnesota wind up on the schedule? Did they come after you guys?

Coach Serrano: I’m not sure, Coach Vanderhook handles all the scheduling, and Coach Horton works hand in hand with that. That’s not something I’m involved in, so I don’t know how that came about. Maybe they’re coming out to our tournament in a couple years, I’m not really sure.

TitanCentral.com: What are your thoughts on Kirk Saarloos making such a quick jump to the big leagues in just a year?

Coach Serrano: I’m not surprised about Kirk. Probably a little surprised that he moved so quickly, but not surprised that he got a chance to pitch in the big leagues. He has the heart of a lion, smart baseball player, crafty, great stuff. Maybe not a 90-plus thrower, but he knows how to pitch. I think this staff was probably as proud as we’ve ever been of someone making it to the big leagues, just because of what he’s always had going against him (according to scouts) -- too small, right-handed, doesn’t throw hard enough, wasn’t drafted after your junior year. And to defeat all the odds and get to the big leagues, and knowing the type of kid he is, Kirk and I have a great relationship, obviously, we were around each other for four years. And it’s not just a working relationship, but a friendship. I know the other coaches feel the same way. We were very proud of him getting there, just like we are of all our guys. But some guys just sometimes you’re a little bit prouder because of the odds they’ve had to fight against. You know, what he did for Cal State Fullerton in his four years, not just as a player but as a person, was phenomenal, and obviously losing guys like him and Bacani and Kay and Rifkin, the list goes on, Rouse, that was part of the reason why we were a fourth-place team last year.

TitanCentral.com: You mentioned you have a great relationship with Kirk, were you able to go his wedding during the All-Star break?

Coach Serrano: They had a small wedding, but they are supposedly going to have, like a little party after he gets done with the season. I’ve been in touch with Kirk a lot, but I’ve kind of backed off recently due to the fact that his dad was telling me that he gets so many phone calls just like a lot of people do when they make it big. So I’ve kind of just let him do his thing. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped watching -- I try to watch every game he’s pitched, look at every linescore. You know, he’s one of us, it’s almost like he’s your son pitching in the big leagues. He hasn’t changed, same guy, just having fun and enjoying it.

TitanCentral.com: OK, anything else we should know about?

Coach Serrano: Coach Horton on Tuesday had hip replacement surgery and he’s recovering, and he’s going to be out for a while. So Coach Vanderhook, myself, Coach Baum and Sergio Brown will have to hold down the fort until he gets back.

TitanCentral.com: He’s doing OK now?

Coach Serrano: Yeah, he’s doing fine. He’s coming home today (Friday). Hopefully, he’ll be on a speedy recovery.

TitanCentral.com: Do you know how long he’ll be out, when he’ll be back coaching again?

Coach Serrano: We’re hoping in the fall, by Oct. 10th, that he’ll be back. Obviously, he’s a big part of it.

TitanCentral.com: Is he going to get one of those motorized carts like Augie used?

Coach Serrano: He’ll be using a walker for now, then he’ll have the cart for when he comes back here, to help him get around.

TitanCentral.com: That sounds like a good ‘95-like omen.

Coach Serrano: (Laughs) Yeah.

TitanCentral.com Update: After checking back with Dave on Monday, not only did he confirm that everyone is accounted for and in class, he also announced the names of two more JC recruits. Right-handed pitchers Jason Windsor (6-0, 190) from West Valley College in Saratoga and Jon Tucker (6-2, 200) from Golden West College. By the way, in case you were wondering about Dustin Scheffel, the RHP from Sacramento City College, he signed with the Texas Rangers before the draft. The Rangers made him a draft-and-follow.

OK, that wraps up this edition of Ask Dave. Look for our next edition during fall practice, probably around late October, after the coaches have had a chance to see the new recruits in action.