Baseball Preview: UC Irvine

Despite losing the right side of the infield to potentially season-ending injuries during the past two weeks, Cal State Fullerton has gone 5-1 during that time, including a 3-0 start in Big West games after a hard earned sweep at Cal State Northridge, where the Titans had to make late inning comebacks in two of the three games.

Next up for Fullerton is a series against UC Irvine (21-7-1, 2-1) that potentially could end up deciding who wins the Big West championship this year.

Irvine got Big West play started last week with a 2-1 series win at home against Long Beach State, which was the Anteaters conference series win against the Dirtbags since 2002. After getting over that hurdle, you know that former Fullerton pitching coach Dave Serrano is looking forward to getting over the next big hurdle for Irvine's program, which would be a series win over Fullerton, something Irvine hasn't been able to accomplish since they brought their program back in 2002. Will there be a new sheriff in Orange County after this series, something Irvine's previous coaching staff wasn't able to accomplish?

LINEUP

Irvine has had the best offense in the Big West thus far, leading the conference in just about every category including batting average (.326), OBP (.399), SLG (.472), runs per game (6.8) and HR's (23). Irvine isn't very patient at the plate, with one notable exception (Cipriano) as they average just 2.7 BB's per game but they do make up for that by taking almost 2 HBP's per game. Although Irvine is able to hit for power, that isn't the only way they are able to produce runs. Irvine also leads the Big West with 72 SB's (over twice as many as the second best team) and SAC's with 49 so they also play little ball very well. In Friday's game alone against Long Beach, Irvine put down nine bunts for SAC's or hits so they will be keeping Evan McArthur busy this weekend. On top of all of that, Irvine has also played very good defense and leads the Big West in fielding % at .975 and baserunners have been successful at stealing less than half of the time (16-33). Needless to say, Irvine is one of the more well rounded teams that Fullerton will play this season.

C - Aaron Lowenstein (RH, Soph) and Francis Larson (RH, FR) share the catching position, with Lowenstein getting about 3/4 of the starts. Lowenstein usually bats 8th and has improved quite a bit from his FR year at the plate and has good speed for a C but has only one extra base hit. He is a very good bunter, with 14 SAC bunts last year and 7 this year. He is average at blocking pitches (Irvine has allowed 28 WP's/PB's) but has a very good arm (9-19 SB's allowed this year, 20-37 SB's allowed last year). Larson has more pop in his bat (5 extra base hits in 30 AB's, .267 BA - 1 HR - 8 RBI's) and has been the DH a couple of times but is not quite as good of a defensive catcher. Lowenstein - '07 stats - .347 - 0 HR's - 12 RBI's - 6 SB's; '06 stats - .246 - 0 - 12 - 2.

1B and DH - These have been platoon positions for Irvine, with lots of LH vs. RHP and RH vs. LHP matchups. When Ollie Linton is in CF, Taylor Holiday will play at 1B. When Holiday is in LF (which is most of the time), 1B will often be handled by Matt Cusick (RH, FR), who comes from a baseball family (his older brother is one of the best players at USC). Cusick has gotten off to a good start ('07 stats - .294 - 2 - 5 - 3) and has started in 15 games. Other players who will play the 1B and DH spots are Zach "The Whammer" Robinson (1B or DH - LH, SR, '07 stats - 10 starts - .275 - 0 - 6 - 0; '06 stats - .278 - 0 - 21 - 1); Sean Madigan (DH - LH, FR, '07 stats - 9 starts - .304 - 0 - 12 - 1) and Tony Asaro (DH or 1B - RH, Soph, '07 stats - 14 starts - .283 - 1 - 6 - 3).

2B - Cody Cipriano (RH, SR). Cipriano was 2nd team all Big West at 2B last year and is having an outstanding season as he very likely will be the 1st team 2B this year. He hit for decent power last year but has improved in that area and is also a threat to steal bases. Cipriano is very patient at the plate (18 BB's), one of the few Irvine hitters that is. Cipriano is big for a 2B (he was moved from 1B to 2B in the latter part of last season) and has made a few E's (8 last year, 8 already this year) but will make the play most of the time. He usually bats 3rd in the lineup. '07 stats - .359 - 7 - 22 - 5; '06 stats - .354 - 4 - 36 - 16.

SS - Ben Orloff (RH, Soph). Orloff is one of best bunters in the college baseball, leading the country last year in SAC bunts with 26 and he already has 10 this season. Orloff doesn't have much pop in his bat and sprays the ball around the field primarily for singles. He usually bats 2nd in order to hit and run, go the other way or bunt the runner over. Last year, it was because he wasn't that good of a hitter but he has improved significantly this season. Besides his ability to play small ball, the other reason
Orloff is in the lineup is his defense because he is one of the better defensive SS's in the Big West, with a fielding percentage around .970 over the past two seasons. '07 stats - .345 - 0 - 11 - 8; '06 stats - .217 - 0 - 16 - 5.

3B - Tyler Vaughn (RH, JR). Vaughn struggled with the bat and defensively last year, which led to his being benched in the latter part of the season. This year, Vaughn has played well and has been productive for somebody who usually bats 9th. He doesn't have much pop in his bat and sprays the ball around the field primarily for singles. Decent defensively, improved in that area as well this year. '07 stats - .330 - 0 - 18 - 5; '06 stats - .195 - 1 - 6 - 2.

LF - Taylor Holiday (RH, JR). Holiday is the leadoff hitter and the player that makes Irvine's offense go. Holiday is a good baserunner and a scrappy player that both gets on base to set the table by hitting or HBP's and he is also a run producer who drives in runs. Versatile defensive player who played some 3B last year and has played some 1B this year, allowing Linton to occasionally get into the lineup in CF. '07 stats - .319 - 4 - 26 - 6; '06 stats - .286 - 2 - 31 - 15.

CF - Matt Morris (RH, SR). Morris was a productive player last year and is another player who has stepped his game up a notch this year. He is having an outstanding season and is one of the leading contenders for Big West player of the year honors. Morris usually bats 5th and has been hitting for average, hitting for power, stealing bases and playing good defense. When Ollie Linton (LH, Soph) plays CF, Morris shifts over to LF. Linton also has very good speed as one of Irvine's fastest runners. Morris - '07 stats - .417 - 4 - 25 - 10; '06 stats - .304 - 2 - 19 - 14. Linton - '07 stats - 6 starts - .310 - 0 - 3 - 4; '05 stats (redshirt '06) - .306 - 1 - 19 - 14.

RF - Bryan Petersen (LH, JR). Petersen didn't play well as a Soph but had a successful summer in Alaska and rode that momentum into this season. Petersen has good pop in his bat and has very good speed and will bunt for SAC's (8 this year) and hits, a rarity for a cleanup hitter. He has very good range defensively for a RF. '07 stats - .323 - 3 - 20 - 18; '06 stats - .226 - 0 - 7 - 3.

PITCHING

Dave Serrano had a reputation as being one of the best pitching coaches in the country while he was at Fullerton and that has translated over to Irvine, where the Anteaters play in one of the best pitchers parks in the country, especially at night where the air is damp and the park is only a couple of miles from the coast. Irvine has two of the best SP's in the Big West, losing only one time with either of them on the mound and that was in a 1-0 game, and a closer that will soon break the NCAA record for saves in a career. It's the 3rd SP and the other midweek starters/middle relievers that Irvine has had issues with so Fullerton will need to get into the bullpen early in games, if possible.

Friday SP - Scott Gorgen (RHP, 5-1, 2.82 ERA, 51 IP, 19 BB's, 38 K's, .262 BA). Gorgen was the Big West FR Pitcher of the Year and 2nd team all conference last year (7-5, 2.54 ERA, 87 K's in 110 IP, .234 BA) and has continued to pitch well this year. He has pitched well in 7 of his 8 starts and does a good job of keeping the ball down but occasionally has gotten into trouble when he has gotten the ball up (6 HR's allowed last year, 4 this year). Gorgen does a very good job of holding runners (0-6 SB's). Gorgen struggled in his start at Fullerton last year, allowing 5 R's in 7 IP, but turned it around at Irvine, pitching 6 2/3 innings in a combined shutout.

Sat SP - Wes Etheridge (RHP, 8-0, 1.23 ERA, 59 IP, 12 BB's, 49 K's, .216 BA). Etheridge is a transfer from Cypress JC who started the season in the bullpen but took over as the Sat SP five weeks ago due to the struggles of the other SP's. He has been absolutely dominant as a SP, using very good control and a good breaking pitch to keep the ball down for lots of groundouts.
Etheridge has allowed 1 run total in his last three starts, including a combined shutout (6 2/3 IP) last week against Long Beach. Etheridge has been difficult to run on (1-5 SB's).

Sun SP - This has been a mystery for Irvine and it probably won't be known who will be starting against Fullerton until a day or two before the game. Daniel Bibona (LHP, FR, 1-1, 8.50 ERA) and Dylan Axelrod (RHP, SR, 1-2, 5.06 ERA; '06 stats - 3-3, 4.59 ERA, 49 IP) began the year as SP's and both pitched their way out of the rotation. Reid Suitor (RHP, FR, 3-0, 2.35 ERA) was the next one to take a turn, pitching well in a couple of starts but he hasn't pitched in the last three weeks. Cory Hamilton (RHP, FR, 2-1, 2.03 ERA) was next and he pitched his way out of favor with Serrano after a couple of starts. Gary Nakashima (RHP, SR, 0-0, 2.19 ERA; '06 stats - 2-2, 4.33 ERA, 54) started last Sunday against Long Beach (2 IP, 4 H's, 2 R's) and Serrano was less than pleased, according to the comments he had in the paper.

Relievers - Blair Erickson (RHP, SR, 0-0, 2.25 ERA, 8 saves, .200 BA; '06 stats - 5-0, 2.06 ERA, 13 saves) has been dominant for four years as a closer for Irvine and could tie or break the NCAA career record for saves this weekend. Erickson is a power pitcher and rarely blows a lead in the 9th inning. After pitching his way out of the rotation, Axelrod has done a good job out of the bullpen in allowing 2 R's in 11 IP in the last 3 weekend series, including 2 1/3 hitless innings to combine with Etheridge for a shutout against Long Beach. Axelrod is a hard thrower (27 IP, 31 K's, .222 BA). With a lead in a close game in the 6th-7th innings, Serrano would be likely to go to Axelrod to get the game to Erickson. Nakashima was pitching decently out of the bullpen until Sunday's start and figures to be back in the bullpen. Several others have gotten some time out of the bullpen (Eric Pettis - 14 apps, 14 IP; Chris Lopez - 6 apps, 4 2/3 IP; Christian Bergman - 6 apps, 6 2/3 IP; Cole Hathcock - 8 apps, 12 IP). The only LHP's are Bibona and Thomas Calahan (1-0, 2.45 ERA, 12 apps, 11 IP, 12 K's, .214 BA), a transfer from Santa Ana JC.

OUTLOOK

This is easily the best team that Irvine has had since resuming their baseball program in 2002. If Irvine wins this series, they could be on their way to their first Division I conference championship after series wins against the two programs that have dominated the Big West. There are some lengthy streaks on the line in this series. Fullerton has gone 13-5 against Irvine in winning all six series over the past five seasons. Fullerton hasn't lost a series at Goodwin Field since 2004 and hasn't lost a conference series at home since 2002. Fullerton has won 7 of 8 series this year, with the only series loss on the road at ECU. Irvine has been dominant at home (14-2) but hasn't played as well (7-5-1) on the road. Fullerton has been very resilient despite the adversity this team has faced and if the team is able to keep Irvine's offense under control and put some runs on the board against Irvine's first two SP's (Fullerton has struggled at times against solid SP's and has usually made their comebacks against the relievers, especially Long Beach and Northridge) to split the first two games, you have to like the Titans chances in the third game to win the series 2-1.