Baseball Preview: UC Riverside

Cal State Fullerton has gone on an eight game winning streak since losing their series at home to UC Irvine, a streak that includes series sweeps against UC Davis and Pacific. But, the level of competition increases dramatically this weekend compared to the opponents from the last two weekends as Fullerton goes out to UC Riverside

The Highlanders are coming off of a series win at Cal Poly (Riverside's first against Cal Poly since 2002) after the Mustangs won their series at Irvine the previous weekend. This is another series that will have a major impact on who ends up winning the Big West title this season.

LINEUP

Riverside traditionally plays much better at home than they do on the road and this year is no exception. The Highlanders are 16-6 at home this year, compared to 8-10 on the road. Riverside has scored 7 or more runs in 18 games - 15 of those have been at home. They have been held to 4 runs or less in only 7 of 22 home games. Riverside has one of the best offenses in the Big West, ranking 2nd in BA (.298), 2nd in RPG (6.4), 1st in HR's (31) and 1st in doubles (90, which is 25 more than anybody else). They don't play much little ball, ranking in the middle of the Big West in SAC bunts (31 - less than one per game) and don't steal much (31 SB's) except for one player who has about half of their steals. Riverside works pitch counts, easily leading the Big West in BB's but also ranking 2nd in K's.

The Highlanders are going to sit and wait for their pitch and try to hammer it when they see the one they want. Riverside has struggled with LHP's recently (no-hit for six innings by UCSB's Chuck Huggins, shutout Saturday at Cal Poly, held to three hits Tuesday by UCLA) so Fullerton could be bringing in Dustin Birosak and Paul Canedo into the game in key situations with both throwing well lately. Defensively, Riverside has never traditionally been one of the better teams in the conference, emphasizing hitting and plugging players into defensive positions and that is the case again this year as they are pretty average defensively, committing 58 errors which have contributed to 42 unearned runs.

C - Jeff Dunbar (RH - .236 - 3 - 16 - 2) has started almost every game. 19th round draft pick last year. Pro scouts like Dunbar's defensive ability behind the plate because he is solid at blocking pitches (26 WP's, 8 PB's) and throwing at throwing out baserunners (33-50 SB's). Dunbar was having a poor season at the plate until hitting two key HR's at Cal Poly last weekend.
Usually bats 9th.

1B - Mark Samuelson (LH - .287 - 5 - 36 - 2) is a big man at 6'5", 230 and one of the main power hitters for Riverside. 2nd on the team in RBI's and hits 4th or 5th. Patient hitter (22 BB's) who also K's a lot (37 K's). Decent speed for his size, with 8 2B's and 2 3B's and is 3rd on the team in runs. Average defensively, has made five errors.

2B - Ben Price (Both, .319 - 0 - 21 - 2) has split time between 2B and 3B but has settled in at 2B for the last month or so. Decent defensively, makes most of the plays he should (5 E's). Scrappy ballplayer who will do anything to get on base (32 BB's in only 130 total plate apps). Usually bats 7th.

SS - Jaime Pedroza (Both - .329 - 9 - 38 - 4) is the younger brother of former Titan player Sergio Pedroza. He bats 3rd and is the best all around hitter for Riverside and one of the two players that Fullerton's pitchers must keep under control this weekend in order to shut down the Highlander offense. Pedroza's bat was pretty quiet for 13 games (.269, 0 HR's, 5 RBI's) and the team was held to four runs or less in 6 of those 13 games. Pedroza heated up the past two games (4-7, 2 HR's, 4 RBI's). Pedroza has struggled defensively both last year (21 E's) and this year (12 E's).

3B - Kyle Barratt (RH - .250 - 0 - 11 - 0) has played all over the infield for Riverside over the past four seasons but has settled in at 3B recently. Usually bats 8th. Hasn't hit nearly as well the past two seasons (last year .285 - 2 - 20) as he did as a FR when he hit 8 HR's and K's a lot (29 K's in 92 AB's). Not a natural 3B so he has struggled defensively (7 E's) so that could be something that Fullerton focuses on by putting some bunts down towards Barratt.

LF - Aaron Wible (RH - .295 - 6 - 31 - 2) usually bats 4th or 5th as one of the main power hitters for Riverside and is 2nd on the team with 17 extra base hits, 2nd in HR's and 3rd in RBI's. Currently in an 0-13 slump but he murdered the ball a couple of weeks ago against UCSB, hitting 4 HR's. Pretty patient at the plate (17 BB's), K's a lot (30 K's). Wible is also Riverside's best bunter (7 SAC bunts). Converted to the OF from 3B, has been solid defensively.

CF - Carl Uhl (Both - .321 - 0 - 19 - 14) is the leadoff hitter. He has a high on base % (.431) with 33 BB's/HBP's and is the primary SB threat in the lineup. Uhl is the other player that Fullerton's pitchers must keep under control and keep him off base. When Uhl doesn't get on base (0-13 in 3 of last 4 games), Riverside struggles to score (6 total runs). When he gets on base (4-4 last Sunday), the Riverside offense takes off (11 runs in the series winning game at Cal Poly). Good range defensively.

RF - Joey Gonzales (LH - .317 - 0 - 11 - 4) has settled things down defensively in RF. Usually bats 2nd and does a good job of getting on base and helping to set the table with Uhl for the power hitters in the middle of the lineup.

DH - Mike Vass (RH - .268 - 6 - 17 - 1) and Ryan Goetz (LH - .283 - 0 - 10 - 0) have been the main DH's. Goetz will bat 2nd when he is in the lineup, Vass will bat 6th. Vass will sometimes play RF but is poor defensively. Vass is an all (6 HR's) or nothing (28 K's in 97 AB's) hitter.

PITCHING

Riverside has one of the most talented pitching staffs in the Big West conference. All three SP's have live arms as do several of the relievers. Riverside is in the top half of the Big West in team ERA (3.87) and is first in K's (331) by a wide margin and first in BA against (.250).

FRI SP - James Simmons (RHP - 8-2, 2.06 ERA, 79 IP, 11 BB's, 79 K's, .187 BA) is one of the best pitchers on the west coast and Fullerton will have their hands full with him. Projected to go in the first two rounds in the draft. Simmons has allowed either no runs or one run in 8 of 11 starts. Has been much better at home (1.08 ERA) than on the road (3.16 ERA). He has a good fastball in the low 90's and good command with his off-speed pitches. Simmons also fields his position well, as baserunners are 7-13 against him and he and hasn't committed an error.

SAT SP - Marc Rzepczynski (LHP - 5-1, 3.28 ERA, 58 IP, 23 BB's, 68 K's, .258 BA) is very tough on LH hitters so Fullerton figures to shuffle around the lineup on Saturday. Good arm, good curveball, sometimes struggles with control (31 BB's/HBP's in 58 IP) so a key for Fullerton will be to work his pitch count because he usually only goes 5-6 innings. Tough to run on (7-13 SB's). Has also pitched much better at home (2.51 ERA) than on the road (4.18 ERA).

SUN SP - Pat Cassa (LHP - 2-3, 3.81 ERA, 59 IP, 19 BB's, 44 K's, .265 BA) started the season in the bullpen as the main
reliever but pitched his way into the rotation. Better than most of the Sunday SP's that you will see in the Big West. Not a big guy at 5'10" so he relies on being crafty. Cassa has solid control but has hit 7 batters. Runners have had more success against Cassa (4-6) and he doesn't field his position as well as the other two SP's do (5 SAC's allowed, made 2 E's). Has struggled recently, allowing 20 R's (15 ER's) in 24 IP in his last four starts.

Relievers - The three featured arms in Riverside's bullpen are Dan Runzler (LHP - 2-6, 6.05 ERA, 55 IP, 39 BB's, 55 K's, .300 BA), Joe Kelly (RHP - 1-1, 3 saves, 0.90 ERA, 15 apps, 20 IP, 8 BB's, 15 K's, .276 BA) and Stephen Penney (RHP - 3-2, 2 saves, 5.11 ERA, 21 apps, 25 IP, 9 BB's, 24 K's, .198 BA). Runzler is the only LHP in Riverside's bullpen, was drafted in the 17th round last year, is a hard thrower (especially for a LHP) who has struggled with his control and pitched his way into the bullpen and a midweek SP role. Held a hot hitting UCLA to one unearned run on Tuesday. Kelly is a ground ball pitcher who has been lights out since moving into a closer's role, shutting down Cal Poly on Sunday in the 11-10 slugfest (3 IP, 1 R) but has struggled some with his control (also has thrown 5 WP's). Penney has struggled with his control (16 BB's/HBP's) but has a live arm and has been tough to hit (.198 BA) despite his high ERA. Other relievers for Riverside are Matt Montgomery (RHP - 1-0, 3.38 ERA, 11 apps, 13 IP), who threw three shutout innings against UCLA on Tuesday; DJ Smith (RHP - 2-0, 4.63 ERA, 11 apps, 12 IP); Adam Reifer (2.45 ERA, 6 apps, 7 IP) who has a good arm but has had injury issues; and Taylor Bills (0-1, 7.04 ERA, 15 IP) who has struggled this season after being a SP the past two years.

OUTLOOK

Fullerton's offense has been productive since coming back from their weekend off in the middle of March, scoring 6+ runs in 12 of 17 games. Even though Fullerton dominated Pacific last weekend as expected, one got the feeling that they weren't overlooking the Tigers but they were looking ahead to the challenge of winning the series at Riverside, which was confirmed by Coach Horton in the O.C. Register - "We have a big series coming up this weekend, that's no mystery," Horton said, referring to the Big West series against UC Riverside. "We weren't challenged much last weekend (against Pacific) and we wanted to build on the weekend." Road teams have done well in big conference series this year with Irvine winning at Fullerton, Cal Poly winning at Irvine and Riverside winning at Cal Poly.

Is it Fullerton's turn this weekend? Riverside has been a house of horrors for Fullerton in the Titans two previous visits in '03 and '05 as the Highlanders have often played like the Scots that William Wallace led in "Braveheart", winning both series and going 5-1 against Fullerton. The key to this series will be the Friday night matchup that the scouts figure to be out in force to watch. If Fullerton can pull off the game with Roemer pitching against Simmons, that would do wonders for the Titans confidence. If Riverside wins that game and continues to play with the confidence they have at home, it will be very difficult for the Titans to bounce back and win the next two games.