Ask Dave: The Fall Edition

The official fall practices at Cal State Fullerton have wrapped up, so it's time for to check in again with Titan assistant coach/pitching coach Dave Serrano to get the latest on the 2003 edition of Titan baseball.

As we write this, we’re awaiting word on Darric Merrell’s condition. For those who weren’t at last Saturday’s scrimmage, Merrell had to leave with discomfort in his arm after facing just one batter. When this interview was conducted with Coach Serrano on Monday, Dave said we should know more about Merrell by the end of the week. So when we learn Merrell’s status, we’ll post it on the message board. First of all, what’s the status of Darric Merrell?

Coach Serrano: We don’t know yet. He’s gonna go see a doctor. So we won’t know for a few days. It’s a little bit below the elbow, more to the muscle, so that could be a good sign. You never know when it comes to something like that. It’s the first time it’s ever flared up on him. It caught us by surprise. I’m glad he admitted it and didn’t try to tough it out and go through the whole inning. Obviously, the intrasquad game is not that important right now, to be honest with you. Prior to that happening on Saturday, what were your impressions of how Merrell had been throwing the ball in the fall?

Coach Serrano: Well, he has struggled. He had struggled, obviously, throughout last year. He had some spurts, but most of the time he struggled. And he struggled early in the fall. But I still stand by him, just like we all do. Obviously, he has to win a job still to be one of the three or four starters. But his work ethic is off the charts and hopefully, he’ll get this turned around and get back to being where we thought he’d be two years ago. Looking at the team as a whole, what are your impressions of the fall practices?

Coach Serrano: I’m speaking for the staff as I say this, we’re very pleased and we’re very encouraged by what is out there. And what I mean by out there, what’s out in front of us. We have a lot of talent to choose from. That’s gonna be the toughest thing, is finding the right nucleus of the 9-12 guys that are gonna get most of the playing time, position-wise, and the 6-9 guys that are gonna get the most innings on the mound. That’s gonna be the challenge for us as a coaching staff, but we’d rather have that challenge than maybe the challenge that we did last year. I don’t mean it as an excuse, but we were short, talent-wise, position player-wise, last year, for the most part. But we weren’t gonna let that happen this year. To build off the pitching we have back, we have some very talented, young position players that have really come in and played, to this point, unlike freshmen. They haven’t been scared. They’ve let their ability speak for itself, and I think it’s gonna make for some real heated races at some positions. Yeah, that was one of the things I noticed out at the scrimmage on Saturday, was that the freshmen look quite a bit more physically mature and confident-looking than a typical freshman class ...

Coach Serrano: This freshman class of position players reminds me a lot of the freshman class of pitchers we brought in three years ago -- the Merrells, the Littletons, the Ingles, the Corderos -- and that’s exciting, it’s exciting to know that these freshmen will be with us for at least three years. And a lot of them could play a big impact on this season, which is good. Looking at the freshmen, obviously Shawn Scobee is very talented and Justin Turner is playing extremely well, which freshmen would you say have the best chance of playing right away?

Coach Serrano: Well, I think the guys, up to this point, that have put their mark on this team, as guys that have a good chance -- Dan Dorn, he’s had a tremendous fall, he’s shown a lot of power. Shawn Scobee, obviously, he’s everything we thought he would be and he’s gonna be a fine player. Sergio Pedroza, he’s really swung the bat well. For us, our biggest thing will be finding a position for him where he can be in the lineup. Justin Turner, obviously “Red” which is his nickname, Red has displayed great talents defensively and offensively. He’s gonna be a fine, fine player for us. And then redshirt freshman Jacob Mendrin. Jake redshirted last year, to get stronger and develop. You know, he’s a sophomore, as far as academically, but he’s a freshman, eligibility-wise. He has had a very good fall for us and will add power in our lineup. So those are the guys that stand out right now, but we also have guys like Bobby Andrews, who we think is gonna be a fine player; Blake Davis, we think is gonna be a fine player; Neil Walton, we think is gonna be a fine player; John Curtis also. Those guys might not have statistically stood out in some areas, but we’re very excited about them as baseball players in the future. And on the mound, I’m very excited about the left-handed tandem of Ricky Romero and Ryan Schreppel. Ricky showed his talents Saturday and pitched tremendously. Ryan had a rough outing, had some breakdowns, had some balls find some holes. But he didn’t give in, and he showed the maturity of a sophomore or junior out there when things were unraveling. He didn’t give in, he hung tough and got out of some big innings. Romero really seems like a mature veteran out there ...

Coach Serrano: They both are. Schreppel’s a little bit behind on the mound. He had to miss a week. He got hit in the head and was out for a week with a concussion. But I’m very happy with both of them. And they are both freshmen, and we all have to remember that. But I think they’re around a lot of very talented and very good people to be around with our juniors and seniors on the mound. And I think that will help them, it will pay dividends. Just like when these guys were around when they came in, when it was Saarloos and Smith that were seniors on the mound. And the Corderos, and Ingles and Merrells and Littletons came in, they got to learn off of those guys. And I think all the freshman pitchers are gonna be able to learn off quality, quality people and quality pitchers like the guys we have. Talk a little more about Jacob Mendrin. He’s had a great fall, had a nice double on Saturday. He’s a guy who hasn’t been talked about a lot by many people up until now ...

Coach Serrano: He’s talked about a lot by our coaching staff. Last year, he didn’t play an inning for us, but he’s a very conscientious kid, a very smart kid, and has a tremendous work ethic. And he’s a guy that will be in there somewhere, whether it’s first base or DH-ing. He’s gonna be a left-handed force offensively, we think. What can you tell us about his background. Was he a power hitter in high school?

Coach Serrano: No, when we recruited him, when I first saw him at Sonora, I compared him a lot to a poor man’s Aaron Rifkin. He was skinny, just like Aaron was when he came in, but he had the framework. But now he’s gotten stronger and he remains very committed to weights, and he’s got kind of a power swing and his body has grown tremendously. I don’t remember his high school stats, but I do think he put up some power numbers, not great power numbers. But he’s had a good fall for us and we’re excited about his progress. Looking at the fall, in general, how important are the fall practices in determining who will play?

Coach Serrano: I think it’s important, obviously, to spend the amount of days we spent out here. But it’s more of us getting acquainted to them, and them getting adapted to the system. And what we’ve just gone through will play a part in our thinking going into January, but really it all comes down to January. And I say that, and January is very important, but then it all comes down to when the season starts. So there will be roles that will be given as we come out of January, but as we all know, as coaches and players and everyone out there knows, that things change when the season starts. Some guys rise to the occasion and some guys change, their ability level goes down because now they’re facing another team in another uniform. And we want more of the guys that, their ability level goes up. And if that happens, then we’ll be a very good team, whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. We want the guys that, when the other team comes in with the different uniform, their ability level and competition level goes up. That’s what we’re shooting for. We just have to make short evaluations and quick evaluations of some guys and, like I said, it’s kind of a feeling-out process. We get to know our personnel; they get to know us and the system. Then when we come back in January, that’s when we really nail down who are gonna be the guys that start the season at the top of the list and which guys are gonna have to battle to get to the top of the list. But it (the fall) is important. Every day we spend out there as a team is very important in the evaluation of everything we do. Not just physically, but mentally. That plays a big part, knowing the system, knowing what plays we’re running, knowing what defensive plays we’re running. That’s a big part. Like I always tell our pitchers, part of being successful is feeling comfortable in your surroundings and knowing what’s going on around you. Let’s talk about Dustin Miller. He missed all last season due to injury, how does he look now?

Coach Serrano: I’ve been happy with Dustin. He was throwing real well in his last outing. He throws three quality Division I pitches. He’s got a real good fastball that bores in on right-handers, got an outstanding change and a great downer curveball. And I think it’s just a matter of Dustin getting acquainted with everything and getting comfortable. I think his ability level is up there with all the guys and it’s just a matter of him knowing the system and approaching the game the same every day. I think Dustin’s gonna be fine for us and I’m very happy where his progress is right now. But there’s still more to go with him. And physically, is Dustin 100 percent back from the injury?

Coach Serrano: He hasn’t had any discomfort ... What was it, his shoulder, elbow?

Coach Serrano: It was his elbow. He had some stuff scraped off of it. No, he’s been fine to this point. I think Dustin Miller’s gonna be a force on this pitching staff somewhere down the line. Is he somebody you’re looking at as a weekend rotation guy?

Coach Serrano: I think he’s somebody that definitely is being considered, yes. He definitely has the stuff to pitch here. But it doesn’t always come to stuff. It goes back to what I said. It goes back to him to knowing the system and he should know it more than any other freshman in here right now because he was here a whole year. So, everything should come pretty easily to him. And now it’s just a matter of getting him game reps and seeing how he competes as we go into January. He definitely has the stuff, and he’s gonna be a fine pitcher for us this year. Is it too early to project what the weekend rotation might be? I imagine you’ve got a fairly good idea of what it might be at this point ...

Coach Serrano: Well, I can say that Wes Littleton will be in there -- that’s as far as I can go (laughs). I think pretty much everything else is wide open. I think we are gonna be pretty deep, knock on wood, as long as we stay healthy on the mound. We are gonna be pretty deep and we are gonna have some options. We’re gonna have some left and right options. It seems like, however the weekend rotation shakes out, the pitchers you’ll have available for the midweek games should be considerably better than what the opponents will be throwing in midweek games ...

Coach Serrano: Yes, I would agree with that. I think when it all shakes out, I think we’re gonna have 8 to 10 quality guys that we’re able to run out on a weekly basis. Three or four starters, two or three middle guys and one or two stoppers. And I think from 1 to 8, we’re gonna be as strong as anyone in the country. One or two stoppers? Are you grooming someone else for that role in addition to Chief?

Coach Serrano: Well, obviously we have Sean Martin, who goes unnoticed a lot. But Spider has had another fabulous fall for us. Saturday, he goes out and pitches two innings, faces six hitters and gets six hitters out. I think he’s experienced enough, he can handle that role. It’ll help out Chief a little bit. And however everything shakes out, like you said, we’re gonna have a lot of depth in the bullpen and we’re gonna be able to be strong if a starter can’t get us to the seventh or eighth inning. That’s a good point about Spider. He really was extremely effective last year ...

Coach Serrano: The best word to describe him is consistent. He’s very consistent. With him, it’s never spectacular and it’s never horrible, it’s always consistently good. And it’s a good feeling to know that you have a guy down there that can come in and you know exactly what you’re gonna get from him -- and that’s gonna be quality innings, he’s gonna keep you in the game, he’s gonna throw strikes and he’s gonna change speeds for strikes. And he fields his position well. So, he does everything well. And it’s a credit to him that he’s been in this program so long and he’s been here with some pretty quality pitchers and as long as he’s been here, he’s always been in the mix. Does it look like team speed and power will be improved this season?

Coach Serrano: I think our pitchers have already realized that this is a team that’s gonna run the bases. They’re gonna put pressure on you on the bases. It really reminds me a lot of the team -- I don’t know if we have the same speed as that team -- but it reminds me of the ‘99 team, with the Reed Johnsons and the Spencer Oborns. Guys that were good base-stealers. You can have great, great speed as a team, but if you can’t steal bases, it doesn’t matter. But I think this team so far has shown in the fall games that it is aggressive on the bases. And it will take chances, and it’s a good instinct team to run on the bases. And that’s exciting to see. It puts some pressure on us in the fall, that we can’t just worry about the hitter because we have to worry about the running game, too. The power, I think will be there. I think right now it’s still early, and I think every fall and January, we go through and always wonder, “Where’s the power gonna be? Where’s the power gonna be?” But I think the power is in place on this team and if you look at a team right up the freeway that just won the world championship, and they weren’t loaded with power. But they were a good baseball team that executed well offensively, and I think this team can be comparable to that. The home runs will come. It’s not a team that’s gonna strike out a lot -- that goes along with home run-type hitters. I think this team is gonna put the ball in play and put pressure on defenses, whoever we’re playing. You mentioned the depth on the pitching staff, it seems like there’s also quite a bit of depth in the outfield ...

Coach Serrano: There’s depth all over. There’s depth at the catching position. There’s depth at the middle infielders positions. There’s depth in the outfield. There’s depth with the pitching. But that’s a good sign. And we have to make those tough decisions. Because if there’s Player A who can do the job, there’s always Player B who’s just as good right behind him. That’s always been the sign of good teams since I’ve been here at Fullerton, it’s not just the nine guys you run out there every day. It’s depth. To play 56 games, you need depth and you need to be able to be versatile, to be able to make a pitching change, to have left-handers come off the bench. That’s the thing that’s really exciting about this team, that we have left-handed options offensively now, unlike last year. And that’s important, to beat that good right-handed pitcher, to beat some teams. And we have that. That’s a good sign and when we look at the team as whole, that’s gonna make for great competition and that will bring players to a higher level. I think there are some guys that played in this program last year that are being pushed by some of these young guys, and who’s to say who’s gonna win the job? But it’s just gonna make the Titans better in the long run. And how does that competition affect team chemistry? Does the team chemistry look good at this point?

Coach Serrano: I think the team chemistry is good. That is always a worry, that when you have different classifications when we get into the season, how the team is going to handle that. But one thing Coach Horton stresses continually, this is about the team and the one thing that we as coaches stress is that every single guy will be given a fair shake all the way until the first day of our season. And it’s open for every guy to win that job. So, when you look at the fall, I think every pitcher has pitched about the same amount of innings, every player has had about pretty much the same amount of at-bats. So, everyone has been given equal opportunity and it’ll be the same in January. It’s what you do with those chances. That’ll change obviously when the season starts. But I would hope that, what wouldn’t happen is that when big decisions are made that this team splits up. We don’t expect guys to be happy that they’re not playing. We don’t expect them to like it, but we expect them to accept it, and try to do something about it. With all the new faces this year, are there leaders developing already on this team?

Coach Serrano: Yes, I think so. There are a lot of guys really. A lot of guys lead by example. I think there’s leadership in place here. And we came off of last year with the guys we have back, and especially with the coaching staff, there’s a mission for all of us. From the coaches on down to the players, that we’re gonna prove to the country that that was a fluke last year, that that’s not what Titan baseball’s all about. All indications are that this team is going to be ranked very high in the preseason polls, possibly in the top five or close to the top five, are you concerned how the freshmen might handle the high expectations that go with that?

Coach Serrano: No, I’m not. When I recruited them, that’s why I think they came to Cal State Fullerton, because they expect to be part of something like that, to play for a national championship. That, for us, doesn’t matter at all. The early publications and the rankings, that really doesn’t matter. If you ask any of us coaches, we’d probably be more satisfied if we’re in the middle of the pack like we usually are. Then you can sneak up on some people. But however they want to rank us, that’s just an opinion. What our goal is is to prove to people. We don’t want to be ranked high early, we want to be ranked high late. And if we are ranked high early, we want to be ranked high all the way through. And if we’re not ranked high early, we want to be ranked the highest at the end. It’s not the early rankings, it’s the late rankings that really matter. The early rankings are opinion, and we appreciate someone’s opinion of us, that they’re thinking highly of us. But it really doesn’t matter where you’re ranked early. When I look at the roster, one guy’s name that jumps out at you is Geoff Tesmer because he’s from Omaha. Can you talk a little about Geoff and what the recruiting process was like with him?

Coach Serrano: Well, what happened there is he was a young man that courted us, and obviously he had known about our history of going to Omaha and he had always wanted to come out here and play at Cal State Fullerton. I was in correspondence with him and then how we eventually saw him was Coach Vanderhook was going out (to Omaha) -- I want to say this correctly -- either he was going out for a class reunion for his wife April or he was going out for a clinic that some coaches put on during the College World Series. And he got a chance to see him pitch in a game out there. Not to say that we wouldn’t have recruited him anyway, but it just solidified that he was a kid that could pitch in our program because we saw him with a set of eyes from our coaching staff. I had seen tape on him and all that, but it made me feel better after Coach Vanderhook saw him while he was out there, that we weren’t wasting his time or our time recruiting him. Were other programs recruiting him as well?

Coach Serrano: I don’t remember how many other people were recruiting him. I just know he had a real interest in coming to Cal State Fullerton. How would you assess his progress at this point, as far as what his role will be on the pitching staff?

Coach Serrano: I think it’s good. I don’t know where he’ll fit in this year. I don’t think he’s buried in the mix of guys, but he’s a guy whose future will be good, where he’ll really be important for us will be more into his second year. And that’s just because of the athletes that we have ahead of him with experience and ability. That’s not selling him short for what he can do this year. He’s definitely held his own in his outings that he’s had this fall. I understand Pete Rose was out at a Titan practice a few weeks ago. How did that come about, does he have any connection to the program, or was he filming a commercial on campus or something? Did he spend much time with the guys?

Coach Serrano: Yes, he came out to shoot a commercial. He didn't spend much time with our players because it was done in the morning. He did sign some autographs for some though. Kevin Costner came out to practice with the guys a few weeks ago. Can you talk about that? And also, I don’t think people really know what he contributes to the program, as far as financially, is that something you can talk about?

Coach Serrano: That’s something I really don’t want to comment on. I’m not really aware of that part of it. I think he’s a very good influence to have around. He loves the game of baseball and he’s always been very open to our players. You know, he allowed our team to go to his house last year after the Santa Barbara series. He already invited this year’s team to head up to his house when we play up in L.A. and call after the game when we play at USC. I think it’s neat. I think the coaching staff believes it’s neat to have him around because of what he stands for. To see him come out and play in a scrimmage game, having him out there and watching him play, for a guy who doesn’t play baseball on a regular basis, to play at the level he plays at, to see how much effort he puts forth into it, it’s inspiring. I don’t think it matters what he’s done for the program, just having him around is neat for everybody. And he’s a Titan, he’s a Titan. He follows our program, he pulls for our program. He’s always there if we ever need him. OK, that’ll do it for this fall practice edition of Ask Dave. We’ll do the next one just before the season opener Jan. 31 against Stanford.