If the Titans win tonight, they will advance to the Super Regionals next weekend against the winner of the Louisville Regional. If they lose, they will play the "if necessary" game tomorrow night (6:00) to determine the Regional championship.
Daniel Renken, the Titans' Friday pitcher all year, was held back a day to pitch the winners bracket game and was quite shaky out of the gate. He seemed over-amped and was not hitting his spots. (Was I the only one that had a queasy flashback to the Saturday hex of last year when that was Daniel's regular spot in the rotation?)
Renken was matched against Gonzaga's Steven Ames, who entered the game with an impressive 8-1 record. Ames surrendered a first-inning double to Gary Brown - a single to left-centerfield for most players but a double for Brown - but escaped unharmed. Renken was not so fortunate in his half of the first. After consecutive opposite-field singles by lefthanded-hitting Evan Wells and Drew Heid, catcher Tyson Van Winkle woke up the Gonzaga crowd with a double into the leftfield corner to give the Bulldogs a quick 2-0 advantage. Renken was uncharacteristically falling behind hitters and clearly was not as sharp as we have become accustomed, but he did bear down to retire the next three hitters and mitigated the damage.
Khris Davis cut the lead in half with one swing leading off the second inning, spiking his fourteenth home run of the season. Garneau then surprised the Bulldogs with a bunt that went for an easy base hit. After a scarifice by Jeff Newman, Joe Scott brought the crowd to its feet with a game-tying triple to left-centerfield. Joey Siddons followed with an RBI single that gave the Titans a 3-2 lead and momentum was seemingly building. But CF Heid broke that momentum when he made a great running grab of a ball smoked into the gap in left-centerfield by GAry Brown.
When Renken had a 1-2-3 second inning, the ship (falsely) seemed to have been righted: we have the lead and our ace back on track, right? Like Joe Besser says, "Not so fast!!!!"
The usually airtight Titans defense gave Renken more angst in the third inning. Wells led off with a groundball that ate up Colon for a single. Heid followed with a single after a stay of execution resulting from a dropped foul ball after a long run by LF Jeff Newman (ruled an error). But Renken retired the next three hitters to maintain the slim 3-2 lead.
The Titans made it 4-2 in the top of the fourth on a Garneau single, a Newman sacrifice and an RBI single by Siddons.
The bottom of the fourth inning produced more stomach squirming in the Titan Nation. Mark Castellitto and Grant Kveder led off with singles. Attempting to bunt the tying run to third and the go-ahead run to second, Jason Chatwood fouled a bunt that was grabbed out of the air by the cat-like reflexes of Garneau. After a walk to ninth batter Ernesto Ortiz loaded the bases with one out, Renken turned the tables on Wells and Heid, each of whom had been 2-for-2 at the top of the Gonzaga line-up, by retiring them without baserunner advancement.
Renken and the Titans defense sagged again in the fifth inning. With one out, Gonzaga's giant 1B Ryan Weigand hit a ball to Joe Scott's right. With a relatively slow runner, Joe had a chance to make a play, but it seemed to spin away and he was charged with an error that led to a costly run when the next hitter, Anthony Synegal, launched a home run to straight-away centerfield to tie the score, 4-4.
The home run seemed to fire up Renken, who then settled into a groove the rest of the game.
The next inning began with "the play of the game." Garneau led off with a swing that, as he described it, "exploded" his bat. It sounded like a good old fashioned broken bat - which is what it was. CF Heid broke in, expecting a Texas Leaguer, and watched helplessly as the ball sailed over his head for a double. Newman failed to deliver his third sacrifice of the game, but Joe Scott came up with a clutch base hit to centerfield. Heid came up throwing and threw a perfect strike to the plate, which was just ahead of the belly-flopping Garneau. Blue was ready to give an emphatic "OUT!" call, but C Van Winkle dropped the ball and the Titans had a 5-4 lead on Scott's RBI single.
With a second lease on life, Renken was not about to let it slip away, nor was the Titan defense. After a one-out single, Van Winkle ripped a line drive to Siddons, who caught the ball and fired across the diamond to complete a double-play.
The Titans added a huge insurance run in the seventh inning with a two-out rally. Davis walked and then stole second before scoring on a huge RBI hit by Garneau to make the score 6-4. Renken was pumped up and he retired the side in order in the seventh, including two K's.
The Titans added another run in the eighth inning. Newman led off with a single, which drove Ames from the game - he pitched an excellent game considering how well the Titans have been swinging the bats lately. Scott was unable to execute the sacrifice, and both he and Siddons struck out, but Colon extended the inning with a base hit to rightfield that sent Newman to third. Just as I predicted to my buddy Tim just before the pitch, Gary Brown hit an infield chopper for a single that made it 7-4.
Renken continued to sizzle and had another 1-2-3 inning in the eighth, ending the night with 135 pitches. (He was later quoted, "I felt fine; I'll throw 180 pitches to keep this team in the game.")
Closer Nick Ramirez entered the game in the bottom of the ninth and immediately gave the crowd an uneasy moment. After jumping ahead in the count, he lost the strike zone and issued a walk to Wells. But Heid then hit a laser down the third-base line that Siddons - protecting the line - fielded cleanly and started an around-the-horn double-play, with Scott making a perfect pivot and the Titans getting a close call at first. Van Winkle also hit the ball hard to third: Siddons knocked it down, picked it up quickly and made a long throw across the diamond to barely nip Van Winkle for the game-ending out.
Consider the importance of pitching. There have been 36 innings played in the Fullerton Regionals. Guess how many have been scoreless (e.g. no score in either top or bottom of inning)? Two. Both in the Fullerton/Gonzaga game last night. It makes the Texas/BC marathon with all those scoreless innings all the more amazing.
Pitching is king. In the two "non-Fullerton" games played so far in our Regional, the winning team has surrendered ten runs in each game: (Gonzaga 19-10 over Georgia Southern and Utah 11-10 over Georgia Southern.) The winning team in the two "Fullerton" games has allowed an average of three runs per game. Fullerton fans are hoping for a 19-18 extra inning slugfest in the elimination game this afternoon to trash the pitching staff of our opponent tonight.
Neither Noe Ramirez (Friday) nor Renken (Saturday) were at their best, but each got past early control issues and settled down to pitch very well. Not counting the kid from Texas throwing no-hit ball in his first twelve innings of relief, pitchers aren't expected to be perfect - their teammates have to give them a reasonable margin of imperfection. Both Noe and Daniel colored inside the lines and passed the tests.
We learned that Gonzaga has a very good team and plays the game very hard. Their defense was stellar - most opponents tend to make more errors than usual when faced with the Titans speed and aggressiveness, but the Bulldogs made no errors and made some excellent plays. SS Ortiz played a great game defensively. Van Winkle also threw out two would-be Titans base stealers with excellent throws.
There was one thing that I really liked about the Saturday night win: after the top five did so much damage in the opening game - fifteen hits and eleven RBI - the bottom four did a great job on Saturday. Garneau, Newman, Scott and Siddons combined for ten hits, five runs and five RBI. Two of Scott's hits drove in huge runs: the tying run in the third and the eventual winning run in the sixth. Baseball is a ridiculously tough game: the Fellhauers and Clarks aren't going to get three hits and four RBI every game - so the teams likely to go farthest in the tournament are those that get balanced productivity.
What more could you ask for from Dustin Garneau? He is an amazing defensive catcher - blocking the ball, throwing our runners and handling a pitching staff that includes a sophomore starter, two fresmen starters and a freshman closer. His bat was the quietest Friday ("I kind of felt left out"), but his five hits, three runs and clutch RBI made him the hero of the win against Gonzaga on Saturday.
Let's get this thing done today. The Bulldogs would appear to be the obvious choice to eliminate the Utes, but the Utah squad displayed a lot of guts in their win yesterday against the Eagles. Regardless of who wins the afternoon game, they face an uphill battle having to beat the rested Titans to advance to the Super Regionals.