Ask Dave: Destined for Omaha?

It seems like only yesterday that Cal State Fullerton's 2002 baseball season ended on a cold Saturday night in June at Stanford's Sunken Diamond. Well, it's been a quick eight months and the Titans will begin the 2003 season at Goodwin Field on a cold Friday night in January (after a warm afternoon, no doubt) against the Cardinal team that had a hand in eliminating them in the regionals a year ago.

But enough looking back. It's time to look ahead and 2003 should be a very interesting and entertaining season of Titan baseball. talked to assistant coach/pitching coach Dave Serrano a few days ago to get his take on things as the team is set to embark on the new season. Is the lineup starting to take shape, and if so, how many freshmen can we expect to see in there?

Coach Serrano: I think, for the people that were at the alumni game, the team that went out against the alumni on Saturday, unless something changes due to injury or whatever, that'll probably be the lineup that has a chance to start Opening Day. OK, for those who couldn't make it out to the alumni game, can you run down the lineup for us?

Coach Serrano: (P.J.) Pilittere is behind the plate, (Richie) Burgos is at first, (Justin) Turner at second, (Justin) Smyres at short and (Ronnie) Prettyman at third. In left field is (Danny) Dorn, in center field is (Kyle) Boyer and in right field is (Shane) Costa. And the DH is (Jason) Corapci. But just like Coach Horton has stated to the team, we anticipate, because of how much talent and how deep we are, position player-wise, that that's very likely to change. And the other guys are making pushes to win jobs. Sergio Pedroza, David Fischer, Shawn Scobee, Trevor Mortensen, obviously Kurt Suzuki and P.J. will complement each other fine behind the plate. That'll probably be a 50-50 or 60-40 split, however they do that. And Joe Turgeon, Bobby Andrews has really come on in January. So there's a lot of flexibility, and I think, really, what you see on Opening Day could end up being the lineup throughout, but it could also be a whole different deal in the next couple of weeks to a month when we see how certain guys react. Is Scobee injured? I heard he took a spill in practice.

Coach Serrano: He twisted his ankle about a week ago. He's pretty close to being 100 percent probably in a few days. Is the injury a factor in him not starting right now?

Coach Serrano: I think some guys are doing better than him right now. That's a credit to some other guys. By no means is that a slap in the face to him because there are some very talented guys in the outfield that are gonna continue to push each other all year long. Oh, another name I'd like to throw in there is Jake Mendrin at first base, as a guy that's fighting for a position because he's right there with Richie, as far as solidifying the first base position. We think he's gonna be a fine player for us. What about the pitching rotation?

Coach Serrano: Right now, we're a little dinged up on the mound. Obviously, with (Darric) Merrell and (Travis) Ingle still working their way back into getting into shape and getting healthy. But we'll start out with (Wes) Littleton on Friday, Ryan Schreppel, the left-handed freshman, on Saturday and Dustin Miller, the redshirt freshman, on Sunday, which will give us a lot of quality at the beginning, but a lot of quality at the end when you throw in John Tucker, who's had a tremendous fall for us, Jason Windsor, who's fighting for one of those starting jobs, Ricky Romero, who would be right there to be one of those weekend guys right now but came up a little sore about a week ago, so we're kind of bringing him along slower. Sean Martin, Chad Cordero, so that really gives us some depth in the bullpen, which is much needed in college baseball. And what about the midweek games, does it look like it'll be pitching-by-committee, or do you plan on having one starter regularly pitching the midweek games?

Coach Serrano: Well, it's gonna probably be dependent on what happens on the weekends. If, like we have in the past, the starters go for a solid 7 or 8 innings and we're giving the ball to Martin or Tucker or Chief late in the game, then the Ingles or Merrells aren't getting their innings. When Merrell and Ingle get healthy, they'll both fall into that mix. Obviously, our first priority is to win, but there's also a priority of keeping guys sharp and keeping guys fresh and not burning guys out. It's a marathon, not  a sprint, for a 56-game schedule. What is the latest on Merrell and Ingle?

Coach Serrano: They're both progressing fine. Merrell is throwing off the mound and Travis will be getting his rehabilitation going with his throwing. I would anticipate the latter part of February, I would hope, that they would both be ready to go. Which, I think, is only gonna make us better. We're gonna get some young guys some innings early, open the door for some of those guys to get their chance. And if we can get a healthy Darric Merrell and a healthy Travis Ingle to add to what some of the young guys are gonna do, it's just gonna make us that much stronger toward the end. What about the March 15 USC game at Edison Field? How did that come about? The team must be really looking forward to that experience.

Coach Serrano: Yeah, it'll be good for both teams. I don't know exactly how it came about. Our university and the Angels, we have a good relationship. In fact, they're using our field right now on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings because their stadium's being renovated. I think the motocross is there right now. So their minor-leaguers and a sprinkling of their professional guys come out and get their work in -- BP and throwing in the bullpen. I guess our administration approached them to try to make that game a little bigger. Not that SC and Fullerton need to be promoted to be any bigger, but they're allowing us to use their stadium that day and I think it'll be fun for both teams. We've seen Titan attendance increase in recent years and that helps to create a nice home-field atmosphere -- does that make it even more of a priority to secure a regional, to become one of the hosts for the regionals and super regionals?

Coach Serrano: Well, I think the priority for this coaching staff and every member of this team is to reach our potential as  a team to the highest level. As far as hosting a regional, we've had the opportunity to host a regional and I think our fans deserve that, I know our fans deserve that. The university deserves that. I think West Coast baseball deserves that. And yes, having the increase in fans helps us in the long run when our school goes to bid. I think what it comes down to now more than anything is, who deserves to host regionals? More than, if you look back to five or 10 years ago, it was who was making the most money. I think it's now who's the most deserving. I think if we go out and have a good year and do the things we think this team is capable of doing, there's no reason in the world why we shouldn't have an opportunity to host a regional. On that note, I will say that we are excited about this group. We think it's gonna be a fun group to watch. I think there's a good mixture of right-handed and left-handed hitters, much more than last year. I think our pitching's gonna be strong. But I think the majority of teams on the West Coast are good, Southern California especially. You look down the line, Long Beach has a lot of pitching back, they're gonna have a good team. UC Irvine, I think they have their whole team back and they're gonna be good. Our league continues to get better and better every year. USC is gonna be strong. I think UCLA has the talent to be strong. We're gonna play a team, Stanford, this weekend, that's strong. The Loyola Marymounts, the Pepperdines, they're gonna be strong, so I think the West Coast is gonna be very well-tested throughout the year. We're gonna beat each other up, and our records might not be as strong as other people in the country, but I would say that when regional time gets here, when we get some West Coast teams represented in the regionals, you're gonna see strong teams come out of the West Coast. Well-tested teams. Is the indication you guys get from the NCAA that they're not going to be as concerned about travel this year when they put together the regionals?

Coach Serrano: Yeah, but we can't be concerned about that. We just can control what we can control and that's us, our own team out on the field. And whatever happens at the end of the year happens, and we have to deal with that. Nobody said it was ever gonna be easy. Winning a national championship and going to Omaha is never easy. In all the years that Fullerton has done it, I don't think there's ever been a year that we can say, as a program, "Boy, that was easy." In the 11 times we've gone to Omaha, only one time we hosted, and by no means was that an easy regional to get through. The other times we were always on the road, so it won't be easy, no matter if it's regionalized or not. It's a tough road. That's what we're, on a daily basis, trying to coach and teach our players is that it's not gonna be easy all the way through. How does Stanford look this year?

Coach Serrano: Stanford's gonna be good. They always are. They get the cream of the crop throughout the country, for many reasons. Obviously, they are a veteran team again, they have a lot of guys back off of last year's team. I think they're gonna be very good offensively this year. I don't think they're gonna be as strong, on depth, off the mound as they have been in the past. And that's not just from an outsider's perspective. I think, to a man, the coaches on their team would admit that, too. I think it's gonna be a tough lineup to face. I think six or seven of the nine starters are back from last year's team. But I don't think their pitching is gonna be quite as deep and as strong and with as many veterans as they've had in the past. It'll be another good challenge for both teams. I think Stanford has had our number over the last four or five years, and all we can go out and do is not worry about the past -- just worry about each pitch, each inning and each game and take our skills against their skills. And how important are these early season showdowns with Stanford. I mean, when you get to late in the season, late April and May, most teams take on a completely different personality from what they were in February, so on that note, how crucial are these games?

Coach Serrano: Well, the mentality of this coaching staff and hopefully, this team and this program especially, whether the name says Stanford on it or it, says Long Beach State, or it says USC, or it says Pacific, or it says Cal Poly SLO, we as coaches don't play the game according to our opponent. We've always told, especially Coach Horton, we've always told the team, "Every team plays us. We don't play anybody." If you're playing the game of baseball to get all excited and all jacked up to play a Stanford, well then, when a team comes in that isn't as well recognized throughout the country or maybe isn't having as good of a year, it's tough to maintain that momentum you had going or that drive to play. And we just try to play the game, no matter who's on the other side in that dugout. That's what we try to instill in our fall practices and in January. We might be playing each other, but the more we can make it like it's an opponent, no matter what that opponent has across their chest, we're playing the game of baseball and we're trying to play it to the best of our ability. I don't think, no matter happens in this series, whether we come out on the good end or the bad end, it's not gonna be indicative of what our season's gonna be about. I think that's been seen over the last few years. We, for whatever reason, get off to a little bit of a slow start. And that might be because we haven't found the exact lineup that we're gonna go with and guys haven't found their niche in where they're gonna fall into the team, as far as where they're gonna be. And I think that we usually play our best baseball at the end of the year. Don't get me wrong, we'd love to jump out of the gate and give Stanford what they've been giving us the last few years and it would be exciting, but you can do well against Stanford and you can peak too early and get excited about that and you can forget your next opponent, Fresno State, and you can still be sitting at 3-3 after two weekends. It's one game at a time; to break it down even more, we try to play one pitch at a time, one inning at as time and just go from there. Does this team, especially in light of what happened last year with the disappointing season, does this team have a theme this year?

Coach Serrano: This team has shown us that they're committed to each other. They're committed to being the best baseball players they can be. And they're committed to detail. I think our coaching staff has been very excited about the progress this team has made, the focus this team has. We definitely feel like we're more talented in many areas than we were last year, we're deeper in more areas, we're more left-handed in more areas. So I think the stage is set for us to have a successful year. But again, that's all on paper. It's what we do once they say "Play Ball" for real. When the lights come on, some guys' games might go to a higher level and when the lights go on, some guys' games might go to a lower level. So then once we start playing games, we can make adjustments as we go from there. I think there is a solid case, from what went on last year. For some programs, they would say, "We had a good year, we went to the regionals." That's not what our mentality is at Fullerton. Our goal isn't just to get to the regionals. It isn't just to win the conference. Our goals are a lot higher than that. Every year. On that note, we'll wrap up this edition of Ask Dave. It's almost time for them to say "Play Ball" for real.