Baseball Preview: UC Riverside

Cal State Fullerton (27-14, 12-3) had another good week last week with a comeback win at San Diego that was highlighted by a game winning grand slam by Carlos Lopez and a series win at Pacific last weekend. The Titans won the first two games against the Tigers to stretch their winning streak to nine games before dropping the final game of the series.

 Fullerton’s bats were on fire again last week and they are hitting .393 and averaging over ten runs a game over the last ten games. The hottest hitters for the Titans were Corey Jones (8-15, 1 HR, 7 RBI), Nick Ramirez (8-19, 0 HR, 6 RBI), Richie Pedroza (8-18, 0 HR, 4 RBI), Gary Brown (7-17, 0 HR, 1 RBI) and Christian Colon (6-17, 0 HR, 6 RBI). Fullerton’s pitchers struggled in three of the four games but the big story last week was the emergence of FR Dylan Floro, who followed up a good week against Pepperdine (win) and Cal Poly (save) with an outstanding Friday night start at Pacific when he allowed only two unearned runs on 3 H and 1 BB with 8 K’s. The Titans are now in very good shape in the Big West race with road series wins over two contenders (UC Irvine and Pacific) with the only team left that can catch Fullerton that they haven’t played yet coming into Goodwin Field this weekend – the UC Riverside Highlanders.

UC Riverside (23-15, 7-5) won the Big West in 2007, had a rebuilding year in 2008 when they were well under .500 and improved last year to 33-21 and 4th place in the conference. The Highlanders come into this series one game behind second place Irvine and they won 7 of 8 games before losing on Tuesday at San Diego. Riverside won conference series at home against Cal Poly and Long Beach and at UCSB with their lone series loss coming at Pacific. The Highlanders are going to have trouble making it into a regional as an at-large with a 71 RPI after a non-conference schedule of series against BYU, LMU, USF, St. Mary’s and Cal State Bakersfield. Riverside has a very experienced lineup that lost only one player (CF Carl Uhl) from last season but had to rebuild their pitching staff with only three pitchers returning who threw at least 30 innings in 2009.

OUTLOOK

Fullerton and Riverside come into this weekend playing some of their best baseball of the season with the Titans winning 9 of their last 10 games while the Highlanders have gone 7-2 in their last nine games. Fullerton has gone 20-4 over their last eight weekends while Riverside has gone 15-7 in winning six of their last seven series, with the only series loss coming at Pacific. The Titans have been mowing teams with 9 of their 12 Big West wins coming by 4+ runs while the Highlanders were playing closer games with 4 of their first 5 Big West wins coming by one or two runs before finishing up their series at UCSB with consecutive blowout wins.

Riverside is the only Big West team that has a winning record against Fullerton since 2002 when they joined the Big West as a full member and Irvine restarted their program. The Highlanders are 9-3 at home against the Titans while Fullerton has won two out of three games in all four series that the teams have played at Goodwin Field. Riverside knows they need to win this series to have much hope at getting into a regional next month and that they can play with Fullerton but the Titans seized some momentum in this series when they came back to win the final two games of the series last year at Riverside.

The key to this series for the Fullerton pitching staff will be keeping the ball in the yard. If the Riverside hitters are able to play HR derby, they will be able to stay in games and give themselves a chance to come out of Goodwin Field with a series win. The Fullerton starting pitchers have to work deep into games to keep the Highlanders from seeing much of what has lately been a questionable group of middle relievers.

Similarly to Fullerton, the key to this series for the Riverside pitching staff is to have their starting pitchers work deep into games and not let Fullerton get into their middle relief. The weakness for the Highlanders this year has been a bullpen that has blown several games, although that situation has calmed down with the change of closers. The Titans must put pressure on Riverside early at the plate and on the bases to get the Riverside starting pitchers out of their rhythm.

Riverside is a solid team that is playing well but they are only 9-10 away from home, where they haven’t lost a series and are 14-4. Fullerton has been the better team this season and they are playing at home, where the Titans have won nine of their last ten games. The Titans are a bit banged up right now but if Fullerton continues to play like they have the last eight weeks, although it won’t be easy (because it never is against Riverside for the Titans) they should be able to win two out of three games in this series.