Baseball Preview: CS Fullerton

The Stanford Cardinal open the regular season Friday night with arguably the best rivalry on the west coast. The 5th ranked Cal State Fullerton Titans invade Sunken Diamond this weekend for what should be an entertaining three-game series. The Titans are an early favorite to reach the CWS while the Cardinal have high hopes this year despite not finding themselves in the preseason Top 25.

The Cal State Fullerton Titans bring the #5 preseason ranking into this weekend's matchup with the Stanford Cardinal.  The Titans posted a spectacular 46-18 overall record a year ago finishing just one win shy of reaching the College World Series.  Two seasons ago, Cal State Fullerton took home the national championship - the fourth in the program's history.  A bevy of talented hitters and pitchers return for the Titans this year making yet another run to Omaha well within reach.

Fullerton had high hopes of reaching the CWS last season after winning their own regional and then having the ability to host a super regional.  But in Game Three against Arizona State, the Titans were unable to hold a 7-2, fifth inning lead as the Sun Devils stormed back to shock the host club on their way to Omaha.  Fullerton then had a record-tying 14 players drafted from that '05 team.  However, the return of five of those draftees plus many talented young players has led to yet another lofty preseason ranking for the Titans.

The strength of this team is probably up the middle with the shortstop-second base combination of Blake Davis and Justin Turner respectively.  The redshirt junior Davis bats leadoff for the Titans and is primed for a huge season.  He burst onto the scene during the second half of 2005 hitting a whopping .443 in Big West play (finished the year at a .325 clip).  He then made the US National Team over the summer and promptly became their starting shortstop.  Davis has excellent speed as evident by his eight triples and 17 stolen bases from a year ago.

His middle infield partner in Turner is back and should hit second in the order for the Titans.  A four-year starter, Turner hit .324 with three home runs and 11 steals last season.  Turner is a prototypical #2 hitter in that he makes a lot of contact, hits for a high average, can steal a base, and just flat-out is an excellent baseball player in all respects. 

Both of these players will trouble opposing pitchers all season long, but what perhaps makes them both special is their defensive efforts.  Davis and Turner form about as strong a middle infield combination from the defensive side that you'll see in college baseball this year.  Turner, in particular, is outstanding after committing a grand total of two errors in 265 chances a year ago for a mind-boggling .992 fielding percentage.  Both Davis and Turner were drafted last June.

Keeping with the defense theme up the middle, it also doesn't get much better than what the Titans have behind the dish in John Curtis.  A redshirt junior who was also drafted last year, Curtis is an outstanding defensive player who will make an impact from his catching position.  Curtis did struggle at times offensively in 2005 batting just .234 with no home runs in 201 at-bats. 

The middle of the Cal State Fullerton lineup should be held down by senior left fielder Danny Dorn and redshirt junior first baseman Brett Pill.  Dorn, like Turner, is a four-year starter and is the Titans' top returning home run hitter after blasting ten long balls a season ago.  Dorn hit .348 as a freshman back in 2003, but has seen his average drop to .318 as a sophomore, and then to .272 as a junior.  He should still be a force in the middle of this Titan lineup and one of the most feared hitters on the west coast.  Baseball America recently named Dorn the top senior prospect in all of college baseball.

Meanwhile, Pill will likely hit fourth in the lineup for Cal State Fullerton - just behind Dorn.  Pill led all Titan regulars in hitting last season with a .327 average (tied).  A power hitter, Pill blasted nine home runs in 2005 and then built on that with six more round-trippers in the Cape Cod League over the summer (tied for second).  Pill, like Dorn (and probably Davis), have a chance to be drafted in the first five rounds this June.

Overall, this will likely be a Cal State Fullerton offense that won't hit a lot of home runs.  The Titans lost two big bats from last year's club in co-Big West Player of the Year Sergio Pedroza (.324, 16 HR, 58 RBI) and Ronnie Prettyman (.327, 8 HR, 49 RBI) plus regular outfielder Bobby Andrews (.297 AVG, 1 HR, 13 SB).  Everyone else is back though including four of the top five hitters in the starting lineup last season (Davis, Turner, Dorn, and Pill).  Expect a Titans offense that features plenty of players that will put the bat on the ball.  They won't be afraid to steal bases and you generally don't find many better teams in the country that can lay down a sacrifice bunt or hit behind runners.  This balanced Fullerton offense should have no problems putting up a lot of runs this year.

On the mound, the Titans lost three of their four starting pitchers from a season ago including first round draft pick Ricky Romero (13-5, 2.89 ERA).  The lone returning starter gets the ball on opening night in talented sophomore Wes Roemer.  Roemer began the year in the bullpen for the Titans last season before becoming a go-to starter during the second half of the campaign.  Overall, he finished 7-3 with a 3.80 ERA over 90 innings pitched.  He won't beat himself with poor control either as the right-hander issued just 15 free passes (compared to 71 K's) as a freshman.

Roemer really made his mark last season during the Fullerton regional.  The then-freshman made the start in the opener against Harvard and fired seven shutout innings en route to a big Titan victory.  Then on just two days of rest, Roemer came back in the final championship game and tossed eight quality innings with just three runs allowed and no walks against the high-powered Arizona Wildcat offense sending Fullerton to a 6-3 win and a berth in the super regionals.  Roemer was named the Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year last season and appears to be becoming the next dominant Cal State Fullerton pitcher.

The remaining two spots in the starting rotation will be held down by sophomore right-hander Jared Clark and junior right-hander Lauren Gagnier.  A highly touted recruit upon his arrival to Fullerton, Clark was a bit up-and-down - as most freshmen are - last season.  A hard thrower, Clark made five midweek starts (and 12 total appearances) in compiling a 1-1 record with a 5.33 ERA last season.  He walked just seven and struck out 17 in 25 innings.  Meanwhile, Gagnier made just one start all of last year to go along with 20 appearances out of the bullpen.  A steady pitcher with good control, he finished a perfect 3-0 with a 3.49 ERA over 28 innings in 2005.  The Titans have some major holes to fill in their rotation past Roemer and that's probably question mark #1 for them as they enter the season.  But like all Fullerton teams of the past, there is really no shortage of talent - it'll just be a matter of who steps up.  If Clark and Gagnier (or others) emerge as a capable starters, then with their steady offense and fantastic overall defense, Fullerton could certainly make yet another run to the College World Series.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Blake Davis, SS  (Jr., .325, 2 HR, 36 RBI, 17 SB)
2. Justin Turner, 2B  (Sr., .324, 3 HR, 41 RBI, 11 SB)
3. Danny Dorn, LF  (Sr., .272, 10 HR, 49 RBI, 3 SB)
4. Brett Pill, 1B  (Jr., .327, 9 HR, 57 RBI, 4 SB)
5. Clark Hardman, DH  (So., .500, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 SB)
6. Evan McArthur, 3B  (Jr., .250, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 0 SB)
7. Brandon Tripp, CF  (Jr., .343, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 6 SB)
8. Joe Turgeon, RF  (Sr., DNP)
9. John Curtis, C  (Jr., .234, 0 HR, 29 RBI, 4 SB)

Probable Starting Pitching Rotation:
Fri.- Wes Roemer, RHP  (So., 7-3, 3.80 ERA, 90 IP, 15 BB, 71 SO)
Sat.- Jared Clark, RHP  (So., 1-1, 5.33 ERA, 25 IP, 7 BB, 17 SO)
Sun.- Lauren Gagnier, RHP  (Jr., 3-0, 3.49 ERA, 28 IP, 14 BB, 27 SO)

Player Notes:
Davis is a Preseason All-American ... Turner has hit .326, .304, and .324 in his first three years with the Titans ... Dorn drew 46 walks and was hit by 11 pitches last year to give him a .421 on-base percentage (despite just a .272 average) ...
Hardman hit .341 in earning Freshman All-American honors in 2004 ... He garnered just 12 at-bats last season due to a shoulder injury (was granted a medical redshirt) ... McArthur started seven games last season (48 total AB's) ... LSU transfer Bryan Harris could also see action at third base ... Tripp made a total of 25 starts last year ... He hit for a high average, but had problems making contact at times (35 SO in 99 AB) ... Turgeon redshirted last season after hitting .231 in just 13 at-bats in 2004.


STANFORD NOTES
The Cardinal are unranked in Baseball America's preseason Top 25 poll for the first time ever (dates back to 1981).  That's largely due to a 2005 club that went just 34-25 overall and 12-12 in the Pac-10.  And the fact Stanford does not have a returning All-Pac-10 on its roster for the first time since 1994.

Stanford lost their 3-4 hitters from a season ago in first round draft picks Jed Lowrie (.317, 14 HR, 66 RBI) and John Mayberry, Jr. (.303, 8 HR, 53 RBI), but every other starter returns.  For Stanford to succeed this year, they'll have to improve on their .287 team batting average from last season - the first time the Cardinal hit under .300 in ten years.  Sophomore right fielder Michael Taylor is a Preseason All-American and is expected to be one of the leaders of the offense.  Taylor hit .289 with four homers and 28 RBI as a freshman last year before his banner summer up in Alaska that earned him top prospect honors of the entire league.  Taylor should move into the #3 spot in the batting order.

Senior catcher John Hester will bat fourth for Stanford after hitting .282 with five home runs and 41 RBI last year.  Hester was recently named the top senior catching prospect in the country by Baseball America and like Taylor, has double-digit home run potential.  Meanwhile, the Cardinal have an experienced middle infield combination with senior Chris Minaker over at shortstop and senior Chris Lewis at second base (moving in from left field). 

Pitching will likely be the strength of this Cardinal team despite losing their top two starting hurlers in Jeff Gilmore (10-3, 3.76 ERA) and Mark Romanczuk (5-6, 4.24 ERA).  Junior right-hander Greg Reynolds came on strong during the final month of last season and excelled in the Cape Cod League over the summer.  Reynolds has unlimited potential with his 6'7" frame and low 90's fastball and will look to build on his success of the end of last spring and summer and become a legitimate #1 starting pitcher for the Cardinal.

All total, Stanford returns six pitchers who threw 30 or more innings last year.  Senior Matt Manship moves from closer to #2 starter after recording a 0.80 ERA and five saves last season.  The #3 spot in the rotation could be held down by the experienced junior Matt Leva (5-2, 4.12 ERA, 11 GS in '05) or sophomore Nolan Gallagher (2-5, 2.93 ERA, 4 GS in '05). 

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., .297, 3 HR, 25 RBI, 16 SB)
2. Adam Sorgi, 3B  (Jr., .322, 5 HR, 41 RBI, 3 SB)
3. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .289, 4 HR, 28 RBI, 9 SB)
4. John Hester, C  (Sr., .282, 5 HR, 41 RBI, 7 SB)
5. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .291, 3 HR, 37 RBI, 10 SB)
6. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .266, 8 HR, 35 RBI, 3 SB)
7. Ryan Seawell, DH  (Jr., .250, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Brendan Domaracki, LF  (So., .208, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 2 SB)
9. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr.)

Probable Starting Pitching Rotation:
Fri.- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 2-3, 5.08 ERA, 51 IP, 17 BB, 51 SO)
Sat.- Matt Manship, RHP  (Sr., 2-0, 0.80 ERA, 33 IP, 10 BB, 31 SO)
Sun.- TBA

Player Notes:
Sorgi has been bothered by a shoulder injury the past couple of weeks ... If he's unable to play, look for Minaker to move up to the #2 spot in the order and either sophomore Randy Molina or freshman Austin Yount to start at third base ... Taylor was named the 8th best sophomore prospect in the country by Baseball America ... Minaker hit 25 doubles last year - second most in a single-season at Stanford ...  He also played every inning of every game in 2005 ... Lewis is Stanford's top returning home run hitter (8) ... Castro is a talented left-handed hitting freshman who came to Stanford as a catcher, but has made a nice transition to first base in an effort to get his bat in the lineup ... fellow freshman catcher/first baseman/DH Brent Milleville also should receive plenty of early playing time.



ODDS AND ENDS
* Comparing Stanford and Fullerton statistically from a year ago:
Hitting (runs per game):
Stanford - .287 (6.4)
Fullerton - .307 (7.5)

Pitching:
Stanford - 3.77
Fullerton - 3.57

Fielding:
Stanford - .977  *tied a school record*
Fullerton - .977

* Cal State Fullerton features one of the top closers in the country in Preseason All-American Vinnie Pestano.  A junior right-hander, Pestano compiled a 2.68 ERA and 13 saves over 34 relief appearances last year.  Pestano is the main reason the Titans were 40-0 when leading after seven innings in 2005.

* Curtis, Pill, Turner, Davis, Dorn, and Roemer were on the Baseball America Preseason Big West All-Conference Team.  Hester and Taylor received the same mention for the Pac-10.

* The Titans lost just two weekend series' the entire regular season in '05.  Stanford dropped 2-of-3 at Goodwin Field in early February falling 5-3 and 4-3 in the first two games, before winning a 15-10 slugfest in the finale.

* Cal State Fullerton batters were hit by pitches 105 times in 64 games last season.  Turner (12), Dorn (11), and Tripp (11) are the top returning players in that category.  Turner, of course, was hit by Manship in the face in a gruesome scene when both players were freshmen back in the 2003 College World Series.

* Stanford has won the last five series' the teams have played at Sunken Diamond.  Fullerton's last series win on the Farm came back in 1994 when they took 2-of-3.

* The February 3rd season-opener for Stanford is their latest since 1977 - Mark Marquess' first year as head coach at Stanford (Feb. 4).

* Marquess begins his 30th season at helm for the Cardinal.  His 1,224 career wins is 15th most all-time in Division I college baseball (seventh among active coaches).

* Stanford will play their first ten games of the season at Sunken Diamond.  After this series, the Cardinal host the Kansas Jayhawks for a three-game weekend set (February 10-12).  The top-ranked and defending national champion Texas Longhorns then come to town for a three-game series (February 17-19) before the homestand wraps-up with a single contest on the President's Day holiday (February 20) versus the Nevada Wolf Pack.

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