USC made it look like it would be a high-scoring midweek slugfest when it took just two batters to put two runs on the board against starter Kevin Rath
. Joe De Pinto led off with a double and scored on Mike O'Neill's home run to rightfield: his first of the season. When Rath fell behind to the next hitter, a brigade of pitchers and catchers made their way to the Titans bullpen. Rath settled down and gave up no more hits in his three inning stint, walking two.
USC starter Kevin Couture also settled down and posted a couple goose eggs until Nick Ramirez banged his seventh home run of the season over the wall in centerfield.
Kyle Witten took the hill and pitched three innings of one-hit shutout ball, hitting one batter and walking one. He escaped harm in the bottom of the sixth inning when the Trojans had runners at the corners with two outs. After two quick outs and the Titans holding a 5-2 lead, Anthony Vasquez doubled and went to third on a wild pitch, followed by a walk to Ricky Oropesa. With Witten seemingly on the ropes and the tying run at the plate, the Trojans ran into a silly out. Witten did the "fake to third, look at first" play, with Vasquez easily retreating to third. But when Witten stared over at Oropesa at first and did not look back at the runner inching his way off third, Vasquez made a dash to try to steal home. With the help of his bench and infield, Witten realized the situation and threw home to catcher Billy Marcoe, who easily applied the tag to end the inning.
The Titans conducted a baserunning clinic in the seventh inning and broke the game open with three runs. Christian Colon drove a single up the middle and stole second base. After Jeff Newman walked, Josh Fellhauer continued his hot hitting with an RBI single into rightfield, advancing Newman to third. When Felly broke for second, the Trojans threw through and Newman broke for home: perfectly executed double steal! With the USC defense dazed and throwing the ball around, Felly stole third base and scored easily when the catcher's throw sailed into leftfield.
Nick Ramirez pitched two shutout innings, allowing two hits but striking out three. After the Titans added a final run in the ninth inning on Christian Colon's walk and Clark's second double of the game, closer Michael Morrison came in to get some work. He had another rocky outing, allowing a double and two walks, but managed to wiggle out of the bases loaded jam without any runs allowed.
What did we learn last night?
The Titans had great fan support, starting with the sold-out Diamond Club bus group and a large walk-up crowd. The state of baseball support at USC is pretty sad: the most storied baseball program in history is now a shadow of its former greatness. There had to be at least twenty times as many Trojan fans watching the Trojans football practice on the adjacent field than watching one of today's premier baseball powerhouse programs (e.g. Fullerton) against the greatest program of yesteryear. (Talk about what have you done for me lately!)
If there is one way to frame the current state of the two programs, consider the baserunning in the bottom of the sixth and top of the seventh. Trailing by three runs and having the tying run at the plate and the pitcher on the ropes, the Trojans ran themselves out of the inning with the botched attempt to steal home. The following inning, the Titans stole three bases, including a perfectly executed double steal of home and second. Methinks coaching has a lot to do with this.
Clark and Fellhauer each had two hits and were keys to the two three-run rallies: Felly drove in two runs with his two hits and scored twice. Clark's two doubles produced four more RBI for his rapidly growing total.
Notwithstanding the two Trojans runs before any outs were recorded, Titans pitchers tossed a "shutout" over the next 27 outs. Rath and Witten were both effective (again, notwithstanding Rath's rocky beginning), but they were "wildly" good: Rath threw 21 strikes and 24 balls, while Witten was better at 22/17. We saw some very encouraging signs from Witten, who can be a dominant force on this pitching staff in the stretch run.
Nick Ramirez continues to pitch well while Michael "Houdini" Morrison continues to toy with my blood pressure. Like he did in the games against University of Rhode Island and UC Irvine, Mikey Mo loaded the bases and then worked his way out. He threw 10 strikes and 11 balls but escaped unscathed. The closer situation obviously needs to be better if the Titans' "First to Practice, Last to Play" mantra is going to become reality.