On Friday evening, the Titans sent ace Renken against the Cardinals #2 starter, Dean Keikhefer, in deference to the recent heavy workload (two appearances in both the Big East Conference tournament and the Regionals) of Louisville
's #1 guy, Justin Marks
- considered a potential first-round selection in the MLB draft starting Tuesday. Kudos to Louisville Coach Dan McDonnell
for placing the welfare of his school's all-time leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts ahead of the short-term strategy to win the series opener.
The Cardinals have an aggressive hitting philosophy: "Hit the fastball, no matter which pitch it is." They have had a very successful run using a philosophy that has hitters swinging the bat as soon as they leave the on-deck circle, whether it is the first pitch of an at-bat or the count is 3-0. Live by the sword....die by the sword.
Renken did a great job taking advantage of the Cardinals' aggressive (perhaps "overanxious") hitting style, with the quintessential example being the third inning: three straight hitters swung at the first pitch and each hit an easy flyball or pop-up. Already in a three-run hole, you could just sense the wind leave the Louisville sails after the three-pitch third inning.
His pitch count aided by the first-ball swinging, Renken recorded the first complete game shutout of his career, using just 98 pitches to record ten strikeouts, fourteen fly-outs and just three ground-ball outs. It was a great performance in a much-needed 'statement game.'
The Titans gave Renken the early lead with three first inning runs, started when Christian Colon
singled (and stole second) and Gary Brown
was hit by a pitch. After Josh Fellhauer
bunted both runners along (call it a sacrifice, but only an excellent play by 3B Chris Dominguez
prevented a beautiful bunt from being a hit), Clark continued his RBI rampage with a two-run double near the leftfield line. Khris Davis
then hit a line-drive that momentarily froze Clark (to see if the leaping shortstop could snare it), but when the centerfielder took his time fielding the ball, Coach Bergeron kept Clark motoring and he scored the third run. The inning could have been much bigger except for an absurd call (as demonstrated by multiple TV replays) by umpire Mark Chapman that Dustin Garneau
had interfered during a stolen base attempt by Davis.
While the 3-4-5 hitters for Louisville (Andy Clark, Chris Dominguez and Phil Wunderlich) came into the game with statistics resembling the famous Jim's Steele Sports slow-pitch softball powerhouse, Fullerton's 3-4-5 trio of Fellhauer, Clark and Davis went 9-for-12 with seven RBI, two doubles and a home run (Felly). Overall, the Titans racked up sixteen hits, along with six hit-batsmen and three stolen bases.
The cards all seemed lined up for Louisville on Saturday: they were designated the home team and they had their ace, Justin Marks, on the bump. But the pressure offense of the Titans got to him and had a stultifying effect on the Louisville defense: the speed of the game played by the Titans is several turbo-notches above Big East teams.
Colon led off the game by getting plunked with a pitch and his big leads unsettled Marks, who was called for a balk - which really seemed to get into his head. He is a lefty pitcher without a slide step, which was the Titans' gateway drug to grand larceny. Gary Brown dropped down a bunt and Marks ended up on his keister as he slipped trying to pick it up. After Brown stole second uncontested, Felly ripped a base hit into rightfield to plate the game's first run. Felly continued the aggressive onslaught on the basepaths, but he seemed like a dead duck when Marks threw over to first after an early break on a steal attempt and the first-baseman relayed the ball to SS John Dao well before Felly arrived. But Dao held the ball in his mitt around shoulder-high, perhaps thinking they were playing tag and Felly was "it." But Felly simply slid low and there was no tag: nobody out, a run in already, runners on second and third, Clark coming up - blood in the water!
Clark delivered - some news story there, eh? - with a two-run double to make it 3-0. One out later, Clark broke early to steal third just as Marks made a pick-off throw to second. 2B Adam Duvall could not get the ball out of his mitt and Clark stole third without a throw. The extra base allowed him to score the fourth run on a sacrifice fly by Dustin Garneau. There were no errors in the inning, but clearly the Cardinals defense was tight and did not handle the pressure well - they even seemed rattled by heckling from the Fullerton student section and gracious offers to borrow bigger gloves.
Unlike his first start last weekend in the Regionals, Noe Ramirez showed no sign of early game jitters, as he retired the Cardinals 1-2-3 in the bottom of the first inning. The Titans added one more run in the second inning, and could have had even more but for a tremendous relay throw to retire Joe Scott
after he led off with a double and tried to score on Joey Siddon's single to rightfield. Siddons then stole second AND third and scored on Brown's infield single.
Chris Dominguez, another likely high draft choice this week, led off the second inning and continued the habit of swinging at first pitch fastballs - and he absolutely crushed one to put the Cardinals on the scoreboard for the first time in the series. After looking clueless the night before striking out three times, he seemed pretty happy for a guy trailing 5-1 after losing 12-0 the previous game. He crawled around the bases, pumping his hand to the crowd and making other gestures best not shown. Pure hot dog stuff. The crowd got all over him and - next to the standing ovations as each senior made their curtain call at-bat late in the game - the biggest cheers from the boisterous throng were for his every failure thereafter.
Marks shut the Titans out in the third and fourth innings, but he was not fooling anybody. In the third inning, each out was a scalded line-drive. While Noe dominated the rest of the Louisville batting order, he was touched up again by Dominguez for a long home-run in the fourth inning to cut the lead to 5-2. Fortunately, Noe had induced a 4-6-3 double-play on the hitter prior to Dominguez, elsewise the damage could have been much worse.
The Titans took advantage of sloppy pitching in the fifth inning. Marks hit Fellhauer with a pitch to start the inning, and then walked Clark and Davis. Dustin Garneau hit a sacrifice fly to make it 6-2. After Davis stole second, DH Shevis Shima walked on four pitches from relievr Derek Self. But Self retired the next two hitters and left the bases loaded.
From that point on, Noe Ramirez dominated the game. Perhaps the last gasp for the Cardinals was when Andy Clark drew a walk and Dominguez came up looking for his third dinger and a chance to cut the deficit to just two runs......the crowd went ballistic when Dominguez went down on strikes.
A five-run outburst in the seventh inning put the game out of reach and got the travel agents looking for hotel rooms in Omaha. (By the way, if anybody booked a room in Omaha and can't go, let me know!) Jared Clark
led off the inning with another tape measure home run to left-centerfield. One out later, Dustin Garneau dropped a bunt that Dominguez could do nothing but slather with mustard and stick it in his pocket. After Shima followed with another beautiful bunt single, Joe Scott executed a perfect hit-and-run and drilled a base hit through the vacated right ride of the infield, scoring Garneau and sending Shima to third. After an error on an RBI groundball by Siddons allowed him to reach base, Colon punctuated the offense with a two-run double.
With the outcome of the game and series no longer in doubt, all that was left was to give proper send-offs to the seniors each time they came up for what would inevitably be their last career at-bat at Goodwin Field and to celebrate when the final out was recorded. Clark nearly made it a storybook finish as he belted one deep that looked gone at the crack (er, ping) of the bat, but it died out in the power alley for a long out.
Heading to the bottom of the ninth, the Titans led 11-2 and Noe Ramirez had a pitch count of just 98: he had retired eight in a row and was just five hitters over the limit. He had struck out ten hitters in the biggest game of his fledgling career. I loved that Coach Serrano sent him out to the mound at the start of the inning so he could receive a much deserved standing ovation when Nick Ramirez
came in to finish it out.
Like many lockdown closers when brought into lopsided non-save situations, Nick did not have his usual sharpness. He retired the first batter he faced and elicited a huge dose of euphoria when he struck out the villainous Dominguez, but he then teased the ready-to-celebrate dugout and crowd by allowing the next three hitters to reach on a walk and two singles. But when John Dao lifted a lazy foul pop-up to Jared Clark, the ticket to Omaha had been punched.
So what did we learn this weekend?
Even when seasons at Goodwin Field end as triumphantly as this one, it always leaves me sad the next day to think that we won't be sitting in our pews at our baseball shrine until next season. It seems like just yesterday I was watching the end of the famous Midnight Madness practice at 4 o'clock in the morning on February 1st and thinking this team had a chance to be very special. The journey is not over and the mission is not yet accomplished, but it has been a very successful season so far and we are positioned as well as we could have possibly hoped.
I loved the standing ovations for the seniors making their Goodwin Field swansongs yesterday. It was very moving when Jared Clark, Joe Scott, Dustin Garneau, Matthew Fahey and Shevis Shima each batted for the last time. (Jeff Newman
entered the game defensively and missed out on some of the love because he did not get to bat.) I get
the tradition and I think it is a great one - just like Senior Day, it is a special tribute to those guys that come back for their senior years to complete their educations and try for another national championship.
But I always feel badly that the juniors - because of the uncertainty whether they will return or not - don't also get standing ovations to what is likely their last game at Goodwin Field. One of my best memories ever was being part of the standing O's for seniors Justin Turner
and Danny Dorn
at the end of the 2006 Super Regionals clincher against Missouri
, but I wished then that Brett Pill
and Blake Davis
had also received the same sendoff. Watching Josh Fellhauer just prior to the first inning yesterday afternoon, you just knew that if it was to be his last game at home, it was going to be successful. He and Khris Davis may have played their Goodwin Field finales - if so, this is my personal ovation to them.
Since the midweek meltdown against USC
that resulted in the air-clearing team meeting, the Titans have won all fifteen games played at home since then. It's hard to believe we were actually beginning to wonder how to take advanatge of playing at home when most of the success at that point had been on the road.
Having Jon Wilhite in the house to inspire his former teammates was the piece de resistance. What a remarkable family and an inspiration for all.
The Titans are not going to be getting much credit in national college baseball cyberspace this week because of the favorable draws they received in the Regionals and Super Regionals - a path they worked very hard to earn by attaining the #1 RPI and the #2 seed. But once they reach the big stage at Rosenblatt Stadium, I believe the rest of the country will come to realize just how good this team is. Coach Bergeron's arsenal of offensive weapons includes speed, power, bunting, high averages and an energy that applies pressure to opponents that makes good teams play like bad teams. the defense has been superb and the pitching just great: the Cardinals batted just .129 as a team this weekend. The Titans have stolen 15 bases in the post-season while allowing zero. Don't expect blowout scores like we have enjoyed the past couple weekends, but this team has a very legitimate chance to go all the way.
Let's get ready for some epic battles in Omaha. This is one of the strongest fields I've ever seen. Omaha, here we come!!!