2009 NCAA Regional Preview: Fullerton

While fellow Big West power UC Irvine was dealt an incredibly difficult regional, just 20 minutes away, Cal St. Fullerton was handed what some consider the easiest road to the Super Regionals. The #2 national seed, Fullerton will be joined at Goodwin Field by the SoCon Tournament champs, Georgia Southern, the West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga Bulldogs and the Mountain West Tournament winners, Utah.

The opening game of the regional will be played at 3 pm PDT on Friday and will feature Georgia Southern taking on Gonzaga. The second game of the regional will see Cal St. Fullerton play Utah at 7 pm PDT. The first elimination game is at 2 pm PDT on Saturday, with the winner’s bracket championship game at 6 pm PDT. The second elimination game is at 2 pm PDT on Sunday with the first regional championship game at 6 pm PDT. If necessary, there will be a second regional championship game at 6 pm PDT on Monday.

#1 Cal St. Fullerton Titans (42-14, 17-7 Big West)

Cal St. Fullerton got off to a smoking start against an incredibly difficult schedule and through March they had RPI and ISR numbers that had never been seen before. The Titans racked up sweeps over Stanford, Southern Miss, San Diego St. and Oral Roberts, while adding single game wins over Rhode Island and Texas A&M. They ran into some trouble at the beginning of April though with a series loss to UC Irvine, then to a Pacific team that had dominated. The Titans rebounded though and finished the series well, winning 19 of their final 22 to earn the #2 national seed.

The Titans are extremely young on the mound, but that hasn’t stopped the from shutting offenses down. So. RHP Daniel Renken was named a third team All-American by Collegiate Baseball’s thanks to a 9-2 record, 2.50 ERA and .204 opponent’s batting average. Fr. RHP Noe Ramirez is the Titans’ #2 pitcher, although he will start the opener versus Utah. Ramirez throws from a few different arm slots and has incredible movement on every pitch he throws. The freshman was 7-1 with a 2.93 ERA in the regular season and he walked only 1.7 batters per nine innings. Fullerton uses another freshman in their rotation in RHP Tyler Pill. The younger brother of Brett Pill, who won a national championship at Fullerton in 2004, Tyler went 10-3 on Sundays for the Titans and registered a 4.10 ERA. Fullerton has a strong bullpen with Fr. LHP/1B Nick Ramirez (3-1, 2.78 ERA, 6 saves), Jr. RHP Ryan Ackland (2-1, 3.54 ERA) and Jr. RHP Kyle Mertins (1-0, 2.39 ERA) providing the backbone. The Titans carry a 3.50 team ERA into the postseason, the fourth best in the NCAA.

Just because the Titans can pitch doesn’t mean they can’t swing it. Fullerton hit .317 as a team and were second in the Big West with 7.4 runs per game. The Titans have a pair of sparkplugs at the top of their lineup, then pack a mighty punch in the middle. So. SS Christian Colon hit .347, scored 69 times and stole 12 times in the leadoff slot, while So. Gary Brown who plays all over the place and bats second, hit .329 with 20 stolen bases. Those two set the table for Jr. CF Josh Fellhauer, who hit .391 with 51 RBI, Sr. 1B Jared Clark, who had 11 homers and 70 RBI and Kr. RF Khris Davis, who hit .320 with 12 homers. The Titans have no problem taking a pitch (115, 2nd in NCAA) or swiping a bag (104 in 56 games) either.

Not only does Fullerton hit it and pitch it, but they tied for seventh place in the country in fielding percentage. When they’re on their game, there may not be another team in the country as good as the Titans. They can do it all and with their very weak regional, should have little trouble advancing to the Super Regionals.

#2 Georgia Southern Eagles (42-15, 20-8 Southern)

Georgia Southern, second-place finishers in the Southern Conference, qualified for a regional for the first time since 2002, when they went 1-2 in the Clemson Regional. The Eagles didn’t play an overly challenging non-conference schedule, but they fared very well in a stronger than usual SoCon and then went on to win the SoCon Tournament.

Georgia Southern was solid on the mound in 2009, but certainly not dominant. The Eagles’ pitching staff accumulated a 4.95 ERA , while opposing batters hit .290 against them. The staff was led by Jr. RHP Chris Mederos, who went 11-1 with a 3.66 ERA and struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings in 15 starts. Jr. LHP Jake Brown went 6-3 on the season with a 4.54 ERA in 11 starts, while Fr. RHP Matt Murray was also 6-3, but with a 4.76 ERA. The Eagles’ bullpen isn’t very strong as nobody has a sub-3.6 ERA or sub-.275 opponents batting average.

While the Eagles will have to answer some questions about their pitchers this postseason, there are few questions about their offense. Georgia Southern hit .324 as a team and averaged 9.6 runs per game, good for fourth in the nation. Sr. C Griffith Benedict raked all season long to the tune of a .401 batting average, 11 homers 62 runs and 61 RBI. Sr. RF Phillip Porter chipped in with a .368 batting average, 11 homers of his own and a team best 66 runs. The Eagles were also willing to wear a pitch, being hit by the sixth most pitches in the country.

Georgia Southern ranked 15th in the nation with a .974 fielding percentage so they don’t beat themselves. With their ability to hit and catch the ball, the Eagles have a chance to beat just about anyone, but they lack experience and their pitching is suspect, making them a tough team to pick.

#3 Gonzaga Bulldogs (35-16, 14-7 West Coast)

The West Coast Conference was a league on the rise entering the season as many predicted that multiple teams would raise their level of play and qualify for the postseason. Well, the conference was a flop, but not because of Gonzaga. The Bulldogs played extremely well en route to the WCC regular season title, the WCC Championship Series and now, their first postseason berth since 1981.

The Bulldogs have a pair of good arms at the top of their rotation in Sr. RHP Matt Fields and Jr. RHP Steven Ames. Fields was 8-1 in the regular season with a 2.86 ERA and two complete games in 13 starts. After him, the Zags throw Ames out there, who went 8-1 as well, but with a 3.51 ERA and three complete games in 13 starts of his own. While those two pitchers give the Bulldogs a pair of guys to start games, they also have a stud to close games. So. RHP Cody Martin made four starts this year, but really excelled as the team’s go-to reliever, where he picked up six saves, a 5-4 record, a 3.31 ERA and struck out better than a batter per inning. As a team, the Zags had a 4.21 ERA tops in the WCC, which is usually stacked with good pitching.

Gonzaga has some bats they can flash the fans at Goodwin Field this weekend. Jr. C Tyson Van Winkle hit .361 while starting in every game the Zags played this year as he led the team with 24 doubles. Sr. 1B Ryan Wiegand leads the Zags with 62 RBI and he also chipped in with six home runs, tied for second on the team. Wiegand is a Gonzaga all-time great as the school leader in both doubles and RBI. The Bulldogs really have two guys who are base stealing threat in Sr. 2B Evan Wells, who led the team with 55 runs scored and Jr. CF Drew Heid, who hit .350.

The Bulldogs maintain a solid .970 fielding percentage and field the ball well enough that they won’t give away many games. That adequate defense, along with their offense will give the Bulldogs a chance. With their top two guys on the mound they’re very dangerous, but after those two nobody is quite sure what to expect from Gonzaga.

#4 Utah Utes (26-29, 8-16 Mountain West)

Utah enters postseason play as the only team with a sub-.500 record still playing. The Utes finished sixth in the seven team MWC and the best team they beat in a weekend series all regular season long was Southern Utah, who had a RPI over 200. The Utes made a 5-1 run through the conference tournament though, won the tournament and earned themselves a postseason bid. The bid is a historic one of the Utah program, which hadn’t qualified for the postseason since 1960.

Playing in the thinner air of Salt Lake City certainly didn’t do the Utah pitching staff any favors, but they were not up to snuff any way you cut it. The Utes’ pitching staff finished the year with a 5.81 ERA and .306 batting average against. Jr. RHP Jordan Whatcott led the staff with a 5-2 record and 3.59 ERA, while limiting batters to a .247 batting average. After Whatcott though, it gets ugly for the Utah pitchers. The next best Ute pitcher has a 5.09 ERA and four pitchers, who all made at least 15 appearances, have ERA’s of 7.70 or higher. With this kind of pitching staff, the bats better be out in force of the Utes don’t want to go two and Q.

The Utah is not spectacular, but it is decent. They hit .299 as a team and and slug only .454. They are led by Jr. 3B Nick Kuroczko, who hit .351 to lead the team and also had an on-base percentage of .451, which also led the team. Fr. C CJ Cron provides the pop in the Utes’ lineup having hit a team-high nine home runs in the regular season. Combined with 51 RBI, also a team-high, and a .341 batting average, Cron is the batter most likely to put a scare in opposing pitchers. Sr. 2B Corey Shimada tied Kuroczko with a .451 on-base percentage, which is key for a guy who leads the team with 16 stolen bases.

Utah’s .966 fielding percentage isn’t overwhelming, but it’s not awful either. Quite frankly, Utah is a pretty poor team that got hot at the right time to manage a way into a regional. While Fullerton is a pretty soft regional, Utah is going to need some help if they want to win even a single game in this postseason.

Prediction:

1) Cal St. Fullerton
2) Gonzaga
3) Georgia Southern
4) Utah