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Serrano Preaches Role Acceptance in Titans’ 2011 Omaha Bid

The 2010 Titans couldn’t have been much closer to getting to Rosenblatt for a second straight season under Dave Serrano. They were one out away from sweeping UCLA in the Super Regionals at Jackie Robinson Stadium and advancing to the College World Series yet again.

It wasn’t to be though as the Titans lineup was a shell of its midseason self heading into that third game due to key injuries to Big West Player of the Year Gary Brown as well as Corey Jones in the 2nd game of the regional. Both have since moved on to professional baseball, along with 4th overall pick shortstop Christian Colon, weekend RHP Daniel Renken, and catcher Billy Marcoe. The Titans have found the depth to fill most of those holes, and with two high draft picks deciding against pro baseball, the former recruiting coordinator for the Titans has too much talent and not enough positions on the field.  I recently spoke with Coach Serrano, and he was able to fill me in on how this immensely talented team will deal with not having nearly enough spots on the diamond to showcase what they’re made of.

Noe Ramirez (mattbrownphoto.com)

Pitching

The Titans pitching staff stepped up through adversity early in 2010 to find their identity, and with those experiences have developed five quality starting pitchers. Daniel Renken earned his Friday night role coming into 2010, but was stifled by Oregon and TCU, picking up losses in his first two home starts. When Noe Ramirez stepped into that Friday role,  the team was able to get momentum going early on the weekends. After a 9-9 start, Ramirez spearheaded the rotation through the next few weekends, including a 14 strikeout performance at home against Hawaii and helping the Titans get back up to 20-12 before being injured in a freak accident in April. Tyler Pill also had an injury to this throwing arm that relegated him to RF and the DH spot the rest of the season, but is slated to be the Saturday starter in 2011. Colin O’Connell became a go to player out of the pen with 17 total appearances, and shined late in the year with a season saving complete game performance against Minnesota out of the losers’ bracket of the Fullerton Regional, striking out nine and forcing a Game 7, in which the Titans won.

With the addition of senior RHP Jake Floethe, a member of the 2008 Fresno State Bulldogs who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules while also recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Titans add another veteran starting pitcher. That leaves Dylan Floro, who finished with a 7-2 record with numerous clutch performances in his freshman season, as the 5th/emergency starter. The injury to Ramirez gave way for Dylan Floro to emerge out of the bullpen at first with Kyle Mertins getting the starting nod ahead of him, eventually grabbing hold of the starter role.

Having a guy who pitched two complete games and picked up 7 wins as a freshman as an emergency starter is a great luxury for Serrano to have. Even though he’s not part of the weekend rotation, Floro might be the most important pitcher on the staff. “He has the most resilient arm of all our pitchers. He’ll be in a different role but its in the best interest of the team for him to be in that role, because he can pitch in a lot of games getting starts along the way and has the chance to be in the most appearances. And with the fact that he can still move into the rotation if something happened. He’s got to come to the ballpark everyday that he may be pitching that day, for right now, but that should help him mature quicker as a player.”

The Titan bullpen isn’t short on options. Raymond Hernandez became academically eligible during the Regional round and had two key appearances, throwing 5 shutout innings of relief over two games against New Mexico and in the Regional clincher against Minnesota. The Titans also have brought in a right handed transfer in Chris Devenski to be used late in games to take pressure off Nick Ramirez, who appeared in 27 games last year and had 11 saves. “Chris Devenski has tremendous stuff 93-95 with a great slider and change, mentally tough kid who gives us a L-R combination and lets us not lean on Nick Ramirez so much.” Senior RHP Ryan Ackland will most likely be used as a set up guy, and the left handed Daniel Hurlbut will see some time in relief roles.

Offense

Everyone in the order shifted one place up in the absence of Brown, with Colon moving to the leadoff spot, followed by Lopez, Ramirez, and so on.  This year’s lineup will be in that mold, with Richy Pedroza leading off and taking over Christian Colon’s role at shortstop after playing some third base late last year. The coaching staff loves Pedroza’s game and defensive presence. “He might be 5’6 but he plays like he’s 6’3 there at shortstop,” says Serrano. “He’s going to make mistakes, but how he’s going to help with his range at SS is going to be excited only being as a sophomore. He handled our pitchers well in the fall and I think he should have a breakout Spring.”  Pedroza looks as if he’ll bring a similar role to the Titans lineup as Chone Figgins brought to the lineup of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim over the last decade with a switch hitting speedster at the top of the lineup.

Nick Ramirez (mattbrownphoto.com)

After initially thinking Carlos Lopez would be a career 3-hole hitter in his time at Goodwin Field, Serrano has the Freshman All-American slated to bat 2nd this year. The Titans need a guy who can get on base in that role, and Lopez is exactly that after hitting .414 at one point last season and finishing with a .408 OBP. “He has worked extremely hard on his defense, and will protect Richy when he gets on with a left handed bat.” Louisville Slugger Second Team Preseason All-American Nick Ramirez will man the three spot, after sporting a 1.039 OPS to go along with 16 homeruns and 75 RBI at first base, as well as batting .290 in international play with Team USA.  If Ramirez can replicate the consistency that led to his 20 game hit streak from last season, the Titans will be in great shape at the top of the lineup  “I think that (Pedroza and Lopez) gives you a pretty good tandem of those guys getting on base and having Nick drive them in.”

The cleanup spot could go one of two ways. If Modesto JC transfer Blake Barber wins the second base role, then Barber will hit cleanup. If the 2nd base role goes to sophomore Matt Orloff, then Tyler Pill DH and will hit cleanup and Orloff will hit 7th. “We’re still not completely solidified on the 4 hole, we have plenty of names to put in there, we just don’t know who heading into spring practice.”

Two players that could easily be in the pro ranks right now are junior Joe Terry and true freshman Michael Lorenzen, who will look to occupy the 5-6 spots in the order throughout the season.  Terry, an 8th round pick by the Chicago White Sox out of Cerritos Junior College, spent the summer with the Rochester Honkers of the Northwoods League to face NCAA pitching and didn’t disappoint with a .350 batting average over 120 at bats.

“Joe Terry has done nothing to disappoint us through the fall.  He’s a fabulous young man with big time ability as a hitter.  Coach Bergeron has done a tremendous job working with Joe to get him to be the best third baseman he can be, but the thing about Joe is he just hits. He brings another left handed bat into our order, and he’ll also be able to steal some bases and do things that fit well into our offense.”

Lorenzen, who is expected to start in  right field, was a 7th round pick out of local Fullerton High School in 2010 but ended up on campus.  “Michael had a tremendous fall, he’ll play right but he plays centerfielder by trade and has an absolute gun in the outfield.”  Depending on how Tyler Pill’s bat progresses in the spring, Lorenzen will be hitting out of the 6th or 7th hole all season.

Great catching can be hard to come by, and seems to be the only real question mark for the Titans this year. Billy Marcoe was solid last season with 54 starts behind the dish, and only have one catcher on the roster with experience catching these pitchers in Zach Tanida after Geno Escalante transferred to Chipola (FL) Community College. The solution for Serrano is an unorthodox one, “We’re going to start with a three man rotation behind the plate, and we’re going to match them with our three starters on the weekends based on who we think they can handle the best. Hopefully one or two out of that group will take off and bring us some solidarity.”

The three candidates are the aforementioned Tanida, as well as Jared Deacon, who hits out of the left side of the box, and Fullerton Junior College transfer Nick O’Loughlin, who hit .355 with nine homeruns at the JC level last season. Serrano went on to say “Our pitching staff is very strong but its only as good as what you have behind the plate. I’m a firm believer that a catching core doesn’t get enough credit for how good a pitching staff is over the course of the season.” Whomever is catching that day will be more than likely be slotted 8th in the batting order for the Titans.

Rounding out the bottom of the order will be one of two players.  Austin Kingsolver had an up and down Freshman campaign in 2010 after starting 21 games, mainly in left field. Kingsolver was inconsistent at the plate with 24 K’s in only 85 at bats, but possesses amazing speed and potential. “It will be fun to see what we can do at the bottom and top of the order with the speed and how they both handle the bat.”

The centerfield role has been one of leadership the last few seasons, with Gary Brown manning the position last season and was preceded by Josh Fellhauer, but the role is all but solidified. Like Fellhauer, the Titans could have another lefty/lefty player in that spot in sophomore Anthony Hutting, who is the nephew of former Titan great Aaron Rowand. Of Hutting, Serrano states that, “He can play all three outfield positions and has good gap to gap power as a left hander.” In all reality, both Hutting and Kingsolver could be in center and left field at the same time when Brett Pill is on the mound, as Carlos Lopez would most likely DH on those days.

The Titans under Serrano have been pretty flexible defensively, and had to be last year with key injuries.  Joey Siddons was moved from third base to center field with Gary Brown’s injury, and Serrano looks to have Walker Moore play the utility role again this season after using him in 44 games last year with only 16 starts.  Not only does Serrano tout his defense at any position but catcher, but he can forsee using Moore off of the mound, too.

“He was throwing 93-94 this summer with the Santa Barbara Foresters, and pitched for us in the fall.  If he doesn’t end up starting, he’ll play in 54-56 games cause he’s our best defender on the field at any position we put him at.”

While the Ramirez duo are solidified in their roles, Serrano has the depth to keep the rest of his team pretty fluid, with mulitiple combinations and the chance to have 7 left handed hitters in his lineup at one time.  Serrano has an idea of the shape his team will take in 2011, but needs each player to do the best in the roles they are given as they face early road tests against TCU, LSU, Texas A&M and Hawaii, part of a total of 7 different postseason teams on the Titans out of conference schedule.  The early tests will hopefully solidify their makeup heading into Big West play, where everyone gives the perennial conference power their A+ game.

Special thanks to Mike Greenlee of Cal-State Fullerton Media Relations for setting up the interview and Matt Brown for the photos.