Titans change look, get same results

FULLERTON, Calif. -- New coach. New faces in new places. And the same result for Cal State Fullerton.

A season after George Horton left for a lucrative contract at Oregon, Fullerton reached the super regional round for the sixth consecutive year with a 5-4 victory over UCLA on Monday night at Goodwin Field.

UCLA put the tying run on third in the ninth, but Jeff Kaplan -- the Titans' No. 1 starter pitching in relief -- retired Jermaine Curtis on a fly ball to center to end the game.

The Titans (41-20), who came back from a Saturday loss to UCLA to win their next three games, open the regional round against Stanford on Friday in Fullerton (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET).

"You know, when they got the leadoff guy on in the ninth, I turned around in the dugout and told them what our saying has been all year," Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said. "If it was easy, everybody would be good."

Serrano, a former Fullerton pitcher and assistant coach, took UC Irvine to its first College World Series last season. He returned to Fullerton when Horton left -- and if he gets Fullerton to Omaha, he'll be the first coach ever to take different schools to the College World Series in consecutive years.

For anybody trying to get to the College World Series, Fullerton is a pretty good place to start. The Titans, seeded fifth nationally, have played in 15 of them, and four of the last five.

And they continue to be a roadblock for UCLA (33-27), which was eliminated from the postseason by the Titans for the second year in a row after losing to them in a super regional last season.

"As long as we're a two-seed staying in Southern California, you've got to get past Pepperdine, Long Beach, Fullerton, " UCLA coach John Savage said. "I don't see a shortcoming. It was a game that could have gone either way, a one-run game, both teams had nine hits."

Fullerton took a 4-2 lead after four innings and never trailed, and Fullerton catcher Dustin Garneau was a big part of the difference. He doubled and drove in three runs, including the eventual game-winner when UCLA reliever Brendan Lafferty issued a base-loaded walk in the fifth. Starter Rob Rasmussen (0-2) took the loss.

The Titans won another regional, but they advanced the hard way this time, after an 11-4 loss to UCLA in their second game. Relegated to the losers' bracket, Fullerton avoided elimination with a 4-1 victory over Virginia on Sunday afternoon, then faced UCLA again Sunday night in a sloppily played four-hour game. Fullerton's 11-8 victory forced the deciding game.

Monday night, Serrano put the ball back in the hands of the unlikely pitcher who got them started, Brian Wilson, who hadn't started a game all year but won two in the regionals.

The regional had other standouts -- Fullerton freshman shortstop Christian Colon went nine for 20 and drove in eight runs -- but Wilson was the most unlikely.

The Loyola Marymount transfer had been a reliever and designated hitter this season, but with a couple of Fullerton's starters not at 100 percent, Serrano started Wilson against Rider.

He responded to Serrano's confidence with a six-hit shutout in an 11-0 victory over Rider, contributing a home run to his own cause.

"I knew the criticism I would feel if it hadn't worked out," said Serrano, glad that it did.

Against UCLA in the championship game, Wilson (3-2) gave the Titans a solid start, pitching into the fifth inning. He was charged with three runs, and was pulled with the Titans leading after he threw consecutive wild pitches.

What Wilson couldn't finish, Kaplan later did. He hadn't pitched in relief all year, but earned the save Monday, allowing one run over the final three innings after lasting only three innings in the loss to UCLA on Saturday.

Kaplan isn't an "excuses guy," Serrano said, but other people will give a reason for that performance.

Four days earlier, after a trip to the emergency room, Kaplan underwent a procedure to remove a metal fragment that somehow became lodged in his eye. In Saturday's loss, he had blurry vision.

On Monday, he was fine.

"I wanted to pitch to get back what I felt I lost Saturday," Kaplan said.

He and Wilson -- once designated to be the Titans' closer earlier in the season -- reversed roles, but the Titans ended up in their usual spot.

This is the time of year Wilson left Loyola Marymount for, he said.

"I gave up an 85 percent scholarship to come over here," Wilson said. "I wanted to compete, have fun, get to the postseason and get a chance to win a College World Series championship."

Robyn Norwood is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.