It's still early to start thinking about postseason positioning, but this weekend's showdown between UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton could have major ramifications on Selection Monday. Irvine and Fullerton are the two best teams in the Big West, which is the premier conference out West this year and one of the best conferences in the nation. Whichever team wins the Big West is a lock to host a regional and a leading contender for one of the top national seeds, and this series will give either the Anteaters or the Titans a major leg up in the conference race.
If the season ended today, Fullerton would be a lock for the No. 1 national seed. The Titans have played the toughest schedule in the nation, according to boydsworld.com, and have compiled a 19-5 record. Not surprisingly, they sit atop the Ratings Percentage Index.
"It has been pretty remarkable," Titans coach Dave Serrano said of his team's fast start. "I said this to the team after we lost Friday [at UC Riverside]: Because we've been so fortunate getting out of the gate playing great baseball against great programs in tough atmospheres, that loss Friday felt like it was five or six losses because we hadn't experienced that much. Every loss has felt magnified because we haven't gotten accustomed to it. This team has gotten used to winning."
Naturally, the Titans rebounded from Friday's loss by winning the next two games to take the series against the Highlanders. Then they went to No. 3 Arizona State and split two midweek games. Now the Titans face another top-10 opponent in the rival Anteaters, who are coming off a series sweep of then-No. 19 Cal Poly and carry a 17-7 overall record into this weekend. But as good as the Anteaters are, there's no doubt who's chasing whom this weekend.
"I think we realize we're in for a real dogfight," UCI coach Mike Gillespie said. "There's very little surprise in how good [the Titans] are. This is always fun for our guys. It continues to be, and I think there's a little more electricity in the air because we have so many players still that played for that [Fullerton coaching] staff. There's always going to be a little more excitement for this than there otherwise might be.
"If we're going to compete, we're going to get good pitching from our starters and hope we're ahead by one when we get the ball to [closer Eric] Pettis. I think their pitching has come along farther than anyone could have expected given they're counting on some freshmen. They're a real talented, veteran team -- they're really good. But if we pitch and play defense and keep the games close, we think we should be able to compete."
There's a natural tendency to lump the Anteaters and Titans together as small-ball addicts who rely on bunting, hit batsmen and base-stealing, but that's an oversimplification this year. The Titans have one of the nation's most explosive offenses, a high-octane West Coast attack that ranked second in the nation in sacrifice bunts (34), seventh in hit by pitches (51) and 24th in batting (.335) through last weekend. They're also plenty athletic and rank 44th in the nation in steals per game, but they've added a power dimension, ranking 51st in homers per game. Last year, the Titans ranked 146th in homers per game.
A big part of the power surge has been the long-awaited emergence of junior outfielder Khris Davis, who is batting .344/.407/.708 with a team-best eight home runs. Davis was a heralded recruit who struggled mightily in his first two years at CSF, but the coaching staff made a commitment in the fall to get him 150 at-bats this spring and let him get into a rhythm rather than benching him after a bad stretch. Davis has responded in impressive fashion.
"I see a big maturity process from last year. We all knew his talent was as good as anybody's in this program, but it was about the day-to-day consistency from him, not just on the field but off the field, the maturity and work ethic," Serrano said. "It's not just his numbers that are impressive; he's taking great at-bats and playing fabulous in right field for us this season. I've said to many people this season: Khris Davis is going to be a key part of our success this year."
The Anteaters, meanwhile, are not nearly as explosive offensively, and they're not a typical West Coast offense, either. While UCI ranks 11th nationally in sacrifice bunts (25 through last weekend), it ranks just 51st in hit by pitches (34) and 190th in steals per game.
"We haven't thought to earn the reputation as a team that likes small ball," Gillespie said. "I think it's first and foremost: Can you hit? If you can't hit, I don't really think you can win. We do not have base-stealing speed. It wouldn't surprise me if we won all three games and did not steal a base. If we're going to have a chance, we simply have to be able to hit. We're not going to hit a lot of home runs. We can run into a ball and hit some. But if you had watched us play for the 20-plus games we've played, we've been boring. We can't run, we don't small-ball. We don't have many bunt base hits. When we've been good, we've hit. We're a team that just has to get good pitching, and we have to catch behind them."
Fortunately, the Anteaters can usually count on getting strong starting pitching from junior left-hander Daniel Bibona (4-1, 2.77, 47-11 strikeout-walk ratio in 39 innings) and junior righty Christian Bergman (3-1, 2.79), who turned in one of the best outings of his career last week against Cal Poly. Sophomore righty Crosby Slaught (2-0, 4.08) has impressed Gillespie on Sundays with his poise and ability to throw strikes, but he's not overpowering. Pettis (2-0, 3.10, seven saves) has been a workhorse, as usual, who gives the Anteaters an edge in most close games. But Gillespie is quick to admit that pitching depth is a significant concern, and his team is vulnerable midweek and in the middle innings of weekend games if his starters fail to turn in long outings.
Pitching was the one question about the Titans coming into the season, as Gillespie suggested, but they found answers on the mound quickly. Sophomore righty Daniel Renken (4-1, 2.50) has quietly blossomed into an elite Friday night starter thanks to his heavy fastball, outstanding changeup and quality slider. His duel with Bibona -- who also relies on an excellent changeup and excellent command -- could be a classic.
"He has been a silent assassin for us," Serrano said of Renken. "He's winning games for us and setting the tone. That's what you need on Friday night, especially with a young pitching staff. He's not a real outgoing young man, kind of quiet in his own way, but he likes the limelight, and he rises to [the] occasion."
The Titans have a pair of freshman righties in the rotation behind Renken, and they have proven savvy beyond their years. Noe Ramirez (3-0, 2.03) supplanted junior Kyle Witten as the Saturday starter thanks to his superior feel for pitching and composure. Tyler Pill (5-0, 3.19) has come on strong since struggling the first weekend against Texas Christian. Both pitchers throw strikes with quality three-pitch repertoires.
Meanwhile, junior right-hander Michael Morrison (1-1, 2.03, four saves) responded to being beat out for a weekend starter spot by finding a home for himself at the back of the bullpen. Sidearmer Ryan Ackland struggled against left-handed hitters, so Serrano decided to plug the power-armed Morrison into the closer spot. His low-90s fastball and sharp curveball play up in one-inning stints, and his arm has proven up to the challenge of pitching on back-to-back days.
With pitching roles firmed up, there are no significant questions remaining about the Titans. Now Serrano's biggest challenge will be to keep his players from feeling too good about themselves. Not that motivation should be much of a problem this weekend.
"Obviously they're a very good team and we're a very good team," Serrano said. "But just like the Riverside series -- I was proud we won two out of three, but if we throw our pom-poms up and get all excited, we're in for a big fall. I don't want our team to get too up for it because it's just three games in our slate of 24 conference games. Even though it is two very good teams in Orange County, 20 miles apart, where this staff used to coach.
"Fortunately, it'll be at our place, even if it will be 60 percent Titans fans, 40 percent Eaters, like it usually is with these two teams. That place is going to be rocking -- it will be an exciting atmosphere."
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