Titans’ win over Dirtbags is college baseball at its best – OCRegister
LONG BEACH — All around Blair Field, life went on. Picnickers and birthday parties on the grass, golfers at Recreation Park Municipal, tennis players at Billie Jean King.
Inside, two baseball teams and 2,896 fans were wrapped tight in their bubble. Everything else was routine Sunday stuff. This was an occasion.
If you wanted to illustrate the devotion and the emotion and the stark proficiency of college baseball in these parts, Cal State Fullerton’s Game 3 with Long Beach State was your presentation. You wouldn’t have to say a word.
The Titans won the NCAA super-regional,2-1 by the margin of 90 feet. Brock Lundquist was standing on third base in the bottom of the ninth when Fullerton’s Brett Conine struck out David Banuelos, and the gloves were thrown high and the dirty uniforms got dirtier.
“They won the Big West,” said Timmy Richards, the senior shortstop. “But we’ll take Omaha.,”
Long Beach State left a runner at second, a runner at third and another runner at third in the final three innings. The Dirtbags had four hits and the Titans two, but one of those Fullerton hits was a solid single by Hank LoForte, which brought home teammates that had been hit by pitches and (of course) got sacrificed to second and third.
Fullerton’s Colton Eastman delivered seven brilliant innings, with one hit and eight strikeouts. In an age when millionaire starting pitchers snarl at managers and say this is “my game,” Eastman knew he was surrounded by a team.
Coach Rick Vanderhook approached him after the seventh inning and asked how he was bearing the weight of 106 pitches, every one of which carried victory or defeat. “Brett,” Eastman replied, and so Conine came in for his 15th save in 15 attempts.
“As far as what was at stake, and the pins and the needles and all that stuff, it was awesome. Really, really cool,” said Troy Buckley, and he was the losing coach here.
There were 71 batters in this game. Forty-six of them put baseballs in play. Nobody made an error.
Chris Hudgins of the Titans had a passed ball that enabled the Dirtbags’ only run, but then there was Timmy Richards, the shortstop, sliding over to stop a nicely-placed grounder by Laine Huffman, somehow setting himself and transferring everything to throw a perfect bouncer to first baseman Dillon Persinger. Out by a gnat’s nose, and later Conine would get a called third strike (maybe) on Ramsey Romano with Dirtbags on first and third.
Every inning seemed like that. LoForte’s 2-run single came with four innings remembering, inning, yet he knew it would be tough to overcome.
LoForte’s favorite ballplayer is Houston’s Jose Altuve, the 2-time batting champ who is probably about 5-foot-5. LoForte is listed at 5-foot-6. On Sunday, the essential Titans came to a podium, and Vanderhook made sure to ask LoForte if he could see over it.
“He does that all the time,” LoForte said, shrugging. “I’ve been pushed since I was little. I’ve embraced it as much as I can. Once you exceed people’s expectations, you want to do more and more. I don’t care about my height. I have a big heart and I love baseball.”
As Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has said, it’s not a handicap to be short when you’ve never been tall. LoForte doesn’t use his growth chart to hit. He was a .400 hitter as a junior and a senior at Franklin High, near Sacramento, and was first-team all-metro. He was not a hidden gem. Long Beach State, among others, recruited him hard.
LoForte also delivered a 14th-inning, walk-off hit against UC Irvine this season. But Vanderhook converted him from second base to designated hitter, which took hard swallows and reassessment.
“There would be points during the season when I’d go 0-for-4 and I’d just have to sit there between at-bats and learn how to deal with it,” he said. “It took a while. I’m not going to lie. But eventually I became a smarter hitter.”
And eventually CSF just pitched a little bit better. It gave the Dirtbags four runs in three games. Last weekend it gave up five runs in three games at the Stanford Regional.
This is Fullerton’s 18th trip to Omaha. Vanderhook met his wife there. The school bought a house across the street from Rosenblatt Stadium, the former College World Series site, for hospitality.
Beginning in 1979, the Titans won CWS titles in four consecutive decades. It’s getting late in this one, but they play top-ranked Oregon State Saturday.
“They’ve lost four games this season, right?” Vanderhook said. “So I think we have a good chance.”
He also said, “This was epic baseball.”