FRESNO — They say the key to beating the really good pitchers is getting to them early. Cal State Fullerton, facing Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Player of the Year Mark Gardner of Fresno State, did just that Friday night at Beiden Field.
And, well, so much for baseball axioms.
The Titans scored six runs in the first four innings, but it wasn't enough as the Bulldogs rallied for six in the fifth en route to a 9-7 victory in the first game of a best-of-three championship series for the conference's automatic NCAA playoff berth. The teams will meet again at 7 tonight, with Game 3, if necessary, set for 1 p.m. Sunday.
PCAA North Division champion Fresno (40-20) collected 13 hits, and Gardner regained his form to allow just three hits and one run in the last five innings, increasing his nation-leading strikeout total to 173 in the process. Gardner (15-4) struck out 10.
"We were one base hit away from chasing him (in the fourth)," Fullerton Coach Augie Garrido said. "But he improved dramatically when he got the lead, and that's the hallmark of a great pitcher."
Titan center fielder John Fishel had a pair of tape-measure home runs--a three-run shot in the third and a solo blast in the ninth--but it wasn't enough as the defending national champions fell to 36-31-1 on the season and are now one game away from the end of what would be their worst season in 12 years.
Bulldog first baseman David Studdert, who left four men on base in his first two at-bats, redeemed himself in the fifth with a bases-loaded triple and drove in his fourth run of the night in the sixth.
"Our pitching philosophy has keyed around patience this year," Fresno State Coach Bob Bennett said. "Gardner was a pitch away from coming out twice, but he showed some courage and then found his breaking ball."
And that was enough as the right-hander struck out six in the final five innings.
The Bulldogs scored two unearned runs in the first on two singles, a walk and Shane Turner's fielding error. Considering Gardner's record and earned-run average (2.95) coming in, it looked like that might be all the advantage he needed.
Gardner retired the first three Titans on four pitches, but his aura of invincibility was shattered in a hurry after that. Kevin Reimer came about a yard short of a homer, doubling off the top of the fence in left-center to open the second, and Blaine Larker brought him home with a line-drive single to left.
The Titans took the lead, 4-2, in the third. Jose Mota walked, Turner beat out a bunt, and just when it looked like Fullerton Coach Augie Garrido was going to stick with Little Ball, Fishel hit a 420-foot, three-run blast to left-center . . . after missing a bunt attempt.
"I didn't have my best stuff, that's for sure," Gardner said. "But I started getting the breaking ball over later on. The team really pumped me up when they rallied."
That Gardner didn't have his best stuff became painfully obvious to the 2,516 Fresno faithful in the fourth. After Keith Watkins singled to right, catcher Roger Zottneck, who had four RBIs on the year, drilled a two-run shot to left-center.
Fresno State left seven runners on base in the first four innings, and Studdert flew out to end both the first and third with two on. The lanky (6-5, 190 pounds) senior's bases-loaded triple in the fifth one-hopped the fence in right-center and put Fresno right back in the game.
Garret Crough's sacrifice fly tied it up, 6-6, and Jim Davis' double chased Titan starter Dion Beck (9-8).
Reliever Mike Harkey got one out before Eric Fox pulled a line drive down the right-field line that just cleared the fence and gave the Bulldogs an 8-6 lead.
"We were way ahead on points in the early rounds," Garrido said, "but they hung in there until they were in a position to knock us out.
"Now we just load it up and go again tomorrow. Lord knows we've been in this spot before."