In the talk leading up to the NCAA Division II West regional baseball playoffs, Cal State Northridge Coach Terry Craven said he was uncertain 1) how his team would respond in the double-elimination tournament and 2) who on God's green turf were these guys from Cal State Chico--champion of the Northern California Athletic Conference and CSUN's first-round opponent. Who were they and were they any good?
Even after the Matadors beat Chico, 9-6, Friday, Craven on both counts remained as foggy as the thick air around the field at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
He did know that somehow CSUN managed to outscore the Wildcats and that the game they played was baseball. Of some sort. Never mind that Chico pitchers walked eight batters, hit three more and served up three wild pitches. Never mind that Wildcat center fielder Barry Miller let a bases-loaded single off the bat of Northridge right fielder Lenn Gilmore bounce under his glove and roll all the way to the wall while the bases cleared.
This was a playoff win and Craven, at least outwardly, wasn't going to be particular about it. He'd take it, all right, but he wouldn't want to watch it again.
"I'm just glad we got through it and that John LaRosa got us as far as he did," Craven said.
LaRosa, CSUN's starting pitcher, worked 7 innings, some of which included heavy labor, en route to his eighth win in 10 decisions. When the left-hander finally left the game in the eighth, he had given up 10 hits, walked seven and instilled fear in a few Chico batters with fastballs that sort of slipped out of his hand. But the Matadors had their 9-6 lead and when LaRosa walked Mike Barney after going ahead in the count, 0-2, Craven pulled him out.
"I was able to throw hard," LaRosa said. "But I didn't have anything to complement the fastball. Usually, it's the other way around. My specialty is usually the curve or cut fastball. I might have been trying to throw it too hard."
The Wildcats probably agreed. In the fourth inning alone, LaRosa hit one batter and walked three. Still, CSUN slipped out of trouble--giving up only one run--when LaRosa struck out Chico third baseman Brad Indelicato and catcher Scott McIntyre nailed Scott Akeson attempting to steal second base.
Northridge batters, conversely, took advantage of early opportunities, scoring two runs in the first inning and five in the second. Mark Anderson welcomed Chico starter Tom Moss, who came in with a 14-2 record, by hitting a two-run homer over the left-field fence.
Moss was rocked and rolled in the second, an inning that turned into a disaster for the Wildcats. After hitting McIntyre, Moss walked Jim Vatcher. He then hit Anderson. John Balfanz followed by blooping a single to left that hung in the humidity long enough to score McIntyre and Vatcher. Tim Rapp singled to load the bases before Gilmore came up to unload them with his wall-banging single.
Even though Northridge led, 7-0, by then, Chico fought back to familiarize Craven with what one Wildcat called "our big spirit."
Chris Kocman, Mike Sheehan, Kevin Miller and Akeson all singled to get back two runs. Miller later tagged and scored on a deep fly to center by Tom Chavez, cutting the lead to 7-3 in the bottom of the second.
Chico had proven its ability--even a tendency--to score runs in batches earlier this year when it scored 18 runs in one inning against Cal State Hayward. A week later, the Wildcats racked up 13 in a single inning.
"We'd done this sort of thing all year," Coach Dale Metcalf said. "We've always had the ability to come back from almost anything."
Certainly, the scene in the Wildcat dugout was anything but somber. Four-run deficit notwithstanding, some of the Chico players screamed and swore as if they were at a beer party. At one point, an umpire went to the dugout to tell Metcalf to cool things down.
The Chico bats cooled as well.
From the fourth inning on, Northridge led by no fewer than three runs. Anderson scored in the seventh after being hit by a pitch. He moved to third on successive wild pitches by Moss, then scored on a deep sacrifice fly to left by Rapp. Moments later, Balfanz, who had walked, scored on a line drive to left by designated-hitter Craig Burns to complete the scoring for the Matadors.
Tony Estrada relieved LaRosa in the eighth inning and turned in a strong performance. The senior right-hander faced six batters and allowed one single. He struck out two and walked none, which was as remarkable as anything on a day when control problems plagued pitchers and batters on both teams.
Northridge (37-20) will face CS Dominguez Hills, winner of the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title, in the second round of the regionals at noon today. Dominguez Hills eliminated Chico, 12-1, Friday afternoon.