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Occidental's Marathon Men : An Inning an Hour Should Help Make Tigers a Baseball Power

February 25, 1988|HEATHER HAFNER

Twenty-seven innings in 27 hours sounds more like the schedule for a baseball marathon than a format for a college baseball series, but that's the way weekends are shaping up for members of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

And Coach Jeff Henderson of Occidental couldn't be more pleased.

Last season, conference games were played on Tuesdays and Fridays, making class scheduling difficult and allowing a team's top pitcher to throw twice in a week.

Under the revised schedule, teams will three game series--a single game on Friday afternoon followed by a Saturday double-header.

"I was one of the coaches that really pushed for it," Henderson said. "It helps the kids stay in class and number one we are an academic institution. No team will dominate conference with one pitcher. And with the three games, you are testing the entire team, the depth of the team and the pitching staff. We will really be able to find the true champion."

For the first time in several seasons, Occidental (1-4) could be competitive in the title race. The Tigers, who play Cal Tech in the conference opener Friday at home, finished third last season.

An improved infield, solid starting pitching and an all-senior outfield should make the Tigers a contender this season.

Occidental won its first five games last season but dropped eight straight near the middle of the season. By years end, the Tigers were almost even, 19-17.

"After we won five in a row, we had a little bit of a lapse," said first baseman Kevin Falaiz. "Things just didn't feel right all the way through last year. This season, we're building from the bottom up. We're taking it a little slower. There are a few freshman who have come in and are taking key spots. They're getting their feet wet and getting the feel of college baseball."

Henderson has been spreading the playing time around.

"Last year and the years before, injuries have really been something that could have destroyed us, and at times they have," Henderson said. "This season I'll always have a guy ready to fill in. The depth of the team and versatility are our big strengths."

Occidental's outfield should be a solidifying factor. Jon Billingsley will start in left field when he's not pitching. The 6-0, 175-pound left-hander batted .306 last year and was 5-2 on the mound. He will be second in the rotation and, when pitching, will be replaced in left field by 5-11, 160-pound freshman Steve Holtzman. Billingsley has four hits in nine at bats this season.

Bruce Fuller, a four-year starter and two-time academic All-American, will be in center field. He led the conference with 33 stolen bases while batting .285 last season. He is batting .300 and has four steals without getting caught this season.

Fuller is counted on for his attitude as much as his ability. He has been cast into the role of team leader left vacant by the graduation of catcher Tim Clement, who won the conference batting title in 1986 and was runner-up last season.

"Anytime that Bruce gets on first, he's an automatic second," Henderson said. "He has a great jump and great speed and he's a very smart player."

Occidental's top returning hitter, Doug Madgic, will start in right field. Madgic batted .348 last season and will see some time at designated hitter.

The Tigers' infield is considerably less experienced but greatly improved over last season. Falaiz, a 5-11, 185-pound senior, is the mainstay of the infield. His consistent fielding makes him one of the best first baseman in the conference, Henderson said. Falaiz is batting .437 this season.

Second baseman Tom Bonetto is expected to be one of the team's top defensive players, but he struggles at the plate. The 6-0, 165-pound sophomore will bat eighth or ninth. Sophomore Isidro Rodriguez will start at shortstop. Rodriguez batted .312 last season and has become a switch hitter.

"He and Kniseley and Bonetto all started as freshmen and with a year of experience under all three of their belts I think they'll have a good year," Henderson said.

The final cog in the Occidental wheel of fortune is third baseman Mike Kniseley. The 6-0, 185-pound sophomore batted .330 last season--but .500 in the final 10 games.

Kniseley will also see time at catcher until Pete Sayegh, an all-state player from New Jersey, returns from an arm injury. Freshman Jason Rusk will moved to third when Kniseley is behind the plate. Sophomore Tony Ferguson will also be utilized at catcher.

Occidental's season could key on it's pitching. Starting pitching is solid, but relievers have been hampered by inexperience and injury. Right-hander Mike Davies is the Tigers' top returner. He finished last season with a 4-7 record and a 4.39 earned run average. Five of the losses were by one run.

Billingsley will be the No. 2 starter, to be followed by Kevin Hattori, a 5-9, 173-pound right-hander.

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