The ebb and flow of the Orange Empire Conference baseball race has Fullerton and Rancho Santiago meeting, but heading in opposite directions.
The teams play at 2 p.m. today at Rancho Santiago then again at 2 p.m. Thursday at Fullerton. Rancho Santiago (18-6, 6-4) comes in having just beaten first-place Cypress (20-8, 8-4 in conference) twice.
"We had to have that series to put us back in the race," Rancho Santiago Coach Don Sneddon said.
Mike Brambilla, a transfer from Cal State Fullerton, hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning Thursday to give the Dons a 9-7 victory over Cypress. Brambilla is hitting .343 and is second on the team with five home runs and 25 runs batted in.
Derek Baker, a transfer from USC, added a homer Saturday as Rancho Santiago won, 6-4. He is hitting .420 with nine homer and 28 RBIs.
Rancho Santiago got off to a similar start in conference play last season, losing four of its first six. The Dons eventually turned it around, went on to win their final 14 conference games and the conference title. But Sneddon isn't expecting that to happen again.
"I don't think there is a team that can run away and hide from the rest," he said. "There's not a lot of separation in the [conference] this year."
Fullerton (16-7, 7-5) has lost five of its last seven.
"We are struggling a little bit right now," Coach Nick Fuscardo said. "We can't make the fundamental plays and it's driving me crazy."
One Fullerton player not struggling is sophomore shortstop Poncho Ruiz, who has a 12-game hitting streak. He is hitting .511 (24 of 47) in 12 conference games. Ruiz has also scored 12 runs, driven in 19, has 10 doubles and a home run in conference. Ruiz is hitting .458 (38 of 83) overall.
Another team on the move is Saddleback. The Gauchos started conference play with a 30-9 loss to Fullerton and went on to lose five of their first six. Since, the Gauchos (14-7-1, 5-5) have won four conference games in a row and moved from last to fourth place.
Saddleback hosts Riverside (16-9, 5-7) at 2 p.m. today and is at Riverside at 2 p.m. Thursday. The Gauchos then host Rancho Santiago at noon Saturday in the last game before spring break.
One important reason for the turn-around is the pitching. Saddleback gave up an astonishing 90 runs in its first six games, but has limited opponents to 14 in the last four.
Ryan McDermott, a sophomore right-hander, has helped the comeback. He has three victories and a save in Saddleback's last five games.
Too close for comfort: There has hardly been a relaxing moment in the last nine games for the Golden West baseball team.
In that span the Rustlers have split six one-run games, won once by two runs and lost once by two runs, and lost another game by three runs.
But Golden West's most serious loss was that of catcher Chad Baum. Baum, a freshman from Canyon High who had help stabilize the pitching staff, broke his jaw when he was hit by a pitch Thursday against Fullerton. Baum, who has his jaw wired shut, is expected to miss two to six weeks.
"We're trying to rig a mask right now so he can catch," Golden West Coach Bert Villarreal said.
The first of the spring-break tournaments starts Saturday when the Fullerton softball team hosts the Nike Lady Hornet Invitational at the college and Fullerton High. The field, which includes Fullerton, Palomar and Long Beach, opens with pool play Saturday.
Fullerton, the first-place team in the Orange Empire Conference, plays Mt. San Antonio at 10 a.m. Palomar, the top-ranked team in the state, takes on Moorpark at Fullerton High at 9:30 a.m.
Long Beach, the defending state champion, opens at 11:15 a.m. against Moorpark at Fullerton High. Teams move from pool play to single-elimination play Sunday.
The semifinal games are at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Monday and the title game is at 1:30 p.m.