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Resurgent Nevada to Clash With Titans for Big West Lead

COLLEGE BASEBALL

May 05, 2000|LON EUBANKS

Three weeks ago, Nevada was in sixth place in the Big West Conference and five games out of first.

Cal State Fullerton helped knock the Wolfpack back there. Earlier in the season, the Titans swept Nevada in a three-game series in Reno.

But Nevada has suddenly become the Big West's hottest baseball team, winning nine of its last 10 games and sweeping conference series against New Mexico State, Sacramento State and Pacific.

Cal State Fullerton begins a three-game series tonight against Nevada, separated by only one game in the Big West Conference standings.

The series between the first-place Titans (28-15 overall, 15-6) and Nevada (30-15, 17-7) is shaping up as a battle between the Big West's best pitching team and the one with the best hitting.

Nevada leads the conference with a .341 team batting average, and Fullerton has the best team earned-run average, 3.97. In the previous series at Nevada, the Titans won, 21-12, 11-2 and 6-3, and Nevada never led.

"I don't think that series has any bearing on this one," Fullerton Coach George Horton said. "We played very well up there, and they probably didn't play their best."

Nevada Coach Gary Powers agrees.

"That was the only time all season that our pitchers really struggled," Powers said. "Sometimes I think our players feel like they have to do more than they really need to do against Fullerton."

Nevada's pitching has been solid most of the season. Darrell Rasner, who is 12-2 with a 3.52 ERA, and Chad Qualls, who is 9-2 with a 3.29 ERA, have been particularly effective. The third starter is Matt Rainer, who is 4-3 with a 5.54 ERA.

Nevada's Don Inglett leads the conference with a .442 batting average and Don Price leads in home runs with 15. Nevada has 64 homers to 39 for Fullerton.

The Titans have three of the conference's top pitchers in starters Adam Johnson (5-2, 2.85) and Jon Smith (7-2, 2.67) and closer Kirk Saarloos, who is 6-4 with a conference-best 2.09 ERA.

Saarloos has come back strong after a below-par effort two weeks ago against Long Beach State, which won two of three from the Titans. Saarloos has not yielded a run in his last six relief appearances, giving up four hits and two walks in 10 innings.

The key for the Titans this weekend probably will be how well their third starter performs. Matt Sorensen (5-0) isn't expected to be available because of tightness in his pitching elbow, and Ronnie Corona (2-3, 5.32) is expected to start Sunday. Corona struggled in the first half of the season, but has given up only one earned run in his last 11 2/3 innings.

Fullerton has won six of its last seven games after a 2-6 slide, but has been inconsistent at the plate and on defense. Fullerton had four errors in a victory over San Diego State on Tuesday.

Nine games remain in the conference season. Fullerton plays at Pacific May 12-14, then ends the season at Long Beach State May 19-21. Long Beach, which is in third place, plays at home this weekend against Pacific and goes to Nevada May 12-14. Nevada plays Pacific the final weekend.

The NCAA regionals are May 26-28.

JOHNSON RANKS HIGH

Adam Johnson, who set a Fullerton career record for strikeouts last weekend with 320, ranks fifth nationally in strikeouts this season with an average of 12.8 per nine innings.

Johnson also ranks ninth among the Big West career strikeout leaders.

Only two Big West pitchers other than Johnson have had 300-plus strikeouts in a career since 1990. Rocky Biddle of Long Beach State had 361 and Dan Reichert of Pacific 355 in 1995-97. The career leader is Anthony Telford, who struck out 397 in three seasons at San Jose State from 1985-87.

Johnson appears assured of three more starts in the regular season and one in a possible NCAA regional to improve his total.

PAC-10 RACE IS TIGHT

The Pacific 10 Conference race has gotten hotter after USC won two of three games from Arizona State and UCLA swept a three-game series against Washington State last weekend.

The Bruins (28-21, 11-4) moved into second place behind Stanford (35-11, 13-5), and Arizona State (37-12, 12-6) fell to third. USC (31-18, 10-8) is fourth, three games behind Stanford.

UCLA hosts California (24-24, 10-11) this weekend. USC, idle this weekend, resumes conference play May 12 against Oregon State.

The Trojans play a makeup game from the rained-out Kia Baseball Bash at Fullerton Wednesday that will be the rubber game between the teams this season. Each team won on the other's home field.

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If you have an item or idea for the college baseball report, you can fax us at (714) 966-5663 or e-mail us atlon.eubanks@latimes.com

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