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All Indicators Positive for Titans

College baseball: Cal State Fullerton appears to have hit its stride after sweeping No. 4 Miami.

April 03, 2001|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Fullerton Coach George Horton looked at the stretch of seven games that ended Sunday as a potential barometer of the season for the Titans.

"We talked to the players a lot about the challenge of it," Horton said.

The Titans responded by winning six of seven and capped the surge with a three-game sweep of No. 4-ranked Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. It marked the first time the Hurricanes (25-9) had been swept at home in a three-game series since they began playing in Mark Light Stadium in 1973.

In the Baseball America poll released Monday, Miami dropped to No. 8 and Fullerton climbed to No. 18 from No. 24.

In the last two weeks, Fullerton (19-10) also won two of three games from Long Beach State and defeated 12th-ranked USC by one run with a four-run ninth-inning rally.

"To come out of that stretch 6-1 is nearly unbelievable," Horton said. "It was really special to get a sweep at Miami. The only thing I can remember comparable in nonconference was when we swept Texas at Texas [in 1994], and they weren't ranked as high as Miami was this time." Horton was associate head coach for Augie Garrido in 1994.

Horton said he hopes the team's strong play will continue when it begins Big West Conference play with a three-game series at home against Pacific starting Friday night.

The Titans have won 11 of their last 13 games and 17 of 22 since their 2-5 start.

Horton was pleased by the team's effort on offense against Miami, along with continued strong pitching from starters Kirk Saarloos, Jon Smith and Darric Merrell and closer Chad Cordero. The Titans scored 25 runs in the three games.

"What was good was that it was against solid Miami pitching," Horton said. "They threw a lot of good arms against us, but we had a lot of quality at-bats."

Miami's three starting pitchers--Brian Walker, Kiki Bengochea and Tom Farmer--had a combined 2.55 earned-run average coming into the series, but had a 12.91 ERA against the Titans.

Fullerton batted .385 in the series to .250 for Miami. Mike Rouse had six hits in 10 at-bats. David Bacani was seven for 13, Chris Stringfellow six for 13 and Jason Corapci five for 11. Stringfellow raised his average to a team-leading .338. Aaron Rifkin is batting .327 with a team-leading seven homers and 22 runs batted in.

Fullerton's pitching continued to sparkle with Saarloos (7-2) winning his seventh consecutive start and pitching his sixth complete game in a 9-2 victory Sunday. He also has four saves.

Smith (6-0) held Miami to seven hits, two walks and struck out 11 in eight innings in Fullerton's 8-2 victory Friday. Merrell (2-2) gave up six hits and four runs, three of them earned, in an 8-5 victory Saturday.

The three starters have a combined 1.66 ERA with Saarloos at 1.40, Smith at 1.72 and Merrell at 1.99. Cordero, 1-2 with two saves, has a 2.57 ERA.

"Our seniors [Saarloos and Smith] deserve a lot of the credit and they're having great years," Titan pitching coach Dave Serrano said. "I thought Jon set the tone for the weekend the way he pitched on Friday. But the two freshmen [Merrell and Cordero] have really helped us a lot. They've been phenomenal as freshmen."

Horton said freshman catcher P.J. Pilittere, who has been filling in for injured Brett Kay, also has been a factor in the team's success.

Kay is expected to be available to play this weekend after being sidelined since Feb. 27 because of a broken thumb on his throwing hand.

Horton said he hopes the sweep of Miami will boost his team's confidence in the second half of the season.

"Now we have to be able to sustain the quality of baseball we've been playing," Horton said.

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