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COLLEGE WORLD SERIES

Fullerton Can't Close the Deal

The Titan offense is shut down over the last five innings in a 5-3 loss to South Carolina. Today's winner to play Texas for the title.

June 24, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — Cal State Fullerton knows about facing elimination in the College World Series, especially with last year fresh on the Titans' minds after two crushing losses to Stanford denied them a chance to play for the national championship.

The Titans may now be feeling the pressure to avoid a similar fate after their 5-3 loss Wednesday night to South Carolina in front of a record crowd of 28,216 at Rosenblatt Stadium, setting up a rematch tonight with the winner to face Texas for the NCAA title.

Fullerton prefers to see the turn of events as an opportunity after not being able to execute its plan to wrap up a spot in the best-of-three championship series.

"We're one of three college baseball teams still playing for a national championship," Fullerton Coach George Horton said. "We can hang our heads and say, 'Gee whiz, we could have won and had a few days off.' But guess what? We're still in the hunt."

Fullerton (44-22) has stuck with its top-notch starting pitching to avoid its suspect bullpen as long as it could throughout its postseason run. Jason Windsor and Ricky Romero delivered complete games in the Titans' victories over South Carolina and Miami.

As the Gamecocks were fighting to stay alive, senior right-hander Mike Martinez got the ball and pitched gamely. But it was his fielding -- not his pitching -- that proved to be his undoing.

With one out in the seventh inning, South Carolina center fielder Davy Gregg put down a bunt toward first base. Martinez charged off the mound and went to his knees to field it but threw wildly past first baseman P.J. Pilittere. Gregg easily reached third base as the ball rolled into foul territory.

The Gamecocks became the opportunists. Bryan Triplett, who hit a two-run homer in the third inning, grounded a single between shortstop Neil Walton and third baseman Ronnie Prettyman to score Gregg for a 4-3 lead.

"I felt I had to dive just to get the ball," Martinez said of the bunt play. "I didn't pick it up real cleanly and I tried to make an off-balance throw."

Martinez stayed in but couldn't get out of the jam. Steven Tolleson followed with a bunt single and Steve Pearce hit another single through the left side to score Triplett and knock out the pitcher.

Relievers Ryan Schreppel and Vinnie Pestano did their job in keeping the Gamecocks quiet. By then, the Fullerton batting order was already silent.

South Carolina starter Jason Fletcher and closer Chad Blackwell retired 12 in a row after Prettyman's fourth-inning bunt single.

Fletcher (6-1) gave up three runs and five hits in six innings and Blackwell pitched three hitless innings for his nation-leading 20th save.

Felipe Garcia hit a two-run double in the first inning for a quick 2-0 lead, but the Titans managed only four more hits.

"I'd say the quality [of at-bats] wasn't there," said Pilittere, who had two of the hits. "We got a lot of at-bats with counts in our way and we either hit weak fly balls or got jammed on pitches."

After Triplett's homer gave the Gamecocks (53-16) a 3-2 lead, Fullerton tied it in the fourth when Prettyman laid down a two-out bunt and Triplett threw it past first base to score Sergio Pedroza and put runners on second and third. But Fletcher came back to strike out Justin Turner to end the threat.

"That was big because they tied it up and Jason came right back and got an out," South Carolina Coach Ray Tanner said. "If you avoid the big inning, you've got a shot."

For the Titans, it is one opportunity lost but an opportunity still left. They faced elimination in regional play before running off six consecutive victories.

Left-hander Scott Sarver will get the start instead of Windsor, who struck out a career-high 14 in shutting out the Gamecocks in the Titans' opening-round win. Horton indicated that Windsor didn't recover as quickly after throwing 145 pitches.

"This team has faced a lot of adversity," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "We've been in this situation many times when we needed to win one game.

"Everybody is going to hit the pillow tonight knowing tomorrow is going to be our day."

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