College World Series: Can Fullerton set Omaha hearts aflutter?

Fullerton opens College World Series against defending national champion Vanderbilt on Sunday

The people of Omaha like their steaks big and their college baseball programs small.

That's why Cal State Fullerton probably will have strong support at the College World Series beginning Sunday when the Titans open against defending national champion Vanderbilt at 5 p.m. PDT.

Each June, the hometown fans pack T.D. Ameritrade Park — and, before the new ballpark, Rosenblatt Stadium — regardless of whether local favorites Nebraska or Creighton are part of the field. The Cornhuskers and Bluejays have combined for four appearances in the tournament's 65-year history, so the locals often are looking for a team to adopt.

Typically, they choose an underdog, whether that is a regional No. 4 seed such as Fresno State, which won the national championship in 2008; an upstart making its first appearance, such as Stony Brook or Kent State in 2012; or a traditional baseball power from a school without a football program such as Fullerton.

"The people of the city of Omaha are kind of the blue-collar people. They're the hard-working people," said Fullerton assistant Chad Baum, who is making his fifth College World Series appearance as a player and coach with the Titans. "They kind of relate and know we're that little commuter school, that little blip, and they kind of gravitate toward us."

The Titans got here by producing runs with walks, hit batters and sacrifices. They win with pitching and defense rather than a slew of highly drafted sluggers.

Vanderbilt and Louisiana State have the top two draft picks in the recent Major League Baseball draft playing shortstop, Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman. Arkansas' Andrew Benintendi and Miami's David Thompson led the nation in home runs.

Fullerton counters with the stingiest pitcher in college baseball, Thomas Eshelman, who has an 18.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a lineup that has hit a pedestrian .265.

The Titans also play to the crowd. The coaching staff instructs the players to throw beach balls back into the stands rather than out of play, part of an effort to be the most fan-friendly contingent in the eight-team field.

"We've been lucky enough to have dudes that win the crowd when we've played here," Baum said, citing former Titans Mark Kotsay, Kurt Suzuki and Jason Windsor.

This year, Fullerton has another potential crowd winner in closer Tyler Peitzmeier. The senior left-hander, who pitched eight innings in relief in last weekend's super regional series win over Louisville, is the only Titan from outside of California. He is from Yutan, Neb. — 25 miles west of Omaha.

"I actually grew up in Omaha," Peitzmeier said. "My parents would buy me a 10-pack of general admission tickets every year when it was back at Rosenblatt."

Peitzmeier became a Fullerton fan after seeing the Titans play Nebraska here in 2001. He is looking forward to playing in front of his family and friends, and said his parents might be even more excited than he is.

"It means a lot to them because they grew up in Omaha here too," Peitzmeier said. "They've grown up around the College World Series and I think it's been a dream for them for me to come back."

Reunited

For the second week in a row, Eshelman will oppose a fellow USA Baseball Collegiate National Team member. Last week, Eshelman and the Titans bested Louisville's Kyle Funkhouser, who was the 35th pick overall, by the Dodgers, in the MLB draft. Sunday, it will be Vanderbilt right-hander Carson Fulmer, the No. 8 overall pick.

"You always want to play the best, and with him in the opposite dugout it's going to be a hard game," said Eshelman, who was the 46th pick of the draft, by the Houston Astros. "We're going to have a difficult time putting up runs against him, but we're just going to try to grind like we always do."

The Titans have a strong track record against Team USA members. Eshelman previously defeated UC Santa Barbara right-hander Dillon Tate — the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, by Texas — and the Titans won a three-game series against infielder Mark Mathias' Cal Poly team and the Fullerton Regional, which included Arizona State closer Ryan Burr and Clemson catcher Chris Okey.

Along with Eshelman and injured Fullerton starter Justin Garza, there are six members of last summer's Team USA squad participating in the College World Series. Three are from Vanderbilt: Fulmer, outfielder Bryan Reynolds and shortstop Swanson.

"I'm really looking forward to facing Dansby," Eshelman said. "I think he's obviously the best player in the draft and all of Division I."

sports@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
51°