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Fullerton makes it through long nights to win NCAA baseball regional

Titans take advantage of weary Pepperdine pitching staff to defeat the Waves, 10-1, in Sunday nightcap

The NCAA’s road to Omaha can sometimes mirror the life of a long-haul trucker.

It entails overnight work, black coffee and sleeping fast.

Cal State Fullerton toiled until 1:47 a.m. Sunday morning, splashed water on its face and hopped back on that long ribbon of baseball highway.

The Titans had enough in the tank Sunday night at Goodwin Field to pepper Pepperdine, 10-1, to sweep the regional and take another step toward another College World Series appearance.

Fullerton (37-22) won its 21st regional title and a spot in next weekend’s best-of-three super regional at Louisville.

Fullerton swept Louisville in the 2009 super regional.

The Titans, who have won four national championships since their first in 1979, went 3-0 as weekend host and is one weekend away from making its 17th appearance in the College World Series.

Fullerton has never gone winless in regional play.

Expectations are always high at Fullerton and regional advancements are expected. The Titans struggled early this year, however, and some thought the school’s streak of 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances might be in jeopardy.

“It’s what we’re supposed to do,” Titans Coach Rick Vanderhook said after Sunday’s win. “If we don’t do this, it’s a disappointment, if we don’t do it next week then we let people down.”

The Sunday finalists were the survivors of the Fullerton pod.

Pepperdine (32-28) crawled back after Friday’s loss to Fullerton and nearly blowing it against Clemson. The Titans outlasted Arizona State with a 14-inning win that ended with a train whistle early Sunday morning.

The Titans on Sunday spotted freshman starter Connor Seabold an early 2-0 lead, scratching home a run in the second inning by using two ground-ball outs and another in the third when David Olmedo-Barrera singled home Josh Vargas from second base.

Fullerton added four runs in the fourth inning, chasing Pepperdine starter Chandler Blanchard, pushed the lead to 8-0 in the sixth and added two runs in the ninth.

Seabold, only a freshman, pitched six scoreless innings and tied his career high with nine strikeouts. He gave up six hits and walked only one.

“I was feeling comfortable,” Seabold said. “It was nice getting those early runs, getting some breathing room, it kind of took the butterflies away a little bit.”

It was every arm up for Pepperdine’s staff. Sunday night starter Blanchard pitched against Clemson on Saturday and earlier on Sunday, picking up the win against Arizona State with two-thirds of an inning in relief.

Fullerton had a quick turn-around after winning Saturday night’s game against Arizona State on a bases-loaded, walk-off walk in the 14th inning.

The game lasted five hours and 12 minutes and ended at near sunrise in the East.

The victory was big because it put Fullerton at 2-0 entering the Sunday night game instead of 1-1 in the 4 p.m. start. Arizona State had to burn six pitchers in the loss, including their usual No. 3 starter as well as closer Ryan Burr, who worked 4 1/3 innings and threw 74 pitches.

The Sun Devils, not surprisingly, had little left in Sunday’s turn-around loss to Pepperdine.

Fullerton used only two pitchers in 14 innings, ace Thomas Eshelman and reliever Tyler Peitzmeier.

Eshelman was brilliant through nine, striking out 14 with no walks, while Peitzmeier added five scoreless innings.

Some criticized Fullerton Coach Rick Vanderhook for starting John Gavin in Game 1 instead of Eshelman.

Vanderhook, though, said Game 2 is the most important game in the four-team, double-elimination format.

“I threw Eshelman because this is the game you have to win,” Vanderhook said after Saturday’s game.

Pepperdine had enough punch to take out Arizona State but not much left when it had to flip the switch to play Fullerton.

The Titans, who lost starter Justin Garza to an elbow injury in early May, had to turn to Seabold for the potential regional clincher.

“I’m not trying to replace Garza,” Seabold said. “That’s a hard thing to do. I’m just trying to help my team win.”

Seabold entered with a solid 4-3 record and 3.23 ERA but this was going to be a different kind of pressure.

“As a freshman, it’s a huge deal for him to pitch in a game with a chance to win a regional,” Vanderhook said after Saturday night’s game.

Seabold did not disappoint, striking out five of the first seven batters he faced.

And so, for Fullerton, it’s on to Louisville and then, it hopes, Omaha.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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