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STATE AT STAKE : The Heavens Opened Up in Fresno Sunday, Granting Canyons a Rested Staff and a Break It Badly Needed Against Cerritos

Times Staff Writer

Coach Mike Gillespie wasn’t expecting any breaks. But his team, specifically the pitching staff, needed one.

Gillespie’s College of the Canyons baseball team and top-ranked Cerritos College, scheduled to meet last Sunday at Fresno before rain forced a move South, will meet at noon today at Cal State Fullerton. At stake is the state community college championship.

Cerritos (38-5), undefeated in the double-elimination state tournament, which started Thursday in Fresno, needs only one victory to win the title. Should Canyons (31-13) win the opener, another game will follow around 30 minutes later to determine the champion.

Canyons’ pitching staff, spent after five games in three days at Fresno, benefited most from the postponement. Three additional days of rest has eased the hurt felt by the Cougars after their 5-4 loss to Cerritos on Friday.

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“We’ve never had a more significant, more devastating loss in 15 years,” Gillespie said. “Our players were crushed. For us to come off the floor the way we did was equally significant. We feel extremely good about the way we’ve played in this tournament.

“Believe it or not, although we’re glad to have the rest, the players were a little disappointed because they were excited about playing Cerritos again. We wanted to get with it. But physically, we had to feel some fatigue. So it’s probably to our advantage to get some time to recover,” Gillespie said.

Cerritos Coach George Horton isn’t as pleased by the delay.

Horton used second-line starters on the first two days of the tournament and had left-hander John Rodriguez (7-1) and side-armer Dave Serrano (12-1) lined up to mow down Canyons Sunday.

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Said Horton: “Our kids were disappointed. We built up to a certain point in the tournament and were ready to play Sunday.

“It’s been difficult to practice. We had a bad practice Monday,” Horton said. “It’s my job to to motivate the kids and even I couldn’t get motivated to practice. There’s no doubt that Canyons gained more from the rainout than we did. We saved up the pitchers we wanted to use Sunday and they really had nobody left.”

However, if Canyons forces a second game, Horton would be in position to start one of his best pitchers, left-hander Al Osuna (11-1), now rested and ready for the possible final.

Osuna pitched the best game of this season’s state tournament when he stopped Oakland’s Laney College, 4-0, Saturday on a four-hitter. He pitched last season as a freshman at Stanford, but transferred to Cerritos after becoming academically ineligible to play baseball. He was chosen by the San Diego Padres in the second round of the secondary phase of the draft on Monday, but plans to transfer back to Stanford to complete his college career.

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“We’ll go with Rodriguez even though he struggled with his control the last month,” Horton said. “If he gets in any trouble early, we’ll go to Serrano right away. He’s been effective against Canyons because they don’t have any left-handed bats.”

Serrano is 3-0 against the Cougars this season, including 5-1 and 12-3 victories during the regular season. Last Friday, he was credited with the victory in relief with five strong innings. On the other hand, the Cougars had little trouble beating Osuna, 14-7, in the first of the teams four meetings this season.

Frank Halcovich will start for Canyons in the first game. Halcovich (8-4) was scheduled to pitch Sunday with virtually no rest. He had pitched 7 innings against Cerritos Friday. Halcovich, because of his hitting prowess, is also asked to play when not pitching. He was in the lineup when the Cougars beat Oxnard Friday night, 7-5 and again Saturday when they eliminated Sacramento, 11-3, and Laney, 7-3.

Said Gillespie of Halcovich: “His heart was certainly willing, but we’ll never know about his arm. Of course, he said he was ready to go Saturday, too. I’m sure he was running on adrenaline.

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Gillespie, whose team is trying to win its third state title in five years, knows the Cougars have only themselves to blame for their long weekend.

With two out and none on in the eighth inning Friday, Halcovich and Canyons were leading Cerritos, 4-1. But they allowed the Falcons to crawl off the floor.

Gillespie believes he knows why.

With the bases loaded in the top of the eighth inning, Canyons scored only one run on a drive off the top of the left-field fence by Mike Neighbors. Though it just missed being a grand slam, Neighbors wound up with only a single and one RBI. As it turned out, the Cougars scored twice in an inning that had the trappings of a big inning.

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“We just broke down on that play,” Gillespie said. “The runner on second thought the ball might be caught so he tagged up. With all the noise, he didn’t hear us yelling at him. It should have been at least a two-run double.”

With a big inning Gillespie’s strategy might have been different.

“We rehashed that play all weekend,” he said. “It was only six inches from being a grand slam. It would have made a big difference. We probably would have gone with Halcovich at least one more batter with a bigger lead.”

After the loss, Gillespie got more than he could have expected out of what was left of his pitching staff. Mark Titchener (6-2), Rocco Buffolino (3-1) and Greg Mayer (4-1) each went the distance to keep Canyons breathing.

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Gillespie has seen it before, which is one of the reasons the Cougars have been in the state tournament 10 times in 15 years and in the final game four of the last five seasons.

“Each time somebody came out of the woodwork to really save us,” Gillespie said. “For some reason, we really haven’t been able to develop the type of pitching staff you’d like to have. We’ve always had position players who could also pitch.”

It’s a formula he hopes will work one more time.


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