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Popoff Fans 10 as Titans Win, 5-2

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Cal State Fullerton’s James Popoff lulled Fresno State to sleep with his offspeed pitches, Phil Nevin provided an offensive wake-up call that helped propel the Titans to a 5-2 victory Friday night.

A crowd of about 300 at Titan Field saw Popoff, a sophomore right-hander from Whittier, pitch a four-hitter and strike out 10 as the Titans won their second in a row over the Bulldogs and improved to 20-16 overall, 4-1 in the Big West Conference.

Nevin, a freshman third baseman from El Dorado High School, provided the offensive spark when he led off the fourth inning with a home run off right-hander Eric Schullstrom, who had retired the first nine batters, five of them on strikeouts.

Nevin’s homer to left-center field tied the score at 1-1, and Fullerton broke it open in the fifth with a two-out, four-run rally highlighted by Mate Borgogno’s three-run double.

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The victory brought the Titans to within a half-game of first-place Fresno State (27-13, 6-2 and ranked 18th in the Baseball America poll). Fullerton, which has hovered around the .500 mark all season, can move into first with a victory in today’s 4 p.m. game.

“People doubted us this year because we have a lot of new guys that no one knew about,” Nevin said. “But we never doubted ourselves. We knew we would contend for the conference title. We’re going to surprise some people, and I think we already have.”

Popoff had a pleasant surprise in the bullpen before the game when he discovered his knuckleball, a pitch he had used sparingly this season, was working. He combined that with his fastball, curve, slow curve and changeup to keep the Bulldogs off-balance for much of the evening.

Popoff, who retired the first nine batters, allowed an RBI single to Todd Johnson in the fourth and a solo home run to Jeff Borgese in the seventh. Of his 10 strikeout victims, seven were caught looking, but his most impressive pitch got designated hitter Chris Gonzales swinging in the first inning.

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Knuckleballs are known to dance a bit, but this one did the Lambada, starting high and diving down and away from the left-handed hitters, who missed the pitch by at least a half-foot.

“I got two or three ground-ball outs and a couple of strikeouts with the knuckler,” Popoff said. “I haven’t used it much before because I haven’t needed it, but it was working well in the bullpen so I used it.”

The bottom third of Fullerton’s order rallied in the fifth, as Steve Sisco, Domingo Mota and Kevin Farlow each singled with two outs. Farlow’s hit scored Sisco to give the Titans a 2-1 lead.

Nevin walked to load the bases, and Borgogno, a left-handed hitter, sliced a double into the gap in left-center field that bounced inches past center fielder Mike Noel’s glove and rolled to the fence. That gave Fullerton a 5-1 lead.

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Borgogno and Sisco each had two hits to lead an eight-hit attack, and the Titans, who have the 12th-rated defense in the nation, played an errorless game.

“Up until now, we haven’t played total baseball,” Fullerton Coach Larry Cochell said. “We’d get good pitching with no hitting one night and good hitting with no pitching the next. Tonight, we got great pitching and the hits when we needed them.”


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