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Borgogno Kicks the Error Habit : College baseball: Cal State Fullerton infielder made 29 errors in the 1989 season. But he enters the NCAA Central Regional tonight with just eight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To err is human and to joke about it is the divine right of pitchers who have nothing better to do in the dugout during games. This is what Cal State Fullerton’s baseball season had deteriorated to in 1989.

The Titan infield was so bad last season--89 errors among five players, led by Mate Borgogno’s 29--that it became a laughing matter among the pitchers.

“The joke on the team was that before games, they’d have a pool going in the corner of the dugout on which infielder would make the first error,” Borgogno said. “You’d hear guys say, ‘I got $5 on Borgogno,’ or ‘I got $10 on Graves.’ At least I think it was a joke.”

It wasn’t.

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“We actually did it,” relief pitcher Matt Watson said. “Five or six pitchers would each put a dollar in a pool, and whoever picked the right guy collected the loot. I don’t know what coach would think about it, but that was last year. We don’t do that this year.”

If they did, they would have needed a progressive pot, because there were 15 games in which the Titans didn’t make any errors, and even more in which the infielders didn’t make any errors.

Fullerton, which plays Old Dominion at 6 p.m. (PDT) tonight in the opening round of the NCAA Central Regional, ranks seventh in the nation with a .969 fielding percentage. Take away the 12 errors made by pitchers--no, the infielders haven’t started a pool--and the Titans might have the best-fielding team in the country.

Exemplifying the defensive transformation has been Borgogno, the second baseman who has made only eight errors in 262 chances for a .970 fielding percentage, up from .909 last season. Borgogno, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior, also has been one of Fullerton’s top batters with a .379 average, 40 runs scored, 15 doubles and a team-leading 53 runs batted in.

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“It’s great to open up Collegiate Baseball magazine and see we’re ranked seventh in the nation defensively,” said Borgogno, who played his freshman season at Nebraska before transferring to Fullerton. “Me and Kevin Farlow (Titan shortstop who has a .947 fielding percentage) take serious pride in our defense.”

Last season, Borgogno was seriously defenseless much of the time. He started the season at second base, but when Randy Graves and John Paboojian had problems at shortstop, Titan Coach Larry Cochell moved Borgogno there.

Borgogno played shortstop for two seasons at Nogales High School in La Puente, but he clearly wasn’t ready to handle the position at the Division I level. He made only four errors in his first 15 games, but developed arm problems trying to make the longer throws.

He then went on a 15-game stretch during which he made at least one error in every game.

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“I was not only worried about catching the ball but throwing it,” Borgogno said. “If you have a sore arm at second base, you can lob a ball now and then, but you can’t do that at shortstop.”

His defensive slump reached a low point in a game against San Jose State; the Spartans had a runner on third with two outs in the ninth inning and the score tied, 6-6.

“I could hear the San Jose players in the dugout saying, ‘Hit it to short, hit it to short,’ ” Borgogno said. “He did, I booted it and we lost the game. I wanted to go hide after that one.”

Only Borgogno’s offensive contributions--he hit .359 with 48 runs and 22 RBIs--and the fact that other infielders were having defensive problems kept Borgogno from becoming totally depressed.

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“I wasn’t the only one making errors, so that helped a lot,” he said. “Because if you’re the only person doing something bad, it shows. If others are doing it, it hides you a little. The errors didn’t bother me that much because I was picking the team up offensively.”

Borgogno regained confidence in his defense by playing summer ball in Alaska, where he made only two errors in 33 games at second base. And the addition of Farlow, the smooth-fielding shortstop who transferred from USC, relieved Borgogno of any shortstop duties.

“Last year, I was way out of position at shortstop,” Borgogno said. “I didn’t have the whole fall or January to work at it, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. I just showed up for practice one day and was told I’d be playing shortstop.”

Just as Borgogno has found his niche at second base, he has found the comfort zone in the No. 2 spot in the batting order. He began the season with a lot of success as the lead-off hitter and, with most of the team in a slump, Cochell moved him to the No. 3 spot, where Borgogno’s average dropped about 70 points.

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Cochell then moved Borgogno to the No. 2 spot, where he hits behind third baseman Phil Nevin, who has an on-base percentage of .457, and ahead of left fielder Rich Gonzales, who leads the team with a .382 batting average.

“I’ve been successful because I have strong hitters ahead of me and behind me,” said Borgogno, who has six game-winning RBIs this season, including a ninth-inning double that gave Fullerton a 10-9 victory over UCLA.

“Say there are runners on second and third and Phil is up. They want to pitch around Phil so they don’t give up a three-run home run, but they don’t want to pitch to Gonzales. So they give me fastballs.”

Borgogno had always hoped to be in the middle of the Titan lineup, but when Fullerton Coach Augie Garrido recruited him out of high school, the Titans had two strong middle infielders: Mark Razook and Mike Ross.

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Borgogno wanted to start as a freshman, so he went to Nebraska, where he batted .360 with four home runs and 50 RBIs in his first season. But Borgogno didn’t think playing in the Midwest would be good for his long-term goal--playing professional baseball--so he decided to return to Southern California.

“At the time, I wanted to get away from home, and playing at Nebraska was a good experience,” Borgogno said. “But I realized there’s no competition like Southern California baseball. Scouts don’t see you play every day in the Midwest, and I’m the kind of guy you need to see every day, because I’m not a big, strong, first-round type.”

Cornhusker Coach John Sanders gave Borgogno his release, and Borgogno was set to attend Cypress College until Cochell called to offer a scholarship. Borgogno jumped at it and, despite his defensive problems last season, he has impressed pro scouts at Fullerton.

“There’s a lot of interest in him, and I’m sure he’ll get drafted in June,” Cochell said. “I think as he gets older and matures, he might develop into a utility player. Or, he could stay at second base.”

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Or, he could stay at Fullerton for his senior season. Borgogno wouldn’t tip his hand as to what his decision will be.

“I’m just going to wait for the draft and see what happens,” he said.

So, hold all bets.


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