Titans Hook Texas, Gain World Series : College baseball: Popoff pitches Cal State Fullerton to a 3-0 victory in the NCAA Central Regional championship game.
As is the postgame tradition at Texas, fans at Disch-Falk Field stood at the conclusion of Monday’s game against Cal State Fullerton, raised their hands in hook ‘em horns fashion and sang “The Eyes of Texas.”
Much to the chagrin of the Longhorn faithful, however, the eyes of Texans were upon the Titans’ wild postgame celebration, which capped Fullerton’s 3-0 victory over the Longhorns in the NCAA Central Regional championship game.
And now, thanks to the pitching of James Popoff, a slick-fielding defense and some clutch hitting, the eyes of Fullerton are upon Omaha, where the Titans will begin play in the College World Series this weekend.
It will be Fullerton’s sixth trip to the College World Series and the second in the past three years under Coach Larry Cochell. The Titans (36-21) won national championships in 1979 and ’84, and Cochell doesn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t win one this season.
“Any time you can come to Texas and beat them twice, you can play with anyone in the country,” said Cochell, whose Titans also beat the Longhorns, 5-2, Sunday. “We have a good team. This is a tribute to the guys in the program.”
Most tributes Monday, from Titan and Longhorn players and coaches, were thrown Popoff’s way. The sophomore right-hander starred in his own version of “Masterpiece Theater,” going the distance on a four-hitter with three strikeouts and a walk.
Popoff, who had total command of his fastball, curve, slow curve, changeup and knuckleball and threw just 109 pitches, became the first pitcher to shut out Texas (51-17) in 68 games this season. The Longhorns, ranked fourth in the nation, had averaged 7.8 runs a game.
Equally impressive is the fact that Popoff shut down Texas center fielder Lance Jones, who had been hotter than the weather here. Jones, who was named the regional’s most valuable player, went 15 for 19 in four previous playoff games, but was 0 for 4 Monday.
Popoff kept the Longhorns quiet by staying ahead of the count and keeping them off-balance with his off-speed pitches. He kept the crowd of 6,504 quiet by retiring the last 10 batters in order.
Before each of the last four innings, Texas fans tried to rouse the Longhorns with standing ovations. And each time, Popoff put them back in their seats.
“To think I could quiet this whole stadium totally pumped me up,” said Popoff, who improved to 12-4. “I threw the whole barrel at them, every pitch, and everything worked. It was one of those days when I couldn’t miss.”
Neither could his teammates, who played their third consecutive errorless game of the tournament and bailed Popoff out of two sticky situations.
With a runner on third and two outs in the third inning, Jones, Texas’ leadoff batter, chopped a grounder between first and second. Titan second baseman Mate Borgogno, racing to his left, caught the ball and shoveled it to first baseman Steve Sisco in time to nip Jones and preserve Fullerton’s 1-0 lead.
Jones led off the sixth by lining a ball toward the gap in left-center field, but Titan left fielder Rich Gonzales made a diving catch to rob Jones of at least a double.
Borgogno added two more fine defensive plays, in which he fielded balls up the middle and threw runners out at first.
“You can’t play better defense than that,” Cochell said. “I think Borgogno’s play in the third inning was the biggest of the game, and Gonzales made a great catch.”
Had the Longhorns made some big defensive plays, they could have prevented two Titan runs. With one out in the third and Phil Nevin on first after a single, Borgogno hit what appeared to be a double-play ball to shortstop.
But Texas second baseman David Tollison’s relay throw pulled first baseman Scott Pugh off the bag, and Borgogno was safe. Gonzales then doubled to left-center to score Borgogno with Fullerton’s first run.
It appeared Texas would have a shot at cutting down Borgogno at the plate, but shortstop Kyle Moody’s relay was off-target, and Borgogno scored easily.
The Titans added two runs in the fifth, the first when Nevin, with runners on first and second and a two-strike count, reached out and barely touched an outside pitch. But the slow roller somehow found its way through the infield, scoring Paul Bunch, who had singled.
Domingo Mota, who took third on Nevin’s hit, scored on Borgogno’s sacrifice fly to short left field. Calvin Murray appeared to have a chance to get Mota, but his throw was off the mark.
The two runs gave Popoff a cushion that, as it turned out, the pitcher wouldn’t need.
“That was the best game we’ve had pitched against us all year,” Texas Coach Cliff Gustafson said. “When a guy keeps you off the bases and the defense makes all the plays behind him, they make it look easy. It’s tough to beat a team like that.”
Especially in a game of such magnitude, Nevin said.
“We’re just a bunch of guys who know how to win,” said Nevin, trying to explain how the 16th-ranked Titans were able to sweep the Longhorns right off their own artificial surface. “When it comes down to it, in the big games, I don’t think I’d want to be on another team with other guys. These guys know how to get the job done.
“But we’re still not done yet.”