The disappointment of Cal Lutheran’s tantalizingly close run at last season’s NCAA Division III baseball championship varies from player to player, coach to coach.
There is, however, a way to gauge their bitterness:
Ask them the time.
If they can glance at a commemorative “We Were No. 2 in ’92" wristwatch--their gift for being runners-up--then most of the anguish probably has subsided.
But chances are you will get a shrug and be shown a bare wrist.
“I don’t wear mine,” said Eddie Lample, the Kingsmen’s standout catcher. “I want the ring.”
Cal Lutheran was two outs from a 1-0 victory in the championship game in Battle Creek., Mich., when William Paterson College first baseman Ralph Perdomo deposited a Mike Teron fastball over the fence for a title- and ring-winning three-run home run.
Pat Norville, the Cal Lutheran starter who took a shutout into that fateful top of the ninth inning, still has bad dreams.
“The first day I came back out here,” said Norville, motioning toward the Cal Lutheran field, “I got flashbacks.”
Coach Rich Hill said he would have preferred his team had been routed.
“The way it happened, it’s like you had the national championship and then it just slips through your fingers,” Hill said. “If you get beat, 10-0, it’s like you never had it. We were right there. I felt like my heart was ripped out. I wasn’t the same for two months.”
This season the Kingsmen (43-6 in 1992) are ranked second behind Wisconsin Oshkosh in preseason polls. They will open Feb. 13 at Christ College of Irvine.
Hill can’t argue the ranking, but he said he is surprised.
“They’re basing that on the strength of our recruiting class, I guess,” he said, “but those are guys who haven’t hit a pitch or thrown a pitch at this level.”
Lample, Norville, first baseman Eric Johnson and outfielder Pete Martin are the only current Cal Lutheran players who started in last season’s championship game.
The complexion of Cal Lutheran’s offense has changed almost entirely. A team that slugged 130 doubles, 78 home runs and averaged almost nine runs a game a year ago will rely on finesse to generate runs.
“Singles, hit and run, bunting, that’s baseball here in a nutshell,” said Johnson, who batted .335 with eight homers and 19 doubles last season. “Last year we moved away from that. This year, we’ll be more typical.”
One thing that has not changed is the quality and depth of Cal Lutheran’s pitching.
Norville, a senior left-hander, is the ace. He was 9-3 with a 1.68 earned-run average last season and went on to earn recognition as the top pitcher in the highly competitive Alaskan Summer League.
Mike Winslow (8-1) and Jeff Berman (4-0) are other probable starters in a rotation that could receive a boost if left-hander Dean McMillin, a Cal State Long Beach transfer, can return from shoulder surgery.
Teron (4-1, six saves) and Louis Birdt (1-0, six saves) are the closers.
Lample, a senior, will be a fixture at catcher, but several of the other positions are up for grabs.
First base will be manned by either Johnson or Scott Sebbo. Joe Cascione and Lupe Carrillo will battle for the second-base job. The shortstop is Gabe Diaz, a Ventura College transfer, but third base is another two-man battle, this between Sebbo and Ed Castillo.
In the outfield, Jason Wilson, a Cosumnes River College transfer, is set in center field. Martin is the front-runner for right, but left is a wide-open fight among Don Smith, David Chapman, Steve Susko, Carlos Cardenas and Ricardo Bernal.
The designated-hitter is likely to be either Johnson, Susko or Rawley Jacobson.
Hill is particularly high on Wilson, whom he says “is probably the first true leadoff guy we’ve had here in six years.” Wilson had 36 stolen bases for Cosumnes River last season and Hill says he “knows how to hit and how to work pitchers.”
But then Hill knew talent would not be his problem this season.
Keeping his talent focused is the challenge.
“We’ve talked to the veterans about this being a new year and how we need to take things day by day,” Hill said.
That’s probably easier said than done.
In the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, close games figure to be rare. Last season, their first in the SCIAC, the Kingsmen were 20-1 and outscored opponents, 240-48.
“You can get caught up in just wanting to get back (to the championship game) and forget that there’s some business you have to take care of first,” Hill said.
Johnson said he tries to ignore the opposition and focus on his game. “Who we play shouldn’t make a difference,” he said.
Until, of course, the end.
“We just want to get in the regional,” Norville said. “That’s where the real battle begins.”