This nagging fear, which was not even a passing thought a couple of weeks ago, suddenly has taken up residence in the Cal State Fullerton dugout, right beside the bats and helmets.
Two years ago, the Titans tied for first in the Big West Conference but lost the tiebreaker to Fresno State and then were bypassed for an at-large berth in the NCAA Regionals.
Now, with third-place San Jose State in town to open a critical three-game series at 7 tonight at Titan Field, a sudden realization has hit the Titans: The misery from two years ago could happen again.
The Titans (31-15, 14-4) are tied for the Big West lead with Cal State Long Beach heading into the final weekend of conference games. The 49ers (32-17, 14-4) are playing host to fifth-place Nevada, and will win any tiebreaker with Fullerton by virtue of their three-game sweep last month.
Making matters worse for the Titans: They have gone 5-6 in their last 11 games.
“Our season is down to 27 innings,” Titan Coach Augie Garrido said Thursday. “There is no looking beyond that. We’re going to have to take each one of those innings and play the best baseball we can.
“What’s happened within the past 2 1/2 weeks is that we’ve gone from a very good position to a position of vulnerability. With our conference games, we have a best-case scenario of being co-champions if we do the same as Long Beach, which gives them the automatic (NCAA) berth.
“And in our nonconference games, we have lost enough to give us a record comparable with a very large group of people.”
Glance at the Fullerton schedule and it seems as if the Titans would be virtually assured of an NCAA berth regardless of how the league race finishes. Of their 15 losses, 13 were to teams that were nationally ranked at the time.
And, Fullerton has been high in the rankings all season, no lower than ninth according to Baseball America and 12th according to Collegiate Baseball. How could the selection committee shut out a team with 30-plus victories, against a difficult schedule, that has been highly ranked?
Still . . .
“That is not an assumption I’m willing to make,” Garrido said. “Quite frankly, the only sure thing is to get an automatic berth. That’s what we’re going to go after. Beyond that, it’s a wait-and-see deal.
“Once you put it in somebody else’s hands, it’s what they decide. We have to stand ready to be accepted or rejected.”
Besides, Garrido refuses to think Fullerton should have an NCAA bid wrapped up; he says his players cornered the market on that idea a couple of weeks ago.
“I think the players assumed we were going, and we’re not,” said Garrido, who needs one more victory to become the 10th coach in NCAA history to get 1,000 or more. “I think we got the cart before the horse.”
The trouble started shortly after Fullerton’s 14-game winning streak ended. They lost their next two, at Nevada and Pepperdine, won their next four, and then hit the wall.
They lost three in a row at home to Long Beach, won four, lost two of three at Arizona and then stumbled again Wednesday at Cal State Northridge.
The clutch hitting has tapered off: The Titans have left 69 men on base in their last six games.
The consistent pitching has disappeared: Mike Parisi, one of Fullerton’s top two starting pitchers, is 1-3 with a 9.18 earned-run average since the beginning of the Long Beach series. Opponents are batting .380 against him in that time. Before Long Beach, Parisi was 7-0 with a 4.01 ERA and opponents were hitting only .260 against him.
Several Fullerton hitters have tailed off: third baseman Jeff Ferguson, batting .368 when Long Beach came to town April 16, is batting .239 since; infielder D.C. Olsen was at .324 before the Long Beach series but has batted .244 since; outfielder Jim Betzsold was at .323 April 16 but is .243 since; and outfielder Tony Banks was at .282 April 16 but is .244 since.
Garrido talked with the players at practice Thursday, hoping to recapture some of the missing ingredients. Leadership, Garrido said, will be critical this weekend.
“We’re going to battle,” he said. “We’re going to need some heroes.”