Titans Draw Maine in NCAA Baseball Regional

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two weeks of waiting and wondering came to an end a few minutes after noon Monday when the Cal State Fullerton baseball team, holed up in a pizza joint close to campus, looked up at the big screen television tuned to ESPN and saw its name next to Maine's at the NCAA Regional in Austin, Tex.

The Titans (33-17), the seeded No. 2, will face the No. 5 Black Bears (33-25) at 10 a.m. (PDT) Friday in the six-team, double-elimination Central II Regional. The regional winner advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., beginning June 4.

Both Austin and the regionals are familiar to the Titans. Fullerton defeated Texas in the 1990 Regional at Austin to advance to the Series, and the veterans on this year's team went to the final game of last year's Series.

And, these Titans played three games at Texas, Feb. 12-14.

They know Disch-Falk Field's artificial turf and, perhaps more importantly, they like the dimensions. It is 340 feet down the left-field line, a relatively short 325 right-field line but 400 to straight-away center field.

"Any ballpark that would favor our pitching would be where we want to play," Titan Coach Augie Garrido said. "I feel good about Austin. It's real neutral, it's a big park, it plays well defensively, we've been there before."

Host Texas (46-14), seeded No. 1, plays No. 6 McNeese State (37-21) at 2:30 p.m. (PDT) Friday, and No. 3 Kentucky (38-21-1) plays No. 4 USC (32-27) after the Texas-McNeese State game.

If Fullerton wins Friday, the Titans--who have won 12 consecutive regional games dating to 1988 and are 17-3 in their last five regionals--play the winner of the USC-Kentucky game on Saturday. If the Titans lose, they play the Texas-McNeese State loser Saturday.

Aside from the excitement over their third NCAA tournament appearance in the last four years--and 15th in 19 seasons--the Titans are looking forward to playing again. Their last game was May 11 against UCLA--the eighth loss in their last 15 regular-season games.

After that, the Titans, who dropped to 12th this week in the Baseball America poll and remained at 15th in the Collegiate Baseball poll, spent the last two weeks building their confidence through intrasquad games and situational baseball.

"I think it helped us already," said shortstop Nate Rodriquez, who batted .438 in last year's College World Series. "We've gotten back to fundamental baseball. We've re-focused and fine-tuned. . . .

"We were tough in the beginning of the season. There's no reason to say we're terrible just because we ran into a tough road (at the end of the season)."

Garrido thinks the time off will be beneficial.

"We won't know until afterward," he said. "Right now, I feel like it's been helpful. It's given us time to dig into fundamental things. We ended the season on a sour note. This time off gave us the opportunity to get that behind us."

Plus, the Titans figure they will be able to concentrate fully on baseball. The coaching staff arranged for the players to take final examinations early, unlike last year when the team tried to squeeze in finals before and after the Series. By the time the team leaves Wednesday for Austin, every player will have finished finals.

Then, it will be time to learn about Maine--with which the Titans are relatively unfamiliar.

"They've been very effective out of the east for many, many years," Garrido said. "Typically at this level they will have one or two outstanding pitchers. And their record is typically not very good--they go on extended road trips early in the year."

The Black Bears, champions of the North Atlantic Conference, will be without Shannon Knox, their starting shortstop, who fractured a bone in his throwing hand in a conference tournament game against Northeastern two weekends ago. Knox probably will be available only to pinch-run.

They also will get only limited duty from Ron Hughes (8-2), the third starter in their pitching rotation, who has tendinitis in his elbow.

And according to Coach John Winkin, the Black Bears have a difficult first-round assignment.

"Cal State Fullerton has good personnel and Augie Garrido is a hell of a coach," Winkin said. "We are probably facing the best team in this regional in the first game. I think they will eventually be the team to beat.

"We've got to be concerned with their speed. That's going to be a real test for us."

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