Advertisement

Tough Act to Follow : Kotsay Will Try to Lead the Titans to Another Championship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The College World Series title came down to a showdown last June between Southland powers Cal State Fullerton and USC. It was the kind of situation Fullerton’s Mark Kotsay says he loves. Big game, national spotlight, with the pressure on.

Kotsay dramatically turned it into his showcase, hitting two home runs, driving in five runs and making a sparkling catch in center field. Then he closed the Titans’ 11-5 victory by holding the Trojans scoreless in the final 1 2/3 innings as a relief pitcher.

USC Coach Mike Gillespie is still thunderstruck.

“It was spectacular,” Gillespie said. “It would be difficult for anyone to duplicate that performance in that setting.”

Advertisement

The title game climaxed what Kotsay likes to call a “dream season.” He hit .422 with 21 home runs and 90 runs batted in. He also made 21 appearances as a relief pitcher, with a 2-1 record and 11 saves.

In his four games in the College World Series, he hit .563 with three home runs and 10 RBIs.

Fullerton opens defense of its national title Friday with a three-game series at Stanford. What can Kotsay, now a junior, possibly do for an encore?

“If I said I’d do all the things I did last year, it probably never would have happened,” Kotsay said. “My freshman year I wanted to be a starter, and I got that chance. Then I wanted the team to get to the College World Series, and we did that. Then winning it last year was a dream come true. Now I want to see us get back there, for the returning players as well as the new ones.”

Advertisement

Never mind that Kotsay could become the first player to win the Golden Spikes award twice as the nation’s top amateur player. He was chosen last year over finalists such as Darin Erstad, the top pick in the June amateur draft by the Angels, and five other first-round draft choices. If the Titans do return to Omaha, it will be their fourth appearance in five years and third in a row for Kotsay.

As a freshman in 1994, Kotsay batted .462 in the World Series and tied a tournament record with seven runs batted in against Florida State, although Fullerton was eliminated in the semifinal round. That performance and the one last season gave him career World Series records for batting average (.517), slugging percentage (1.103) and grand slams (two). His .405 career batting average also is a record at a school that has produced 22 major league players, including six first-round draft choices.

Last summer he starred for Team USA, which went 36-6, swept the Cuban National Team and won the title in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita. Kotsay played a key role, hitting .358. He is virtually assured a starting spot for the U.S. team in the Atlanta Olympics.

The new season brings new challenges, and comparisons with last year are inevitable. Kotsay says he’s comfortable with that, and Fullerton Coach Augie Garrido says Kotsay’s competitive spirit and his poise will be his greatest assets.

Advertisement

“It’s important not to be tainted by success because it’s so hard to have it in this game,” Garrido said. “I don’t think that will happen with Mark.

“Maybe this is the kind of challenge he needs, based on the kind of player he eventually wants to be. He wants to be successful at the major league level. And if you’re successful there, this is what you go through. The important thing is to not let it become a negative and spoil the pleasure of playing the game.”

Louisiana State Coach Skip Bertman, who coached Kotsay on Team USA last summer and will coach the Olympic team, has become one of Kotsay’s biggest fans.

“The downside to having the kind of year he had last season, though, is that it’s very hard to do any better,” Bertman said. “But I think he can handle it. I’m positive of one thing. He won’t be complacent. He’s a great kid, and he’s been superbly coached by Augie and others.”

Advertisement

But recognition as the nation’s No. 1 college player creates different pressures. As Bertman says, “Those pitchers are going to be throwing him their knuckleballs and their split-fingered fastballs in the dirt.”

They’ll also be more cautious. Kotsay can expect to be walked more, often intentionally.

USC’s Gillespie wished he could have avoided pitching to Kotsay a couple of times in the national championship game.

“He can beat you in so many ways,” Gillespie said. “There’s nothing he can’t do. He’s an outstanding hitter with good power, but he’s really good on defense. I remember the catch he made in a 10-9 game they won from us in the regular season. It was one of those great layout, prone catches that he turned into a double play. It took a double or triple away from us that would have given us at least two runs. And he’s definitely not the guy you want to see pitching in the late innings when you’re trying to get something going.”

Advertisement

Kotsay has an impact on his team in other ways as well.

“His type of competitive, winning attitude is contagious,” said George Horton, Fullerton’s associate head coach. “If you lined up the best 100 college players in America and asked me to pick one to play in just one game, I’d pick Kotsay. It’s not just what he can do for you, it’s what other players do when they’re around him. He makes everyone else play up a level with his attitude.”

It was the same way when he played at Santa Fe High in Santa Fe Springs as a quarterback and free safety in football, as well as an all-state baseball player.

Kotsay appears unaffected by his success. Even last Christmas Eve, he spent part of his day alone in the batting cage at Fullerton. It was typical of his unrelenting work ethic.

Advertisement

What he does this season will have financial impact, because he’s eligible for the June draft.

None of last year’s top seven choices received less than a $1-million signing bonus, with Erstad’s $1.5 million from the Angels leading the way. The top 25 draft picks each signed for more than $500,000.

Kotsay is rated the seventh best pro prospect in Baseball America’s preseason list. Five of the top seven, however, are pitchers, where scouts traditionally place heavy emphasis.

Kotsay, 6 feet and 180 pounds, has average speed by major league standards, and his throwing arm is hardly eye-opening.

Advertisement

There also is the question about how much his power will diminish when he starts using a wooden bat, rather than aluminum. But there is no doubt about what scouts call his “natural baseball instincts.”

“He’s the kind of player who constantly exceeds everyone’s expectations,” said Ken Compton, a special assignment scout for the Seattle Mariners. “Everything about him equals winner.

“He gets good angles to the ball defensively, and on the bases, he reads pitchers well, and knows when to take the extra base,” Compton said. “He seems to have a tremendous grasp of what’s happening on the field all the time.”

Angel scout Rick Ingalls agrees.

Advertisement

“How many big, fast guys have you seen who didn’t make it to the big leagues for one reason or another?” Ingalls said. “It takes something more, and I think Kotsay will make it. He’ll find a way to play in the major leagues.”

Kotsay says he only wants to continue taking things one step at a time.

“When I came to Fullerton, I just wanted to be the best I could be,” he said. “And I still feel the same way.”


Advertisement
Advertisement