In a game where the opposition was favored, in the bottom of the ninth with two out and no one on and the score tied, Jace Chamberlin stepped into the batter’s box at Stanford’s Sunken Diamond and watched one pitch whiz by, then another.
A 2-0 count is a rarity for the freshman first baseman from Cal State Fullerton, who because of his offensive lineman-like frame gets pitched outside to force him to hit the ball to the opposite field. But a 2-0 count usually means a fastball over the plate, and if you’re an opposing pitcher, you don’t want to leave a fastball over the plate to the left-handed hitting Chamberlin, whose nickname is “Jumbo.” Stanford’s Will Matthiessen learned that lesson last Saturday.
Chamberlin launched the pitch into right-center field, where it ricocheted off the scoreboard and landed on the field, the souvenir of a lifetime. The home run gave Fullerton a 2-1 victory in a regional game against second-seeded Stanford, and the Titans beat the Cardinal again the next day to advance to a three-game super regional this weekend. Fullerton (35-23) will host Washington (33-23) starting Friday at 11 a.m. PDT with a trip to Omaha for the College World Series at stake.
Chamberlin chose to attend Fullerton because of that possibility. Because of the banners and names and championships that decorate every corner of Goodwin Field — especially the sign in center field that reminds players of their purpose: “Only 1,544 miles to Omaha.”
He just didn’t imagine he’d be a part of that success so soon.
It wasn’t long ago that he was a dominant pitcher rather than a dominant hitter. He once struck out 18 batters in a six-inning Cal Ripken Little League World Series game. “I could throw hard,” he said, “for a 12-year-old.”
His father, Mark, runs Chamberlin Baseball Academy in Visalia, Calif., and he reared his son around the game. The idea for the academy came to Mark when he was playing for College of the Sequoias. He went on to play professionally in Canada, but when he returned to his hometown, his idea became real.
Future major leaguers Stephen Voigt, Aaron Hill, Shane Costa and others trained at Chamberlin Baseball Academy, all leaving lessons for a young Jace to absorb. Some were pitching lessons, some were hitting lessons. With how dominant Jace was as a Little Leaguer, Mark figured he would pitch in college and beyond.
Jace had a different idea.
He wanted to hit, and starting in his sophomore year of high school he transitioned away from pitching. His numbers at the plate — .408 with five home runs his junior year — drew attention from colleges, starting with his local school, Fresno State.
But Chamberlin said he was always attracted to Fullerton, so he went for an unofficial visit. “That’s when it all changed,” he said.
He was impressed by the facilities, the coaches, and most of all by the legacy of success. Even now, he points at the four national championship banners, lists of conference titles and names of All-Americans and recalls how he felt on that visit. “Wow,” he thought. “I wanna be there.”
His father had Costa, a former Kansas City Royal and Fullerton alumnus, call Chamberlin and explain the program’s expectations and traditions. He was sold.
Chamberlin arrived at Fullerton weighing about 285 pounds, according to coach Rick Vanderhook. He had to start working off some of the weight. He also hadn’t faced pitchers throwing 87-90 mph on a regular basis, so it took him time to adjust.
Chamberlin, who is listed at 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, said he went without a hit for two weeks when fall practice started. In addition to the physical struggles, there were mental hurdles.
“It kind of makes you think about why you’re playing baseball sometimes,” second baseman Hank LoForte said, “because that’s how grueling the falls are.”
He added that Chamberlin was “a mess” when he arrived, and that he had to mature a great deal. He showed that he had, LoForte said, last week against Stanford.
Despite batting .322 this season with 14 RBIs mostly as a reserve, Chamberlin did not hit a home run in the regular season. But he could hit them out in practice — LoForte knew that before Chamberlin enrolled.
“We just saw how big he looked and we were excited to have him in a Titans uniform,” LoForte said of Chamberlin’s visit in high school. “Then we saw him hit BP and we were like ‘woof.’ He put on a show. He was just launching ’em.”
That’s why Vanderhook called on him against Stanford. He was up for one reason only: to show off that power for the first time as a Titan. Chamberlin was supposed to pinch-hit in the seventh inning, but the Titans opted to avoid the possibility of a double play.
Chamberlin headed to the bullpen after that to walk around and stretch in case he was called upon. Vanderhook went out there in the top of the ninth and informed Chamberlin that he would bat third in the bottom of the inning.
He tarred his bat, readied his helmet and tempered his emotions. His teammates tried to as well.
“All right Jace. If you were to do it one time,” LoForte thought, “it’d be now.”
Mark was in the stands with the other Fullerton parents who’d made the trip. He said he never films his kids because whenever he does, they do poorly. He calls it the “video jinx.” But this time, he decided to do it anyway.
The last thing visible on Mark’s video is the ball meeting the bat. The last thing LoForte remembers is the whoosh of Chamberlin’s swing. Both were overtaken by the moment. So was Chamberlin.
“I think I kind of blacked out around second base,” he said.
His principal concern was tossing his helmet. He’d seen professionals do it, and he wanted to do it too. His “toss” was more of a spike into the ground as he rounded third base.
Chamberlin was modest about his contributions to Fullerton’s success, noting how much had to go right just to set up his homer rather than how much he helped. And while he said it’s undoubtedly his best baseball memory, he’s still focused on what’s ahead.
His team still isn’t headed to Omaha. His name still isn’t etched into the walls alongside Costa and other Fullerton greats. But his home run will live on, and thanks in part to his late-game heroics, his team still has a chance to win its first title in 14 years.