OMAHA, Neb. – Before this week, the last time Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano put on the Titans uniform in Omaha was as an assistant in 2004.
That year, Fullerton ace pitcher Jason Windsor put together some of the gutsiest performances in College World Series history. The Titans went on to win the national title with Serrano as pitching coach.
With that memory, Serrano had few doubts about taking the Fullerton job two summers ago. As a former Titans player and assistant, Serrano wants to lead the Titans to a national title.
In his first season, the Titans won the Fullerton Regional but were eliminated from the postseason by Stanford. That loss, Serrano said before this season, fueled his motivation and desire to get back to Omaha in 2009.
The Titans were the nation's first team to practice, proclaiming they wanted to be the first team to practice and the last team to play.
On Monday against Virginia, the dream came to an abrupt halt with a 7-5 loss.
For much of the season, the Titans played good defense, pitched well and got clutch hits. In Omaha, the Titans engaged in a very uncharacteristic style of play.
Starting pitchers Noe Ramirez and Daniel Renken put together their worst performances of the season. The Titans were picked off on the base paths in crucial situations. But most of all, a team that played with swagger the past few weeks brought very little of it to Omaha.
Fullerton's play even had Serrano mystified.
"This was not the same team I saw the last five or six weeks of the season," Serrano said. "I'm as confused and disappointed as anyone out there. It's also very unfortunate for the people that saw us play the past couple days. We just didn't play good baseball here."
Perhaps the Titans were too confident. Maybe they overanalyzed crucial situations, like as Keith Werman's RBI double that squirted past a pair of Fullerton outfielders playing in because that's what the scouting report suggested.
Fullerton's troubles on the mound were a bit more complex.
"The pitchers were way out of character with their mechanics," Fullerton catcher Dustin Garneau said. "The pitchers didn't pitch to their ability. They're a lot better than that. It's just terrible these were the last two games of the year. They were great all season."
It just wasn't the same team we watched all season.
"I should've come out with the motto first to practice, first to exit," Serrano said. "Though we're disappointed, we'll have the team to get back here next year."
Cruising with Coleman
LSU senior pitcher Louis Coleman lives for the big time.
He's one of the nation's best pitchers and an All-American. But judging by his approach to the game and demeanor on the mound, you'd never know he is a step above the rest. Coleman enjoys just going out and doing his job. No trash talking, no theatrics, just pitching in a big game as if it was a bullpen session.
After the Tigers threw Anthony Ranaudo in the CWS opener against Virginia, LSU coach Paul Mainieri had to be feeling like a kid on Christmas day. While Arkansas was slated to start Brett Eibner, who sometimes is good, Mainieri had Coleman at his disposal.
The senior struggled to start the game against the Razorbacks, but got out of early jams and eventually settled into a comfort zone. The rest was history in LSU's 9-1 victory.
"I thought Louis was just outstanding," Mainieri said. "He was a little rocky at the beginning of the game, but he got very aggressive as the game moved on and as he always seems to do, he just got stronger in the middle innings."
The last time Coleman faced Arkansas, he allowed two hits in a shutout performance. This go round, the righty struck out seven batters and allowed a run and six hits in six solid innings.
"He doesn't throw balls and his pitches are all in the zone," Arkansas infielder Ben Tschepikow said. "He comes at you and makes you beat him. If a pitcher can do that consistently, he's pretty tough to beat."
Mainieri said after the game that he took Coleman out after just six innings for a reason. With his pitch count at 108, Mainieri wanted to save him for a possible start on Saturday should Virginia or Arkansas beat the Tigers on Friday.
Virginia's unsung hero
He has been called a scrappy gym rat, but Virginia coach Brian O'Connor prefers to call freshman second baseman Keith Werman a baseball player.
Werman isn't exactly an imposing figure. The first-year infielder is 5-foot-7, 140 pounds, and should remind College World Series locals of former Louisville shortstop Chris Cates, who was 5-foot-3, 135 pounds, when the Cardinals made it to Omaha in 2007.
In addition to being one of the smallest players in college baseball, Werman also happens to be consistent both in the field and at the plate for the Cavaliers.
"He's pretty good, isn't he," O'Connor proclaimed to me.
He entered the College World Series hitting .367 in 60 at bats. He also has recorded seven RBIs. Though, no homers just yet. Perhaps at least one of those is soon to come.
Against Cal State Fullerton on Monday, Werman rose to the occasion. He went 2-for-4 with two runs and two RBIs to lead the Cavaliers.
"He is winning over the hearts and minds of people in Omaha," O'Connor said. "He's just a special and gritty player."
Other members of the College World Series short-man team include LSU's Tyler Hanover, who is 5-foot-6, 163 pounds and North Carolina's Ben Bunting and Mike Cavasinni. Bunting is 5-foot-7, 157 pounds and Cavasinni is 5-foot-7, 160 pounds.
What's on deck
• North Carolina has made four consecutive CWS appearances and hopes to avoid making it another disappointing trip back to Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels will send veteran pitcher Adam Warren to the mound to face Southern Miss, whose bullpen was atrocious in a first round loss to Texas. Warren is 9-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 92 innings. He also has struck out 97 and walked 34 and teams are hitting .239 off him. USM will counter with JR Ballinger, who has started 15 games and has a 3.89 ERA in 83 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 59 and walked 35.
The key to staying alive in the CWS is simple for both teams. The Tar Heels couldn't ask for a more experienced starting pitcher in an elimination game than Adam Warren. Getting a big start out of him would mean a lot considering the bullpen didn't take care of business in the opener against Arizona State. The offense, which was anemic against ASU, also must rise to the occasion. For Southern Miss, starting pitcher JR Ballinger must go the distance. The Golden Eagles walked nine batters against Texas and must avoid a repeat performance if they plan on staying in Omaha for another day.
• Texas edged Southern Miss on Sunday and hopes to get in the driver's seat for a CWS championship series berth with a win over Arizona State. The Longhorns didn't play particularly well against the Golden Eagles. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, played exceptionally well against North Carolina in first round action. It'll be very interesting to see how both teams approach this game. UT will send right-handed pitcher Chance Ruffin to the mound and Arizona State will counter with All-American Mike Leake. Ruffin has started 16 games and has a 3.02 ERA in 116 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 101 and walked 23 and opponents are hitting .220 off him. Leake has started 16 games and has a 1.36 ERA in 132 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 150 and walked 21.
Whoever wins this game is in great shape to play for the national title. That alone is enough motivation for the Longhorns and Sun Devils. The Longhorns didn't show much in the way of offense in the first game against USM. So, against a pitcher like Mike Leake, the Longhorns must get in a groove early in the game. A repeat performance from their first game likely would end in a loss to the Sun Devils. For the Devils, Leake needs a strong performance and the offense must rise to the occasion earlier than it did against the Tar Heels in the CWS opener. The Devils are almost impossible to beat if Leake is on his game. That's what the Devils are counting on.