PodKATT: LSU hasn’t seen CS-Fullerton since a series in Baton Rouge in 2011. Then head coach Dave Serrano has since left to work on the arduous rebuild of Tennessee. What’s the state of the Titans program these days, and how’s the college baseball scene in the greater Los Angeles area these days?
@FullrtnBballFan: The program has changed in some ways since Rick Vanderhook took over for Dave Serrano. There is more of a blue collar mentality around the program because Vanderhook is more of a baseball guy and most of what he is concerned about occurs between the lines while Serrano comes across as more polished and was more of a salesman for the program. There has been a change in the recruiting philosophy for the program because there aren't as many high profile players coming into the program who were drafted highly (or had the potential to be) out of high school with one notable exception (Phil Bickford, and that didn't exactly turn out well for Fullerton) because Vanderhook is emphasizing trying to make sure most of the guys that he recruits end up on campus, although not all of them will because that's the nature of the MLB draft.
Fullerton's program has been in an interesting place over the last couple of years. Fullerton won the Big West conference in 2012 despite losing all four starting pitchers and the closer from the previous season and was a national seed in 2013 with the best regular season record ever for the program at 48-8 before being upset in the super regional by eventual national champion UCLA. The last two years have been an adventure, to say the least. Fullerton wasn't playing well in 2014 and Vanderhook was suspended for a month after one of the players recorded him yelling at the team after a series loss and the recording ended up in the hands of the administration. Vanderhook returned with two weeks to go in the season and Fullerton needed to win all seven games left on their schedule, including a series against eventual CWS participant UC Irvine, just to get into a regional and they won all seven games. There were only a few position players back from last season as Vanderhook filled the holes in the roster with numerous JC transfers and the team played poorly against a difficult, road heavy schedule for most of the season and were sitting at 20-19 with a little over a month to go before things started to click and Fullerton went 14-3 to finish the regular season to with the Big West and secure a spot as one of the regional hosts. Fullerton won all three games in their regional, with the key game being a 14 inning win against Arizona State, before going to Louisville and winning two of three games to win the super regional, with both wins coming in extra innings.
The college baseball scene has changed somewhat in the area over the last five years with the rise to prominence of UCLA. When Fullerton was dominating the area during the first eleven years of the super regional era (1999-2009) with seven appearances in Omaha and a national title, there was nobody stepping up consistently to challenge Fullerton. Teams in the area would pop up from time to time but not on an annual basis. All of that changed in 2010 when UCLA defeated Fullerton in a super regional after winning the regional that they hosted with LSU and UC Irvine. Vanderhook was part of that staff at UCLA, getting caught up in the wash when George Horton left Fullerton to go to Oregon after the 2007 season and the school hired Serrano to take over, due to his head coaching experience at UC Irvine, instead of promoting Vanderhook.
UCLA has become the prominent school in the area with three appearances in Omaha in the last six years and a national title in 2013 (and hosting regionals in two of the years they didn't go to Omaha, including this season) and highly ranked recruiting classes every year. Programs to keep an eye on in the future will be USC, who finally has their head coaching situation straightened out for the first time since Mike Gillespie "retired" after 2006 and went to a regional this season for the first time in ten years, and UCSB, who has recruited well the last few years with a new coach running the program and hosted a regional 180 miles off campus this season due to the poor facilities that they have.
PK: Fullerton is no doubt a blue-blood college baseball program. Many would say it’s the West Coast program around which many of the others are based. Is Fullerton still the shining example of "small ball" offense that LSU fans think it is?
FBF: Fullerton still does lots of the things that would be considered to be part of the small ball approach but the offensive philosophy has changed since Greg Bergeron was running the offense for Serrano. In four years with that coaching staff, Fullerton stole over 100 bases three times and had 98 in the other season while never having fewer than 70 SAC bunts in a season. Over the past four years, the most stolen bases that Fullerton has had was 74 two years ago and only once have they had more than 70 SAC bunts. Vanderhook's coaching staff has relied much more on being patient and selective at the plate, seeing more pitches and working pitch counts against the opponent's starting pitcher. Teams coached by Vanderhook are more likely to try to string together rallies with free bases and hits than they were when Bergeron was running the offense for Serrano, when trying to create havoc on the bases was more of the philosophy.
PK: How awesome is Thomas Eschelman and are there any other stars in the Fullerton bullpen we should look out for?
FBF: All of the superlatives that have been mentioned about Thomas Eshelman are well deserved. He will be making his 50th career start in Omaha and he has walked 18 batters in 372 innings and his ERA has been under 2.00 in each of his three seasons. His record would be better if the team had hit better earlier in the season because he has lost five games and the team scored a total of four runs in those five losses. Eshelman has obviously been successful on the field but he is also one of the team leaders and one of the hardest workers by setting a positive example for his teammates, which the best players in a program don't always do.
The other two players to keep an eye on in Omaha would be the two guys who were drafted in the first fifteen rounds, senior closer Tyler Peitzmeier, one of the national leaders in saves, and junior DH David Olmedo-Barrera, aka DOB, who has hit half of the team's twenty HR's and was the Big West Co-Player of the Year.
Peitzmeier isn't like most closers because he isn't limited to throwing only one inning and occasionally two innings. He is capable of throwing multiple innings because he was a middle reliever his first three years in the program and in one of the key wins that helped to turn the season around, he threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings at USC. Peitzmeier threw five scoreless innings in relief of Eshelman in the key game of the Fullerton regional, a fourteen inning win against ASU and also threw eight innings in Fullerton's two wins at the Louisville super regional with three innings in the first game and five innings in the final game. An interesting side note about Peitzmeier is he is the only player on the active roster who does not come from California. He is from Yutan, Nebraska, which is about a half hour from Omaha so he will have plenty of family and friends watching him pitch. There was a good article about that in the Omaha paper this week.
DOB was one of the few players returning from last season who had played on even a semi-regular basis and he didn't hit for much power early as the team was struggling to score more than 3-4 runs a game. He started to help carry the offense during the conference season and led the Big West in HR's, RBI's and SLG % in conference games and was also in the top five in AVG and OBP as the team averaged over six runs a game and hit .301 in Big West play. DOB was red hot in the Louisville super regional, going 7-11 with a HR to get the scoring started in the third game and a game winning HR off of the foul pole in the 11th inning to send Fullerton to Omaha.
PK: Bottom 9, 2 outs, 1 man on. Who do you want at the plate?
FBF: DOB is one of the players that Fullerton would want at the plate in a key situation along with LF Josh Vargas, the leadoff hitter who led the team in batting and hit .405 in conference games, and 3B Jerrod Bravo, who hit .406 in conference games and had the key two RBI single to tie the game in the 8th inning of the third game at Louisville.