Around here, we all consider ourselves more well-rounded than most about college baseball, but even so, we all have gaps in our knowledge. And there’s no one better to educate us about other teams than someone who follows them as closely as we do our Tigers. We’ve been talking to David Wright about CS Fullerton since 2011 and it felt right to get him on the horn again since LSU shares a side of Omaha with the Titans. Here are my questions and his thoughts on the West Coast Blue Blood.
PodKATT: How did you feel about this year's tournament seeding? With everyone in the west outside of Oregon St getting funneled into the same super regional, it certainly felt like there was less variety across the country in the regional rounds. On the other hand, it did lead to a Big West on Big West Super, guaranteeing a spot in Omaha for one of the more underrated conferences in the sport.
David Wright: Fullerton was treated fairly by the selection committee. They had an RPI in the low 40's going into the post-season, so receiving a 2 seed was to be expected due to favorable opinions of the team from the coaches on the regional advisory committee, who make recommendations to the selection committee. The regionals themselves were seeded properly with Stanford, Fullerton, BYU and Sacramento State in the proper positions as well as Long Beach, Texas, UCLA and San Diego State being seeded properly (SDSU was a team that was better than their RPI, which was in the low 80's).
What people in the western region get frustrated with is being funneled into only one or two spots in Omaha and if the regional hosts were legitimately seeded 1-16, that would probably alleviate that problem. As long as the RPI is going to be used as a way to rank the teams for selection purposes, there will always be problems with the western region getting more teams into regionals.
The top five teams in the West Coast Conference were very competitive this season but because the bottom half of that conference was bad and teams in the western region have similar schedules due to the lack of different opponents, they ended up with only one team in a regional due to their better teams ending up with RPI's in the 50's-60's.
Also, you are right that the Big West is an under rated conference with three different teams (Fullerton, Irvine and UC Santa Barbara) appearing in Omaha over the last four years, but that hasn't resulted in any special treatment from the NCAA selection committee the last two years, although this year besides Fullerton and Long Beach the Big West was down, with second place finisher Cal Poly playing terribly going into conference play and having to get hot just to get to .500 overall.
PK: This is CSF's first Omaha appearance since facing LSU in 2015, which was also LSU's last trip to the CWS. After getting things back on track, Rick Vanderhook seems to have the program on the same steady and stellar pace that Fullerton has seemingly always been on. How is it that this program can lose great coach after great coach and still keep rolling along as the powerhouse it always seems to be?
DW: Other than the three years that Larry Cochell coached at Fullerton from 1988-1990 (and he didn't do too badly with two appearances in the CWS), after Augie Garrido left for the second time in 1996 the program has hired three coaches who both played for Fullerton and had been assistant coaches there - George Horton, Dave Serrano and Rick Vanderhook. There have been differences in their philosophies, especially Serrano compared to Horton and Vanderhook, but that continuity has helped to keep the program relevant on a national basis.
What has also helped to keep Fullerton at the status that people around the program are used to are four things - 1) the parity in college baseball due to the limits of 11.7 scholarships, 27 players receiving a minimum of 25% of a scholarship and the 35 player roster limit; 2) the affordability of going to Fullerton compared to UC schools and private schools, making it easier financially for players to attend school while being a walk-on or only having 25% of their education covered by a scholarship; 3) the amount of talent in California due to the ability of players to play year round, which means you don't have to leave the state to find players who will allow you to compete at a high level and 4) baseball is the marquee program at Fullerton and supported well by the administration for an athletic department with a very small budget compared to Power Five conference programs.
PK: How great is it to have a kid like Colton Eastman, who comes back from injury in April and gets back up to full speed in the deciding game of a Super Regional, enter your rotation at the most critical time of the year? What do you envision his role is in this staff for the next possible two weeks?
DW: Eastman is a big reason why Fullerton went on the run that they did in the post-season and are playing in Omaha. There were high expectations for Fullerton this season due to the return of last year's starting rotation of Connor Seabold, John Gavin, and Colton Eastman. When Eastman got hurt in the second week of the season, that changed roles for several pitchers on the staff and there were some problems with pitching depth in the middle of the season, both in midweek games as well as with the inability to sweep teams during conference play, which allowed Long Beach to pull away in the Big West race. Eastman missed ten weeks and when he returned in the middle of May he was on a strict pitch count for three starts, but showed he was ready for the post-season when he allowed only one hit to Long Beach in 4 2/3 IP with 8 K's in the final game of the regular season. The coaching staff has not determined which order they will use Seabold, Gavin, and Eastman in but all three of them will have important roles as long as Fullerton is playing in Omaha.
PK: Just looking over the season stats and the performance in that 2-hit victory in the SR finale last weekend, is it fair to say that Fullerton is still the frustratingly patient and disciplined "small ball" offense that LSU fans love to hate?
DW: It's no secret that Fullerton's approach at the plate is to be patient, work counts and grind down starting pitchers if they can. It might not have looked that way watching Sunday's super regional deciding game when the teams combined for only six hits but Fullerton has played less "small ball" than most of their previous teams. They have hit 44 HR's this season (after combining for 46 HR's in 2015-2016), including 41 over the last 43 games, and they have 45 SAC bunts this season after having 63 and 69 SAC bunts the previous two seasons. However, every player 1-9 in the lineup will be able to put down a SAC bunt if called upon if the situation dictates it, such as cleanup hitter Timmy Richards bunting runners over in the fourth inning and Hank LoForte driving both runners in to give Fullerton their two runs last Sunday.
PK: Bottom 9, down 1, man on, Who do you want at the plate for the Titans?
DW: Scott Hurst. He would have been under consideration for Big West player of the year if it wasn't for the tremendous season of Keston Hiura, the national leader in batting average and a 1st round pick despite being limited to DH duties due to an elbow injury. Hurst has hit 12 HR's, including four in one game, and that is more than any other player at Fullerton has hit in the seven years that BBCOR bats have been used. He isn't just a slugger looking to hit the ball out of the park, he squares balls up and hits line drives gap to gap and has a solid 34/33 BB/K ratio. Hurst was a third round pick in the draft because of both his ability at the plate as well as in the field, where he has very good range in CF and an excellent arm (he pitched a couple of times early in the season).
PK: Gaze into your crystal ball and tell me how you see the next two weeks in Omaha going. (Homer picks are welcome and encouraged)
DW: Fullerton is going to have to generate more offense than they did in the first and third games at Long Beach, when they scored two runs on six hits in those two games, in order to be competitive in Omaha. If they hit like they did at Stanford and if Fullerton continues to pitch like they have in the post-season, allowing only nine runs in six games, they will be able to play with any of the other seven teams in Omaha and have a chance to be one of the teams left standing at the end.