Let’s start by acknowledging that a 1-7 start for Cal State Fullerton isn’t what the team would have wanted or expected, even given the difficulty of the schedule they’ve played so far, which has included a series with a top-ten team in Stanford, a series with a ranked Houston team, and a midweek game against UCLA, which is just outside of the top 10.
We can also acknowledge that the stats behind the record aren’t all that pretty either. Offensively, they’re hitting .207/.302/.255 as a team and the pitching staff, long the bread and butter of this program, hasn’t quite been good enough to pick up all of the slack.
Andrew Quezada, expected to slot right into the rotation as a JUCO transfer, has struggled to an 8.71 ERA over two starts. Proven bullpen arm Brett Conine likewise has given up six runs (four earned) in five innings of relief. And though he bounced back nicely in his start last weekend against Houston, ace Colton Eastman took his lumps over opening weekend when he gave up seven hits and five runs (four earned) in 4.1 innings of work against the Cardinal.
Given that information, it would be understandable if you wanted to begin to panic about this team. The record is what it is, and here at College Baseball Central, we quickly dropped them from the top 25 after their slow start, so we’ve also viewed the Titans with a healthy dose of skepticism as well.
But it’s simply too early to panic with this team, as there are far too many reasons to believe that they can get it turned around.
The easiest argument for patience with this team is the talent argument, as Cal State Fullerton still has it in spades.
With a career 2.30 ERA over 144.2 innings, when he’s been healthy, Eastman has been as close to a sure thing as a starting pitcher in college baseball. In that way, he’s your typical Fullerton ace. Quezada may not have proven himself yet at the Division I level, but he’s a highly-regarded pitcher who was outstanding on the Cape this past summer, serving to prove that he does have the skills to get it done. And Conine was incredible at the back end of the bullpen last year.
Beyond that, Blake Workman is a versatile arm who has already both started and relieved this season, Tommy Wilson has been outstanding in four relief appearances, including five nearly-perfect innings against Houston, and the same is true for Dillon Brown, who has already had three different multi-inning relief appearances in 2018.
You really don’t have to squint to hard to see a scenario where Eastman and Quezada, or Eastman and Workman, or even Eastman and freshman Tanner Bibee, who has been up and down so far this season, end up being a reasonable facsimile of John Gavin and Connor Seabold, the one-two punch atop the rotation last year with Eastman missing a good chunk of the season with injury. And with Conine, Wilson, and Brown anchoring the bullpen, you already have to feel pretty good about things at the end of games. That’s all to say nothing of the presence of Gavin Velasquez, who is off to a tough start this season, but was a valuable swingman a year ago.
Offensively, sure, it’s been a struggle, but all it takes is going back a few years in the archives to note that, even in their most successful recent seasons, “physical” or “overpowering” were not words you would use to describe Fullerton’s offense.
In 2014, the Titans hit .260/.354/.336. In 2015, in a season that ended in a College World Series trip, they hit .263/.362/.352. The 2016 season saw them hit .262/.343/.368, and in 2017, another CWS season, their team slash line was .267/.356/.399.
Their current numbers in 2018 are a long way off from those full season numbers from the last four years, but it would be crazy to think they’ll continue to hit as poorly as they have thus far. With veterans like Ruben Cardenas, Sahid Valenzuela, Hank LoForte, Chris Prescott, and Jake Pavletich back in the fold, there are too many experienced bats in the lineup for the expectation to be that this iteration of the Fullerton offense will crater after being so consistent in their output in recent years.
If that doesn’t convince you, can we interest you in some precedent?
They might not have had any 1-7 starts recently, but the Titans are no stranger to relatively slow jumps out of the gate.
Let’s go back to 2014. The Titans came into the season as the top-ranked team in several polls, but after a 16-inning, 2-1 midweek loss to Fresno State on April 23, they sat at 18-17 overall. For that matter, two weeks later, in early-May, after a series loss to rival Long Beach State, they were just a couple of games above .500 at 22-20. That team finished strong, however, and not only got into a regional but reached the regional final of the Stillwater Regional against host Oklahoma State.
The 2015 team began the season ranked in the top 25, but after a midweek loss to Nebraska on March 24, were 11-12. That group rallied to host a regional, went 3-0 to sweep the regional, went on the road and took down Louisville in a Super Regional, and advanced to the College World Series.
Things weren’t much different in 2016. The Titans began the season 12-11 after taking a series loss to Long Beach State, but finished 36-23 and once again ended up in a regional.
Again, those weren’t exactly 1-7 starts, but this program has been in similarly sticky spots before, and they’ve always managed to find their way out of the funk.
And while the Titans’ schedule will remain tough for most of the rest of the season, they’ll have some chances to come up for air. The Tulane series this weekend is on the road and the Green Wave are talented, but it should be a winnable series. The road series at Oregon State after that will be a tall task, there’s no way around that, but then they get Grand Canyon at home, another series you would expect Fullerton to win.
It’s also not as if the Big West at large has gotten off to a roaring start, either. Long Beach State, Cal Poly, and UC-Santa Barbara, three of the toughest competitors Fullerton was thought to have at the top of the conference this season, have all been up and down, at best, so far.
With injury woes for some of those teams (like Long Beach State with the injury to starting pitcher John Sheaks) and questions about personnel for others that have yet to be answered, you still have to like Fullerton’s chances to rack up some wins in Big West play, and they still have to be considered the prohibitive favorite to win the conference title and grab the league’s automatic bid to the postseason.
Have things gone according to plan for Cal State Fullerton? Absolutely not. But there’s too much talent on hand, and there’s too much of a track record of this program playing well when it matters most, to think that they won’t be right back where they always are come June- in the postseason, challenging to get back to Omaha.