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    March 9, 2010

     

    California Dreamin'
    Very superstitious, writing's on the wall

    Whether or not they'll readily admit it, most baseball people are superstitious. Guys are careful not to step on the foul line on the way to their positions. Some players have rituals before they enter the batter's box. Others tape their wrists the same way every day, or have the same meal before they play. Instead of rituals, or habits, I've always been more of a "look for a good omen guy".

    I don't necessarily believe my predilection for looking for signs to predict outcomes is a real superstition, but I always tend to look for positives before we head to the field, and embrace the good vibe they bring. Sometimes this is more difficult than others, but since we arrived late Thursday night to begin a five-game swing through Los Angeles, we've been like the Beach Boys -- picking up good vibrations. We've played four against Cal State Northridge and have a final game versus USC on Wednesday before closing out spring break in Knoxville, Tennessee this coming weekend.

    From the moment we arrived at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills, California, I had reason to be optimistic. The following sign was affixed to the front of the hotel:

    Our faithful blog readers will see how this would make me smile (Catching Up With UConn Baseball, February 25, 2010 - http://www.uconnhuskies.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/blog.html). That would certainly qualify as good sign #1 in the form of coincidentally - a good sign.

    We managed a nice come-from-behind win in the opener against Cal State Northridge the next day with a fine pitching performance from our starting pitcher and native Californian Elliot Glynn (whose parents were kind enough to greet everyone in our traveling party with a California orange upon our arrival at LAX - thanks so much). Another Californian, Kevin Vance closed the game with three quick outs in the ninth after Mike Nemeth and Joe Pavone had big games at the plate, and the Huskies were one and oh in the Golden State over the course of 115 seasons of playing baseball.

    The next morning, I was enjoying an early morning jog, thinking about whether I'd bunt Pierre over in the first, or let Nick Ahmed swing away, when a song came on my Ipod just as I was turning right onto Ventura Boulevard with the morning sun at my back. As I picked up my pace on the straightaway in order to make it back for breakfast, Tom Petty's "Free Falling" pierced my ears. Now, I've got almost 700 songs in that little device, and what are the chances his lyrics referencing the San Fernando Valley would be heard through my headphones as I ran? With every stride I felt better about our chances, especially when Petty belted out, "All the vampires walkin' through the valley, move west down Ventura Boulevard."

    The skies grew threatening during game two on Saturday, and we learned that Albert Hammond was a liar. For clarification, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pyC7WnvLT4 (in case you're counting, that's obscure music reference #3 in this blog). We got a little wet, but enjoyed watching the CSUN players in the dugout with arms crossed, hoods pulled over head, and jackets on, while we hung out in short sleeves. We must have felt like we were at home with the weather, because the bats really came alive after the rain fell. Tom Petty's omen #2 didn't disappoint, and neither did Greg Nappo as the junior lefty got his second impressive W of the young season with seven very strong innings and we coasted to an 11-2 win behind a 17-hit attack. Six of those hits and five of our runs came from our athletic and very potent 8 and 9 hitters, Billy Ferriter and John Andreoli. George Springer had a 5-RBI day, and Matt Burnett had a momentum-swinging home run to get us going.

    Sunday presented a great opportunity. We awakened to blue skies and the 31 non-Californians on our bus heading on "the 101" freeway back toward Northridge were amazed (myself included) to see suddenly rain-refreshed green mountains in the foreground with snow capping their peaks and folks outside our windows in shorts simultaneously walking the sidewalks. When driving down "the 84" or "the 91", we Connecticut folk don't get to see that too often.

    While the scene was unique, it hardly qualified as a clear-cut, tell-tale sign for our play in game three and the chance to win a series a long way from home with two games to play. So, I was hunting with a vengeance for good omen #3 in order to enhance our chances at win #3 of the trip on our way through Reseda, when I remembered the address of an underdog on an opponent's home turf looking to pull off a big upset. The neighborhood of apartments with courtyards looked very familiar, and as we moved through Reseda and crossed Saticoy Street, it was undeniable. Daniel-san lived here! Indeed, we were traversing the original karate kid's neighborhood. I made an announcement on the bus, and the guys that didn't have their headphones on nodded approvingly. Ralph Macchio's character in Karate Kid, Daniel Larusso has real staying power. Despite the cult classic being released in 1984, long before any of our players were born, they all seemed to have seen it. They not only knew of the tough kid from the Northeast that ventured into the San Fernando Valley to become the All Valley Champion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWbFWHrJ0CU), they even uttered a few quotes from the movie as we pulled into the parking lot beside Matador Field for game three of the four-game set. I took that as a very good sign.

    We had a back and forth battle that finished in "sweep the leg - like" dramatic fashion with a big 3-run homer from Mike Olt, top notch relief appearances from Teddy Hurvul and Scott Oberg, and a game-ending strikeout from closer Kevin Vance. And, as if we channeled Daniel-san's flying crane, the series was ours.

    On Monday, things didn't click as easily. While on my run, I quickly fast-forwarded through Sinatra's Lady is a Tramp when I heard the words, "doesn't like California, it's cold and it's damp," and aside from a Marriott maintenance man using his broom vigorously on some fallen foliage on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, I never found a definitive sign that we were going to sweep the Matadors.

    The first inning was the longest first inning I could ever recall in which neither team scored. We managed to strand runners at 2nd and 3rd after getting them there with no outs, and freshman starter, Pat Butler struggled a bit with his control in the first. He walked the bases loaded with just one out, but then induced a stress-relieving double play ball to hold CSUN scoreless. The rookie went on to overcome any nervousness to throw a more-than-solid debut, as he carried us into the sixth with a 2-0 lead. However, the baseball gods weren't with us in the finale. We didn't convert a couple of tough defensive plays, had a few offensive chances that didn't materialize in part due to poor situational hitting, and a less-than-inspired decision by yours truly to try a risky play in the 7th. We had 'em loaded with an out in the 9th, but couldn't quite get the sweep done, and we ventured south to downtown LA and our second hotel of the trip. With a light morning workout at USC and a tour of Santa Monica and Hollywood scheduled, we hoped to regroup and find some more good fortune on our "off" day Tuesday.

    Overall, after the opener in Clearwater, we've played with good confidence, and a nice swagger. Our pitching and offense have both been productive, and the defense seems to be getting into better rhythm with each game we play. We'll need all three aspects to work well tomorrow if we're able to beat 12-time national champion USC. The Trojans are coming off a shutout of Pepperdine on Tuesday, and have a very good club.

    We last played USC after defeating Texas in the College World Series in Omaha in 1972. The Huskies broke a scoreless tie in the tenth against the Longhorns on the strength of All-American John Ihlenburg's three-run triple, and pitchers Jim Jachym and Augie Garbatini dazzled the Longhorns as they combined for ten shutout innings. Two days later, on June 11, the Larry Panciera-led squad found itself in another extra inning tussle with the eventual national-champion Trojans. Fred Lynn (who would go on to be the first man to win the Rookie-of-the-Year and MVP awards in his 1975 season with the Red Sox), and future big leaguer Roy Smalley were in the SC lineup that day, and despite John Slosar's torrid hitting (the current Fairfield skipper went 4 for 5 with three RBI for UConn), the Huskies lost in eleven innings after stranding 16 baserunners.

    We'll do some more research on the '10 Trojans, and hope we find some good signs of success before heading to Dedeaux Field tomorrow afternoon. My uniform consisted of diapers and a onesie in 1972, and I can't claim to remember the thriller in Omaha that year between the Huskies and Trojans. That doesn't mean I can't look for good omens, and good signs, though. I'm sure those 16 stranded runners have left a bad taste in the mouths of the '72 Huskies for 38 years. Hopefully the number on the back of the 38 year-old making out the lineup will help provide some symmetry and some RBI tomorrow.

    With apologies to Five Man Electrical Band:

    Sign Sign everywhere a sign;
    Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind;
    Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?