(Photo via Fullerton Titans website, seen here)
List the top college baseball programs in recent memory, and Cal State Fullerton appears at or near the top. After winning the Big West Conference this season, the Titans extended their streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances to 27 years, having last failed to qualify in 1991, the year before Phil Nevin led the Titans to Omaha en route to becoming the first overall pick. In recent years, pitching and defense have carried Fullerton to regionals, and this year’s iteration has been no exception. Despite ranking eighth in the nine-team league in OPS, Fullerton rode a conference-best 3.52 ERA to a relatively comfortable conference title. Leading the charge was ace Colton Eastman, who paired his conference-leading 103 2/3 innings with a team-best 2.26 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings, both of which ranked in top three in the conference among qualifiers. “This is a pitcher’s program,” Eastman opined. “It has always been a pitcher’s program, it will always be a pitcher’s program.”
On the surface, it might seem that Fullerton pitching its way to the NCAA tournament was never in doubt. Just last year, the Titans advanced to the College World Series, capped off by Eastman’s seven one-hit innings against conference rival Long Beach State to advance through super regionals. In reality, a difficult early-season, non-conference slate left the Titans with some soul-searching to do; a season-opening sweep at the hands of eventual Pac-12 conference champion Stanford kicked off a 4-10 start, leading to speculation that their postseason streak could be in jeopardy.
That concern was not only external, either. “We didn’t want to be that Fullerton team that breaks any of the streaks – the 30th win streak, the postseason streak,” Eastman said. “It was all that on our minds that we didn’t want to happen.” Yet the team never lost faith in their ability to right the ship. “We knew that it’s basically our conference,” Eastman alluded to the Titans’ six Big West Championships this decade. “We’ve won it now 30 times, so all we’ve got to do is play how we play. And we did it. We made it, we didn’t become that team (that breaks the streak).”
That self-assuredness reflects both Eastman’s personality and the program’s rich history. Those may be intertwined. “I would say it’s a mindset (throughout the program),” Eastman confirmed. “Me, Connor [Seabold], and Thomas [Eshelman] all have the competitive mindset to go out there and give it our all no matter what the circumstance was, and that’s why all three of us have been successful here.”
Seabold and Eshelman, Eastman’s predecessors atop Fullerton’s starting rotation, became recent top draftees of the Phillies after themselves anchoring the Titans’ 2015 Omaha team. Jason Dietrich echoed Eastman’s statement. “I think it’s just the environment at Fullerton you try to create and push those guys,” recalled Dietrich, the 2016 Collegiate Baseball Pitching Coach of the Year at Fullerton who now serves in the same position at Oregon. “I think that’s just because it’s the standard you set at that program. On the recruiting aspect, you want to recruit guys who throw strikes and have (an aggressive) mentality. That’s been an ongoing thing at Cal State Fullerton.”
Perhaps no one better personifies that mentality than Fullerton’s current ace. In their most recent scouting report, Baseball America noted that Eastman’s “competitive edge” has raised red flags for certain scouts. Eastman embraces that fiery reputation, believing it plays to his advantage by intimidating opposing hitters. “If you were to play against me, I would’ve wanted you to remember how dominant I was… or how mean I looked whenever I struck a guy out and walked around the mound,” Eastman said. “It’s stuff like that that just puts a little more edge on your side when it comes to your mentality as a hitter. Because they’re like ‘oh, we’re facing this guy today. He’s a hard-ass. This is going to be tough.’”
That advantage only compounds if Eastman gets off to a strong start. “If you strike him out on a good pitch, that’s all he’ll be thinking about until his next at-bat,” Eastman opined, citing his own experience hitting in high school. “When he comes up there, he’ll be thinking about it way too much, and you get him out again. Stuff like that makes it super easy to pitch.”
Dietrich sees Eastman’s fire as a plus as well, although not simply because it can get in the head of opposing players. For Dietrich, Eastman’s competitiveness is one of the biggest reasons that he’s had the success that he has. “He puts in the work, he’s a student of the game, he’s confident in his ability, and he wants to continuously get better,” Dietrich said. “He’s a big-time pitcher. He wants the ball in big games. To see where he’s at today doesn’t surprise me one bit.” Dietrich, who closely follows Eastman’s career from Eugene, believes that mentality aides his younger teammates as well. “Last year, he set the tone [on the Titans’ tournament run], especially in that game he pitched against Long Beach State to get them to Omaha. That’s just the way he is.” Eastman echoes that sentiment when discussing the 2018 team’s ability to turn its fortunes around after their slow start. “Half of us are new, so you’re going to need everyone to come together when it comes down to regionals and super regionals and everything like that. All I can really tell the younger guys is, ‘Just know where you’re at, know what program you’re at, know why you’re here.’ You had to have been good to be at this specific program.”
Ironically, it was not always a given that Eastman would be a part of the program. A top 300 draft prospect out of Fresno’s Central High School in 2015, Eastman admitted that he believed he would forego college to turn pro that year. “I was expecting to sign honestly, but when things didn’t go the way I thought they would, I knew I had Fullerton in my back pocket, and it’s turned out to be the best decision I ever made.” Indeed, Eastman is more well-regarded as a draft prospect now than he ever had been before, to say nothing of a college career that included being named the Collegiate Baseball Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2016 and a trip to Omaha in 2017. Perhaps the biggest reason for Eastman’s improved stock? The development of a changeup that Baseball America terms his “best pitch.” Eastman concurred with that assessment, recalling fondly a conversation with an MLB legend. “I was talking to Pete Rose,” Eastman remembered. “He goes ‘what’s your best pitch,’ and I told him the changeup, and he goes, ‘that’s the hardest pitch to hit, so that’s going to make you a great pitcher. So from then on I was like, ‘wow, I’ve got to make sure to never lose that pitch.’”
How did the pitch come about? Here, Eastman defers entirely to his former pitching coach. “I’ll always believe [Jason Dietrich] was the reason I’ve become this great pitcher,” Eastman said. “He taught me everything I know now, especially the changeup, so I can never thank him enough for that.” Eastman noted that it was Dietrich who brought the idea to him almost immediately after he stepped on campus. “In high school, I didn’t have one, never messed around with it,” he recounted. “Once I got here, Dietrich asked if I wanted to throw one. As a starting pitcher in college, you need more than two pitches to be really successful, and I only had two, so I was like ‘yeah, let’s give it a try.’ In maybe a day or two, I had a third pitch that I thought I’d never have, and it’s gotten me this far. I can throw it for a strike, I can throw it [as] a strikeout pitch. It’s incredible how far I’ve come with it, and I can’t wait to see how far I can go with it.”
Dietrich was equally enthusiastic about the pitch’s development, although he was more reluctant to accept responsibility. “He had a feel for the changeup [immediately],” Dietrich remembered. “I don’t think he gives himself that much credit. We just talked about [developing] that changeup to become a special pitch. The arm speed, learning to take something off it and have it become a plus pitch, and he started buying into that. We started seeing the pitch become a weapon for him. From there, he just got confident and grew with the pitch, and today it’s a plus pitch for him. I think a lot of professional scouts are liking that pitch because of all the swings and misses he gets, and just how he throws it.” Dietrich could not recall working on anything unique with Eastman, saying that it was the player himself who identified the right grip and arm action for the pitch. “You’re just trying to help them understand the mentality behind it, the goals behind it, and why it can be an effective pitch.”
As draft day approaches, Eastman is cognizant that he will hear his name called relatively early, but he maintains that there are more immediate factors on his mind. “I’ve never really been one to be distracted by any of that stuff. I really take pride in that. I don’t let the draft or anything that pertains to that get in the way.” An attempt to repeat last year’s run to Omaha is the more immediate concern, as Fullerton will kick off the postseason against Big 12 conference tournament champion Baylor, coming full circle playing in a regional hosted by Stanford, where the chance to avenge their season-opening sweep will no doubt be on their minds. The Titans will again try to pitch their way through regionals on the backs of an experienced staff with juniors Andrew Quezada and Tommy Wilson behind Eastman in the rotation, themselves having strong years while Eastman garners most of the attention.
Just call it this rotation another victory for the Fullerton pitching pipeline. “It’s patience, it’s hard work, and it’s doing everything you possibly can to find where these guys are at,” Dietrich said of the recruiting process. “You build relationships with these guys, and hopefully it turns a corner.” There is probably no better example of that process coming to fruition than Colton Eastman.