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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Suzuki anchor behind plate for No. 4 Titans

By Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer

Kurt Suzuki is lauded for defense, but he also can hit. The junior hit a walkoff homer to beat Long Beach St. last year.

Photo by Matt Brown • Courtesy CSF Sports Info

For Cal State Fullerton catcher Kurt Suzuki, the upcoming collegiate season is considered his "money" year.

The 2001 Baldwin High graduate is eligible for the June first-year player draft. As a junior, he has his senior season as leverage for negotiations, if picked.

But there are other matters to settle before considering a pro career. Like a return to the College World Series for the Titans, ranked fourth nationally by Baseball America.

"Sure, the money is (important), but a national championship would make everything that much better," said Suzuki in a telephone interview.

The first step to a return to Omaha, Neb. — site of the College World Series — starts this weekend when the Titans fly north for a three-game series at No. 6 Stanford to start their season. Last year, the Titans swept the Cardinal at Goodwin Field. They beat the Cardinal in their first meeting at last year's College World Series, only to lose the next two games to be eliminated. Stanford went on to lose to Rice in the championship.

"That will be interesting," Suzuki said of the Stanford series. "We've been waiting for this for a long time."

The Titans are the preseason favorite to win the Big West title by the conference's coaches and Baseball America magazine. The publication also lists Suzuki as the top defensive catcher and with having the best arm among league catchers.

In his two seasons with the Titans, Suzuki has managed a career .361 batting average. But last year, he showed his defensive prowess by not committing an error in 302 chances. Suzuki credits Titans volunteer coach Chad Baum for the perfect season behind the plate.

"He's really a perfectionist," Suzuki said. "He hates to make mistakes. We're the guys who make the most important decisions. He makes us think this way. His emphasis is less than perfection is not good enough."

Suzuki said pitching coach Dave Serrano calls pitches. But that doesn't mean Suzuki has no input.

"A lot of times, if I see something, such as a tendency (of a hitter), I'll relay it to him and we'll talk about it," Suzuki said.

Last year, Suzuki shared time with P.J. Pilittere for part of the season. Pilittere eventually split time at first base and DH toward the end of last season. They are roommates this year.

There were a number of reasons Suzuki went to CSFU. His strong showing at the Arizona Fall Classic during his senior year at Baldwin drew attention of collegiate teams. Arizona State and Loyola Marymount were interested.

Hawai'i also was interested, but 2001 was the final season of the Les Murakami era. UH did not announce Mike Trapasso as the new coach until late May. But Suzuki said the change of coaches had no bearing on his decision to go to CSFU. He liked the program's reputation and one of his high school assistant coaches, Dean Yamashita, was a product of the CSFU program.

"He told me how prestigious it was," Suzuki said.

Also, Suzuki wanted to test his independence.

"I wanted to get away from home, try to go out and live by myself," Suzuki said. "Of course, the baseball program here is unbelievable."

Suzuki's senior year at Baldwin was shortened by the teachers' strike. Although it didn't affect his recruitment for college, it might have for the baseball draft that year, he said. He was not selected. He said it was unlikely he would have signed if drafted, but "it would've been cool to get drafted."

Suzuki is one of two Hawai'i players on the team. Vance Otake, a 2003 graduate of Maui High, is a walk-on and is red-shirting while recovering from shoulder surgery.

Note: Keoni Ruth, The Advertiser's Player of the Year last season, started at second base for the San Diego Toreros, who took 2 of 3 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo over the weekend. He batted 3 for 12 in the series. Ruth played shortstop at Kamehameha.

Reach Stacy Kaneshiro at skaneshiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8042.