By Mike Lemaire
PALO ALTO, Calif.—Ever since it shocked the college baseball world by surviving multiple elimination games to win the 2008 national championship, Fresno State has earned the reputation as a team that is at its best when its back is against the wall. Saturday, facing elimination as they took on Michigan State, the Bulldogs lived up to that reputation.
After allowing two runs in the first inning, starter Thomas Harlan and relievers Gene Escat and Taylor Garrison combined to shut out the Spartans the rest of the way, allowing just five hits, on their way to a decisive 8-2 victory that will keep Fresno's season alive for at least one more day.
Just last weekend, the Bulldogs fought off elimination to win their seventh straight WAC championship, and this weekend they were back in survival mode, something the Bulldogs’ faithful have grown accustomed to in recent years.
“When you get your work done, you know you deserve it,” Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said. “These guys have put in an awful lot of work since August so when you get in those situations you know you have earned it, and you know you deserve it, and they are way more likely to perform.”
If it wasn’t for a loud two-run double by Michigan State DH Blaise Salter in the first inning, the Bulldogs might have played a near-perfect game. After the first inning, the pitching was nearly flawless, the defense was flawless, and the offense—paced by three hits and three RBIs from senior first baseman Trent Garrison—came through in the clutch, driving in all but one of their runs with two outs.
Perhaps the most curious moment for Fresno State came after Harlan induced a comebacker to the mound for the first out of the fifth inning. Up to that point, he had allowed just one hit since the first inning and looked comfortable on the mound, which made it all the more surprising to see Batesole come out of the dugout and signal to his bullpen for Escat.
Unbeknownst to any of his pitchers, Batesole’s plan from the start had called for Harlan to get through the Michigan State batting order twice and then turn the ball over to Escat and then Garrison, the team’s two most reliable relievers this season. Batesole admitted that plans like this one almost never work the way he drew it up. Fortunately for him, this one did.
“I knew he had a plan, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew he had one,” Harlan said as Batesole chuckled next to him. “You just have to trust your coaches, and I knew my teammates were going to come in and pick up where I was leaving off. It’s just a trust thing.”
The Bulldogs still list presumptive ace Tyler Linehan as day-to-day with a back injury that has kept him out since May, which will force Batesole to get creative with his pitching plan for tomorrow’s game against the loser of tonight’s Stanford-Pepperdine tilt. But that is probably a good problem to have.
For the Spartans, their first regional appearance in more than three decades ended with plenty of disappointment and without a single win to hang their hats on. But a solid core of returnees and a much-ballyhooed recruiting class means the future is bright for the Spartans, who, just by making the tournament, proved they are a program on the rise.
“Really all of the credit goes to our senior class,” Spartans coach Jake Boss said. “All those guys came in our first year here and they bought in and changed the culture of the program. We brought in a few junior college players here that added to that momentum and really turned things around and took Michigan State baseball to a place it hasn’t been in a long time.”
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