OMAHA—Georgia and Fresno State started the season heading in opposite directions, but their paths have converged in the College World Series Finals. Both teams enter the final week of the 2008 season playing championship-caliber baseball, and one of them will finish the week as national champion.
Georgia coach David Perno and Fresno coach Mike Batesole feel the same affectionate way about their respective clubs now, but the two coaches couldn’t have felt more differently a few months ago. Perno liked what he saw from his Bulldogs from day one of the season. It took Batesole considerably longer to warm up to his Bulldogs. It wasn’t just that Fresno was sitting just 8-12 on March 21. It was the entire climate in the Fresno clubhouse that had Batesole dissatisfied.
“We started in March talking about Omaha, when we should have been talking about March, in March,” Batesole said. “Some things got away from us. We weren’t disciplined. We were more concerned some days about how we looked than how we played. Those kind of things eat at me more than anything else, so for the first six weeks or so, I wasn’t very pleasant to be in the dugout with, I know that.”
But about six weeks ago, even before Fresno State ran through the Long Beach regional and the Tempe super-regional to become the lowest-seeded team ever to reach Omaha, everything changed. And Batesole had nothing to do with it.
“These eight seniors decided that they’d had enough,” he said. “These guys decided that wasn’t how it’s going to be anymore, and here’s how it’s going to be: We’re all going to go to class, we’re all going to graduate—all eight of them are going to graduate this semester or next semester. We’re going to do things right off the field, and that’s going to help us do things right on the field. It’s the most unselfish team that you could ever imagine being around. It’s so pure in the dugout.
“My point is it didn’t have anything to do with us as coaches, and that’s why it’s so real and that’s why it’s worked to the depth that it’s worked. It wasn’t coming from somebody pointing a finger at them and telling them, it was them doing it from within. And it’s just special to share the same space that they do in the dugout.”
How’s that for climate change?
Now, the overriding characteristic of the Fresno clubhouse is selflessness. Batesole reveled in his players’ answers to questions about their individual performances following Fresno State’s 6-1 win against North Carolina on Sunday, which propelled the team to its first CWS Finals appearance.
“You heard these guys—they got all kinds of questions about them and all they wanted to talk about were their teammates,” he said. “We’ve got a kangaroo court that we do where anytime anybody says ‘I’ or ‘me’, it costs them a dollar. They’ve done a really good job of believing that and living that. When you’re among a group of young men like this and they’ve got this stage and they’ve got all the opportunity in the world to talk about themselves, and all they do is talk about how well their catcher caught or how well the defense played, you know it’s a special ballclub.”
Perno, on the other hand, knew his club was special on Opening Day, when Georgia pulled out an intense 9-7 win against preseason No. 2 Arizona. Closer Joshua Fields, who went 1-6, 4.46 in a disappointing junior season in 2007, struck out the side to nail down the victory.
“Probably the turning point from the season was the Arizona game opening night,” Perno said. “We showed we had some grit, some flair, showed that Josh was back. Then I knew it was only a matter of time before we put everything together.”
In truth, the win over Arizona only confirmed what Perno had already suspected. Last Aug. 15, when it became official that Fields would not be signing with the Braves as a second-round pick, Perno knew the bar was raised for his 2008 club. Georgia already had a strong group of returning players—led by its three weekend starters—who helped the team reach Omaha in 2006. It had a talented collection of younger players poised for breakout years, particularly in the bullpen. And now it would have a core of two superstars to lean upon in Fields and junior shortstop Gordon Beckham.
“When Josh decided to come back to school,” Perno said when asked the moment he knew his team could contend for a national title. “I knew we had some pieces. You’ve got to understand that when we go through the draft last June, we counted him out, but we still felt good about the team coming back. Gordon, I just had a feeling he was going to put everything together. Anytime you’ve got the best shortstop in the country, you’re going to be pretty darn good.
“Then when Josh came back, I felt we better be good, or else I might not have a job.”
It’s not enough just to have stars and veteran leaders. Perno said he demands that those core players also perform on the field, and they did just that. Beckham and Fields posted All-America seasons; juniors Trevor Holder, Nathan Moreau and Stephen Dodson held down the rotation; senior third baseman Ryan Peisel emerged as an igniter atop the batting order; and other veterans came up with big plays in big moments. Perno said the 2008 Bulldogs are the best big-game team he’s ever coached—and he’s coached three Omaha teams at Georgia, including two as head coach in 2004 and 2006 and another as an assistant in 2001.
Like almost every team, Georgia has had its ups and downs, but it has always responded with its back against the wall. After winning the Southeastern Conference’s regular-season title, the Dawgs went 0-2 in the conference tournament and came out flat in the Athens regional after an eight-day layoff, dropping their opener to Lipscomb. Georgia was staring down elimination the next day against Louisville, trailing 5-2 in the seventh inning, but Beckham delivered a game-tying three-run homer that sparked a seven-run seventh, and UGa. hasn’t looked back since.
The Georgia Bulldogs enter the Finals in the catbird seat, having won their CWS bracket in three games. That afforded UGa. an extra day off Sunday while Fresno was finishing off North Carolina, and it allowed Perno to set up his rested pitching staff just the way he wants to. Fresno State had to use its top arms to beat UNC and will have to piece together a way to staff the first game or two of the Finals. Batesole insists his Bulldogs remain underdogs against Georgia, but Perno sees Fresno for what it is.
“Fresno, they’ve got to put the underdog card down; it’s not going to fly with us,” Perno said. “They’re a real good baseball team.”