See also: Fresno State-North Carolina Box Score
OMAHA—Fresno State was as good as its word.
After North Carolina came from behind in the eighth inning to beat the Bulldogs on Saturday, Fresno’s players and coach assured the media it wasn’t a spirit-crushing loss for their team.
“I don’t think we have anything to be demoralized about, because that’s a really good baseball team in that dugout,” Bulldogs second baseman Erik Wetzel said Saturday night. “Personally I feel we just go out there with the same mentality every day. I don’t think anyone in our clubhouse is thinking about our backs to the wall.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs looked as loose and confident Sunday as they have since the start of the College World Series. Fresno simply wore down the Tar Heels in Sunday’s rematch, a 6-1 Bulldogs victory that propelled them to the CWS Finals for the first time. They’ll face Georgia in the best-of-three championship series starting Monday night.
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Point: After leaving four runners on base in the first two innings—including three in scoring position—the Bulldogs finally broke through in the third. Tommy Mendonca’s two-run single to left field gave Fresno the momentum, and the lead, for good.
“This win’s a little sweeter knowing we were facing elimination for the first time in this tournament, and knowing we’ll be one of those teams fighting for a national championship,” said Fresno closer Brandon Burke, who worked two scoreless innings to pick up the save. “If you look at where we started, it’s just been an amazing season.”
It was also an amazing season for North Carolina (54-14), which fell one win short of its third straight finals appearance. The Tar Heels had their chances Sunday but couldn’t deliver a knockout blow against Fresno State starter Clayton Allison. UNC, which left 10 runners on base, had its best chance in the fourth, loading the bases with one out before Allison struck out Seth Williams and got Ryan Graepel to ground to shortstop Danny Muno deep in the hole for a slick, inning-ending fielder’s choice. Muno and third baseman Tommy Mendonca put on a defensive clinic on the left side of the infield, making a combined eight assists—many of them challenging.
“They made every play defensively against us, really, all three games,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “Their shortstop and third baseman were sensational. We looked back at the stats and they made some errors during the year, but boy, they played just terrific. If there’s one thing that stood out about (Fresno), it was that.”
Allison, a 6-foot-5 senior righthander, is a ground-ball pitcher, and he credited the stellar defense behind him with giving him the peace of mind to attack North Carolina’s hitters without having to worry what would happen if the ball was put into play. Of course, he also missed plenty of bats with his split-finger, racking up six strikeouts in six innings. He allowed just one run on six hits and three walks in his first CWS start after missing the first week with a biceps injury. Allison said in order to rehab his arm to the point he could pitch Sunday, he relied heavily upon electrode treatment from the team’s trainers, prescription painkillers, and icing his shoulder six or seven times a day for the past 13 days.
“That was a gutsy performance when we needed one the most,” Fresno coach Mike Batesole said. “What Allison did today was very, very special. That was a mental win—it didn’t have much to do with what he had physically. It was a mental battle and he won it.”
Batesole refuted a suggestion that his club was able to grind North Carolina down, but attrition on the mound unquestionably played a role in UNC’s demise. After starter Adam Warren left in the second inning thanks to control problems (he walked four in 1 2/3 innings), Fox went back to the same relievers he has relied most heavily upon all season and all week: Brian Moran, Colin Bates and Rob Wooten, followed by ace-turned-closer Alex White. Moran, Wooten and White were pitching for the third straight day, and Bates had thrown 50 pitches over 2 2/3 innings Friday.
The Tar Heels were able to pull out emotional victories behind those bullpen stalwarts Friday and Saturday, but they simply ran out of gas Sunday. Fresno scored twice against Moran in the third inning on Mendonca’s two-run single to left field to take a 2-0 lead, and the Bulldogs (45-30) tacked on more from there. Mendonca was in the middle of most of Fresno’s rallies, doubling home a run in the fifth and singling home another in the sixth.
White, who had pitched brilliantly in Omaha and earned the win in all three of UNC’s victories, gave the Tar Heels a stay of execution in the fifth, but even he eventually wore down. After Mendonca’s RBI double, the Bulldogs loaded the bases with one out against Wooten, so Fox brought in White to prevent the game from getting out of hand. White got Danny Muno to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to keep UNC within three, but the Tar Heels could not build upon that momentum in the sixth, and Fresno broke through with two runs against White in the bottom of that frame.
“He was blowing us away yesterday, and today it looked like he took a little bit off,” Mendonca said of White. “He’s been working, throwing a lot of pitches. This whole week he’s been coming out trying to do this thing, and it’s going to take a toll. It looked like it did.”
As Batesole put it, the Bulldogs put themselves in the driver’s seat by winning their first two games—including Tuesday against North Carolina. The odds were stacked against the Tar Heels once they fell into the loser’s bracket, and Fresno didn’t squander the high ground. There’s a reason so few teams have run through the loser’s bracket to win the College World Series: It takes a major toll on even deep pitching staffs like North Carolina’s.
“I think we probably asked a little too much out of those guys,” Fox said of his bullpen. “That’s really the difficult part of getting out here and then getting into the loser’s bracket: having to manage your pitchers. You want to run the guys out there who had the most impact on getting you here, within reason. I struggled with that today. I think most coaches do at the end of the year—how much you’re supposed to ask of your kids who haven’t done that much, pitched three days back to back to back. But they’ll tell me they weren’t tired, they’ll tell me they’re ready. That’s what kids do, that’s what competitors do. My hat’s off to them that they wanted to go out there, but probably you saw (the fatigue factor). You start leaving balls arm-side a little bit, that tells you you’re not getting extension out front. A lot of that’s fatigue.”
Fresno State did not have to fight through the loser’s bracket, but the Bulldogs are dealing with their own sort of fatigue.
“This group has been on the road for 38 days; tomorrow will be the 39th day on the road,” Batesole said. “And still to be locked in mentally and have the at-bats that they did and the focus they did on the mound, that’s what I’m the most proud of . . . These guys are worn down, they’re ground down, and still they find a way to focus every day for nine innings. Not eight innings, not eight and two-thirds, but nine.”
The Bulldogs just need to stay focused and fend off fatigue for another two or three days, and they will be national champions.
“We’ve got plenty left,” Batesole said. “I’m a little concerned about who’s going to pitch tomorrow, or Tuesday. Wednesday we might be able to rally the troops a little bit, but you might see six or seven guys go out there tomorrow and Tuesday. It’s not going to be a typical run your starter out there for seven innings, it’ll be a bunch of guys trying to get three outs. But this team has a way of finding a way. We’ve found our way this far, so we’ll try to find our way the rest of the way.”