CWS Game 14: Georgia 7, Fresno State 6

See also: CWS Game 14 Box Score

OMAHA—Gordon Beckham told his teammates it was coming.

All week, Beckham was stuck on 51 home runs for his career, tied with Josh Morris atop Georgia’s all-time list. As Georgia built a six-run lead against Stanford on Saturday, Beckham’s teammates started to give him a hard time about his inability to break the record in UGa.’s first three games in Omaha.

“A couple guys were on him pretty good about, ‘When are you going to hit another home run?'” Dawgs coach David Perno recalled. “He said, ‘When we need it the most.’ And we needed it tonight.”

After Fresno State broke a tie with three runs in the top of the eighth inning, Georgia’s All-America shortstop breathed new life into his team with a two-run homer in the bottom of the frame, sparking a four-run outburst and leading Georgia to a 7-6 win Monday in the first game of the College World Series finals.

Gordon Beckham’s two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth did not erase Fresno State’s lead, but it did swing momentum back Georgia’s way after Fresno had scored three runs in the top of the inning. UGa. added two more runs later in the inning.

Beckham’s the obvious choice, but credit Matt Cerione for bouncing back from his five-strikeout debacle Saturday against Stanford, going 2-for-3 with a walk and two RBIs. In the eighth, Cerione doubled home the tying run and then scored the winning run.

Not Have Noticed:
If you were watching, you probably did notice, but it’s worth emphasizing: Tommy Mendonca played an incredible game for Fresno State. He had just one hit, but it was a big home run in Fresno’s three-run eighth, and he made one incredible defensive play after another. UGa. coach David Perno said Mendonca was the best defensive third baseman he’s seen in a long time, and Beckham had high praise for him also. “That third baseman is an unbelievable player,” Beckham said. “I’m happy for that guy because I think he’s playing with two dislocated fingers, and he’s playing out of his mind.”

“I was thinking in the eighth when they scored some runs, ‘What am I going to say to the team if we lose?'” Beckham said. “I don’t ever think we’re going to lose, but you’ve got to plan for that stuff. We just came back against a great team. Anybody that says they’re underdogs is totally full of it, because those guys are good. They’re playing good ball, and they had a big chance to win it. But we overcame tonight.”

It was one of the most exciting, well-played games of the 2008 CWS, full of dizzying momentum shifts, sparkling defense and clutch hits. But Georgia (45-23-1) had two major edges heading into the finals— a rested pitching staff and a pair of confident superstars—and both advantages loomed large Monday.

Fresno State (45-31) was actually able to hold Georgia’s potent offense in check for seven innings using a hodgepodge of four pitchers sporting ERAs ranging from 6.75 to 8.51.

“I think if you would have told me before the game we would hold that offense to seven with the arms we had available, I would have taken it in a second,” Fresno coach Mike Batesole said.

Georgia, meanwhile, had ace Trevor Holder going on eight days’ rest, and he turned in seven strong innings. But Fresno got to him for three runs in the middle innings on a pair of homers from Jordan Ribera and Steve Detwiler, and the two teams entered the fateful eighth inning locked in a 3-3 tie. That’s when Fresno exploded for three runs against the Georgia bullpen, highlighted by RBI doubles from Steve Susdorf and Detwiler and a solo homer from Tommy Mendonca.

But in the bottom of the eighth, Fresno’s fatigued pitching staff finally caught up with it. Batesole called upon closer Brandon Burke to protect the three-run lead to start the eighth, a day after Burke threw two innings against North Carolina. Burke allowed a leadoff single to Matt Olson, then left a fastball out over the plate on an 0-and-1 pitch to Beckham.

“He threw me a first-pitch strike, and honestly I choked up after that, choked up about half an inch,” said Beckham, who now has 27 homers on the year, one behind Louisiana State’s Matt Clark for the national lead. “I figured he was going to come with a fastball at some point—I didn’t know it was that pitch—and he threw it out over the plate and I pulled it.”

That pulled the Dawgs within one, and Burke followed by walking the next batter, Rich Poythress. Two batters later, Perno boldly called a hit and run—with the hulking Poythress on first and Matt Cerione at the plate, fresh off a five-strikeout game against Stanford. Naturally, it worked to perfection, as Cerione lined a double to left field and Poythress scored all the way from first when the relay throw to the plate hit him in the back. Cerione advanced to third on the throw, forcing Fresno to play its infield in against the next batter, Joey Lewis. Lewis chopped a double over the middle that ricocheted off the second-base bag and into left field, scoring Cerione for the game-winning run.

Though Burke couldn’t hold the lead, Batesole didn’t second-guess the decision to use him in the eighth inning.

“That’s the (Fresno) all-time career saves leader,” Batesole said. “He’s got the single-season saves lead in the history of the program. That’s the guy you want on the mound.”

Batesole paused several seconds, then added, “There wasn’t anybody else, anyway.”

As Batesole pointed out, Georgia earned the right to have a fresh pitching staff by winning its bracket in three games, and Fresno did not. That advantage was never more apparent than in the ninth, when Georgia’s closer had no trouble doing what Fresno’s closer could not. Joshua Fields, the other half of Georgia’s All-America tandem of first-round picks, took care of Fresno in order in the ninth, highlighted by a strikeout of Gavin Hedstrom on a 95 mph fastball.

“That was a great college baseball game—I think that’s what you’d expect in the national championship series,” Perno said. “Fortunately we have Gordon Beckham and Josh Fields in our dugout. In big games, great players step up. They did a great job tonight.”