Manuel: Making Sense of Fresno

Three cheers for Fresno State’s unbelievable national championship. It’s even more surprising that Oregon State’s two championships in some ways, and in many ways, the Bulldogs resemble the Beavers’ championship formula.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was impressed with how loose coach Mike Batesole and assistant Matt Curtis were on the field during batting practice when I visited with them before the Bulldogs’ first game, as they joked about closer Brandon Burke’s lack of stuff in the super-regional clincher against Arizona State. I didn’t sense the team’s good karma; I thought they were more like past surprise CWS teams, such as San Jose State in 2000 or Southwest Missouri State in 2003.

Not even close. Let’s look at the six aspects of the Bulldogs’ national championship that make it so newsworthy.

Fresno’s Finest. Like Oregon State, Fresno State has a regional roster. The Beavers were built on Oregon kids. The Bulldogs’ all-California roster includes many players from Southern California, such as closer Burke, a product of San Diego powerhouse Rancho Bernardo High.

But the core of the team is built on players from the greater Fresno area and the San Joaquin Valley. First baseman Alan Ahmady, who tied for the national lead in RBIs, is a Fresno native and went to Clovis West High with freshman DH Jordan Ribera, who entered the College World Series with a 29-1 strikeout-walk ledger but who hit a pair of homers in Omaha while working five walks. And of course the Bulldogs’ most important pitcher in Omaha, junior lefthander Justin Wilson, is a Clovis product, out of Buchanan High.

Wilson’s effort in the final game of the championship series needs to go down in CWS history as one of the best starting-pitching efforts of the decade. Georgia’s powerful offense was virtually silent against him as he struck out nine in eight innings on just three days’ rest, showing command and strike-throwing ability he hadn’t shown consistently in two previous CWS starts.

RPI Means Nothing. The Bulldogs entered the postseason ranked 89th in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index. Certainly Fresno lost a lot of games, and at 37-27 entering the NCAA tournament, they shouldn’t have been a high seed. Now they have broken Oregon State’s record, set last year, as the lowest-seeded team to win the CWS.

Still, the WAC regular-season and tournament champion had a preseason No. 18 ranking for several reasons—talent and experience chief among them. Perhaps that 89 RPI made a No. 4 seed inevitable. Then Fresno had the toughest regional to win at Long Beach State and probably the toughest super-regional road in having to win at Arizona State, which had been in the top 10 all season.

Statistically, Fresno’s the biggest upset winner in CWS history, perhaps all of college sports history. It’s hard to say that about a team that had six players drafted, but considering the Bulldogs lost 31 games and made their postseason run without ace righthander Tanner Scheppers—who didn’t pitch after the first week of May due to a shoulder injury—makes the run all the more remarkable.

“As soon as we lost him, we knew we had to pick it up,” outfielder Gavin Hedstrom said early in the tournament. “Tanner is an unbelievable pitcher, and he’s got his whole career in front of him. Our pitching staff has just done a tremendous job picking up the slack since he was hurt, and they’ve gotten us this far as a team.”

Effort. Everybody plays hard in Omaha, but Fresno State’s superlative performances were amazing. Right fielder Steven Detwiler drove in six runs and hit two homers in the final game of the Series with a right thumb that will require postseason surgery due to a torn ligament. He was seen all series recoiling in pain, shaking his thumb after swings, but his rocket three-run homer to left field in the sixth inning essentially ended the title game.

“Steve Detwiler absolutely crushed the ball tonight,” Wilson said on the field after the title game. “You can’t do any better than that.”

Wilson gave it his best start on short rest; Clayton Allison fought through biceps tendonitis to deliver a crucial start to beat North Carolina in the bracket championship, and the Bulldogs got key play after key play from every starter on a team with very little depth. Most Oustanding Player Tommy Mendonca raked and defended with abandon. The starting lineup hardly changed at all, with coach Batesole really only making changes at catcher, going offense for defense.

Seniors. Every good college baseball team needs ’em, and Fresno State had ’em. Allison, the team’s No. 2 starter all year, led by example with his six-inning start against the Tar Heels, and senior righty Jason Breckley did it in the first matchup against the Heels, getting a key out in the fifth inning out of the bullpen to vulture a victory.

Left fielder Steven Susdorf was a steady presence in the middle of the lineup; and of course Burke set the single-season and career saves marks at the school, with his biggest efforts coming in outings against San Diego in the regional and Arizona State in the super-regional with a pair of three-innings-plus saves.

No Intimidation. Fresno State beat all comers in the postseason. Long Beach State, its regional host and No. 1 seed, was the Big West Conference co-champion. San Diego, which it vanquished in the regional final, had perhaps the nation’s top pitching staff. Then in Omaha, Fresno State beat four national seeds—No. 3 Arizona State in the super-regional, then No. 6 Rice, No. 2 North Carolina and finally No. 8 Georgia.

Offense. Fresno State ranked last among the eight CWS teams in scoring entering the tournament, but when it scored 17 runs on Rice in the opener, Fresno knew it belonged and got a huge confidence boost. That first-game victory meant so much, because the Bulldogs believed, and when they needed to believe the most—with Georgia having come back from a three-run deficit to win the first game of the championship finals—Fresno responded confidently, rallying from a 5-0 hole to roll up a 19-10 victory in the second game of the finals.

Fresno State’s program has tradition, but that tradition had slipped in the last decade, with Batesole hoping to restore it with this year’s veteran-laden club led by its ace, Scheppers. Nothing about the season went according to plan, but in Omaha, that didn’t seem to matter.