Improved Fresno State looking to contend in 2006


Fresno State renovated the batting cages down the left-field line at Beiden Field over the offseason, converting the area into an indoor facility called the Barn. It features a mural depicting former Bulldogs greats, including pitchers Bobby J. Jones (now a volunteer assistant), Mark Gardner and Jeff Weaver.

"When you go down there, you can see who did what at the school," senior right-hander Doug Fister said. "It gives us incentive to work hard and do the things they did."

Yes, those are players who reached the majors, and those also are players whose Fresno State teams won conference titles and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs haven't won their league since 1995 and haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2001.

The 2006 season should be the year in which Fresno State ends those streaks of futility. Accomplishing the first goal got easier when Rice left the Western Athletic Conference for Conference USA after a run of nine straight WAC titles, but Fresno State also fields a much-improved team in coach Mike Batesole's fourth season, which opens Friday with a three-game series at Cal Poly.

Batesole has pointed to 2006 as a key year for the program. His first three teams went 30-29, 29-29 and 30-29 after he stepped into a rebuilding job following Bob Bennett, who won 1,304 games in 34 years and went 32-27 in 2002.

"We had to break this thing down and start over," Batesole said. "We had to rebuild this program, and that is a process. I could have gone out and gotten a bunch of [junior college] guys and played a soft schedule, but we didn't want to do it that way."

Instead, Batesole opted to recruit talented high school players who could learn and develop in his system for three or four seasons. He scheduled tough opponents such as Stanford and Cal State Fullerton for road series. Now, three full recruiting classes have entered the program, including 31 newcomers the last two seasons.

"We sacrificed some battles to win the war," Batesole said. "Everybody wants to win every day and win now. But you can't do that. You've got to let freshmen play and make mistakes.

"We've had our growing pains, with 17-, 18- and 19-year-old kids versus those kind of teams. There were times when we sat in the other dugout and knew we were overmatched physically and had to win games with tricks and matchups and using six or seven pitchers in a game."

He shouldn't have to do that on days when Fister, who returned for his senior year after being drafted in the sixth round, starts. After going 7-6 with a 4.32 ERA last season, Fister should continue to improve as he learns to control his 6-foot-8 body to better command his 90- to 93-mph sinker and a put-away curveball. Two-time California junior college player of the year Andy Underwood and junior lefty Eddie Romero join him in the rotation. Freshmen Justin Wilson and Tanner Scheppers bring power arms that should develop as the season progresses.

Defense posed a problem for Fresno State in 2005, though experience should help. Junior Christian Vitters enters his second year as the everyday shortstop. Beau Mills clubbed 22 home runs a year ago as a third baseman, but he could move across the diamond to first if fellow sophomore Todd Sandell plays better defense at the hot corner after working at second base last year. Freshman Erik Wetzel would man second in that scenario.

Nick Moresi should emerge as the team's biggest star. A lanky athlete reminiscent of Von Hayes, the 6-4 Moresi runs down everything in center field and shows power and speed as an offensive player. He hit .352 with 11 home runs and 54 RBI and added 13 steals last year.

"When I would sit out during batting practice last year, I'd see what kind of athletes the other team had," Fister said. "This year, we have the same kind of players. During infield drills, you can see the quick hands and the fast feet. You see guys running down balls in the outfield. That really stands out about this team this year.

"The guys we had last year are now a year older and a year smarter. For us, things are coming together real well."

Batesole's rebuilding efforts have worked before. He went 52-18 in 1996 at Cal State Northridge, but a budget crisis at the school led it to cut funding for baseball that offseason. The program was reinstated just before the 1997 season opened, but Batesole already had urged his best players to leave the program. After five years as an independent with diminishing success, Northridge returned to the Big West in 2001, and the Matadors won that league with a 40-17 record in 2002.

That success makes 2006 a pivotal year in testing how well Batesole's plan will work at Fresno State.

"This year is important confidencewise for a number of reasons," Batesole said. "We want to know that we did it the right way. We finished second in the league last year, and it's time for us to take the next step and do better."

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