Commentary

Bulldogs come up big in elimination game to advance to Omaha

Originally Published: June 10, 2008
By Doug Haller | Special to ESPN.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Danny Grubb couldn't help it. He got caught up in the moment. With Arizona State rallying in its final at-bat, bringing the winning run to the plate, Grubb, a junior catcher from Fresno State, jump-started the celebration.

As soon as Arizona State's Matt Newman lined the ball to left field, Grubb turned and stuck out his hand to the home-plate umpire, congratulating him on calling a great game. Then he turned back toward the field and nearly turned white.

"I looked back and saw [our left-fielder] sliding to make the catch, and I was like, 'Oh, gosh, I didn't know that play was going to be that close,'" Grubb said. "That could've been embarrassing."

As it turned out, outfielder Steve Susdorf saved his eager catcher, making the sliding catch that preserved Monday's 12-9 super regional win that sent the upstart Bulldogs to the College World Series for the first time since 1991.

Three-time WAC champion Fresno State (42-29) became the first regional No. 4 seed to reach Omaha, Neb., since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1999. More impressive, they survived without star pitcher Tanner Scheppers, a recent second-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates sidelined with a shoulder injury.

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"I'm very proud of these kids," Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said.

"They've been on the road for a month. They won the WAC championship on the road. The next week, they won the WAC Tournament on the road. They won a regional on the road. Now they spent a fourth week on the road and we get to spend a fifth week on the road. These kids are ground down. They played on guts the last two days, today in particular."

Susdorf capped a six-run seventh inning with a two-run home run that put Fresno State, which had lost the first game of this series Saturday, in control. Grubb and Alan Ahmady had four hits apiece for the Bulldogs. Susdorf added three.

The Sun Devils, seeded third nationally, couldn't keep up through the middle innings, losing a 5-4 lead and trailing 12-5 entering the ninth.

Their momentum had vanished the previous night, losing 8-6 at Packard Stadium, a Gavin Hedstrom grand slam shattering visions of a clean sweep and a return trip to Rosenblatt Stadium, where a possible sixth national championship awaited.

[+] EnlargeFresno State
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsFresno State is celebrating its fourth trip to the College World Series.

After Sunday's game, Arizona State manager Pat Murphy told reporters that the Sun Devils had "smelled" their advancement. They had squeezed just a little too tight. "The worm has kind of flipped," Murphy said. "Now the pressure is on us."

They employed an odd method to relieve it. About 45 minutes before Monday's series finale, as the Sun Devils concluded pregame warmups, Brett Wallace and Ike Davis exchanged words and wrestled briefly on the infield grass. It was a strange moment given their background.

Close friends, Wallace and Davis make up the heart of Arizona State's offense. Wallace is one of five finalists for the Golden Spikes Award. Davis is a three-time All-Pac-10 selection. Both were first-round picks in last week's major league draft. Yet there they were, needing several teammates to separate them as Murphy trotted out to help.

When asked about the incident after the game, Wallace looked toward his manager.

"That was a joke," Murphy said. "They staged it. We did that against Coastal Carolina in 2005. It was something they kind of did to help loosen them up. I think it did loosen them up; it was kind of fun. Most everybody who's around us knows it was a joke. They're great friends and always will be."

"We just wanted to do it to maybe loosen the team a little bit, and maybe get the other team thinking about other stuff," Davis said. "Took a shot. It didn't work, but it was worth a try."

The Sun Devils (49-13) used seven pitchers to try to cool the Bulldogs, who amassed 17 hits. Freshman Matt Newman, who had started only three times all season, pitched the first two innings. Reyes Dorado and Davis combined for the next 3 2/3 innings, giving way to Mike Leake, who had thrown 118 pitches in Arizona State's win Saturday. This time he gave up six runs in one inning, including Susdorf's homer.

The Bulldogs added a run in the ninth, trotting onto the field, three outs away from Omaha, with a 12-5 lead. But they weren't comfortable. Throughout the series, assistant coach Pat Waer looked at fellow assistant Matt Curtis as Curtis signaled pitches to the mound.

"There was this look on his face like, 'There's no break. There's no hole in this lineup,'" Waer said. "It was like, 'OK, here we go.' You had to gear up mentally for every call. One through nine can lose a ball. … You just knew they weren't going away."

[+] EnlargeSteve Susdorf
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsSteve Susdorf has powered the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament.

As a team, Arizona State had hit .341 during the season, fifth best in the country. The Sun Devils had scored 574 runs, fifth best in the country. They had posted a .547 slugging percentage, sixth best in the country.

Two walks and a hit batter loaded the bases with one out. Ryan Sontag singled home a run. Jason Kipnis singled home two. An out later, Davis singled in another run, bringing the Sun Devils to within 12-9. Petey Paramore then walked, loading the bases, bringing up Newman, who already had homered twice.

Curtis walked to the mound, telling reliever Brandon Burke to pitch around Newman if he wanted. Don't worry about a walk. Just don't leave anything over the plate. Grubb, the catcher, noticed no fear in Burke. He was one of the calmest pitchers on Fresno State's roster.

Burke threw a strike, before missing high and outside. On his third pitch, Newman lined the ball to short left, Grubb turned to congratulate the ump, Susdorf made a sliding catch and the celebration started, gloves, caps and the ball flying high into the desert night.

"I jumped on top of [teammate] Ryan Overland, and the next thing I know I'm squishing his head into the ground," Grubb said. "I had to stand up to make sure I wasn't suffocating the guy."

On this night, no harm was done.

Doug Haller writes for The Arizona Republic.

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