Commentary

Fresno State's Cinderella season continues with win against Rice

Originally Published: June 15, 2008
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- In the fifth week of this magical road tour, the Fresno State Bulldogs pulled up to Rosenblatt Stadium on Friday, ready to be embraced as the scruffy-faced darlings of the College World Series. A few steps from the bus, a person in the crowd said, "Those guys will be on a plane by Wednesday."

[+] EnlargeJustin Wilson
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJustin Wilson stepped up when Tanner Scheppers went down and has been the Bulldogs' rock all season.

The Bulldogs, true to form, simply shrugged.

To understand this dazzlingly unaware Fresno State team, you must start at the top. Coach Mike Batesole is unshaven and loose and is good for an occasional tall tale. He jokes that pitcher Justin Wilson, who's known for being slightly wild, makes him so nervous he chain-smokes Marlboros. Batesole doesn't really smoke. And he says that on paper, a team like Fresno State doesn't really belong with Rice.

His Bulldogs -- the lowest seed ever to make the CWS -- routed Rice 17-5 in their opening game Sunday. They will play North Carolina, which beat LSU in the nightcap, on Tuesday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

"We've got a million miles to go before you mention Fresno State and Rice in the same breath," Batesole said. "I'll bet you if you ask 50 people, 49 of them will tell you that they're still going to have a way better chance of winning this than we do."

As of late Sunday, nobody really knew what to believe. Do you buy into the T-shirts that central Californians are wearing around Omaha, the ones that say, "Underdogs to Wonderdogs"? Do you chalk up Sunday's stunning outcome to one powerhouse wound up way too tight and the wonderdogs playfully swinging at history?

With the wind blowing in Sunday afternoon, and Rice's bullpen loaded with future major league millionaires, Fresno peppered seven pitchers with four homers and the most runs allowed in a CWS game in seven years.

Rice ace Ryan Berry was gone by the fourth inning, his earliest exit of the season. He said Fresno's hitters were probably the best he's faced. The Owls probably couldn't name half of them.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Commerota
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJimmy Commerota and Rice aren't used to losing -- especially by big margins.

"It's hard to hit the ball that hard in batting practice," Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "They had a good day with the bat and they have talent and they're dangerous. Obviously, they're very dangerous to us. You're always shocked when a team hits that well and scores that many runs against your pitching staff."

Batesole told his team to be aggressive, because that's what has carried the Bulldogs for the past month to Omaha. Deep down, he can't exactly describe why this team seemingly plays better when the stakes are higher. The trip from the hotel to the ballpark was a schoolboy atmosphere, loaded with laughter and talking and zero anxiety.

Fresno State hasn't been to the College World Series since 1991. Rice is making its third straight trip and won a national championship in 2003.

"They're kids, man," Batesole said. "They love having fun."

Wilson seemed to be having the most fun. He scattered two runs over seven innings, struck out five and continued to be the rock of the Bulldogs' rotation. A month ago, Fresno's season appeared to be coming apart when it lost ace Tanner Scheppers -- a second-round draft pick for the Pirates -- to a shoulder injury. Oddly enough, it brought the Bulldogs together.

"We have tremendous confidence right now," said shortstop Danny Muno, whose three-run homer in the fourth inning put the game away at 7-0. "We've beaten some good teams to get here. Now I think we're finally considered a good team."

[+] EnlargeDanny Muno
AP Photo/Dave WeaverFresno State freshman Danny Muno finished the day with five RBIs.

The fourth inning was so long that Wilson had to throw to stay loose. He was once considered the Bulldogs' ace, then watched as Scheppers climbed into that role in 2008. When Scheppers went down, Wilson said he didn't feel any pressure to do everything.

None of the Bulldogs do. They knocked off Long Beach State in the regionals and stunned third-seeded Arizona State in the super regionals. Just like the Rice game, Fresno appeared to be grossly overmatched in Tempe.

"They had 15 guys drafted," Batesole said. "You watch them take batting practice … I'm telling you they lose 50 balls a day on the other side of the fence. And we probably still got the same bucket we started the season with.

"That's not always what's important to win Division I baseball games. It's not the pro game where, over the course of 162 games, the most physically talented team is always going to win at the end of a season. That's the beauty of college baseball. Heart and guts still mean a lot in a shorter season. That's the No. 1 tool of this team and of Justin Wilson. They've got big hearts."

Those hearts are still beating, and will be past Wednesday. In one clubhouse, Graham told the Owls that comebacks in Omaha are possible. Just two years ago, Oregon State climbed through the losers' bracket to win the championship.

In another, Batesole might've been inclined to say nothing. The kids are having fun, and they're nowhere near ready to go home.

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.