Commentary

Fresno State looks to keep rolling through the CWS finals

Originally Published: June 23, 2008
By Will Kimmey | Special to ESPN.com

It looked as if parity was taking a year off when six of the eight national seeds and seven No. 1 regional seeds arrived in Omaha this year. But with Fresno State (45-30), the second No. 4 regional seed to ever win a regional and the first to reach the College World Series, advancing to the best-of-three CWS finals to face Georgia (44-23-1), there's a great chance college baseball could see its first-ever (Bull)dog pile featuring a team with more than 23 losses.

Gordon Beckham isn't a one-man team, is he?

[+] EnlargeGordon Beckham
Icon SMIGeorgia shortstop Gordon Beckham enters the CWS finals with 106 hits and 72 RBIs.

Georgia's All-American shortstop might have seemed that way at times, because the White Sox's first-round pick has set single-season school records for home runs (26), runs (94) and total bases (208). Beckham enters the CWS finals with 106 hits and 72 RBIs, needing five more hits and two more runs batted in to own those marks, as well. Clearly, he's good, but he's only part of a team that's batting .374 with 17 home runs and 102 RBIs in 11 postseason games. Senior third baseman Ryan Peisel has gone 7-for-14 with two homers and seven RBIs in Omaha, and he's 10-for-22 at Rosenblatt Stadium in his career. He joins Beckham with 100 hits, making them the first Georgia duo to accomplish that feat in the same season, and sophomore first baseman Rich Poythress could make it three if he can notch five more hits. Poythress, the man batting behind Beckham, has made opponents pay for their 13 intentional walks of the slugging shortstop, ringing up eight hits and 11 RBIs in those situations. Poythress delivered a two-run single against Stanford in one such opportunity, part of a 4-for-5 day that included a CWS record-tying three doubles.

Who's better in the bullpen?

Fresno State's offense put up some big numbers in its opening-game throttling of Rice, including three three-run home runs, but the bullish bullpen stands as the chief reason the Bulldogs are still alive. Fresno's relievers have posted a 2.84 ERA in 12.2 innings in Omaha, a number that shrinks to 1.69 when subtracting the two earned runs Sean Bonesteele allowed in two innings of mop-up duty in that 17-5 win against Rice.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Burke
Robert J. Meyer/US PresswireFresno State senior Brandon Burke hopes to add to his saves record against Georgia.

Fresno's relief corps has yielded just two walks and 13 hits in Omaha, minimizing baserunners and neutralizing opponents' rallies in the most important part of the game. Stunning defensive plays -- especially by third baseman Tommy Mendonca -- have helped, but credit must go to relievers Brandon Burke (a senior who has set Fresno's season and career saves records), Holden Sprague and Kris Tomlinson. Georgia, however, might have the endgame edge because of its strikeout potential. Fresno State's relievers have recorded eight strikeouts in Omaha, while Georgia's relievers have whiffed 15 batters behind a power-armed one-two punch of righty closer Joshua Fields and lefty Alex McRee, both of whom work off fastballs in the 90s and power breaking balls. Georgia's bullpen allowed only one run in 11 innings in the first two games of the CWS.

Stanford scored seven runs in seven innings against Georgia relievers in the 10-8 bracket clincher, but all those tallies came after Georgia had taken a 6-1 lead after 3½ innings and the bullpen was trying to throw strikes and pull off the baseball equivalent of draining the clock. Stephen Dodson, a sinker-ball specialist who lost his starting job following the regional round, has thrown seven scoreless innings since moving to the bullpen during the super regionals.

What kind of health coverage does Fresno State offer?

Fresno State resembles a team willing its way through the NHL postseason, given its banged-up roster. The Bulldogs have battled many injuries; just 24 players on their 25-man postseason roster can take the field, and not all of those are able-bodied. Ace right-hander Tanner Scheppers was poised to be a first-round draft pick before a shoulder injury ended that dream and his season in mid-May. Right-hander Clayton Allison, the team's No. 3 starter all year long, struggled through shoulder tendinitis in Omaha that pushed his first CWS start back to the clinching win against North Carolina.

Mendonca has battled through a pulled back muscle and played five weeks with two dislocated fingers that hurt too much for him to even grip the bat. Still, Mendonca drove in four runs in the bracket-clincher against North Carolina and has played highlight-reel defense the entire tournament. Outfielder Steve Detwiler has played through a torn thumb ligament.

[+] EnlargeTommy Mendonca
Icon SMIPlaying through injuries is nothing new for Fresno third baseman Tommy Mendonca.

The heart of the order -- second baseman Erik Wetzel (broken hamate bone) and left fielder Steve Susdorf (bruised hip) -- shrugged off maladies to end up as first-team All-Western Athletic Conference performers before going on to key several postseason rallies. Reserve Nick Hom has a broken finger, and first baseman Alan Ahmady chipped a tooth in Omaha that will require dental work.

Those are just the reported injuries. Thankfully for Fresno State, none of the ouchies have included anything related to the heart or guts -- two things the Bulldogs have constantly relied upon during their stunning postseason run.

What stats are worth tracking?

Postseason statistics count toward season totals in college baseball, and Florida State's Buster Posey entered the CWS leading the nation in batting average and RBIs and tied for the national lead in home runs as he sought to become the second player to win the triple crown. That dream ended after the Seminoles went two-and-barbecue in Omaha, and LSU's Matt Clark took over sole possession of the home run lead with 28. Georgia's Beckham has 26 homers and could make a run at the home run title. No one's going to catch Posey's .463 average, and he still leads the nation with 93 RBIs. But Fresno State's Ahmady has driven in six runs in the CWS to push his total to 90.

[+] EnlargeJosh Fields
Robert J. Meyer/US PresswireJosh Fields is one of the main reasons why Georgia's bullpen is a success.

Also, watch Fields. The Mariners' first-round pick has earned a win and a save in three CWS appearances, and his 17 saves rank second nationally behind Southern Miss closer Tyler Conn (18). Past NCAA saves leaders have fared well in Omaha. J. Brent Cox (Texas, 2005) and Kevin Gunderson (Oregon State, 2006) left with that title and a national championship, and Andrew Carignan (North Carolina, 2007) finished atop the saves leaderboard while his team finish second.

Mendonca entered the postseason as the nation's leader in strikeouts. He still leads the country in free air conditioning with 95 K's -- an NCAA single-season record -- but has only increased his total by three in Omaha while adding a pair of key home runs to move that number to 17.

Did anyone actually pick Fresno State to win it all?

Yes, Aaron B. Johnson was the only person out of 3,296 people to enter Baseball America's Bracket Challenge who correctly picked Fresno State to reach the CWS finals, and ol' Aaron's got those Bulldogs winning it all. We checked, and there's no one named Aaron on the Fresno roster. Hey, two people picked Sam Houston State and one took Dallas Baptist to win it all, and neither of those teams even earned an NCAA win this year. For the sake of completeness, 61 people picked Georgia to win the title.

Not even Aaron might have been so bold as to pick Fresno State after it started the year 5-9 and stood at 8-12 a couple of weeks later, at which point coach Mike Batesole called a team meeting and banned the words "Omaha" and "College World Series" from his team's lexicon. But Fresno State went on to win the WAC regular-season and tournament titles and has gone 14-3 in its past 17 games. That includes an 8-3 record in the NCAA tournament, with every one of those tournament games coming against teams ranked among the nation's top 10 during the course of the year, and a 5-2 record against national seeds Arizona State, Rice and North Carolina.

For what it's worth, Georgia hasn't looked like a potential champion all year, either. It went 23-33 a year ago and lost four of its first six games (against Arizona and at Oregon State) to start the season. The Bulldogs won the SEC regular-season title, but lost their last season series and went 0-2 in the SEC tournament before opening the NCAA tournament with a shocking home loss to No. 4 seed Lipscomb.

So who's the pick?

If you're not paying attention, we're going to take the Bulldogs and let you bet against that pick. But that's probably too easy, huh?

Short on pitching, Fresno State battled back to win the final two games of its super regional at Arizona State. It battled back to eliminate a North Carolina team that had played in the past two CWS finals and was riding the momentum of two dramatic late-inning homers, including Chad Flack's two-run game-winner Saturday when the Bulldogs were six outs from victory. Fresno State's three wins in Omaha this year are the school's most since its first CWS trip in 1959, when it started a left fielder named Augie Garrido. He's gone on to win more college baseball games than any coach in history, collecting five national titles. So maybe that very notable alum has been lending his alma mater some of his special postseason mojo.

[+] EnlargeJustin Miller
Robert J. Meyer/US PresswireFresno State right-hander Justin Miller will take the mound to start Game 1.

Unlike the encore performance following the super regional upset, Fresno State won't get a week off to reset its pitching staff before facing Georgia. Justin Wilson threw 112 pitches against North Carolina on Saturday, and Clayton Allison threw 88 coming off his tendinitis issues Sunday. That leaves Justin Miller, who surrendered the Flack homer in relief Saturday, as the Game 1 starter against Georgia, and then more of Batesole mixing and matching out of his bullpen along with Wilson and Allison on short rest the remainder of the way.

Georgia counters with on-schedule starters in Trevor Holder and Nick Montgomery, both of whom threw well in their CWS starts against Miami and Stanford. Georgia has played three games since starting the CWS on June 14, while Fresno State has played four games in a week's time, including the past two days. That could be taxing enough on an already taxed and depleted staff to finally crush Cinderella's slipper. Plus, if you're one for symmetry: Georgia beat Stanford twice en route to winning its only national title in 1990, and has defeated Stanford twice this year. Also, David Perno played for the 1990 Georgia team, and he's the coach of this one.

Then again, the last time a team entered the three-game championship series this far behind the pitching eight-ball, Oregon State got heroic efforts from Jonah Nickerson, Dallas Buck and Kevin Gunderson to win the 2006 title while fighting off six elimination games. Plus, we've already learned what happens when we count out these UnderBulldogs, right?

Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at wkimmey@gmail.com.