Commentary

Fresno State attributes early season struggles to postseason success

Originally Published: June 24, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Even if the Fresno State players don't realize how far they've come over the last six weeks, the gravity of the Bulldogs' improbable charge through the College World Series finally hit home with their coaches.

Late during Fresno State's wild 19-10 comeback victory over Georgia in Game 2 of the CWS finals on Tuesday night, several veteran coaches shook their heads, bemused as they considered what has happened for the team that calls itself "The Wonderdogs."

"This is just amazing," veteran Fresno State assistant coach Mike Mayne said. "At the end of the game, we're sitting there looking at each other. Tomorrow will be for the College World Series championship."

This was the same Fresno State team that had lost 10 out of 15 games late in the season and entered the WAC tournament only six games above .500. The Bulldogs needed a WAC tournament win just to make the NCAA field of 64, and even then were awarded only a No. 4 seed in the Long Beach Regional -- the equivalent of being seeded 13th through 16th in the NCAA basketball tournament.

"Honestly, all we were trying to do is just make a regional," Fresno State left fielder Steve Susdorf said. "To make it this far is definitely a dream. There's something going on here -- something above all of us."

Strong Fresno State hitting had as much to do with Tuesday's victory as any divine intervention that Susdorf might be hinting at. The Bulldogs pounded out 19 hits against seven Georgia pitchers, putting the game away with a 15-run, three-inning blitz that turned the game into a rout after Fresno fell into an early 5-0 hole.

[+] EnlargeTommy Mendonca
AP Photo/Ted KirkTommy Mendonca's three-run homer in the third sparked Fresno State's comeback.

"The biggest thing was there was no sense of panic," said Susdorf, who collected four RBIs to lead the hitting binge. "We just realized what we had in front of us and went out and did it."

Fresno State (46-31) took the lead with six runs in the third inning in a rally punctuated by a three-run homer by Tommy Mendonca. It was his fourth homer of the series and tied a record set eight times previously, most recently by Louisville's Logan Johnson last season.

"We were rallying and that helped make it into a huge inning," Mendonca said. "We just started rolling after that and it gave us a big boost."

After Georgia (45-24-1) tied the score in the fourth, Fresno State put the game away with five more runs in the fourth keyed by a two-run triple by Danny Muno and a two-run single by Ryan Overland.

Such situational hitting helped explain Tuesday's turnaround after Fresno State had struggled with runners in scoring position earlier in the tournament. The Bulldogs had collected only four hits in their last 31 at-bats with runners in scoring position before the victory, which evened the best-of-three championship series.

Muno keyed Fresno State's attack with three hits and seven other Fresno State players had at least two hits. Six players had at least two runs batted in against an assortment of seven Georgia pitchers.

The blistering Fresno State offensive left Georgia coach Dave Perno explaining all of the scoring in a football analogy.

"We got everything we wanted out of the gate when we got off to the quick start," Perno said. "We just had a tough time defending the post pattern across the middle."

In the first game of the series Monday night, Fresno State squandered a three-run lead in the eighth inning. Other teams might have folded after that disappointment, particularly after falling into such a huge early hole in its next game.

Tuesday's triumph marked Fresno State's fifth in an elimination game in the tournament. It's helping stretch the career of Mayne, a wizened 62-year-old coaching lifer who announced he will be leaving the program effective at the end of the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Susdorf
Robert J. Meyer/US PresswireSteve Susdorf and Fresno State have been dreaming about a run through the College World Series since March.

"Five times they've staved it off for me," said Mayne, whose son, Brent, played parts of 15 seasons in the major leagues. "The most fun is because I've gotten to stay with them for a little while longer. This is a great group of people and it's just gotten better as the year went on."

Fresno State will have the opportunity to make history Wednesday night in the deciding game (ESPN, 7 ET). It might not have been a realistic goal late in the season, but Bulldogs head coach Mike Batesole said his team's late charge can be attributed to how it handled adversity earlier in the season.

To get to the CWS finals, Fresno State claimed eight tournament games against five teams ranked in the top 20. The Bulldogs bounced back from elimination games in the regional, super regional and earlier in the College World Series.

Injuries to key starting pitchers Tanner Scheppers and Clayton Allison have left Batesole juggling a makeshift rotation the last few nights. But the Bulldogs have persevered to continue their dream season.

"After the start we had earlier in the season, we were talking about Omaha in March, when we should have been talking about March in March," Batesole said. "We just got ahead of ourselves.

"But when you get slugged in the mouth enough, it has a way of humbling you and getting you back to playing baseball. This group has been pretty good at doing that the last seven weeks. We've been on the mat enough this season that we know how to answer back."

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.