Commentary

From underdogs to wonderdogs, Fresno State blazes new trail through CWS

Originally Published: June 25, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Maybe it was the way Fresno State reacted to all the misfortunes that marked its season.

Several Fresno players admitted they were a little anguished about their NCAA tournament hopes in late May, knowing they would most likely have to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament to qualify in the 64-team tournament.

The Bulldogs were chased out of their familiar digs earlier in the tournament, forced to practice in the Arizona desert after a runaway truck driven by vandals damaged their stadium.

And for good measure, the team plane to the College World Series was rerouted 50 miles west of Omaha after struggling with weather problems on the trip from the West Coast.

All of those issues didn't matter. The Bulldogs just focused on the task at hand, making history with a performance for the ages in a dramatic 6-1 victory over Georgia on Wednesday to claim the first national baseball championship in school history.

"We've been through a lot, there's no doubt," Fresno State pitcher Jason Breckley said. "I'll admit, I thought we were going down a couple of times on that plane ride here. But it just makes everything that much sweeter with what we were able to accomplish."

Fresno State entered the NCAA tournament with a pedestrian 33-27 record and a No. 4 seed in the Long Beach Regional. Six weeks later, the Bulldogs have become the first regional 4-seed to win a national championship. They finished as the lowest-seeded team in college sports history to claim an NCAA team championship, staying alive with victories in six elimination games -- including two against Georgia.

"When we got to the regional, they told us that the only advantage a No. 4 team gets is getting dinner first," Fresno State right fielder Steve Detwiler said. "We all laughed about that at the time. But it's amazing. As much as we were underdogs out here, we just tried to go out and have fun."

[+] EnlargeSteve Detwiler
AP Photo/Ted KirkSteve Detwiler needed just one thumb to drive in six runs in the CWS championship game.

These Bulldogs were hard-nosed, scrappy grinders who epitomized the "anyplace, anytime" mantra adopted by Fresno State football coach Pat Hill several years earlier to set his team apart from the big boys from the Bowl Championship Series-affiliated conferences.

One big difference with this group: These Bulldogs were the ones happily dog-piling on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium, becoming only the second NCAA championship team in school history. In the process, they set a record -- their 47-31 record was the worst-ever for a national baseball championship team.

"I can't believe this," senior left fielder Steve Susdorf. "Somebody was looking on us from above to make this happen."

Fresno State took advantage of a mammoth power showing by Detwiler, who drove home six runs in the clincher with a pair of homers and a double -- despite playing with a torn ligament in his left thumb that will require surgery in three days. A ligament will be removed from his right wrist to replace the damaged one in his injured thumb.

"I won't be able to swing a bat for the next 12 weeks, but this was all worth it," Detwiler said. "I just gripped it harder. I knew I didn't have much strength [in his hand], but if I swung it a little harder I'd be all right."

The injury kept Detwiler from most of his team's batting practices late in the season. But it didn't look like it mattered as he went 4-for-4 in the winner-take-all game Wednesday night to key Fresno's bruising offensive attack, which tied a CWS record with 62 runs scored in the series.

[+] EnlargeGordon Beckham
AP Photo/Ted KirkGordon Beckham ended his decorated collegiate career one win short of a championship.

A partial tear would have likely knocked Detwiler out of the lineup. But because the injury was a complete tear, Fresno State team doctors didn't feel he could injure the bad ligament any more by playing during the rest of the season.

"Who better to do this than Detwiler?" Fresno State coach Mike Batesole asked. "That's a kid who has been playing for us for the last two months with one thumb. And I mean one thumb. The other one hangs down to his wrist when he wants it to. He's just made of heart -- it's about all he has in him."

Little did it seem to matter. Detwiler went 8-for-13 in the three-game championship with nine RBIs as he battered Georgia's supposedly crack pitching staff.

"It hurts more than you can explain when I swing," Detwiler said. "It just tears out more. It would kind of pop out every now and then, and I would just put it back in. But the ball looked big when I saw it tonight."

Detwiler's one-man assault on Georgia's pitching staff supported the outstanding pitching of Justin Wilson, whose eight-inning, 129-pitch effort on three days' rest had his teammates marveling after the game.

Wilson walked one and struck out nine in the longest effort by any pitcher in the 2008 College World Series.

"Justin coming back like that was something special," said third baseman Tommy Mendonca, who earned the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award. "It was just a big-time, gutty performance when we really needed one."

Georgia scored its only run on a long homer by shortstop Gordon Beckham, who earned a share of the nation's home run lead in his final collegiate at-bat. Beckham and LSU's Matt Clark each finished the season with 28 homers.

[+] EnlargeKris Tomlinson
AP Photo/Ted KirkKris Tomlinson's hair was a conversation starter at the College World Series.

Earlier, Beckham had extended his 15-game hitting streak, and he concluded the season with Georgia's single-season record for hits with 113. He hit .522 (12-for-23) in the CWS with two homers and five RBIs.

Beckham was impressed with Fresno's pluckiness, as the Bulldogs battled back after losing the first game of the CWS finals. Georgia had a 5-0 lead after 2½ innings in Game 2 before Fresno charged back to claim a 19-10 triumph that forced the deciding game.

"They're a scrappy team and they played hard," Beckham said. "They just played better than us tonight. Maybe we would if we played a next game, who knows? But there isn't a next game."

Georgia (45-25-1) hasn't won a national baseball title since 1990. But it was fitting that Georgia coach David Perno allowed relief ace Joshua Fields to finish the game by coaxing a groundout for the Bulldogs' final out of the season.

Fresno was ready for an on-field explosion after Brandon Burke got the final out in the ninth inning. Pitcher Kris Tomlinson, a skinny left-hander who sports a "skullet" haircut that makes him look more like the old comedian Gallagher than an athlete, got the worst injury of the bunch with a nasty shiner over his right eye when a teammate happily jumped on top of him in the scrum on the field.

"He's not looking too good now with that skullet and that black eye," Susdorf said.

Batesole was ready for the zinger that put a capper on his team's wild ride to the title.

"I'm just glad they were giving out hats out there," he said, chuckling as he shook his head. "I love to see our guys dogpile because that's what it is really about."

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