Commentary

Bulldogs overcome deficits, injuries to shock college baseball world

Originally Published: June 26, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Fresno State outfielder Steve Susdorf knew he wanted to come back for his senior season for a reason. But he couldn't have imagined it would have turned out quite so satisfying.

Susdorf turned down a $50,000 professional contract with the Detroit Tigers thanks to the advice of his older brother, who went pro early but regretted what he left behind. His convincing argument was that there always would be a chance to play pro baseball -- but only one chance for a senior season with the Bulldogs.

[+] EnlargeSteve Susdorf
AP Photo/Eric FrancisSteve Susdorf (No. 27) decided to come back for his senior season, and he's glad he did.

After he became a part of the most improbable college sports championship story in recent years, Susdorf was glad he listened.

"This is a fairy tale come true," Susdorf said as he held the championship trophy on Wednesday after the Bulldogs vanquished Georgia 6-1. "This is phenomenal. I can't describe it."

The hyperbole around Fresno State's wild charge to the NCAA baseball championship probably isn't overstated. The Bulldogs' emergence from underdogs to wonderdogs will go down in history as one of the most memorable title runs in college sports history, maybe even in all of sports history.

Fresno State, which brought home the school's first men's national title of any kind, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed in the Long Beach regional. Its RPI ranking of 89 suggested it was more likely to go "two and barbecue" in the first round as to make a long run.

The Bulldogs became the first No. 4 seed ever to make the College World Series, but they accomplished so much more. They gave hope to all the directional schools and the low majors who are always a part of the 64-team tournament.

"In college baseball, everybody has a chance," Susdorf said. "We just got hot at the right time."

Much was expected of Fresno State before the season, but the Bulldogs limped to a disappointing 8-12 start that included losses to first-year Division I program UC Davis in the first two games of the season.

Despite playing well during the regular season and finishing atop the Western Athletic Conference, Fresno State players thought they would have to win the conference tournament to cement an NCAA tournament bid.

But the best indication of what this team was capable of accomplishing came in the first NCAA tournament game, when the Bulldogs stunned No. 11 Long Beach State on its home field with a 7-3 victory that kick-started their playoff hopes.

"I knew this was a good baseball team when we beat Long Beach," Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said. "I didn't know what we would do [in the tournament], but for me, that was satisfaction enough. I would have felt good if we had ended the season there."

From there, the Bulldogs overcame six elimination games and beat four national seeds en route to the title. They twice overcame early-series deficits after losing the first game of a best-of-three series against Arizona State and then Georgia.

"I just got out of the way, and the seniors took control of this ballclub," Batesole said. "They decided we would do things right on and off the field. It was beautiful to be a part of it."

 Tommy Mendonca
Robert J. Meyer/US PRESSWIRE Tommy Mendonca earned MVP honors after hitting four homers in the CWS.

The Bulldogs' victory captured the attention of mainstream fans who rarely paid much attention to college baseball. Their win may herald a new era for a niche sport that has battled desperately for national awareness.

It remains to be seen whether that will translate into more nationally televised games and the kind of star appeal that will consistently attract viewers and drive television ratings. But it sure can't hurt.

"I hope it does a lot of good," Batesole said. "Especially, [when] you look deep into what this team is made of. It shows the country that anyone can win the national title doing it the right way."

The Bulldogs' run to the title impressed Georgia coach David Perno, who said it could give a lift to the entire sport.

"The parity in college baseball gives teams hope that they can get here and live the dream," Perno said. "Maybe something special can happen."

Susdorf said he understands what the Bulldogs' charge could mean for his sport. "This is a great thing for college baseball," he said. "It shows you don't need a No. 1 draft pick to win the national title. All you need is everyone working together."

The Bulldogs were a testament to that statement.

Winning pitcher Justin Wilson pitched on only three days' rest and threw a masterpiece in the championship game. He struck out nine and walked only one in a 127-pitch, eight-inning effort that was the longest stint of any pitcher in the tournament.

His emergence was huge after the Bulldogs lost ace starter Tanner Scheppers six weeks ago to a season-ending shoulder injury. Scheppers was Fresno State's highest draft choice after Pittsburgh picked him in the second round. He remains the team's brightest potential star in pro baseball.

This is a great thing for college baseball,. It shows you don't need a No. 1 draft pick to win the national title. All you need is everyone working together."

-- Fresno State's Steve Susdorf

Slugging outfielder Steve Detwiler overcame a torn thumb ligament, which will require surgery when he gets home, to blast two homers and account for all six RBIs in the title-game triumph.

Coming into the championship series, Detwiler was 4-for-39 in the NCAA tournament. But his late hitting binge enabled him to set championship-series records for hits, homers and RBIs.

CWS Most Outstanding Player Tommy Mendonca turned in a variety of gems throughout the tournament and blasted four homers despite playing with dislocated fingers.

And shortstop Danny Muno battled back from earlier fielding yips to start a double play in the ninth inning that helped put Georgia away. An out later -- fittingly caught by Detwiler -- the loudest party in recent memory was touched off back home in the San Joaquin Valley.

Perno was impressed by Fresno State's hitting prowess. The Bulldogs tied a CWS record with 62 runs scored, and seven different players blasted 14 home runs. No other team at the CWS even hit seven homers collectively.

But Perno was more captivated by their resiliency after losing Scheppers for the season before the tournament started. "They did it without their ace, and that even sends a stronger message," Perno said. "Coach Batesole does a tremendous job. I just wish it wouldn't have happened to us, but I think this is good for college baseball."

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