The Rise of the Bulldogs: The Untold Story of One of the Greatest Upsets of All Time

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The Rise of the Bulldogs: The Untold Story of One of the Greatest Upsets of All Time

THE RISE OF THE BULLDOGS The Untold Story of One of the Greatest Upsets of A ll Time Dan Taylor To Thomas J. M

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THE

RISE OF THE

BULLDOGS

The Untold Story of

One of the Greatest

Upsets of A ll Time

Dan Taylor

To Thomas J. McWilliam

For igniting the flame

Contents Chapter 1 Taken by Storm

1

Chapter 2 Coming Back to What?

7

Chapter 3 An Unearthed Gem

13

Chapter 4 A Brighter Day

23

Chapter 5 Under the Microscope

29

Chapter 6 Sounding Off

35

Chapter 7 In Good Time

45

Chapter 8 Paradise Lost

51

Chapter 9 No April Fool’s Joke

59

Chapter 10 Pick Your Poison

65

Chapter 11 Time of the Signs

71

Chapter 12 The Arms Race

77

Chapter 13 Shouldered Burden

83

Chapter 14 Empty Seats

89

Chapter 15 Shaking Things Up

97

Chapter 16 The Tattered Dream

103

Chapter 17 Down to the Wire

113

Chapter 18 Decision Dividends

119

Photographic Insert Chapter 19 Beef at the Beach

129

Chapter 20 Diamond Disbelief

135

Chapter 21 Cancel Vacation

143

Chapter 22 The Coveted Call

149

Chapter 23 Desert Heat

153

Chapter 24 The Gold Standard

155

Chapter 25 The Devil’s Field

163

Chapter 26 Inconceivable Meets Unbelievable

173

Chapter 27 The Land of Awes

181

Chapter 28 They Don’t Give a Hoot

189

Chapter 29 The Darlings of Omaha

197

Chapter 30 Carolina Blues

205

Chapter 31 Injury Makes Insult

213

Chapter 32 Dog Day Afternoon

221

Chapter 33 Getting the Message

231

Chapter 34 Pride Is Forever

237

Epilogue Acknowledgments About the Author Cover Copyright About the Publisher

1

CHAPTER

Taken by Storm

JUNE 24, 2008— One couldn’t fault many among the Fresno State

fans if they felt that the morning portended a gloomy game result. Dark clouds had brought a thunderstorm to Rosenblatt Stadium, de­ laying the game by half an hour. Hours after losing the first game of the best-of-three national championship series to the University of Georgia, Fresno State was in serious trouble. The Bulldogs were in a 5–0 deficit headed to the bottom of the third inning. Lose this game, and the Cinderella hopes of a national champi­ onship would be over. The supportive signs had been rolled up. The voices of Fresno State’s fans among the crowd of 17,223 were now silent. The Bulldogs had shocked the eight-team College World Series field by jumping quickly into the winner’s bracket with a seventeenrun outburst to defeat Rice. Now they had added even more wonder to

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Dan Taylor

their improbable run with two wins over second-seeded University of North Carolina to reach the title series. Georgia had blitzed through their bracket play to reach this game with a 4–0 record. They showed their might by jumping on Fresno State’s starting pitcher, Justin Miller, scoring five runs in the game’s first two and two-thirds innings. While it may have gone unnoticed by most fans, a small spark was lit in the Fresno State dugout in the top of the third inning. When Georgia chased Miller from the game with a run-scoring two-out rally, Fresno State’s head coach, Mike Batesole, brought Holden Sprague on in relief. His challenge was to face Georgia’s dangerous Ryan Peisel. Sprague battled the .341 hitter and Colorado Rockies draft pick to a full count before the Fresno State pitcher won the duel, getting a swinging strike three to end the threat and the inning. In the bull pen, Mike Mayne was especially pleased. Since becom­ ing Fresno State’s fourth pitching coach in four years back in Novem­ ber, he had invested considerable time and teaching to develop Holden Sprague into an effective and reliable contributor. Mayne’s belief in Sprague and the confidence of his teammates grew greatly late in the season. Following the season-ending injury to Fresno State’s heralded pitcher Tanner Scheppers in mid-May, Sprague had filled the void and come through with a series of big outings. So strong was Mayne’s belief in Sprague that a dugout shouting match broke out between pitching coach and head coach during the team’s opening game of the Long Beach regional in May. At issue was a disagreement between the two as to whether Sprague was the correct relief pitching choice. Rosenblatt Stadium stirred to life in the bottom of the third inning. Steve Detwiler, courageously playing with a torn ligament in his left thumb, opened the inning with a single. After Jordan Ribera struck out and Danny Muno walked, Gavin Hedstrom singled to load the bases.

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3

The fans’ signs were quickly unfurled; their voices awakened as the faithful sought to spur their Bulldogs. Suddenly a wild pitch skipped past the Georgia catcher. Detwiler raced home and scored the first Fresno State run. Erik Wetzel, ever patient at the plate, worked the count to threeand-two before winning the duel and drawing a walk. That brought the Western Athletic Conference player of the year, Steve Susdorf, to the plate. Opportunity lay before him to draw the Bulldogs closer and earn a dog paw. Susdorf was among a number of Fresno State players to think the dog paws were a corny idea. Mike Batesole had developed a theory through considerable research. He told his players his study showed that five key actions contribute to winning a game. Throughout the season any time a player produced one of those key actions, he had the sticker of a dog paw affixed to his batting helmet if Fresno State won the game. A single by Susdorf could bring in two runs and give Fresno State three in the inning. That would meet Batesole’s criteria for a big inning and earn a dog paw for the senior. Georgia’s pitcher was struggling with his control. Both Muno and Wetzel had successfully worked full counts. Now he had fallen behind three balls and one strike to Susdorf. The Academic All-American thought he might get a hittable fastball in this situation. He fi xed his gaze on the pitcher’s release point. The offering was what he wanted and thrown where he wanted. Susdorf reacted, drilling it through the right side for a single. Hedstrom and Muno both dashed home to score. Georgia’s once five-run lead was now just two. It was 5–3, with only one out in the inning. Teammates leaned over the dugout railing to shout, clap, and show their excitement at Susdorf’s clutch hit. Fresno State’s fans were on their feet all around Rosenblatt Stadium, enlivened by the rally.

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Susdorf’s hit produced a Georgia pitching change. Alan Ahmady, the first Bulldog to face the new Georgia pitcher, popped out to first base. Two outs. Tommy Mendonca was coming to the plate with two runners on. Mendonca had enjoyed a hitting renaissance in Omaha. Through­ out the regular season he amassed a staggering number of strikeouts. Few Bulldogs had endured the amount of failure and frustration that burdened Mendonca at the plate during the season. At one point there was even talk of benching him. However, Mendonca’s fielding skills were too good and too valuable for him to be removed from the lineup. Opposing pitchers in Omaha were feeding Mendonca a steady diet of fastballs. Breaking balls, which his swing flaws left him susceptible to, were few and far between. For Mendonca and several teammates, this proved manna from above. The previous night Mendonca homered. In their bracket elimina­ tion game, his three hits and four runs driven in helped send Fresno State into the title series. From his seat in the stands, Mendonca’s father, Ray, rose to his feet. A night earlier, rare negativity out of Ray Mendonca evoked the wrath of his brother. Following the loss to Georgia, Ray Mendonca said he had a bad feeling this game might be the end of the team’s miracle run. His brother reacted angrily and chastised him for making the suggestion. But now as son Tommy settled into the batter’s box, Ray Mendonca turned to his wife, Tami, and said, “He’s going to swing at the first pitch. Watch.” Tommy Mendonca studied the Georgia pitcher. All around the ballpark Fresno State fans were shouting encouragement. Georgia’s fans were trying to vocally implore their heroes, too. The ESPN cam­ eras focused in on the challenge. Steve Susdorf took his three-step lead off of first base. Erik Wetzel advanced cautiously from third base. The Georgia pitcher took a peek

The Rise of the Bulldogs

5

at both, ready to make a quick throw should either stray too far from the bag. Satisfied, the pitcher then turned his concentration to his catcher’s glove. He raised his left leg, rocked into his motion, and de­ livered the pitch. Mendonca’s eyes quickly read the pitch, a hittable curveball bend­ ing its way into the strike zone, and his hands reacted. Swiftly they whipped the bat through the hitting zone, the top hand gently rolling over as his swing reached midbody. The twist of his right hip brought his lower body around, thrusting the bat across the plane of home plate, where it made contact with the ball. The off-white sphere exploded off Mendonca’s aluminum bat. Launched high into the air toward right field, it brought screams, shouts, and cheers from the seventeen thou­ sand fans who encircled the field in the stands. The Georgia right fielder ran toward the outfield wall, his eyes following the flight of the ball. Its high arc looked to one and all as though it would carry the ball into the stands. When it did, Fresno State players erupted, rushing from the dugout to home plate. There they celebrated their teammate’s game-changing three-run home run. As Mendonca jogged the base paths, he soaked in the loud­ est cheers his hitting had ever produced in a baseball stadium. The ninety-foot trot from third base to home plate saw teammates burst­ ing with excitement. Georgia’s five-run lead was gone. Mendonca’s three-run blast capped a stirring comeback. It gave Fresno State a 6–5 lead. Brimming with confidence from their big inning, Fresno State exploded again. The Bulldogs scored five times in the fourth inning. They added four more runs an inning later. By the time the game reached the sixth inning, Fresno State had scored fifteen runs. At game’s end they had scored even more to win by a staggering 19–10. Just as in the Long Beach regional, in the Super Regional, and in College World Series bracket play, Fresno State managed to fight back from within one loss of elimination.

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Dan Taylor

There was jubilation among the hundreds of Fresno State fans at Rosenblatt Stadium. Many wore T-shirts, and others displayed signs emblazoned with the Bulldogs’ new postseason slogan: “Underdogs to Wonderdogs.” The triumph allowed them what-if thoughts. In less than twentyfour hours they would return to Rosenblatt Stadium with hopes of witnessing the Bulldogs cap a mutinous run through college baseball’s elite and capture the most improbable national championship in col­ legiate sports history.

2

CHAPTER

Coming Back to What?

NOVEMBER 11, 2007—The chill of a Central Valley winter belied

the summertime activity taking place within Beiden Field. In one area, returning all-conference outfielder Steve Susdorf was whacking balls off of a three-foot-high rubber tee, honing his swing. Many were sur­ prised he had turned down a fifty-thousand-dollar signing bonus and contract offer from the Detroit Tigers to return for his final season at Fresno State. In the outfield, pitchers Clayton Allison, Justin Wilson, Justin Miller, and Tanner Scheppers were playing long-toss, stretching tight muscles and building arm strength for the season ahead. The infield­ ers picked batted balls off the infield dirt. The throws from the third baseman, Tommy Mendonca, from the shortstop, Todd Sandell, and from the returning second baseman, Erik Wetzel, smacked the leather glove held out as a target by Alan Ahmady at first base.

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Dan Taylor

Emerging from the dugout, Brandon Burke produced a crunching sound as each step forced metal cleats into the mixture of rock and dirt that made up the field-encircling warning track. These were steps Burke never expected to take. Four months earlier he had declared himself through with baseball. Burke was frustrated with his head coach, blaming him for not being drafted and angry that a transfer wish had been refused. During his three seasons at Fresno State, Burke and Mike Batesole clashed repeatedly. In his freshman year Burke was among players who encouraged a revolt of sorts when the coach punished the team over poor play. That afternoon Batesole had launched into the players with a verbal tirade, telling them they were an embarrassment. He placed their locker room and training facilities off-limits and ordered them to run for the duration of the day’s practice. Burke joined two others in encouraging their teammates to defy their coach and walk out of Beiden Field. They did so, refusing to complete the ordered running. Their walkout briefly threatened the playing of a game against Cal Poly. Players considered forfeiting the game in protest of their coach’s action. A starting pitcher at the time of the confrontation, Burke was soon removed from the rotation. Despite having a winning record at that stage of the season, he would never again be the starting pitcher in a game for Fresno State. He believed the move was retaliatory. Leaving Fresno State was not a new idea to Burke, nor was he alone among Bulldog players seeking a different playing environment. The seeds of his unhappiness were sewn when Batesole and his pitching coach, Tim Montez, parted ways in July 2005. Many of the seniors on the 2008 team had been recruited by Montez. They liked him, felt he was an effective teacher, and were not happy with the treatment—real or perceived—that sent him from the program. Montez’s departure gave Burke cause to contemplate leaving. After much thought over the summer, he elected to return. An eight-win

The Rise of the Bulldogs

9

sophomore season generated hope that he would be chosen in the draft following his junior year. Burke made up his mind that if he was chosen, he would definitely sign and leave Fresno State behind. When the June 2007 draft concluded, Burke had not been picked. Burke stewed and ultimately decided he’d had it with playing at Fresno State. Shortly after the season ended, Burke contacted former high school and summer-league teammates to explore the possibility of a transfer to another school. He looked into enrolling at a school closer to his San Diego–area home. When he discussed leaving with Mike Batesole, the coach refused to release the pitcher from his scholarship. Burke would watch fellow pitchers Eric Otterson and Drew Gagnier leave the program. The parents of another teammate also desperate to leave en­ listed help from an attorney and gained the release sought by their son. Brandon Burke didn’t have such resources and, thus, reached a more sobering decision: quit baseball. Back home in southern California during summer break, Burke discussed his feelings with his parents. Mike and Debbie Burke had instilled in their four children a “live life to the fullest” attitude. Brandon learned the value of the philosophy from his mother’s suc­ cessful fight against cancer. There were times, however, when Brandon Burke enjoyed life a little more than his college coaches wished. Talkative and opinionated, he earned respect for his views from several of his teammates. His head coach often felt differently, and a point came in Burke’s junior season after which coach and pitcher rarely spoke. At the Western Athletic Conference championship in the spring of 2007, Burke slipped away from the team hotel and went drinking. He was later caught by his coach. From that day forward Batesole would attempt to prevent repeat incidents by collecting each player’s driver’s license when the team played on the road. Discouraged that his attempt to leave Fresno State and play at an­ other school had been denied, Brandon Burke decided to walk away

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Dan Taylor

from the game at which he had excelled since his youth. He would seek fun and enjoyment through other means—at least, that’s what he told his dad. But Mike Burke hoped his words would point his son in a dif­ ferent direction. Cancer was back in the Burke household. His mother had fought it successfully. This time it was Mike who was being at­ tacked. His message to his son was to be happy. He reminded Brandon he had already spent three years playing and studying at Fresno State and was not far from finishing. Mike Burke wanted his son to get his degree. He suggested Brandon give baseball at Fresno State one last try. If he didn’t like the way things were going by spring, he could quit and come home. Brandon relented, and when summer ended, he packed his belongings and traveled north to Fresno. Shortly after arriving to begin the fall semester, Brandon Burke and fellow pitchers learned that the program’s latest pitching coach had resigned. This was the third pitching coach to leave Fresno State in three years. Ted Silva’s resignation to become pitching coach at UC Irvine meant that every pitcher on the Fresno State staff would have learned from a different pitching coach in each of their seasons at the school. The new pitching coach would be the fourth to tutor Burke and fellow senior Jason Breckley in as many years at Fresno State. With no one on staff to coach the pitchers once fall practice began, Burke and fellow senior Clayton Allison assumed leadership of the group. Allison oversaw the conditioning sessions. Burke led the throwing sessions and worked with teammates on pitching mechan­ ics. All the while the group wondered whom Batesole would hire to tutor them in the new season. During drills with the pitchers it became clear there was consider­ able talent on the staff. In fact, there was an impressive collection of talent all around Beiden Field. Still, that did little to generate enthusi­ asm within Brandon Burke. He had seen an immensely talented 2006 Fresno State team fail to fulfill its potential.

The Rise of the Bulldogs

11

Throughout fall workouts, the talent of Tanner Scheppers im­ pressed his teammates. Inserted into the starting rotation during the second half of the 2007 season, Scheppers finished strong and capped his development with a tremendous performance in the NCAA region­ als. A power pitcher, Scheppers had seen his control improve while playing amateur ball over the summer. Scheppers and Burke talked at length about developing personas—adopting a habit or trait that would project command and confidence to opposing hitters. Clayton Allison was an imposing six feet five inches tall and 230 pounds. He had played linebacker and tight end on his high school football team and brought a football-like tenacity to the mound. Coaches in the Western Athletic Conference tabbed the right-hander the preseason pitcher of the year. Allison and Scheppers would anchor the Bulldogs’ staff. Justin Wilson had won nine games as a sophomore in 2007 and had another spot in the rotation nailed down. The league’s new schedule format added a fourth game to each con­ ference series. It meant coaches in the WAC would need four starting pitchers instead of the three-man rotations previously used. As much as Burke hoped to return to a starting role, it was not to be. Batesole had recruited a junior college pitcher, Justin Miller, from Bakersfield College, to fill the fourth slot. Miller was a six-foot five-inch right­ hander with a live slider that the coach thought highly of. With the four starters identified, it was the bull pen that was going to take work assembling. Jason Breckley was projected as the closer. Most roles were undefined, and the seven pitchers challenging to fi ll the various relief roles were anxious to get a pitching coach on board and begin the competition for attention and innings. Time was short. It was early November. The season was less than ninety days away. With players soon heading home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the monthlong semester break, there wasn’t going to be much practice time available to get a new pitching coach up to speed and familiar with the staff.

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Gathered one mid-November afternoon, several of the pitchers saw their head coach with a gray-haired man. “Who’s the old dude?” Burke wondered aloud to a teammate. Like his fellow pitchers, he was about to be introduced to their new pitching coach, Mike Mayne—a man who would have a profound impact on his life.

3

CHAPTER

An Unearthed Gem

FEBRUARY 23, 2008—A persistent rain left puddles on and

around Fresno State’s Beiden Field. While the rain did not fall hard enough to call off or even delay the Bulldogs’ season opener with UC Davis, the performance of the Fresno State baseball team did dampen the enthusiasm of more than a few fans who were on hand. Despite the inclement weather, a number of spectators turned out to see for them­ selves a team heralded as “special” by its head coach, Mike Batesole, during the off-season. Preseason practice produced a lineup centered on returnees. Erik Wetzel, a junior, was given the responsibility of batting leadoff. He would play second base. Steve Detwiler, a hitter with promise, would start the season opener in right field. He was written into the second spot in the batting order. Much was expected of Steve Susdorf. Voted

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preseason Western Athletic Conference player of the year, the senior would start in left field and bat third. Batesole elected to go with an­ other senior, Ryan Overland, at first base in the opener. Primarily a backup catcher his first three seasons at Fresno State, Overland was penciled into the cleanup spot in the batting order. Another returning player, Tommy Mendonca, would bat fifth and play third base. Freshmen filled three of the final four spots in the lineup. Jordan Ribera would be the opening-night designated hitter and bat sixth. Trent Soares, a local product and heralded recruit, got the opening-game start in center field. He hit eighth. Danny Muno, another member of Batesole’s talented recruiting class, received the start at shortstop and hit ninth. The team’s returning all-WAC catcher, Danny Grubb, hit in the seventh spot. The appearance of the opening-night lineup card was destined to see a great deal of change. The enthusiasm usually associated with a season-opening game would turn to chagrin by night’s end. The Bulldogs managed only four hits and lost to the Aggies 4–2. Their rivals actually had opportunities to make the final score even worse. UC Davis stranded thirteen run­ ners on base over the course of the game. Fans weren’t the only ones having doubts. Players were surprised at the level of their team’s play. They came into the season with a great deal of optimism. Tommy Mendonca echoed his head coach’s state­ ments, telling friends he thought the Bulldogs had College World Series potential. The quality of play left some players wondering how competitive they would be once conference play rolled around. Fewer fans came to the ballpark Saturday afternoon for the first game of the doubleheader with the Aggies. Those who did saw Fresno State again go down to defeat. This time the Bulldogs managed to score just one run. Some among those gathered wondered if start-of-the-season anx­ iousness resulted in a high number of strikeouts in the first two games.

The Rise of the Bulldogs

15

Twenty of the fifty-four outs recorded against the Bulldogs came by strikeout. Whether prodded by frustration, anxiousness, or just a desire to get in the win column, Batesole made several changes to the lineup for game two of the doubleheader. As players checked the lineup card, enthusiasm surged through the dugout. Tanner Scheppers was being moved up a day. The hard-throwing right-hander would pitch the up­ coming second game of the doubleheader. Ceremonies between games honored two of Fresno State’s all-time great players, former major-league baseball standouts Dick Ruthven and Tom Goodwin. Longtime supporters of the program held both in high regard for the success they helped produce. To the ardent fan, though, the commotion in the seats behind home plate was what really signaled that something special was about to take place. More than a dozen scouts for major-league clubs settled into the plastic red chair-back seats behind home plate for the start of the day’s second game. As coaches met with umpires and exchanged lineup cards at home plate, Bert Holt of the Colorado Rockies readied his radar gun. Sean Campbell of the Pittsburgh Pirates prepared his note­ book. San Diego Padres scout Rich Bordi greeted well-wishers who held fond memories of his days as a Fresno State pitching standout. “Hi-ya, Knife,” came the greeting from a Bulldogs fan to yet another scout on hand. Keith Snider had been recognized by a fan who remem­ bered the San Francisco Giants scout by the nickname he acquired during his Fresno State playing days. Tanner Scheppers had the size and pitching skill that got scouts excited. Six feet four and two hundred pounds, he possessed a fast­ ball that had improved during each season of college ball. Scheppers had been pitching for just three years, converted from shortstop by his high school coach. The pitching skills were raw at first, but they improved greatly during his two seasons at Fresno State. As a freshman, Scheppers got

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into just twelve games and pitched only fifteen innings all season. Lack­ ing consistent control of his pitches was an issue. Scheppers amassed a high number of walks. In the summer following his freshman season, the talent that lay within Tanner Scheppers was unlocked. An astute summer-league coach, Bill Pintard, worked with the then nineteen-year-old on the mental aspects of the craft. The Santa Barbara Foresters’ coach rec­ ognized that Scheppers encountered problems when he worked too quickly. He set about to slow down his game. Throughout the summer Scheppers learned the value of deep breathing and meditation to maintain calm on the mound. To his sur­ prise, he found that pitching in a more relaxed state gave him better accuracy and an ability to hit targeted spots with his pitches. In his sophomore season Scheppers returned to Fresno State im­ proved from the summer tutoring. He was used in differing roles over the first half of the season. Late in the year he received starting assign­ ments on a more regular basis. During a stretch over the latter part of his sophomore year, Scheppers began to show flashes of eye-catching potential. The season ended with All-Tournament recognition for his performance at the San Diego regional and the wonder of what his junior season could bring. The scouts assembled for this game were anxious to see if his pitch­ ing talent had continued to improve. If it had, many felt he could be an elite college pitcher and one of the prized prospects going into the June major-league draft. The answer lay in the Fresno State dugout, where the negativity over a pair of losses was being replaced by a rush of anticipation. Hitters, who fretted at having to face an untouchable pitcher during fall intrasquad games, were now anxious to see opposing batters suffer a similar fate. As his teammates jogged to their positions, Scheppers strode to the mound, catching the baseball thrown to him by his catcher, Danny Grubb, then kicking mud from his spikes. While Alan Ahmady tossed

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17

ground balls to his fellow infielders and Steve Susdorf, Gavin Hedstrom, and Steve Detwiler played catch in the outfield, Scheppers took the first of his eight warm-up pitches. The umpire assigned to work behind home plate, Rick Scarbery, lowered into his crouch and looked at the pitcher from over Grubb’s right shoulder. He recalled from assignments the previous season that Scheppers was prone to control difficulties as a game progressed. As good as his stuff was, Scheppers had occasion, the umpire felt, to lose focus and get into trouble. Any umpire working home plate dreaded a game with a lot of walks. It slowed the pace and often brought complaints from players and coaches over what they thought were borderline calls their pitcher didn’t get. It was disruptive to an umpire’s rhythm and made focus and concentration more difficult to maintain. Peering at Scheppers’s warm-up pitches, Scarbery was impressed. Each was in or around the strike zone and thrown with high velocity. Finally, the allotted warm-up pitches complete, Grubb sprang from his crouch and fired the baseball over Scheppers’s head to Todd Sandell, who straddled second base. Quickly the ball was being tossed among infielders in pregame baseball tradition. With warm-ups done, the game was about to begin. In the dugout, Fresno State’s coaches were anxious to get a win. They were also hopeful that their optimism and belief in Tanner Scheppers would quickly be justified. Todd Sandell reminded himself to be alert. The shortstop knew that Scheppers was the type of pitcher who would get a lot of strikeouts and fly-ball outs. Ground-ball chances for the Fresno State infielders might be few, and it could be easy to lose concentration. Another challenge to the infielders: a wet field. With the field soaked from two days of rain, any ground ball rolling on the damp grass would become slick. This could create difficult and adventure­ some throws. Sandell reminded himself to stay alert.

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Dan Taylor

As he prepared to dust off home plate and then settle in behind the catcher to call the game, Scarbery caught sight of something that told him this might be a different Tanner Scheppers. It looked to him like the pitcher was performing some sort of concentration exercise before beginning play. Scheppers walked behind the mound, leaned down, took a deep breath, and said a brief prayer. Once done, he rose and walked onto the mound, where he looked down and took two more deep breaths. Only after feeling his heart rate drop did the Bulldogs’ pitcher look at his catcher for the sign. The scouts seated behind home plate readied for the performance. Bert Holt pointed his radar gun toward the tall twenty-one-year-old, anxious to learn the speed of his pitches. Other scouts had pens or pencils poised to jot notes into their books. The UC Davis leadoff hitter swung at Scheppers’s very first pitch, made contact, and sent a ground ball to Erik Wetzel at second base. The ball was scooped up off the top of the infield dirt and thrown to Alan Ahmady, who was playing first base in this game, and the first out of the game was recorded. The second hitter stepped into the batter’s box, and in moments Scheppers was into his motion, reaching back with his powerful right arm and whistling a fastball into Danny Grubb’s glove. Behind the backstop, Bert Holt took a glance at the number displayed on his radar gun and was impressed. The pitch had registered ninety-six miles an hour. One pitch later the batter sent a line drive toward Wetzel, who wrapped his glove around the ball as it smacked the palm of his leather-covered hand. The second out of the game was in the books. While some scouts wrote notes in their binders about the speed and accuracy of Scheppers’s pitches, others scribbled thoughts about the smoothness and fluidity of his delivery. There were no hesita­ tions or alterations in the motion that might raise concern of future injury. Scheppers’s pitches were clocking impressive numbers on the

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radar guns behind home plate. Even more impressive, all were thrown within or at the edge of the strike zone. He appeared confident and focused, and displayed strong mound presence. The third hitter in the UC Davis batting order took Scheppers’s first pitch for a ball. He then fouled off the next two offerings and fell behind in the count. Fans could sense the big pitcher closing in for the kill. Grubb glanced over his left shoulder, looking into the dugout at Matt Curtis for the sign. The assistant coach called all the pitches. Once Grubb received the sign, he turned, looked at Scheppers on the mound, put down his right index finger to signal for a fastball, and received an approving nod in return. Scheppers reared back and fired the ball past the spectating hitter and into Grubb’s glove. The umpire’s “Strike three” call sent players jogging back to the dugout. But another sound turned their attention back to the mound. Following the third-strike call, the pitcher punched his right fist into the leather palm of his mitt and let out a yell. Steve Susdorf grinned at the sight while trotting from left field. We got our guy on the mound, and he’s not going to let us lose, Susdorf thought to himself. In the dugout, Mike Mayne took in all he had just witnessed with interest. After accepting the job as Fresno State’s pitching coach, he heard glowing reports about Scheppers’s potential. What he was now seeing proved it was true. Glancing at the gathering of scouts in the stands, Mayne wondered if the day foretold trouble. Would the atten­ tion from professional baseball and its prospect of big money become a distraction, and an enemy of the team’s success? Fresno State sent Scheppers to the mound for the second inning with a 1–0 lead, thanks to Steve Detwiler’s patience, which had pro­ duced a bases-loaded walk. The pitcher quickly took command of the situation, striking out the first two batters of the inning. In the outfield, Susdorf, Hedstrom, and Detwiler were being treated to an almost surreal form of entertainment. Each time Scheppers

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began his windup, nearly two dozen radar guns simultaneously rose from the laps of scouts and were pointed at the pitcher. The trio were not distracted enough to be unable to bail the pitcher out of a two-out jam. With a runner on base from a single, the UC Davis hitter sent a shot in Susdorf’s direction. The senior hustled after it. Noticing the Aggies’ runner rounding third base, Susdorf fielded the ball and released a strong throw in the direction of Tommy Mendonca. Standing in shallow left field, the Bulldogs’ third baseman received Susdorf’s throw, quickly spun to his left, and fired the ball toward Danny Grubb. The timing of the play was perfect. Grubb caught Mendonca’s relay, slapped a tag on the sliding runner, and heard the home-plate umpire beside him call the runner out to end the inning. Fans cheered their approval as the Bulldogs ran off the field. With each completed inning and another zero posted on the UC Davis line of the Beiden Field scoreboard, Scheppers strode from mound to dugout with growing confidence. The work spent improv­ ing his mental focus was paying off handsomely. Whether it was his fastball or confident body language producing it, fans, players, and coaches felt that the game was in his control. His teammates at inning’s end would jog from the field with added amazement at what they were witnessing. Belief and confidence in their pitcher was growing. In the dugout, fellow pitchers watched in near awe. The overpowering fastball produced envy. Scheppers’s slider was “electric.” If there was concern in the Fresno State dugout, it was for the grow­ ing number of pitches Scheppers was throwing. While the opponents weren’t getting hits, their at bats were becoming battles. He was dueling with the fate of every strikeout pitcher: building a high pitch count. After four innings, Fresno State owned a 3–0 lead. The fifth inning gave fans, scouts, and his coaches a glimpse of just how effectively Tanner Scheppers could leave an opponent overmatched.

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His overpowering fastball chalked up two quick strikeouts. Around the infield, teammates found themselves sneaking peeks at the score­ board. They were anxious to learn the speed his pitches were register­ ing on the radar gun. A third strikeout made quick work of the visitors and sent Scheppers slowly walking across the green grass to the dugout, applauded by appreciative Bulldogs fans. In the sixth inning, fatigue appeared to affect Scheppers’s ability to control his pitches. He hit a batter and then surrendered a single, putting two runners on base with nobody out. Before the situation could cause panic or alarm, Scheppers produced a strikeout, a first­ pitch pop out to Alan Ahmady at first base, and then a two-pitch fly out to Gavin Hedstrom in center field, escaping the jam without giving up a run. Todd Sandell had practically been reduced to the role of a spectator thus far in the game. Through six innings he had yet to handle a single ground ball from his shortstop position. Stepping into the batter’s box in the bottom of the sixth inning, he had the chance to contribute with his bat. Two runners were on base when Sandell came up to the plate. He was presented with the chance to help the Bulldogs add to their lead. Trent Soares took a walking lead off of second base. Erik Wetzel inched away from first. Sandell peered at the pitcher, focusing on the point where he expected his hand to release the ball. He was hoping to see the traits of a fastball. The UC Davis pitcher brought his hand into his glove, looked over his shoulder at Soares off second base, then from the corner of his eye at Wetzel off first. He raised his leg, triggering his motion, brought his arm around, and delivered the pitch toward home plate. Instantly Sandell recognized the speed, spin, and hue as that of a fastball. His hands instinctively tightened their grip on the bat as he flexed his biceps. His left shoulder led the upper body into a strong swing. At the apex of his swing, Sandell’s bat connected with the ball

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and sent it high into the air toward the blue Beiden Field wall. As Sandell jogged toward first base, he watched the ball sail beyond the wall. Cheers erupted from the stands, shouts from the Fresno State dugout. Rounding third base, Sandell saw Wetzel, Soares, and Steve Susdorf standing at home plate. All held batting helmets aloft. Sandell lifted his batting helmet and tapped those of his teammates in celebra­ tion of a three-run home run, which gave the Bulldogs a 6–0 lead. When Tanner Scheppers completed a one-two-three seventh inning, Mike Batesole decided the pitcher’s day was done. Holden Sprague and Brandon Burke were warming up in the left-field bull pen. Teammates shook Scheppers’s hand and congratulated him with high fives and pats on the shoulder and back. Over seven innings he allowed just four hits, struck out ten, and threw eighty-four pitches. Perhaps most impressive, he did not walk a single batter. Holden Sprague and Brandon Burke each pitched a scoreless and hitless inning to complete Fresno State’s first win of the season: a 7–0 triumph. In the head coach’s office and all around the Bulldogs’ locker room, the just-witnessed pitching performance made a strong im­ pression. The coaching staff, like Fresno State’s players, felt that when Tanner Scheppers was on the mound, the Bulldogs were going to win. In the stands behind home plate, the scouts packed radar guns into their cases, stuffed binders and pens into carry bags, and headed for home or hotel to write their reports. They would tell the front office of the prospect they saw and should see again. This was a prospect who would bring many in baseball to Beiden Field over the next four months. Tanner Scheppers had shown talent worthy of a potential first-round draft pick—a pitcher perhaps just months away from be­ coming a millionaire.

4

CHAPTER

A Brighter Day

FEBRUARY 25, 2008—Winning game four salvaged a split of the

series with UC Davis and evened Fresno State’s win-loss record. It did little to quell the coaching staff’s disappointment in the team’s play, however. Several Bulldog players with high expectations for the season were disheartened as well by the pair of defeats. The jovial mood of some players, who seemed happy to have sal­ vaged a series split, incurred the ire of coaches. “You don’t need to be happy splitting with that kind of a team,” barked Matt Curtis, Fresno State’s lead assistant coach. A high level of expectation had partnered the program for months. Through summer and into the fall, Mike Batesole told boosters he was confident the 2008 team would enjoy a big season. There was much to make the coach feel that way. The starting pitching had the potential

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to be very strong. Steve Susdorf had spurned the Detroit Tigers’ con­ tract offer and returned. A solid recruiting class was arriving. Winter saw rival Western Athletic Conference coaches vote Fresno State the favorite to win the league title. A further boost to the coach’s claim arrived the week before Christmas. Collegiate Baseball newspa­ per ranked Fresno State twenty-first in its preseason poll. A month later, Baseball America magazine ranked the Bulldogs eighteenth. That level of expectation had been a regular part of the Fresno State baseball program from the late seventies through the early nineties. During that span the Bulldogs were among the elite programs in all of college baseball. In parts of the 1988 and 1989 seasons, Fresno State ranked number one in the nation, and the team reached the College World Series in 1988 and 1991. It was that history of success that motivated Batesole to pursue the Fresno State head coaching job when it opened during the 2002 season. The architect of the program’s achievements over the previous three decades, coach Bob Bennett, had been diagnosed with Parkin­ son’s disease early in the season. He decided to retire once the season concluded. Batesole’s ascension to collegiate head coach had been swift and stunning. In the summer of 1996, administrators at Cal State Northridge were surprised when the athletic department’s fax ma­ chine churned out a letter from Bill Kernan declaring his resignation as head baseball coach in order to move to New York City and become a playwright. At the age of thirty-one, with just two seasons of col­ legiate coaching under his belt, Batesole was promoted from assistant to head coach. In self-deprecating analysis, Batesole called himself the worst assis­ tant coach in the country. In reality, he was a voracious student of the game. He would walk away from losses puzzled as to why Cal State Ful­ lerton’s head coach, Augie Garrido, and Dave Snow, the head coach at Long Beach State, executed strategies such as bunts, hit-and-run plays,

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and sacrifices when they did. It led the young Cal State Northridge as­ sistant coach to spend late-night hours poring over videotapes, trying to figure out the philosophies of rival coaches and develop one of his own. The result was a game strategy centered on the philosophy of taking your ego and putting it in your pocket. Its premise: just find a way to touch home. It was not long before Matador players were displaying a style of play similar to that employed by their head coach when in college. Batesole was a fiercely competitive, hard-nosed third baseman at Oral Roberts University. In his first season at the Tulsa school, the Golden Eagles came one win short of reaching the College World Series. In Batesole’s first season as a college head coach, his Matadors amassed a nation-leading fifty-two wins and fell one win shy of a trip to the College World Series. He had inherited a talented group of play­ ers led by future major leaguers Robert Fick and Adam Kennedy. Despite losing several standout players to the professional ranks, Batesole’s second team racked up a stellar forty-seven wins. Weeks after the season concluded, Batesole received a shock when he opened his newspaper: Cal State Northridge planned to eliminate its baseball program. Baseball was one of four men’s sports to be dropped as the school wrestled to balance its budget and comply with court-ordered gender-equity requirements. The emotions any budding successful professional and breadwinner for a young family would feel were soon swept aside as legislators, alumni, fans, and community leaders launched a quest to have baseball reinstated by the school. One month later a bailout loan was received from the state of Cali­ fornia, and the sport received a one-year reprieve. By then a stellar recruiting class was gone. A talented group of players declined to wait out the crisis and instead enrolled at other schools. Batesole scratched and clawed, found games, and persuaded skep­ tical high school and junior college prospects to join his program. Re­ cruiting in southern California was never easy. Not with successful

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programs such as those at USC, UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, Pepperdine, and UC Irvine to compete against for play­ ers. Now prospects were suspicious when Batesole tried to convince them Cal State Northridge baseball was no longer on shaky ground. As his team readied for its reprieve season, opposing coaches joked they would install a ten-run mercy rule and name it the Northridge Rule. Against all odds, the opposite occurred. Batesole’s scrappy Mata­ dors miraculously won thirty-seven games. They counted Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, and UCLA among their victims. Among his peers, Batesole’s reputation grew as a miracle worker. Collegiate Base­ ball newspaper recognized Batesole’s work by naming him national coach of the year. It was that ability to succeed on a shoestring budget and to at­ tract players to a school with fewer resources than those enjoyed by southern California rivals, as well as the skill he showed in cultivating success from players of lesser talent, that made Batesole attractive to Fresno State’s search committee and athletic director in their hunt for a new coach. Weeks after his team captured the Big West Conference title, Mike Batesole strode to the microphones positioned at home plate in Fresno State’s ballpark, Beiden Field. He was introduced to those gathered as Fresno State’s head coach, succeeding the now-retired Bob Bennett. The late-morning sun shone on the gathering of players, boosters, media, and university employees. All were anxious to meet and hear from the school’s new coach. Surrounding Batesole was one of college baseball’s premier facilities: a ballpark, offices, and practice facilities built through private donations. Every seat, each advertising panel, and every face that stared at the new coach represented expectations. Accepting the job meant accepting the responsibility that came with it: being the shepherd of a successful, championship-caliber program. The program’s past success proved it held the resources to be among the nation’s elite and to reach the College World Series.

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Batesole’s budget for recruiting, travel, and operations at Fresno State would be a far cry from that of Cal State Northridge. The ballpark he stood in was considerably bigger, with more amenities than the one he had toiled in the previous seven seasons. After nine years of fighting six other southern California schools for talent, he was leading a pro­ gram that was the only game in town. As Batesole spoke, a member of the search committee leaned in to a reporter and said, “With what he did on such a small budget at Northridge, he should accomplish big things with the resources here.” Another search committee member, Dennis DeLiddo, Fresno State’s wrestling coach, shared the story of Batesole’s job interview. “When it ended,” DeLiddo said, “he stopped the committee and said, ‘Hey, isn’t anybody going to ask how we’re going to beat Rice?’” Batesole’s con­ fidence and absence of any fear of the perennial league champion got the search committee’s attention. Batesole got the job. Immediately he went to work to change the culture of the program. He sought a different type of player than what he had inherited, one able to play the style of ball he wished to impose. Through his first three seasons, Batesole’s teams won just two games more than they lost. His first batch of recruits fueled a breakout season in 2006, when the Bulldogs won the WAC title and, for the first time in five years, played in the NCAA regionals. Academic deficiencies and an injury robbed Batesole of his two best hitters late in that season, making the team’s postseason stay brief. Now, two years later, the coach was confident he had a team of similar potential. With the team’s first road trip and games against nationally ranked Cal and the University of San Diego on the horizon, Batesole and his assistant coaches—Matt Curtis, Mike Mayne, and Pat Waer—discussed a number of concerns. One was a lack of chemistry within the team. Roles among the pitchers were still being defi ned. The series of upcoming games would give the entire staff plenty of

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work. Hitters seemed to be pressing, trying to accomplish too much. How could the coaches convince them to stop swinging for the fences and adopt a situational hitting approach? The coming stretch of games would allow more lineup combina­ tions to be tested. They hoped it would answer many of the lingering questions about the team. Would Tommy Mendonca end his struggles at the plate? Who among the freshmen would become a reliable con­ tributor? Who would assume the designated-hitter role? The team ended fall practice giving the coaching staff enthusiasm at their potential. Would they rise to the challenge of nationally ranked opponents and improve their play once they reached San Diego?

5

CHAPTER

Under the Microscope

FEBRUARY 29, 2008—The team’s first road trip of the season

brought them to San Diego for a four-game tournament in a field of national powers. A 14–4 loss to Cal in the opening game dropped the Bulldogs’ record to 2–3 but failed to mute the teeming enthusiasm in the Fresno State dugout. On college baseball blogs, in publications, and among players, this tournament generated excitement. A great deal of attention and en­ thusiasm was centered on the Bulldogs’ second game of the tourna­ ment and the pitching match it would feature. As Dave Scheppers, Tanner’s father, walked into Cunningham Sta­ dium, it was hard not to sense the buzz. A quick glance at the area of seating behind home plate produced sight of the largest gathering of scouts he had ever seen at a game. Every one of major-league baseball’s thirty teams was represented. Many of the teams had more than just

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scouts on hand. In some cases, cross-checkers and even scouting di­ rectors were joining their area scouts to witness this game. The attraction on this February afternoon was a matchup of two of the nation’s best pitchers: Fresno State’s Tanner Scheppers, and Uni­ versity of San Diego standout Brian Matusz. Each had potential to be among the top pitchers selected in the June draft. Dave Scheppers quickly set out in search of his son. He needed to know how he was dealing with the hype and the hoopla. Once he saw Tanner, all fears that the moment might have him rattled were calmed. In fact, Dave Scheppers thought he had never before seen his son as focused as he appeared now. Walking to his seat in the small but picturesque campus ballpark, Scheppers senior could not have been faulted had he savored a moment of awe. Only four years earlier Tanner Scheppers had never stepped on a mound to throw a pitch. Now he was being viewed as one of college baseball’s best pitchers and an elite professional prospect. Close to fifty representatives of major-league teams were in the stands to watch the game. In the fall of 2005, Scheppers had just concluded a recruiting visit to Fresno State when he received a phone call from his Connie Mack League coach in southern California. The team was involved in a tournament. They had nobody to pitch that night’s game. The coach was counting on Scheppers to bail the team out. He wanted to be sure Scheppers would complete the three-and-a-half-hour journey from Fresno in time for the game. That emergency need would change the course of Tanner Scheppers’s life. The anxiousness he felt as he stepped onto the mound and pitched for the first time in his life was compounded when Scheppers noticed three professional scouts seated in the bleachers. They were pointing radar guns in his direction. It was not many retired batters into the game that he noticed the three thumbing through their programs. He was sure they were trying to learn who he was. A number of other

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scouts were at another field in the complex, watching a touted pitcher. Word quickly spread of Scheppers’s exploits and that his fastball was topping ninety-one miles an hour. With each passing inning more scouts appeared in the bleachers and more radar guns were pointed toward the teen. His performance that night guaranteed that Schep­ pers would make many more trips to the pitcher’s mound in the months ahead. As Connie Mack League play evolved into spring and the high school season, Scheppers’s talents brought scouts to his games on a regular basis. He had signed a letter of intent to attend Fresno State. Interest from professional clubs and selection in the June draft by the Baltimore Orioles failed to sway his commitment to college. News coming from Fresno State, however, made him question his commit­ ment to that college. The Schepperses had become miffed at a lack of communication from Fresno State. Tanner had been recruited as a shortstop, and Dave Schep­ pers doubted that the Bulldog coaches knew of his son’s new position or newfound success. The family was hearing alarming stories coming out of Beiden Field. They heard of a fight in the dugout. They were told the team had walked out on the head coach. There were stories that Mike Batesole had taken a leave of absence. People whom the Schepperses felt were in a position to know told the family that Mike Batesole would not be Fresno State’s coach when Tanner arrived in the fall. Dave Scheppers decided to wait and see what developed. After sev­ eral weeks and no developments out of Fresno, he picked up the phone and called Batesole. He told the coach of the rumors he had heard. Batesole offered no denial. Dave Scheppers explained that he did not want his son in such an environment. He asked Batesole to let Tanner out of his letter of intent to attend another school. Batesole refused. He apologized for the lack of communication and laid blame on an assistant coach no longer on his staff. Batesole told Dave Scheppers that Bobby Jones, a former big-league pitcher, was coming on board as

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the new pitching coach. Batesole told Scheppers he appreciated the call and the opportunity to discuss the matter. At the conclusion of their discussion, Dave Scheppers’s concerns were allayed. Tanner, he told the coach, would fulfill his commitment to Fresno State. A bumpy road was not yet successfully navigated, however. Two weeks after arriving at Fresno State, Tanner was accosted and stabbed in a robbery attempt. He was participating in a school fund-raising project, soliciting donations for Hurricane Katrina relief in the tailgate area prior to a Fresno State football game. Suddenly the young fresh­ man was confronted by three men. They demanded the money in the container Scheppers was carrying. One of the men lunged at him with a knife, slicing him on the right leg and left forearm. The injuries were not severe. Fearing that the news would cause alarm and prompt his parents to order him home immediately, he did not tell them about the attack for several weeks. Immersion into aca­ demic life and fall workouts kept him from dwelling on the incident or developing homesickness. Two months into Tanner’s first session of fall practice, Fresno State’s coaches were finally able to digest Tanner Scheppers the pitcher. They had seen him perform as a shortstop but not as a high school pitcher. One afternoon the freshman was approached by Batesole and Bobby Jones. The two sat him down and delivered a life-altering message. “Kid,” said Batesole, “your future’s pitching. It’s not shortstop.” That change in course brought Tanner Scheppers to this afternoon of opportunity. As scouts prepared to evaluate and chronicle the her­ alded pitching matchup, Dave Scheppers engaged in small talk with parents of other players. In the time since Dave and Ann Scheppers hugged their son and sent him on his journey from their Laguna Niguel home to Fresno State, Tanner had grown three inches. In those three years he added fifty pounds to his now six-foot four-inch frame. The speed of his fast­ ball had increased by more than five miles an hour.

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Playing in cool San Diego weather, Fresno State opened the game with hot hitting. Steve Susdorf’s third double in two games brought two runners in to score. Fresno State led seventeenth-ranked San Diego and its highly touted pitcher, Brian Matusz, 2–0. When Tanner Scheppers strode to the mound for the bottom half of the first inning, he was calm. Two years ago his heart would have been racing. His concentration lapses might have led him to see an umpire signal three balls and one strike and wonder how the count had reached that point. As he embarked upon his junior season, pause, prayer, and deep breathing had become habit. His control of his pitches improved dramatically. Often the only question to be answered when Tanner Scheppers took the mound was which kind of movement his fastball would have. He was finding that each game produced different move­ ment from the pitch. As music blared over the stadium PA system and USD’s first batter loosened up in the on-deck circle, Scheppers began his warm-up pitches. He wondered if his heater would have rise to it or tail away from hitters. With his teammates having staked him to a two-run lead in the top of the first inning, Scheppers took full advantage. He noticed dozens of radar guns rising to clock the speed of each pitch he delivered, but not much else diverted his attention. The Bulldog standout set the To­ reros down without a hit in the first inning. Scheppers settled into a rhythm, and the hitless trend continued. After each of the next three innings, the Bulldogs’ emerging ace would slowly walk from mound to dugout as the scorekeeper wrote another zero in the University of San Diego’s hit tally. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Scheppers’s no-hitter came to an end. So, too, did the shutout he was weaving. Errors by Scheppers and Todd Sandell led to San Diego’s first run, cutting Fresno State’s advan­ tage to 2–1. An inning later the hosts brought the partisan crowd to life with a two-run home run off Scheppers that gave USD the lead.

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Scheppers’s stint ended after six innings’ work. Fresno State trailed 3–2. The right-hander’s line score was impressive. He was touched for just four hits, walked only two, and struck out nine USD batters. After scoring twice in the top of the first inning, Fresno State’s hitters would not score again off San Diego’s ace, Brian Matusz. He worked seven innings, allowed six hits, walked two, and struck out eleven. San Diego would add two more runs in the eighth off Jason Breckley to push their lead to 5–2. Fresno State mounted a mini-rally in the top of the ninth. The Bulldogs’ hopes of a come-from-behind victory ended with two runners on base as Erik Wetzel, trying for his third hit of the game, lined out to second base. The loss was Fresno State’s fourth in six games. It would not be their last loss in this tournament in San Diego. It would, however, be one of the last times they would lose a game with Tanner Scheppers on the mound. As scouts packed up to head off for another game across town, they carried a clearer image of the potential for Tanner Scheppers’s future. Both starting pitchers left the talent evaluators impressed. One scout­ ing report filed after the game gushed praise for the Fresno State ace. It raved about a ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastball with cut and sink: a “plus” slider clocked at 87–88. The report also noted that Scheppers’s slider was inconsistent, often missing the strike zone. The writing scout complimented the pitcher’s poise as “outstanding,” called him competitive, and suggested he had tremendous upside that was des­ tined to see him climb the draft charts all spring. While the compliments were flattering, there was no masking the pitcher’s disappointment at the defeat he and his teammates had en­ dured. Around the visiting team’s locker room, the thoughts were not of scouts or professional possibilities. The focus of Fresno State’s play­ ers was the total on the scoreboard and how to turn a slow start to their season into a run of success.

6

CHAPTER

Sounding Off

MARCH 5, 2008— Spying Jake Floethe and Clayton Allison walk­

ing into Beiden Field early for practice, Mike Batesole summoned the pair into his office. Closing the door, he asked them about the mood of the team: “What’s going on? How do you think things are going?” The coach was concerned about the early-season losses, the struggles of several key hitters, and the loose demeanor of the team. Allison and Floethe were candid in their response. They shared thoughts about the personality of the team. Jokes had been going around, they told Batesole. Allison shared with the coach that Danny Grubb was receiving ribbing for a slow start with the bat and that Justin Wilson had been chided for his high early-season earned run average. The coach then asked the pair what they felt he should do differ­ ently. “Guys just need to know it doesn’t matter what their numbers

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are,” Allison told the coach. “We need to help each other win. Bottom line is we just need to win.” The coach’s frustrations grew from the team’s first road trip of the season. Away from Beiden Field, the Bulldogs lost four of five games. Their record was now 3–6. Returning to their home field offered the team an opportunity to turn things around. They would play eight games in as many days, seven against teams that finished the previous season with a losing record. The final six games of that stretch would involve the program’s annual spring tournament, the Pepsi Johnny Quik Classic. The tour­ nament was an event Fresno State had won four years running. Histor­ ically, the Bulldogs used success in this tournament as a springboard into a strong start in conference play. Especially struggling were Fresno State’s hitters. The middle of the Bulldogs’ batting order was hitting a collective .270. That figure would have been far worse if not for Alan Ahmady’s stellar .405 bat­ ting average. Steve Susdorf was hitting .238. Tommy Mendonca had been a strike­ out victim nineteen times through the Bulldogs’ first eleven games. He was batting .234. Steve Detwiler had managed just six hits thus far in the season. Four of those came in one game. Three hits in the game prior to the tournament raised Todd Sandell’s batting average to .217. Susdorf sought to improve his hitting by seeking Batesole’s help in the batting cage. He took extra-soft toss and hit off a tee to try to correct a flaw in his mechanics. Scouts noticed Mendonca opening his front shoulder and pulling his head off the ball when he swung. It looked to them as though he was trying to pull the ball and impress them with home runs. The flaw left him vulnerable to balls on the outside part of the plate. Sandell appeared to have a slight hitch in his swing. The flaw threw off his timing and slowed his bat speed. The shortstop believed that the flaw came from hitting slow batting-practice pitches thrown by coaches in the weeks leading up to the season.

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While experience made many understand that change was a con­ stant in Mike Batesole baseball, an unsettled batting order produced difficulty for some of the Bulldogs. Trying to develop chemistry and find production, Batesole shuffled his lineup continuously over the first nine games. During that span he made forty-six changes to the batting order. Most of those changes were made to the fifth through ninth spots in the order. Steve Detwiler shuffled between the second, fifth, sixth, and sev­ enth spots in the order. Tommy Mendonca moved between the fifth, sixth, and seventh spots. Because each spot in the batting order can create its own unique responsibilities and distinct tasks, hitters often want to hit in a consistent role. Equally annoying to a number of Bulldog batters was one of the hitting plans preached by their coach. He wanted his hitters to look strictly for a fastball with less than two strikes. The edict didn’t involve just isolating the fastball, but seeking a fastball over the middle to outer edge of the plate. Batesole wanted to see hitters drive a “middle-away” fastball to the opposite field. This was not some idle idea. Batesole poured a great deal of time and energy into a thorough study of thousands of at bats and came up with the plan. Few college programs had pitchers able to consistently throw breaking pitches for strikes. When they fell behind in the count, they would resort to the fastball, and his players, he was convinced, would hammer them. This philosophy found its way into the scouting reports of many Bulldog opponents. As a result, Fresno State hitters were seeing few fastballs. When opposing pitchers were able to throw breaking pitches for strikes early in the count, it put Bulldog hitters in a hole. They were cast into an unproductive and defensive mode. Both the team’s strike­ out tally and the level of frustration mounted as hitters struggled to adapt to the philosophy. Batesole felt that his hitters weren’t buying into the plan and didn’t trust it. After their 2–1 loss to Cal Poly in the San Diego tournament,

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the coach kept the team on the bus and confronted them about it. He stood before the players and admonished hitters for failing to trust his plan. Batesole chastised them for swinging at breaking balls in the dirt and at changeups out of the strike zone. He implored his hitters to lay off those pitches and wait for a fastball to be thrown in the strike zone. Yet hitting is a subjective craft. Every hitter reads and reacts to pitches differently. Each has his own ideas of how best to hit that have been built through years of parental, Little League, and high school training. Individualism is the great undermining agent of uniformity. With four-tenths of a second from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand until it hits the catcher’s mitt, a batter has roughly half that time to react to the pitch and the other half to swing and hopefully con­ nect. Any additional thought or confusion adds to the hitting process and produces a late swing—a strike. Trying to sift through pitches and identify a fastball had several Bulldog hitters confused. As majorleague hitting coach Walt Hriniak once said, “You can’t hit when you’re confused.” Winning the first two games of the home stand sent the Bulldogs into their tournament with increased confidence. Success, however, would prove fleeting. Despite home runs by Steve Detwiler in each of the first two games, Fresno State fell to the bottom of the tournament standings with a pair of defeats. The coaching staff decided it was time for a team meeting. Once the last of the team members shuffled into the locker room, Batesole went from player to player and urged each to explain what he felt they had to do in order for the team to win. The discussion made Steve Susdorf realize he carried too much pressure on his shoulders. He ad­ mitted trying to make each hit a big hit, a home run. Out of the discus­ sion he vowed to return to basics, play good defense, and produce what the game situation dictated when at bat.

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Batesole reminded players about his “dog paws” plan. The coach developed the plan to try to increase his players’ concentration on achieving situational goals. He reminded players of the five keys that determined success in games: scoring first, two-out runs batted in, the big inning, answering back by scoring after the opponent has scored, and winning the final six outs of a game. Achieving any of the keys in a game where the team won got a dog paw sticker affixed to that player’s batting helmet. Looking around the room, he told his players, “If you look at the guys playing and you wonder why you’re not playing, look at their helmet. If you see stickers on their helmet and none on yours, you know why you’re not playing.” Leadership was also of concern to Batesole and his coaching staff. In the preseason, Steve Susdorf and Clayton Allison were asked by the coach to oversee their fellow position players and pitchers. Responsible to his core, Susdorf relished the thought of being a team leader. The coach’s plan called for Susdorf to organize and lead a team huddle before the defense took the field each inning. There were times when Susdorf found he was still mentally consumed by a justcompleted at bat and at a loss for words when it came time to give instruction to his teammates. Erik Wetzel often recognized these situations, jumped in, and gave his teammates their necessary instructions and responsibilities before taking the field. In time Wetzel came to be regarded as a natural, though unofficial, leader by his fellow players. Although well liked by his teammates, Susdorf was viewed as a Batesole favorite. That perceived closeness undermined Susdorf’s ef­ forts and made many players reluctant to follow his lead. A few actu­ ally wondered if he was the head coach’s mole and passed on things he overheard and witnessed of his teammates. Yet Susdorf was driven to succeed. When he learned that a team­ mate needed to pass a class to be academically eligible to play, Susdorf

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phoned him several nights in a row, urging the player to complete re­ quired work. When Brandon Burke began joking with the freshmen and Justin Wilson played along, saying, “We’re going to be nothing better than a five hundred team that might, might win the WAC,” Susdorf became irritated and phoned Burke to admonish him. “You can’t fill the fresh­ men’s minds with that stuff. They don’t know your sense of humor yet,” he reprimanded. Among the pitchers, Clayton Allison had been asked by Batesole to assume leadership. He wanted the senior to impose discipline during the absence of a pitching coach in the fall. Brandon Burke chipped in to complement Allison’s supervision of the pitchers’ workouts. He offered teammates, especially the freshmen, help with their pitching mechan­ ics. A tension-easing humor, willingness to offer advice, and abundance of opinions made teammates gravitate toward Burke for assistance. Losses in their first two games of the Pepsi Johnny Quik tourna­ ment ended Fresno State’s hopes of a fifth consecutive title in the event. On night three the Bulldogs faced Indiana University and trailed the Hoosiers 8–0 after seven innings. Despite managing to get the bat on the ball, only three had fallen in for Fresno State hits thus far. In the top of the eighth inning, Indiana was batting with runners at first and third and a chance to increase their lead. With the scoreboard showing the game seemingly out of reach, the first-base umpire felt a steal attempt highly unlikely. He chose not to adjust his position for such an occurrence. One pitch later the umpire would be surprised, and the irritation percolating in the Fresno State dugout would evolve into anger. As Bulldog pitcher Jake Floethe raised his left leg to begin his delivery to the plate, the Indiana runner broke from first and successfully stole second base. In the dugout, several Fresno State players felt that the steal crossed the line of baseball etiquette. The game was in the latter innings, with

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the outcome well in hand. To steal a base in that situation was nothing short of an attempt at showing up the opposition. Seated on the bench in the Bulldogs’ dugout, Tanner Scheppers, Brandon Burke, and Jordan Ribera glanced at one another and slyly smiled. They knew what this sort of disdain for code called for. Burke said, “He’s gonna hit him, he’s gonna hit him. Let’s get ready to go!” In the stands, some longtime Bulldogs fans saw a wiry freshman on the mound and doubted he possessed the tenacity to retaliate. As Indi­ ana’s next hitter set himself in the batter’s box to await Floethe’s next offering, little enthusiasm was heard from those still in the stands. Floethe brought his hands to his chest, paused in the stretch posi­ tion, then looked back to make a visual check of the runner at second base. Quickly he turned his head to look at his catcher, raised his left leg to begin his motion, and delivered a fastball painfully into the left shoulder of the batter. No sooner had the sound of hard baseball hitting flesh interrupted the silence of Beiden Field than the home-plate umpire pointed toward first base and yelled, “Take your base.” Indiana’s coach, Tracey Smith, was furious. He stormed from the third-base coach’s box toward the home-plate umpire, shouting at the top of his lungs. “That’s bullshit, that’s bullshit!” Smith fumed. “Why did they have to hit our best player? That’s fucking bullshit,” Smith roared. When he reached the umpire, his anger grew. “This is not the pro game. Eight runs in college is nothing,” he said, claiming a difference in protocol between the two levels of baseball. Feeling that the coach was demanding action, perhaps the ejection of the Fresno State pitcher, the umpire held his ground. “Coach,” the umpire said, “I respect where you’re coming from, but I am not reading intent.” Mike Batesole emerged from the third-base dugout and strode toward the pitcher’s mound. There he joined Floethe and Ryan Overland, the Bulldogs’ catcher, in conversation. Seeing Batesole come onto the field raised the Indiana coach’s anger.

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Smith turned from venting to the home-plate umpire and angrily walked toward Batesole. “You know that’s bullshit, Mike,” raged Smith. Hearing the Indiana coach shout at him angered the Fresno State coach. “What the fuck are you saying to me!” screamed Batesole. Quickly, clipboards, mitts, bats, and cups of sports drinks fell to the ground in both dugouts. Players and assistant coaches rose from their benches and jogged onto the field. Fresno State and Indiana players exchanged shoves and angry words before assistant coaches were able to calm everybody and direct them back to their respective dugouts. As Fresno State’s players turned away to walk back to their dugout, several noticed Tommy Mendonca’s jersey spread open. The third baseman insisted someone had grabbed him, ripping the buttons from his jersey, and then taken a swing at him. The umpires ejected both head coaches along with each player that came from their dugout onto the field. The final inning of the game was played with empty dugouts and only the players who were in the game when the scuffle broke out. After the umpires issued their ruling and order was restored, Batesole learned what had happened to Mendonca during the skir­ mish. Unhappy about the skirmish, he paused on his walk from the field, turned, and in the direction of the Indiana coach sarcastically shouted, “Good job, Tracey!” Fresno State lost the game 11–1. It dropped their record to 5–9 on the season. The coming days would see Batesole suspended two games by Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Bensen. Indiana’s coach, Tracey Smith, would be suspended two games by the Big Ten Conference. Whether thrown intentionally or not, firing the pitch at the In­ diana batter brought Jake Floethe respect from several of his veteran teammates. Most had been impressed by the freshman’s skills during preseason workouts. “Way to take care of business when it needs to be

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taken care of” was the compliment heard from more than one team­ mate after the game. Whether fueled by an adrenaline rush from the night’s flare-up or just a more palatable diet of pitches, Fresno State’s hitters were twentyfour hours from an explosive breakout. The night’s loss would be their last for a few games. Some high-scoring wins were about to change the mood in their dugout and locker room.

7

CHAPTER

In Good Time

MARCH 7, 2008—The staccato sound of baseballs smacking leather

mitts could have made a popcorn enthusiast walking past Beiden Field think of their favorite snack. Inside the ballpark, Fresno State’s pitch­ ers were engaged in games of catch to limber up and ready themselves for practice. It was a staple of each day’s drills. It was also Mike Mayne’s daily opportunity to connect with his pitchers. “Make sure you finish,” he calmly said to freshman Gene Escat before moving on to observe Jake Floethe. “Get out in front a little more” came the suggestion from the pitching coach after watching Floethe throw. One throw later brought a reassuring “Yeah, that’s it,” and Mayne would move on to observe another pitcher’s work. Instruction was only one part of the daily connection between coach and pitchers. With Clayton Allison, conversations would drift

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to fly-fishing. The outdoors was an area of common interest with Justin Wilson. Starting pitching was expected to be a Bulldog strong point, and through the season’s first thirteen games it did not disappoint. With the exception of two blowout defeats, Fresno State’s starting pitchers had not been touched for more than three earned runs in any of their outings. Tanner Scheppers recorded three strong starts through the first quarter of the season. After Mayne tweaked his delivery to improve pitch control, Clayton Allison pitched brilliantly in a 2–1 loss to Cal Poly. Left-hander Justin Wilson opened the season as the Friday-night starter. His ninety-three-mile-an-hour fastball and effective break­ ing pitches were attracting the interest of professional scouts. Two of Wilson’s first three outings were impressive efforts. Justin Miller, the junior college transfer, kept opposing hitters at bay with his wicked slider. He allowed only one earned run in each of his first two starts. A pleasant surprise was Holden Sprague. Given a spot start in the San Diego tournament, Sprague responded by pitching five innings and not allowing an earned run. When Mike Mayne arrived at Fresno State in November 2007, he was met with a certain amount of skepticism and disquiet. For seniors Jason Breckley and Brandon Burke, he was their fourth pitching coach in four seasons at the school. Mayne was the third tutor for juniors Scheppers, Sprague, Kris Tomlinson, and Justin Wilson. The seniors and juniors had been recruited to Fresno State and coached by Tim Montez. The relationship built through recruitment and coaching bred loyalty that led to dented feelings when Montez and Mike Batesole parted ways. Former big leaguer Bobby Jones, a Fresno State alum, was the pro­ gram’s pitching coach in 2006 but did not return at season’s end. Ted Silva arrived from Cal State Fullerton to coach the pitching staff in 2007. A family emergency prompted a move to southern California

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just weeks into fall workouts as the team began preparations for the 2008 season. That’s when Mike Batesole turned to Mike Mayne. It was not the first time Batesole had tried to coax Mayne to join him at Fresno State. The pair went way back, a relationship spanning almost thirty years. It began when Mayne, then a highly successful junior college coach, sought to recruit a standout high school senior: Mike Batesole. When baseball took Batesole into the professional ranks, it was Mike Mayne who provided his junior college facilities for off-season workouts. Batesole’s first coaching job was on Mayne’s staff at Orange Coast College. Mayne’s recommendation and lobbying helped Batesole get a job as an assistant coach at Cal State Northridge. That opportu­ nity would lead, two years later, to Batesole’s first head coaching job. Batesole was asking Mayne to end eleven years in retirement and coach his pitching staff, a group he explained was talented. The call to Mayne at his summer getaway ranch in Montana caught the former coach by surprise. Emotionally it didn’t take Mayne but a few min­ utes to reach a decision. After talking it over with his wife, Pat, Mayne called Batesole back and enthusiastically accepted the offer. It was an excited Mike Batesole who broke the news of the hiring, telling members of the dugout club, “Pack your bags for Omaha! Mike Mayne’s agreed to become our pitching coach!” The sight of their new pitching coach holding a stopwatch during bull-pen sessions or intrasquad games told everyone that things were going to be different. Whether during throwing practice in the bull pen or on the Beiden Field mound in an intrasquad game, the stop watch was used. When a Bulldog pitcher began his windup, Mayne’s thumb pressed the watch’s start button. As the ball left the pitcher’s hand, the chirp of the stop button being pressed could be heard. Mayne studied the pitcher’s result, viewed the stopwatch readings, then put the two to­ gether to construct success.

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He preached to his staff that the watch could unlock the reason behind trouble. Clayton Allison affectionately called it an “old coach trick.” He became a believer after being hit hard in an intrasquad game. The stopwatch, Mayne showed Allison, proved he sped up his delivery when he was having trouble getting hitters out. This led to a loss of control and compounded his problems. The coach preached maintaining calm and composure through deep breathing. Allison was hooked. Remnants of resistance to yet another pitching coach dissolved through daily inquiries into his players’ families, academics, and in­ terests. It was caring and concern that bred acceptance and loyalty. Their sixty-two-year-old coach had a folksy way of speaking. It was one that might produce snickers among others of their age, but Fresno State’s players latched on to Mike Mayne’s words as instructive, in­ sightful, and reassuring. When Mayne arrived on the job in mid-November, a lot of work had to be done in a short amount of time. He learned that three pitchers had just left the program. Fresno State would go into the season with a staff of twelve, barring any injuries. Two days into the job, he assembled a meeting with the pitchers and told them, “Every single one of you guys are going to be important. You are all going to get innings.” There were pitchers Mike Batesole had not seen enough from to have confidence. Mayne’s first task was to remove any hesitation to use those pitchers in a game. Allison, Burke, Breckley, Scheppers, and Wilson were left to work out on their own. The new pitching coach tried to learn the strengths and limitations of Kris Tomlinson, Holden Sprague, Justin Miller, Sean Bonesteele, Jake Floethe, Gene Escat, and Jake Hower— pitchers Batesole didn’t have a high level of confidence in. Mayne worked with the group, ironing out flaws in the pitchers’ mechanics and imparting some of his game philosophy. A month before the season opener, his teaching would expand to encompass the entire pitching staff, and all would soon realize timing was at the core of Mayne’s philosophy.

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“You can throw ninety-two or ninety-three, but you can’t pitch ninety-two or ninety-three,” Mayne would preach to Brandon Burke. Allison, Miller, and Wilson also heard and soon subscribed to the Mayne mantra: “Subtract, slow your fastball down. Throw off the hit­ ters’ timing by changing your own.” Mayne sought to add a changeup to Tanner Scheppers’s reper­ toire. Thrown slowly enough, the pitch could ally with Scheppers’s high-nineties fastball into a lethal pairing. But the pitcher’s long right arm and fingers made the pitch a challenge to throw properly. When change-ups came off Scheppers’s hand looking like hittable battingpractice fastballs, the two went to work trying to figure out a solution, a way to slow down the pitch. Their experiment with differing grips took up much of the season before a workable grip was fi nally found. To the group it was imperative to get ahead in the count. “You get two strikes on a college hitter,” Mayne would tell Tanner Scheppers, “you’ve won!” Justin Wilson needed to maintain control and not let game condi­ tions cause him to speed up his delivery. Justin Miller’s best weapon was his slider, but the six-foot five-inch newcomer could succeed with it only as a complement to his fastball. There was time invested in Clayton Allison’s footwork to ensure proper balance and arm slotting. For Brandon Burke, the coach’s goal was convincing him to make his ultra-slow curveball the first pitch thrown a hitter. “It’s stealing strikes,” Mayne would tell him. Teaching pitchers about pitches to throw based on specific balland-strike counts would put Mayne in conflict with another Batesole assistant. Matt Curtis, Batesole’s longest-serving assistant, called all the pitches during games. He was a former Fresno State and minor-league catcher. Curtis thoroughly digested game video and scouting reports, and he studied the strengths and weaknesses of opposing hitters as well as those of Fresno State’s pitchers. He spent hours devising charts and poring over statistics to develop a pitch-calling game plan.

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Like many coaches of his generation, Mayne disagreed with this growing trend in baseball. He felt strongly that a catcher and pitcher were far better suited to size up the batter and game situation and then develop a strategy to attack him. The catcher knew firsthand what pitches were working and the difficulties a pitcher was enduring. In Mayne’s eyes, the catcher should call the game with no outside help. While Mayne worked to keep Curtis in the loop about the strat­ egies he was imparting to the pitching staff, it was inevitable that clashes would occur between the two during the season. Successes and failings with the method advocated by either assistant led some on the pitching staff to choose philosophical sides. Mayne relished the receptiveness of the pitchers. He was pleased with the improvement he was seeing from them on the mound. Being in and around the game again was fun. Yet there were elements of his job he was not happy with. Once game time came, the team was under Mike Batesole’s total control. From who pitched to how long they pitched was at the discre­ tion and decision of the head coach. Should a pitcher struggle, Mayne was not permitted to visit the mound to share advice or offer encour­ agement; only Mike Batesole could do so. Mayne was to be in the bull pen when situations called for a relief pitcher to warm up. The long­ time coach understood Batesole’s parameters when he accepted the job, but years of belief and habit made the policies gnaw at him once the season began. They also made it more difficult for him to do the job the way he was used to doing it and in the manner he wished. The losses, the job difficulties, and their related agitation were a far cry from the solitude of his ranch in Montana. There were no regrets. Being around the game, using his knowledge, experience, and teach­ ing skills to improve a player’s talent, was as invigorating as it was re­ warding. This was Mike Mayne’s bliss.

8

CHAPTER

Paradise Lost

MARCH 13, 2008—The ping of a hard-thrown baseball connect­

ing with a fiercely swung aluminum bat echoed through Beiden Field. Impact sent Todd Sandell sprinting from the batter’s box toward first base. The Bulldog batter’s eyes followed the flight of the ball toward right center field. He could see that the Gonzaga outfielders were in hot pursuit of it. Sandell didn’t need the waving arm of a first-base coach to tell him to head for second base. His left foot stomped the corner of the first-base bag, propelling him into the ninety-degree pivot toward his destination. A quick glance from his right eye told him where the fielders and the ball were. The cheers heard from the stands behind gave him a hint: Danny Muno had just scored the ninth run of the game. As the crowd noise waned, Sandell could hear his cleats churning the base-path dirt, sending him toward the second-base bag. While the Gonzaga fielders

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relayed the ball back to the infield, Sandell eased up his dash and suc­ cessfully reached second base with a double. His heart raced, both from aerobic exertion and elation. Todd Sandell had spent the last two weeks wallowing in a frustrating slump. In six of his previous eight games he hadn’t managed to get a hit. Now, as he stood on second base and looked into the dugout, he saw his teammates clapping and pointing enthusiastically in his direction, cel­ ebrating his fifth hit of the game. Stepping off the bag, Sandell looked toward third base and caught a glimpse of his head coach, Mike Batesole. Deep down the player was grateful to the coach. Twenty-four hours earlier Batesole had ap­ proached him suggesting Sandell sit out a game or two. As Sandell increased his lead, Erik Wetzel sent a ball toward the Gonzaga second baseman. Sandell instinctively broke for third. Glancing over his left shoulder, he saw that the play would go to first base. When he reached third base, he could hear his teammates in the dugout applaud Wetzel’s successful effort to advance Sandell to third. Following a ground out by Steve Susdorf, an infield error brought Sandell home with the tenth Fresno State run of the game. He walked to the dugout satisfied at how the night had turned out. He had played a big part in his team’s success. His home run in the fifth inning put Fresno State up 4–0. An inning later he doubled to drive in Danny Muno and give the Bulldogs a 6–0 lead. His double in the eighth and the run he scored would cap a 10–1 win that ended the latest losing streak. Sandell’s performance was a far cry from those of the last two weeks—struggles that had weighed heavily on the senior shortstop. He had been stung a day earlier by the suggestion he sit out a couple of games, “to clear your mind for the road trip to Hawaii,” his coach had said. The player argued against it. He felt he knew what was causing his struggles. Sandell laid his hitting woes at poor pitch recognition. He

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was confident more at bats would cure it. As the two discussed how to get Sandell back on track, his coach asked where the senior preferred to hit in the order. “I like hitting second, where I’ve been hitting my whole career,” Sandell told him. “I’m going to stick with you. You’re going to hit two, you’re going to play shortstop, and we’re going to fi x this thing right now,” the player was told. Sandell’s five-for-five night and the seven innings of one-hit ball thrown by Justin Miller helped end the losing streak. It was a jovial mood in the Bulldogs’ clubhouse after the game. Teammates compli­ mented Sandell on his performance. Some said they noticed an im­ proved swing. Todd Sandell felt he was getting back on track. With chemistry still a concern to the coaching staff, the play of Danny Muno sparked their thought. Since the team returned from the tournament in San Diego, Muno had gotten hot with the bat. In two games against Indiana, the freshman hammered out six hits. He opened the Pepsi Johnny Quik Classic with a two-hit game against New Mexico State. Among the performances celebrated in the win over Gonzaga was Muno’s. Inserted into the leadoff spot, he responded by reaching base four times with three hits and a walk. He scored two runs. In each of his at bats Muno showed precocious plate patience, taking several pitches and allowing teammates to get an idea of what the pitcher was throwing. Where to play Muno in the field gave the coaching staff much to ponder. Forced from his natural infield positions by both Sandell and Wetzel, Muno had been used in right field, in center field, and as the designated hitter. The Friday-night game that ended round-robin play in the Pepsi Johnny Quik Classic produced a stellar Bulldog performance. Hit­ ters hammered away at the University of Utah, scoring ten runs for the second night in a row. Tanner Scheppers pitched seven innings of scoreless ball and allowed only two hits. The Bulldogs clobbered

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the Utes 10–0. Sandell hit second again and delivered two more hits. Muno, again, hit leadoff and this time played center field. The fresh­ man reached base three times, walking twice, and scored three runs. Baseball was becoming fun again for Todd Sandell. The playing field, long his paradise, had been anything but at Fresno State. He had followed his cousin Ryan Haag’s coaxing, coming to Fresno State from a successful high school program in Camarillo. Haag had played for Mike Batesole at Cal State Northridge and followed the coach to Fresno State when he took over the Bulldogs’ program. Haag told Sandell that Fresno State was a fun place to play baseball. It had great facilities and good fans. When a recruiting trip and meeting with fellow recruits impressed him, Todd Sandell decided to become a Bulldog. Shortly after winning the starting second-base job early in his freshman year, Sandell suffered a broken hand and missed half the season. His sophomore year he called the “disaster year.” In November he broke his right ring finger but made it back in time to start the first fifteen games of the season at third base. In a game against Stanford he would suffer another injury: a broken right hand. Sandell would miss all but the final five games of the season. Like most juniors, Sandell hoped for a big year. It was his drafteligible year. He wanted to impress the pro scouts. Sandell made it through the season injury-free, hit seven home runs, and batted .289. But when he was not chosen in the professional draft, he was disap­ pointed. Rather than wallow in that disappointment, though, Sandell vowed to return and have a strong senior season, hoping that this time he would get an opportunity to play pro ball. The Gonzaga win propelled Fresno State to a three-game win streak. The Bulldogs arrived in Hawaii to open conference play, having scored forty runs in their last four games. Adding to the team’s high level of confidence going into the WAC opener: Tanner Scheppers would pitch. By game’s end, the bubble of optimism had burst. The Bulldogs failed to score, managed to collect just four hits, and lost 4–0. Fresno

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State hitters struck out ten times. Sandell accounted for two of them. In the eighth inning, with two runners on and two outs, Jordan Ribera pinch-hit for Sandell. Ribera struck out swinging. Overnight the coach mulled a difficult decision. He felt he’d given the senior plenty of opportunity to solidify the starting-shortstop job. Danny Muno had been on a tear, with twelve hits over seven games. Batesole had to open a spot to get Muno in the lineup consistently. The next day Batesole announced to the team he was not happy with their performance. “I didn’t like some things on the field yesterday, so there’s going to be some major changes,” the coach told his play­ ers. When players walked through the dugout to check the lineup card posted for that day’s game, the only change was the omission of the name Todd Sandell. Danny Muno was the shortstop. It was a move that raised eyebrows among players who had spent several seasons in the program with Sandell. Among the shortstop’s close friends on the team was the feeling that their head coach was making Sandell a sacrificial lamb. After all, they reasoned, Sandell wasn’t hitting any worse than other starters who were also struggling at the plate. Pitchers were a bit nervous. Muno was considered a bit shaky defensively. Todd Sandell’s pride was hurt by the move. He stewed on the dugout bench and watched his teammates lose again, this time 2–0. The defeat left Fresno State with twelve losses through their first twenty games. Sandell did not start either of the next two games, both of which Fresno State won. Clayton Allison’s four-hit complete game shutout was among the efforts celebrated, and so, too, was the hitting of Muno. He reached base three times in each of the two victories. Pitchers, nervous at the move, breathed a sign of relief when Muno successfully handled all ten fielding chances without committing an error. The following week brought two out-of-conference wins over Cal Poly. Muno made three errors in one of the games. Two contributed to

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Cal Poly runs. There was no animosity between the Bulldog shortstops. Though freshman and senior, the two had become friends. Sandell offered Muno encouragement to try to ease his nervousness. Fresno State took a four-game win streak into their second con­ ference series of the season. Entering the four-game series with the University of Nevada, Todd Sandell still had no idea why he had been removed from the starting lineup. Nevada was expected to challenge Fresno State for the WAC title. Jumping on the Wolf Pack early for four runs in the first three innings sent energy through the Bulldogs’ dugout. By the seventh inning, Fresno State was sitting on a 6–3 lead when Alan Ahmady doubled and Ryan Overland singled to put Bulldog runners at the corners. Sandell heard Batesole call his name and send him onto the field to pinch-run for Overland. No sooner had Sandell reached first base and taken his lead than Tommy Mendonca sent a ball toward second base. The Wolf Pack were able to turn a double play, and Sandell was quickly headed back to the dugout bench. As he jogged off the field, he wondered if this brief shot of playing time meant that more was soon to come. An inning later—amid the pitch-call strategies, hitting tactics, and defensive positioning—would come a coaching decision that would shatter Todd Sandell’s enthusiasm for the game. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Fresno State erupted for a big rally. The spot in the bat­ ting order Sandell inherited was due up again. Before he could prepare for the at bat, he heard his coach call for Jordan Ribera to pinch-hit for him. As Sandell sat in quiet disbelief, he heard a couple of teammates talking. They wondered what was behind the decision to pinch-hit a struggling freshman for the senior. With anger coming over him, Sandell heard another teammate chuckle. What some saw as bewilder­ ing and others amusing, Todd Sandell viewed as humiliating.

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After sitting in silence for a few minutes, he decided he’d had enough. Sandell turned to a teammate and muttered, “Forget this, it’s not worth it.” Slowly Sandell rose from the bench, walked past teammates, and turned into the doorway to the locker room. He was through. Todd Sandell walked into the Beiden Field locker room, changed from his uniform into street clothes, and exited the stadium before game’s end. Any enthusiasm over Fresno State’s 12–4 win over Nevada was shrouded by Sandell’s walkout. There were players who expressed concern, others anger at how their friend and teammate had been treated. There were some who felt Sandell overreacted and was wrong to walk out. Not long after Sandell reached his apartment, his phone rang with call after call from teammates. First Tanner Scheppers called, then Holden Sprague and Brandon Burke. Later that night it was Danny Muno who called, followed by Jordan Ribera. Each offered support. None tried to coax Sandell back onto the team. There were frequent calls to and from family in southern California. Those calls were mixed with bewilderment, concern, frustration, and even anger. The dugout mood the following afternoon was a mixture of sup­ port for Sandell and encouragement for Muno. “You don’t get mad at me when I walk a guy, I won’t get mad at you when you make an error,” Tanner Scheppers told the freshman. Clayton Allison approached Muno and offered reassurance: “Settle in. If you boot a couple of balls, don’t let it get to you. Don’t let it affect your play at the plate.” In the doubleheader that afternoon Muno played error-free base­ ball. He reached base four times as Fresno State split the two games. In Sunday’s series finale, behind Tanner Scheppers, Muno hammered out three hits and scored twice. In the top of the sixth inning in that game, with a runner on first, the Nevada hitter sent a shot toward Muno. He deftly fielded the ball,

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turned, and flipped it to Erik Wetzel, who stepped on the second-base bag for the force out, then turned and threw to Alan Ahmady at first base, completing the double play. A smiling Tanner Scheppers walked off the mound toward Muno and laughed, “Oh wow, you got real lucky on that one.” The returned smile told him Muno was settling into the position nicely. The 13–3 win that afternoon was Fresno State’s seventh win in eight games and improved their win-loss record to 15–13. Not all Fresno State players were ready to move on from the Sandell incident. Brandon Burke, for one, was especially angry at how he perceived his friend had been treated. He entered Mike Batesole’s office following the Nevada series with plans to tell the coach what he thought and perhaps even quit the team. Those emotions were quickly quelled when Batesole told Burke he planned to call Sandell and extend an invitation to rejoin the team. In the days that followed his walkout, Todd Sandell turned his at­ tention to classes, graduating, and pursuing a firefighting career. He frequently socialized with many of his former teammates. Two weeks after his walkout, he told some of them about a phone call he had re­ ceived from Mike Batesole. He told them the coach had raised the topic of the shortstop’s return to the team. Yes, he was interested, he said to the coach. Sandell was told he could return, but with conditions. “You have to apologize to your teammates for walking out,” the coach demanded. “No prob­ lem,” Sandell replied. “That wasn’t right, I can do that.” The coach expressed to the player he had been treated fairly. He wanted Sandell to acknowledge that to him and to others should he be asked. Sandell was still angry and believed just the opposite. He felt he was not given the chance to work his way out of his slump. “Coach, I can’t do that . . . gotta go . . . I can’t be on your team anymore,” he said. And with that, Sandell said, he ended the call and walked away from baseball.

9

CHAPTER

No April Fool’s Joke

APRIL 1, 2008—That it occurred on April Fool’s Day could not have

been more fitting. The game was a midweek nonconference meeting, but not with some lesser opponent. That it happened against one of the better teams in the country was proof that the pieces to the puzzle were beginning to come together. The Bulldogs were playing host to the ninth-ranked team in the country, and through six innings they battled Long Beach State to a 4–4 tie. In the top of the seventh inning, Steve Susdorf, Alan Ahmady, and Tommy Mendonca each drove in runs and gave Fresno State a 7–4 lead. Mike Batesole had a decision to make. Jake Floethe’s work was stel­ lar. He had pitched the last three innings and turned in the best per­ formance of his freshman season. Floethe had not allowed a hit, nor had he walked a batter.

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With six outs needed to earn their biggest win of the season, Mike Batesole chose to remove the freshman pitcher. He gave the ball to Brandon Burke. That the coach showed such confidence in the senior belied what many felt was the nature of their relationship. The two had clashed since Burke’s freshman season. Batesole’s rigidity and Burke’s devil-may-care attitude and strong views mixed like oil and water. Again this season the pair had flare-ups. When Burke heard the coach accuse a teammate of not working hard, he argued with Batesole and exacted an apology. It angered him when the coach would upbraid a player in front of his teammates. In one such case involving a popular player, he expressed to Batesole his belief that the practice could affect player loyalty toward the coach. Although Batesole told him he appreciated Burke’s honesty and face-to-face discussions, the pitcher believed that a growing silence between the two of them said otherwise. Burke also assumed that his personality grated on the coach. Batesole loved blue-collar players, snapped at players who laughed or joked in the dugout during games, and held an appreciation for hard work and discipline. Brandon Burke, to many, couldn’t have been more opposite. Quick with a quip, he was a producer of laughs in the dugout, the bull pen, and even on the mound during games. His persona, though, masked a fierce competitiveness that sim­ mered within. Once on the mound and ready to face Long Beach State, Burke rewarded his coach’s faith by setting the 49ers down in order. The eighth inning ended quickly and quietly with two strikeouts and a fly-ball out. Teammates smiled in the dugout as the pitcher broke into the “Burke stroll,” an ultra-slow walk off the field. The Bulldogs were just three outs from their biggest win of the season. In the eight months since he chose to return for a final season at Fresno State, Brandon Burke had yet to settle into a role. He’d been called on early in games, pitching more than seven innings in one

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relief appearance. And he had been summoned from the bull pen for brief stints. Some were for less than an inning. While Burke hoped to be used as a starting pitcher, that wasn’t going to happen. Despite success in that role as a high school standout and making several starts during his first two seasons at Fresno State, spot starts were given to less experienced pitchers like Sean Bonesteele and Jake Floethe. When the season began, Jason Breckley was earmarked for the closer role. Batesole was impressed with the senior’s slider. Breckley had a split-fingered fastball that, when working well, could produce ground-ball outs. Very early in the season, though, it became clear Breckley was struggling with his slider. In the Bulldogs’ ninth game of the season, they took a 2–0 lead in the seventh inning at Santa Clara. Breckley came on to try to get the final nine outs and preserve the win. He was promptly stung for five consecutive hits—two singles and three doubles—as Santa Clara erupted to score five times in the inning. Fresno State rallied to tie the game. In the tenth inning Brandon Burke had difficulties with his control. He walked a batter, hit a batter, and after an intentional walk, which loaded the bases, walked in the game-winning run. The frustration of the defeat moved Batesole to meet with his pitching coach. The closer role had to be resolved, and fast. Neither man had confidence in Breckley to fill the role. Neither was sold on Brandon Burke at that point, either. He didn’t throw espe­ cially hard and lacked an out pitch. Mayne went to work on Burke. He preached to the senior the value of changing speeds to make his pitches more effective. Burke was not unlike a lot of young pitchers. When faced with a difficult situation, he would resort to power and try to blow his fastball past a hitter. But Burke’s fastball didn’t have a lot of movement to it. Trying to throw harder reduced his accuracy with the pitch. Mayne urged Burke,

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and other Bulldog pitchers, to try the opposite: reduce the velocity of the fastball. Burke discovered that the slower fastball would sink and run in on a right-handed batter. Soon he developed an uncanny knack for using the pitch to get out of trouble. In six of the next eight games pitched, he escaped potential trouble via a double play. What also made an impact on Burke was how much Mayne cared— cared not just about Brandon the Bulldog pitcher, but about things taking place in his life. He placed no constraints on his personality, nor did Mayne put brakes to Burke’s spirit. In a conversation with an acquaintance, a teammate called Brandon Burke the best and worst thing about the team. His loose demeanor, blunt honesty, and fun personality were grating to the Bulldogs’ bluecollar players. Those traits were also a release valve for the pressures some players felt from their head coach. Burke soaked up Mayne’s ideas on pitching strategy. The two fre­ quently discussed game situations and appropriate pitches to throw on specific ball-and-strike counts. While this at times clashed with the plan Matt Curtis followed while calling pitches with Burke on the mound, Mayne tried to diffuse tensions by keeping Curtis in the loop about Burke’s development. In time, both believed that Curtis got a feel for Burke’s evolving strengths and weaknesses. Brandon Burke’s knowledge of the game stretched beyond pitch­ ing. The product of a powerhouse San Diego–area high school pro­ gram, he took to heart the teachings of his head coach, Sam Blalock, whose program developed future major leaguers Hank Blalock and Cole Hamels. Burke shared that knowledge and came to be seen as a mentor by some of the younger players in the program. Mike Batesole made it a point to be tough on freshmen. He wanted to ensure they played the game as he wanted. Burke liked working with the freshmen. He saw how the coach’s comments affected their confidence and made it a point to offer encouragement when he felt it was needed. When

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strikeouts, a lack of playing time, and negative comments from the coach appeared to sap Jordan Ribera of confidence, it was Burke who urged, “Hang in there. Don’t listen to him, just keep your head up.” Burke and others felt that once Ribera did so, his play improved and his confidence grew. As Brandon Burke rose from the bench, he exited a Bulldog dug­ out charged with a higher-than-usual level of enthusiasm. Three outs stood between Fresno State and a win over an opponent ranked in the top ten. Getting those outs fell on the shoulders of the senior. Taking the ball from his shortstop following between-inning warmups, Burke nodded at Danny Muno, smiled, and warned, “Coming your way, Muno. Be ready!” He hoped it might relax the shortstop, who had committed his fourth error of the season earlier in the game. The wicked movement on Burke’s pitches induced a quick ground ball to Erik Wetzel for the first out of the inning. Adhering to Mayne’s mantra, Burke got two strikes on the next 49ers hitter, but a ground ball to third base was thrown wildly to first. The error put a Long Beach runner at second base. First-pitch swinging produced a two-run home run that got Long Beach State within a run. But Burke recovered, getting back-to-back ground-ball outs to Danny Muno that ended the game. Burke joined his teammates in celebrating the 7–6 win over the highly ranked op­ ponent. It was far and away Fresno State’s biggest win of the season. He had earned his first save of the season. His coach would come to view Burke as a late-inning pressure release. The guy seen by some as the team’s class clown had, at last, earned a role. He solidified his spot as the Bulldogs’ go-to closer on April Fool’s Day.

10

CHAPTER

Pick Your Poison

APRIL 13, 2008—Through the first quarter of the season, the first

order of business on game day was a check of the lineup card. Over the course of the Bulldogs’ first fifteen games, seventy-two changes were made to the batting order. Four players were tested in the leadoff spot. Alan Ahmady and Steve Susdorf were flip-flopped in the third and cleanup positions several times. Ahmady, Tommy Mendonca, Todd Sandell, Ryan Overland, and Steve Detwiler each found his name in the fifth spot in the order at various times during the stretch of games. When the lineup card was posted for the Bulldogs’ fifteenth game of the season, its batting order would begin a trend. After going with Erik Wetzel in the leadoff spot through the first eleven games, Batesole gave Gavin Hedstrom and Steve Susdorf opportunities in the

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role. Danny Muno’s name was on the first line. It would remain there for the rest of the season. Three more changes made to the batting order that week would also remain constant from there on. Wetzel would drop to the third spot in the order, and Susdorf would hit fourth, with Ahmady batting fifth. The move came after a great deal of thought and deliberation. Batesole felt that the three spot was important to the personality of the team. Susdorf and Ahmady had taken turns batting third, but neither had produced in a way that pleased the coach. After thinking it over he decided to go with Wetzel, telling himself the move wouldn’t generate home runs and was not likely to produce a bunch of RBIs, but Wetzel wouldn’t get cheated. He knew the junior would be a tough out and get quality at bats. Susdorf and Ahmady would get a good idea of what a pitcher had from watching Wetzel’s at bats. Almost immediately, chemistry detonated from the top half of the lineup. In the leadoff role, Muno displayed a consistent composure. His eye for pitches and his quick bat enabled him to reach base seven times, five through walks, during the final two games in Hawaii. That gave Susdorf and Ahmady better pitches to hit. After managing just five hits over his previous eight games, Susdorf hammered out five hits in his first three games’ batting cleanup. The move in the order had an even bigger effect on Alan Ahmady. Strug­ gling with just one hit in his previous four games, Ahmady had four successive two-hit games after being written into the five spot. In two nonleague wins over Cal Poly three days later, Wetzel reached base seven times. Gavin Hedstrom, batting second, took ad­ vantage by driving in four runs to highlight the triumph in the first of the two games. When Wetzel reached base three times in the second game of the series, Steve Susdorf was the beneficiary. The lefthanded hitter enjoyed a two-home-run performance and drove in four runs.

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Wetzel’s success was particularly pleasing to those who had been around the second baseman during his two prior seasons at Fresno State. Few of them had ever experienced the emotional anguish Wetzel endured during his freshman year. On a talented 2006 Fresno State team, Wetzel won the starting second-base job in his very first season of college ball. As reliable as Wetzel’s hitting was, so, too, was the presence of his parents at each Fresno State game. Dave and Cathy Wetzel purchased an RV and traveled to every Fresno State game from their southern California home. Whether in Ruston, Louisiana, or Reno, Nevada, the Wetzels could be found in the stands, offering encouragement to their son and his teammates. It was late in the year when Erik learned why the travels had been so impor­ tant to his parents. His mother didn’t want to miss a pitch because she had been diagnosed with cancer and did not have much time to live. Days before classes were to begin for Wetzel’s sophomore year of school, Cathy Wetzel passed away. Immediately Batesole relayed the disheartening news to his players. The coach urged the team to travel to southern California and attend Cathy Wetzel’s memorial. Hearts were heavy, eyes moist. The service was emotional. Erik Wetzel looked up to see his coaches and a large number of teammates in a gratifying show of support. Appropriate and meaningful words were hard to come by for the young adults, many of whom had never endured such tragedy. Once Wetzel returned to Fresno, Batesole kept him busy. Studies and training would be an outlet, a focal point for his thoughts. Once the season began, Wetzel would look into the Beiden Field stands and see his father offering encouragement while next to a symbolic empty seat. Moving through the Bulldogs’ second WAC series of the season, the players in the top half of the batting order were becoming very difficult outs. Wetzel and Danny Muno were amassing hits as well as

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walks against Nevada. In the middle of the order, Susdorf and Ahmady were racking up runs batted in. The Bulldogs won three of the four games in the series and moved into a tie with Nevada for first place in the WAC. The numbers tallied in the series by the top-half-of-the-order hit­ ters were staggering. Muno had five hits and scored three runs. Wetzel accounted for seven of Fresno State’s hits, reached base twelve times, and scored seven runs. Susdorf tallied seven hits and drove in nine runs. Alan Ahmady’s series was eye-popping. The first baseman ham­ mered Nevada’s pitchers for fourteen hits. He drove in fourteen runs, scored eight times himself, and hit three home runs in the series. The following Tuesday, Ahmady was celebrated as the national player of the week. The university received notice from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association that the sophomore was singled out for its unique recognition. The Bulldogs’ surge of success continued into a midweek game with Long Beach State. The 49ers came into the meeting ranked ninth in the nation. Going to the bottom of the seventh inning, the large scoreboard that towered above left field in Beiden Field read Fresno State 4, Long Beach State 4. In their half of the inning, few would have imagined that Fresno State was about to raise some eyebrows with their performance against the touted guests. With one out in the inning, Erik Wetzel swung at the first pitch he saw and produced an infield single. Steve Susdorf found himself with a chance to drive in the go-ahead run when Wetzel successfully stole second base. After he worked the count to three balls and a strike, Susdorf stroked a single through the hole into right field. Wetzel beat the throw to the plate, giving Fresno State the lead, 5–4. Alan Ahmady came to bat next. His fellow hitters marveled at Ahmady’s pitch recognition and his ability to make solid contact with just about any sort of pitch

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thrown. The first baseman was facing one of Long Beach State’s best relief pitchers, David Roberts. Unbeaten thus far in the season, Roberts threw his first pitch past the swinging Ahmady into the mitt of his catcher for strike one. The speed and movement of the pitch were digested by the hard hitter. He reassumed his stance in the batter’s box and turned his attention once again to Roberts, waiting for the next pitch. No sooner had the ball left the pitcher’s hand than Ahmady made up his mind. He flexed, whipped his bat across the plate, and made hard contact with the offering. The ball flew off the bat in the air toward center field. Susdorf took off, running at the sound of contact, and could see Matt Curtis beyond third base motioning for him to round the bag and head for home. Outfielders chased the ball to the warning track. Ahmady dug around first base for second. Fans clapped and shouted with delight. Ahmady’s double scored Susdorf to increase Fresno State’s edge on the 49ers to 6–4. Tommy Mendonca, who had homered five innings earlier, sent a triple to right center field, which scored Susdorf, making the tally Fresno State 7, Long Beach State 4. Two ninth-inning Long Beach State runs made the final score 7–6. The win over a nationally ranked op­ ponent gave rise to optimism. It also increased confidence and begged the question of just how good Fresno State could be. When WAC play brought Louisiana Tech to town, the Bulldogs continued their torrid hitting. In the second game after winning the first of the series, Fresno State fell behind 7–1 in the fifth inning. After a seventh-inning rally tied the score, they watched the visitors regain the lead and send play to the bottom of the ninth with an 8–7 lead. The Bulldogs’ final turn brought the top of the order to bat. Muno used his compact stroke to lay into an offering, doubling down the left-field line. Hedstrom singled, putting Bulldog runners at first and third. Erik Wetzel directed an apparent double-play ball to the right side. Louisiana Tech’s shortstop retired Hedstrom at second but threw wildly, trying to get Wetzel at first base. The error enabled Muno to

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score from third base. Wetzel advanced to second base, moving into scoring position. As Steve Susdorf walked to the batter’s box to hit, a signal was being relayed from the Louisiana Tech dugout to the team’s catcher. The instruction was to walk the returning all-WAC outfielder inten­ tionally and pitch to the unproven Ahmady. Already with three hits to his credit in the series, Ahmady made his fourth the biggest of them all: a single to center field that scored Wetzel with the gamewinning run. Over the four-game series, Fresno State scored forty-two runs. The tablesetters had provided the spark. Wetzel scored ten runs in the four games. Susdorf drove in seven; Ahmady, nine. Scouting reports telling of the newfound chemistry produced by the lineup combination were bound to circulate through the WAC. The Bulldogs knew that with Muno consistently getting on base and a threat to steal, Wetzel was likely to see better pitches to hit. With Wetzel reaching base, either via hits or successfully coaxed walks, Susdorf would have favorable defensive shifts and better pitches to hit. With Alan Ahmady a more potent offensive threat, pitchers could no longer work around Susdorf to challenge Ahmady. Opposing pitchers throughout the WAC would have to pick their poison.

11

CHAPTER

Time of the Signs

APRIL 18, 2008—Watching the ball sail over the blue outfield wall

of the University of California’s Evans Diamond sent a sinking feeling through almost all in the Fresno State dugout. Applause punctuated what until then had been a mostly quiet afternoon in Berkeley, where the Bulldogs and Cal Bears met in a nonconference game. The hit sent four Cal runners into a slow jog around the bases toward home plate. The applause was for a sixth-inning grand-slam home run that ended a scoreless duel and sent the Bears into the lead. The innings’ end would complete Justin Wilson’s day on the mound and send an angry pitcher to the locker room. Wilson was irritated with some of his teammates. He felt he wasn’t getting any run support when he pitched. The starting pitchers were throwing well, keeping games close. In nine of Fresno State’s now four­ teen losses, the Bulldogs scored two runs or less. When Wilson exited

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this game with Cal, Fresno State had managed just one hit through six innings. During this 5–4 defeat, a teammate’s error provoked a glare from the mound, a dugout admonishment, and then a challenge to Fresno State’s hitters. “Make the play!” Wilson barked. “I’m pitching my ass off, and what are you doing?” he yelled at his teammates. “You aren’t doing much of anything.” What caused a small fissure in the preseason was now threaten­ ing to become a larger fracture of the Fresno State clubhouse. An usversus-them mentality had grown. It pitted members of the pitching staff against Fresno State’s position players. Some of the feelings had roots in intrasquad games during the fall. Pitchers became angry that some hitters, knowing their habits, would lean into a pitch in order to intentionally get hit and gain a base. Also angering were hitters who disrupted pitchers by pretend­ ing to have something in their eye and calling time-out just as their teammate began his windup. One pitcher was particularly incensed with Steve Susdorf for this practice. The pitcher chose to retaliate by throwing at Susdorf whenever the hitter engaged in the action. After being thrown at several times during a span of weeks, Susdorf decided enough was enough. One afternoon he charged the mound, where the two wrestled and exchanged punches. After breaking up the scuffle, Batesole gathered the team. He in­ sisted he was not angry. On the contrary, he told them, “It shows me we’ve got two guys on this team who want to win so bad, they would fight each other to win.” Several of the veteran pitchers felt that the antagonism was engen­ dered by the actions of their head coach. In their eyes, Batesole showed disdain for their craft. His attentions were spent on the hitters. Yet his control of the team encompassed the pitching staff. The derision many of the pitchers felt for their head coach was mir­ rored by the high regard in which they held their pitching coach. From

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their initial apprehension had grown a great fondness and respect for Mike Mayne. From that loyalty came a degree of annoyance that he was not permitted to call pitches or visit the mound during games. Batesole retained ultimate authority over the position even though, some on the pitching staff grumbled, he showed little knowledge of their area of expertise. A few were unhappy with the pitch calling by Matt Curtis. Tanner Scheppers had occasion to clash with Curtis, particularly when he was steadfast in wanting to throw sliders when Curtis felt the situa­ tion called for blowing a hitter away with his fastball. Some of Jason Breckley’s teammates felt there was a tendency to call for his slider based on its success the previous season when, in fact, the senior was now struggling with the pitch. Also irritating some were occasions when pitch calls were made without sufficient knowledge of what was or wasn’t working well for the pitcher while he was warming up in the bull pen. More than once, Bulldogs pitchers found themselves trying to suppress a laugh while on the mound, able to hear Curtis and Mike Mayne in a dugout disagreement over pitch selection. Among the juniors and seniors on the pitching staff was an appre­ ciation for Ryan Overland’s knowledge and leadership. When behind the plate, Overland occasionally showed a willingness to disregard a pitch call from the dugout and, instead, signal for a pitch he felt was better suited for the given situation. In reality Batesole viewed the dugout calls as a suggestion. Pitchers were free to shake off the sign and throw something else if they wanted. If they did, and what they threw didn’t work, their head coach would expect a good explanation for the decision they made. Uncertainty was another ingredient in the discontent felt by some of the starting pitchers. Their assignments were not cast in stone. Justin Wilson began the season as the Friday-night starter but at times was pushed back to start a Saturday game. Clayton Allison bounced between the game-two and game-three starter. Most consistent was

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Justin Miller, who, although occasionally drawing a Saturday start, most often pitched the Sunday series finale. Tanner Scheppers was moved up and down the rotation. After be­ ginning the season as the game-three starter, he found his assignment changed throughout the season. Having Scheppers pitch one of the midweek nonleague games and then make a Sunday start was floated. So, too, was the plan to have Scheppers serve as the closer in a Friday-night game, then come back and start Sunday. All four starting pitchers came to realize they simply had to be ready for anything. Ten days after Wilson’s outburst came another blowup. The Bull­ dogs were hosting Louisiana Tech, a team that had been a thorn in Mike Batesole’s side. Fresno State had had very little success against them over the previous seasons. Before an April doubleheader between the two teams at Beiden Field, Batesole discussed strategy with Clayton Allison. Remember­ ing that Tech’s Patrick Thomas burned the Bulldogs with a home run and three runs batted in the previous year, Batesole wanted no part of him. He instructed Allison to walk Thomas should he bat with a base open. He wanted to take his chances with a freshman hitting behind Thomas in the order. When Allison forgot or ignored the instructions in the second inning, and Thomas singled home the game’s first run, Batesole became angry. “I told you, you gotta walk that guy the next time,” he scolded the pitcher following the inning. Two innings later Thomas came up again. The game was now tied 1–1. There were two runners on base following a single and a Danny Muno fielding error. Two were out in the inning. Allison, following instructions, walked Thomas, loading the bases. Clint Ewing, a six-foot two-inch, 220-pound freshman catcher, stepped into the batter’s box. Allison tried to sneak an eighty-eight­ mile-an-hour fastball past Ewing on the outside corner, but the fresh­

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man swung at the first offering and connected. The ball arched high into the air toward right field. Steve Detwiler turned to his left and began running toward the warning track. Looking up at the flight of the ball, the right fielder realized his chase would be futile. Detwiler could only watch helplessly as the ball sailed over the wall for a grandslam home run. Instantly, Allison turned his attention from the flight of the ball to the dugout. He snapped his body to the right and launched an angry glare in the direction of Batesole. Witnessed by hundreds in the stands, the contempt shown by Allison infuriated his head coach. Batesole immediately bolted from the dugout for the mound. With Louisiana Tech players still waiting for Ewing’s arrival at home plate to celebrate his feat, Batesole reached Allison on the mound. The coach chastised the senior in front of all within Beiden Field. Message deliv­ ered, Batesole returned to the dugout. Allison finished the inning but was then removed from the game. As punishment, he did not pitch again for more than a week. The Bulldogs would score twice in the ninth inning and salvage a 9–8 win. The following afternoon Justin Miller pitched six innings of scoreless, two-hit ball, improving his record to 5–0 for the season. Miller’s stellar performance highlighted an 8–0 win and capped a series sweep from Louisiana Tech to move Fresno State into first place in the Western Athletic Conference. With five straight WAC wins and a position atop the conference standings, the Bulldogs rolled into Las Cruces, New Mexico. They were anxious to continue their success and maintain their hold on the conference lead, and optimism in the locker room rose with Batesole’s decision to start Tanner Scheppers in the series opener. The Bulldogs’ confidence level would be rattled in the very first inning. Inexplicably, Scheppers struggled to find the strike zone. He hit a batter, walked a batter, and was tagged for two doubles and a single. New Mexico State scored four times in the inning. Scheppers

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could tell that his trouble stemmed from a flaw with his mechanics. He was unable to pinpoint the exact cause and became frustrated. At this point he wanted nothing more than to call time-out, bring Mike Mayne to the mound, and sort out the problem. That wasn’t going to happen. Hearing the home-plate umpire call time-out, Scheppers looked up to see Mike Batesole walking to the mound. It annoyed the pitcher, who thought, He doesn’t talk to me all week. What’s he going to tell me now? He can’t tell me how to fix this. When play resumed, a strikeout got Scheppers out of the inning, and once back in the dugout he quickly conferred with Mayne. The pitcher was told his front shoulder was flying open while driving toward the delivery point. The flaw in his mechanics made his body fall to his left. The arm drag caused his pitches to sail high. Scheppers fought through what would turn out to be his worst per­ formance of a stellar season. Over six difficult innings he surrendered seven runs and walked a season-worst five batters. A day later pitcher and pitching coach would pore over videotape of the previous night’s performance to isolate and correct the problem. The veteran players hoped the message to younger pitchers was clear. It was imperative to understand one’s mechanics. Should things go awry during a game, nobody would be able to put things back on track but themselves.

12

CHAPTER

The Arms Race

APRIL 19, 2008—The stadium lights kicked on to aid the setting

sun and illuminate Presley Askew Field on the New Mexico State Uni­ versity campus. Many of the 211 fans on hand were either milling about or getting something to eat or drink before returning to their seats for the start of the doubleheader’s second game. Few noticed a much more self-assured Holden Sprague walk from the bull pen to the Fresno State dugout. His pregame warm-up ses­ sion worked up a light sweat and quickened his breathing. Sprague was anxious to get on the mound and begin the game. His work in the bull pen showed he was back on track. His control was good. He was able to keep his pitches down—something that had been a problem for him to accomplish for almost two weeks. The tweaks and changes made to his mechanics to try to correct the problem appeared to have worked.

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Justin Wilson had pitched Fresno State to victory in the afternoon game of the doubleheader. The win was the Bulldogs’ sixth in seven games. The team had firm command of the Western Athletic Confer­ ence title chase. They were 21–16 overall, 10–3 in the WAC. As night began to fall over the ballpark, Holden Sprague prepared for a game that offered him a lifeline of sorts. Clayton Allison was in Mike Batesole’s doghouse for the bold disrespect shown the coach in the Louisiana Tech game the week before. His punishment was re­ moval from the starting rotation for the New Mexico State series. Sprague was fi lling in, but it was far from a reward for his recent performances. Only four days earlier he was tagged for three runs in a relief appearance that lasted a third of an inning. The previous week­ end, after replacing Allison in the game against Louisiana Tech, he pitched just one inning and gave up three hits and two runs. The Bulldogs’ bull pen had been going through struggles. Entering the season, this group of pitchers was an area of significant concern. Brandon Burke was beginning to earn the coach’s confidence. He con­ tinued to settle into his role as the closer. In the eight games since recording his first save, he had earned two more. Kris Tomlinson was becoming an effective situational out-getter against left-handed batters. Days earlier, though, he had a bad outing, giving up three runs in a loss to the Cal Poly Mustangs. In two out­ ings against Cal Poly, Sean Bonesteele failed to breed his coach’s con­ fidence. Bonesteele pitched an inning and a third in one game and walked three batters. In the other game pitched against the Mustangs, he gave up three hits and allowed a run in two-thirds of an inning. Jake Hower was another seldom-used member of the relief pitch­ ing corps. In Friday night’s series opener against New Mexico State, Hower produced encouraging results. Brought on when Tanner Scheppers faltered, Hower pitched three and a third innings and did not allow a run. The performance was almost a 180-degree difference from another outing a few days earlier. In that game he pitched just

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two-thirds of an inning and was tagged for a two-run home run and a run-scoring single. Hower, like Brandon Burke, was a pupil to whom Mike Mayne especially preached his “less is more” message. A tall, right-handed pitcher, Hower had a tendency to overthrow in tough situations. When Hower threw his fastball harder, it lacked movement. Mayne urged him to take something off the pitch, explaining that it would produce movement. When Hower did, the ball had sink to it and produced ground-ball outs. Having endured some difficult early-season outings, Jason Breckley had not been called on to pitch in three weeks. The freshmen, Jake Floethe and Gene Escat, were the ten-up, ten-down guys not likely to see action unless Fresno State led or trailed by ten runs or more. Sprague’s recent spate of difficulty was traced to bad mechanics. Mayne was quick to spot the problem, and the two went to work to correct it. He instructed the pitcher to make a minor modification to his delivery. Analytical in his thought process, Sprague grasped what his pitching coach was trying to accomplish. Through bull-pen repeti­ tion, the correction became a second-nature addition to his mechan­ ics. The night’s start would tell if the change successfully corrected Sprague’s troubles. Though not displaying a stellar win-loss record, New Mexico State was considered by Fresno State’s coaches to be a good hitting ball club. They scored fifteen runs in the previous two games, only to lose to the Bulldogs 13–10 and 9–5. Sprague knew that in order to have success against the Aggies, he would have to keep the ball down in the strike zone. That was something the flaw in his mechanics had been prevent­ ing him from achieving in recent outings. Sprague was a spectator for almost half an hour before finally taking the mound. His teammates batted around in the top of the first, with the nine hitters producing a 3–0 Bulldog lead. Shouts of encour­ agement were heard as the right-handed pitcher stood ready to work

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on the first New Mexico State batter. Voices of a smattering of Bull­ dogs fans that had made the journey to Las Cruces echoed through the small college ballpark. Two Sprague pitches to the Aggies’ first hitter produced a groundball out from Danny Muno to Alan Ahmady at first base. After four pitches, there were two out in the first. Muno had two assists, and Ahmady registered his second put-out. When a ground-ball out to Ahmady ended the first inning, applause broke out in the dugout. There was satisfaction within pitcher and pitching coach. The changes had taken hold and were producing desired results: low inthe-zone pitches and ground-ball outs. In the second inning New Mexico State rallied, turning two singles into a run. Few in the stands or dugout would have guessed that this run would be the only one Holden Sprague would allow on this night. New Mexico State would not get another hit off the Bulldog pitcher over the next four innings. Sprague was able to relax and become a cheerleading fan in the top of the fourth inning while his teammates rallied to score five times. In the bottom of the fourth, Sprague hit the third batter of the inning, ending a stretch of six hitters retired in a row. A half inning later, Sprague resumed his stellar streak by setting down the side in order. He then received a bit of a breather, compli­ ments of the Bulldogs’ hitters, who generated another rally against the Aggies. Tommy Mendonca’s two-run home run was the highlight, giving the Bulldogs a 10–1 lead. Once on the mound to pitch the bottom of the sixth, Sprague added to his body of work, continuing to build belief in his skills. He induced the leadoff hitter to ground out to Erik Wetzel at second base. It was the eighth ground-ball out registered—half the outs Sprague had recorded in the game. With a light wind making the tall trees sway beyond the outfield wall and fans clapping and shouting encouragement, Sprague fired a

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two-ball, two-strike pitch. Just as the ball dropped in the strike zone, the New Mexico State hitter swung and missed. Danny Grubb was unable to hang on to the pitch, but he picked up the ball from the dirt and threw to first for the second out of the inning. His confidence growing, his pitches doing just what he wanted, Holden Sprague was no longer a partner to angst and frustration. He was in control on the mound and proved it when he blew a called strike three past the Aggies’ third batter of the inning to end the bottom of the sixth. Fresno State’s hitters would give Sprague an even bigger lead when they added three more runs to their tally in the top of the seventh inning. Ryan Overland’s two-run single capped the Bulldogs’ out­ burst. Their advantage was now a commanding 13–1. The final half inning of the seven-inning doubleheader game brought smiles to the faces of many Bulldogs as they watched Blake Amador jog to left field to replace Steve Susdorf. Amador was a popu­ lar player, well liked by his teammates. Though beaten out for a start­ ing job in fall practice, the senior continued to work hard in practice and maintain a good attitude, earning his teammates’ respect. In their last chance at bat, the Aggies were quick to end the streak of consecutive outs Sprague had impressively amassed. A double to open the inning snapped a stretch of six consecutive batters retired and twelve of the previous thirteen. Sprague then fell behind before walking New Mexico State’s second hitter to put runners at first and second base. This would be Holden Sprague’s game to finish. No relief pitch­ ing help was on the horizon, and Sprague made sure the bull-pen gate stayed shut. A fly ball to center field was hauled in by Trent Soares for the first out of the seventh. Cheers came from the Fresno State dugout when New Mexico State’s next hitter looked at a called strike three. When Sprague threw three pitches into Jake Johnson’s glove to end the game with his sixth strikeout of the night, teammates and coaches

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jogged onto the field to celebrate the impressive pitching performance they had witnessed. After the second-inning run Sprague shut out the Aggies over the final five innings. He gave up only three hits in the game and walked just one batter. It was a dazzling performance, one his pitching coach felt was the best game pitched by a Bulldog to date. Were it not for the discipline handed Clayton Allison, Sprague’s gem might not have occurred. That it produced such a stellar perfor­ mance gave coaches better reason to rely on Sprague from this night forward. The Bulldogs had another pitching weapon for their pursuit of the Western Athletic Conference title.

13

CHAPTER

Shouldered Burden

APRIL 20, 2008—The walk back to the dugout fi lled Tommy

Mendonca with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. The umpire’s cry of “Strike three” rang in his ears while sympathetic fans tried to help drown it out with shouts of understanding and encouragement. Reaching the third-base dugout, Mendonca’s frustration peaked. He drew the aluminum bat above his head and, fueled by his full anger, drove it into the concrete roof of the dugout. The sound startled an inattentive fan conversing with a friend in the box seats. The out­ burst evoked feelings of empathy from supportive fans, while a few viewed it as an act of petulance. The dent in the bat’s head rendered it unusable. The strikeout became Tommy Mendonca’s albatross, the spoiler of a season he anxiously wanted to be a breakout year. The Bulldogs’ season-opening series with UC Davis may have offered a foreboding

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image. In four of Mendonca’s first five times at bat to open the season, he struck out. Through thirty-seven games he was a victim of strike­ outs fifty-five times. Bulldog batters had been retired by strikeout a whopping 282 times during the first half of the season. Much had been expected of Tommy Mendonca when the season began. A ten-home-run freshman season with a .281 batting average led coaches to insert him in the number-five spot in the batting order to open the year. When Mendonca struggled, getting just four hits in the first seven games, some wondered if it was because the third base­ man expected too much of himself Scouts in the stands saw problems with his swing. They wrote in their notebooks that Mendonca was “leaking his front shoulder.” The left-handed batter was clearly pulling his upper body through the swing a fraction early, opening his shoulder. It made him vulnerable both to the curveball and to pitches thrown over the outside half of the plate. Theories were discussed in the stands. Many believed he was trying to pull the ball in order to increase his home-run total. His swings and misses at pitches in the dirt led coaches to believe he was not seeing the ball well. It made scouts wonder if an old hitting theory might be true: the unsure hitter, anxious and afraid of failure, is more likely to swing at pitches early in the count in hopes of making contact to get the at bat over quickly. Teammates were understanding and sympathetic. Early in the season Mendonca and Todd Sandell shared frustrations in many a late-night talk. “Stick it out, stick it out,” Sandell urged his downcast teammate. “Look at the guys in the big leagues. They take thirty, forty games to get going sometimes. In college, that’s half a season. Stick with it.” Observing Mendonca’s growing struggles, Mike Batesole realized he was to blame. In the coach’s grand scheme of things, fall practice was a time for working on the player’s stroke. Swing problems should be ironed out before the regular season begins. Once in season, the

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focus of the player should be on game situation, pitch selection, and pattern of pitches. Diverting attention from that to problems with hit­ ting mechanics puts a batter at a disadvantage to the pitcher, Batesole believed. During the fall, Batesole noticed problems with Mendonca’s me­ chanics during workouts and intrasquad games. At the same time, though, the player was hitting the cover off the ball. Through fall ball, Mendonca hit over .400 and mashed a dozen home runs. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, Batesole thought at the time. Now he realized he was wrong. To try to force changes on a player in-season would put a hitter two weeks behind, Batesole felt. Mendonca had little choice but to endure the frustrating consequences. Friendly and eager to please, almost to a fault, Mendonca was showered with suggestions from fans, teammates, and well-meaning friends. He also sought advice from many he thought could offer help. Concerned that his son was getting advice overload, Mendonca’s father tried to keep their conversations positive. “Are you having fun?” “Yeah” “No, you’re not.” “I’m struggling. How can I be having fun?” “There’s your problem right there. Baseball’s a fun game. Go out and play and have fun. You’re worrying too much about who’s in the stands and your statistics.” Glimpses of potential would excite. In early March, Mendonca homered in three straight games, collecting eight hits and driving in eight runs. But over the ensuing nine games, he managed just two hits in thirty-four at bats. His batting average dropped to a dismal .171. For a brief time Fresno State’s coaches even discussed benching Mendonca and moving Todd Sandell to third base. Mendonca’s bril­ liant play in the field brought any such thoughts to a speedy halt,

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however. Scouts considered his fielding “major-league.” Pitchers saw him as a game saver. Mendonca was hardly alone in his hitting struggles. Danny Grubb, the Bulldogs’ catcher, endured a three-for-twenty-seven stretch. Steve Detwiler, the right fielder, managed only five hits in a twenty-at-bat span. A six-for-thirty tailspin would cost Trent Soares his job as the starting center fielder. Ryan Overland, who alternated between the catcher and designated-hitter roles, produced hits just six times in a twenty-eight-at-bat span. Mendonca got hits just twice during a twenty-eight-at-bat slump. At a North Fresno restaurant, a group of diners could clearly over­ hear a conversation that involved criticism of Mike Batesole. Hearing bits and pieces of what the young men were saying evoked curiosity from those who were nearby. One of the diners finally recognized the men as members of the Fresno State baseball team. Two-thirds of the way through the season, “the plan” was still a source of frustration for some of the Bulldogs’ hitters. Instructed not to swing at anything but a fastball with less than two strikes in the count, some players viewed their head coach’s plan as an impediment to their success. Once into WAC play, the Bulldogs found a league devoid of power pitchers. Nevada’s Kyle Howe exploited “the plan,” stifling the Bull­ dogs with sliders and changeups to produce a 4–1 win. San Jose State’s Max Peterson and two of the Spartans’ relief pitchers would hold the Bulldogs at bay with breaking pitches to post a 2–1 win. As much of a hindrance as the theory was to struggling veteran players, it added to the difficulties some freshman experienced while making the transition from high school to college baseball. It was an entirely new plan of attack for the newcomers. Nick Hom, Jake Johnson, Danny Muno, Jordan Ribera, and Trent Soares were fighting for play­ ing time and battling to maintain confidence in Batesole’s demanding environment. Their head coach’s hitting plan added to the challenge.

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Grumbling about “the plan” was a common topic among several Bulldog hitters. It was one thing to be barked at by the coach in prac­ tice, to be kicked out of the cage for a series of weak fly balls and told to come back and try again another day. Failings in the game were even more angering, especially when some of those who were failing felt strongly that it was because of the coach’s plan. Discussing the problem with their head coach failed to generate relief. Players pointed out that many opposing pitchers were taking advantage of knowing Fresno State’s plan by nibbling the plate with breaking pitches and throwing fastballs out of the strike zone. Soon talk among players turned to the idea of ignoring “the plan.” While a few players wondered about potential repercussions from their coach, others reasoned they couldn’t hit worse than they already were. If re­ suming old strategies helped them improve, there was no way Batesole would complain, they felt. Defiantly, one anonymous Bulldog challenged some of his team­ mates, “If a pitcher throws an off-speed pitch and it’s hanging, hit the shit out of it! Screw it, screw these plans. Let’s just go.” As discourage­ ment and irritation rose among those struggling at the plate, several decided to take their chances, ignore “the plan,” and if their results didn’t improve, suffer the consequences. In Las Cruces several Bulldogs enjoyed a breakout weekend in the series against New Mexico State. Foremost among them was Tommy Mendonca. A three-hit performance in the opener was followed by a four-hit game the next day. In the series’s second game Mendonca homered. He homered later that day in the second game of the double­ header, going two-for-four and driving in five runs. Applauding Mendonca’s effort with special interest were the fathers of two of his teammates, Jim Wilson and Dave Scheppers. During batting practice before the first game in Las Cruces, the two men ap­ proached Mendonca. They had long noticed the flaw in his swing and pointed out the problem to the player. The pair suggested Mendonca

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might overcome the flaw by consciously trying to wait an extra second before turning his upper body into the swing. Both were pleased that Mendonca thanked them enthusiastically yet were surprised he acted as though he had not heard this simple advice before. There were confidence-building performances by other previous strugglers as well. Steve Detwiler had two hits, one a home run, and drove in three runs in the series opener. Ryan Overland drove in four of Fresno State’s runs in the second game of the Saturday doubleheader. Gavin Hedstrom became solidified in the second spot in the bat­ ting order. The Bulldogs’ center fielder had been bounced among sev­ eral spots in the order, but now, sandwiched between Danny Muno and Erik Wetzel, he went on a tear. In Las Cruces, Hedstrom had two hits and a home run in each of the first two games in the series. He went three for four in each of games three and four to help the Bull­ dogs complete a series sweep of New Mexico State. Rocky Ward, New Mexico State’s coach, was left to scratch his head at the conclusion of the series. He was staggered by watching his pitch­ ing staff get lit up for fifty-nine runs in the four-game series. Yet Ward noted that the Bulldogs had been shut out twice and held to one run in four other games during the season. He couldn’t get over the team’s talent and the inconsistency they had displayed at the plate. Looking at the conference standings, he was left to shudder. If the seedings were made from the standings that night, the Aggies would open the WAC Championship tournament against Fresno State. If the Bulldogs’ hitting continued to be as productive as it was against his Aggies, such a matchup, he thought, could be a dangerous proposi­ tion.

14

CHAPTER

Empty Seats

APRIL 22, 2008—As the season moved into its later stages, a sense

of urgency was developing. An 11–14 record in nonleague games was narrowing Fresno State’s potential for earning a spot in the postsea­ son. Their only hope was to win the WAC tournament, for it rewarded the champion with an automatic berth into the NCAA regionals. When the Bulldogs took the field for a Tuesday-night nonconfer­ ence game with Santa Clara, they were coming off four straight im­ pressive wins at New Mexico State. Fresno State had won eight of their last nine games. The torrid hitting that had highlighted the team’s suc­ cess in Las Cruces continued once the game reached the bottom of the second inning. Alan Ahmady opened the inning with a single. Nick Hom, one of four freshmen in the starting nine, drew a three-ball, two-strike walk. After Steve Detwiler struck out swinging, Tommy Mendonca

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singled to bring Ahmady around from second base with the game’s fi rst run. That brought another freshman starter, Jake Johnson, to the plate. Drawing a rare start behind the plate, the first-year catcher seized on the opportunity. As Hom walked a few steps off third base and Mendonca inched away from first, Johnson focused on the anticipated pitch. Within an instant of its departure from the pitcher’s hand, Johnson reacted. His swing connected and sent the ball high in the air toward the left-field wall. All in the third-base dugout turned to watch the flight of the ball. When it sailed over and landed beyond the wall, applause broke out around the ballpark. It was Jake Johnson’s very first collegiate home run. Fresno State grabbed a 4–0 lead. As Johnson enthusiastically jogged the base path, he soaked up the sounds, the feel, and the sights of a memorable event in his life. The smattering of applause meant a great deal. Yet to longtime Bulldogs fans this was a far cry from the raucous sounds that once reverberated through Beiden Field for Fresno State heroics. The days of overflow crowds streaming into the ballpark had become a distant memory. From the late eighties through the midnineties, several Bulldogs games were watched by crowds numbering more than five thousand. A scan of Beiden Field on this night, as with most, saw a majority of the stadium’s red chair-back seats empty. One could not fault followers of the program during its heyday if they drive down Cedar Avenue on a Saturday night, see the empty seats in the ballpark, and believe the university was wasting energy by leaving the stadium lights on when no game was taking place. Such was the scene at Bulldog baseball games: few people in the stands and few cars in the parking areas. The shrinkage of support began soon into Mike Batesole’s first season. Optimism and enthusiasm for the new coach waned when his first team won only thirty games, the lowest win total by a Bulldog team in seventeen years. Batesole’s second team won one less, and

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a thirty-win third season meant a fourth consecutive year in which Fresno State did not achieve a place in the postseason. The erosion of Mike Batesole’s credibility capital with boosters and fans stemmed from more than wins and losses. Those boosters, closely involved with the program, were troubled to learn that a falling-out had occurred between Batesole and his predecessor, Bob Bennett, weeks into the job. The two met over lunch to discuss the program and players the new coach was inheriting. As he sat across the table listening to Batesole’s ideas and plans, much of what was discussed struck a favor­ able note with the just-retired coach. Batesole welcomed Bennett’s continued involvement with the program. He asked him to help with booster-club functions. When talk turned to inherited players, Bennett became concerned. Batesole was critical of many and spoke of trying to run them off in order to create room for players he wanted to bring in. Bennett, who had developed a reputation for integrity over his thirty-four-year career, believed that honoring commitments was imperative, and he dis­ agreed. As their lunch meeting concluded, Bennett, who was driven into retirement by Parkinson’s disease, felt Batesole’s friendly tone change. Bennett would later tell his wife, Jane, and close friends of his surprise when Batesole said he didn’t need the former coach’s help on the field and that he’d never been intimidated by another coach and was not going to be intimidated by Bennett. Surprised by his proclamation, Bennett left the restaurant per­ turbed at the insolence. Bewilderment with Batesole became an irrep­ arable split five months later, when Bennett learned that the new coach employed what he considered demeaning and heavy-handed tactics to try to force Bennett’s grandson to quit the team and relinquish his scholarship. Bob Bennett vowed never to have anything to do with the Fresno State baseball program again.

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Throughout Batesole’s first summer on the job, thirty-four years of consistency transitioned into frequent befuddlement. Changes, some less subtle than others, told people involved with Bulldog baseball that the program had a new leader and direction. The new coach was quickly sized up by some as arrogant. There were boosters who were used to the friendly nature of Batesole’s pre­ decessor and failed to warm to the new coach. Some of them ceased to remain season-ticket holders, while others discontinued involvement with the booster organization, the Dugout Club. The new coach was heard to complain aloud about boosters, wondering why some felt that donating money to his program earned them a right to his time. Members of area service clubs were surprised and frustrated to have speaking invitations rejected by Batesole. For years Bennett and coaches of many other Fresno State sports had been receptive to their invitations and were well-received speakers. Members of the media seeking to arrange interviews found Batesole difficult to work with. Bennett had been perhaps the most receptive and mediaaccommodating of Fresno State’s coaches. Batesole, many felt, was exactly the opposite. Talk spread among area high school coaches of a high-pressure, almost abrasive, recruiting style. Major-league scouts who turned up to watch practice found change, too. The gates at the previously invit­ ing Beiden Field were now locked, keeping away all but players and coaches. Longtime followers of Bulldog baseball were witnessing a transi­ tion of leadership from an admirable champion to a paradoxical pilot. Where Batesole’s assistant coaches would hail their boss as a consum­ mate organizer, others in baseball argued that the coach was a control freak. While some parents, nervous at sending their child away to col­ lege, were assuaged by Batesole’s emphasis on academics and by his Oral Roberts University background, others became dismayed to

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learn of the profanity spewed and demeaning comments regularly made by the coach at practice. For every player grateful to the coach for the time spent helping him hone his craft, there were others fi rm in the belief that Batesole’s negativity prevented them from fulfilling their potential. Where some in baseball deemed Batesole’s negative jibes the antith­ esis of proper teaching methods, there were coaches quick to praise the strategy for making players tougher. Those in the community quick to label him arrogant or aloof were countered by Bulldog players explain­ ing that their coach was not good at speaking without prepared notes. For every current or former player grateful for Batesole’s com­ passion during difficult times there were parents convinced that the coach’s insensitivity had slain their child’s baseball dream. Where umpires would compliment the character of Fresno State’s players and believed it came from discipline instilled by the head coach, players grumbled over what they perceived were different rules for different players, depending on Batesole’s like or dislike for them. What no one could deny was the desire to win that burned inside Mike Batesole. A tireless recruiter and student of the game, Batesole was a coach on a continual quest for methods to improve his players and the team’s win total. Particularly stinging to Fresno State’s boosters during Batesole’s third season was an opinion expressed in an interview with the Fresno Bee by Cal State Fullerton’s coach, George Horton. The Titans’ coach suggested that Fresno State no longer possessed the talent to play nationally prominent California programs like his own. Horton felt that losing to such teams was stunting Batesole’s rebuilding effort. He suggested that Fresno State quit playing those schools and soften its schedule in an effort to gain wins and build player confidence. Horton’s comments tossed fuel on the fire of ire already smolder­ ing within some Fresno State baseball boosters. The team’s success on the national level had been a source of pride to those who had invested

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years of time and emotion in support of the program. Now a rival coach was impugning the time- and toil-built reputation of Bulldog baseball. More significantly, in the eyes of some, George Horton was pulling back the curtain to expose the descent of the Fresno State pro­ gram on Mike Batesole’s watch. At season’s end, Batesole took Horton’s suggestion to heart. He added Utah Valley to the Bulldogs’ 2006 schedule. To clear room on the schedule, Batesole dropped a planned series with Cal State Ful­ lerton. A decline in big-name home-game opponents added to growing disinterest. The numbers of fans coming through the Beiden Field turnstiles declined. Attendance figures listed in box scores were padded by season tickets distributed to athletic-department donors as part of their benefits package. When Batesole enthusiastically proclaimed that his 2008 team had the potential to reach the College World Series, it piqued inter­ est and curiosity in the community. Boosters who had stayed away made a point to take in an early season game or more. Five losses in the Bulldogs’ first nine home games hardly looked like the makings of a championship team. There were fans so disappointed by the re­ sults that they felt this season was going to be more of the same. Some told friends they weren’t coming back and put their season tickets in a drawer, never to be used again during the year. Even now, as the team chased its twenty-fourth win of the season and led the WAC standings, success had failed to light a spark of ex­ citement in the community. The appreciative noise made by the fans taking in the games paled when compared with the support shown for similarly successful Bulldog teams in past decades. Yet Fresno State’s offensive prowess against Santa Clara did not go unappreciated. In fact, those who ventured to the ballpark on this Tuesday night saw the Bulldogs score four more times in the bottom of the fourth inning to take an 8–3 advantage.

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During the middle innings, the visitors chipped away and brought the lead down to a single run as the game entered the top of the ninth inning. Batesole brought the increasingly reliable Brandon Burke on to try to preserve the Bulldogs’ fifth win in a row. But Burke walked the leadoff batter. A sacrifice followed by a single put runners at first and third. A fielder’s choice brought the tying run in from third. Another single and a rare throwing error by Steve Susdorf plated the go-ahead run. Still another error, this one by Danny Muno, sent the third run of the inning home to score, and Fresno State’s win streak ended with a 10–8 loss to the Broncos.

15

CHAPTER

Shaking Things Up

APRIL 24, 2008—Midnight had long come and gone. Nick Hom

was staring at his laptop, surfing the Internet. His roommate, Clayton Allison, was drifting off to sleep. Down the hall on the twenty-eighth floor of Reno’s Silver Legacy Hotel, Tanner Scheppers was suddenly jarred from his slumber. “Quit shaking my bed,” he snapped at his roommate. When Jake Johnson insisted he wasn’t doing any such thing, both instantly became alarmed. Allison and Hom anxiously watched as light fi xtures shook and their room swayed. Justin Wilson peeled back the curtains in his room to reveal a city swaying to an earthquake. He scanned the skyline, noticing several buildings shaking as well as the room in which he stood. Nervous Fresno State players bolted into the hotel hallways. Some received calls from home and tried to convince anxious parents who

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had heard about the quake that they were all right. The next morning at breakfast, jokes and taunts flew at Danny Grubb and Gene Escat when their teammates learned they had chosen to spend the night sleeping in the team bus. Fresno State arrived in Reno riding a two-week tear. They brought an eight-game WAC win streak into their series with the University of Nevada and were winners of nine of their last eleven games. When their bus pulled away from Peccole Park following the fourgame series, the Bulldogs were, like some residents of Reno, trying to determine the best way to repair cracks that had suddenly appeared. In the opening game of the series, Fresno State hitters hammered the Wolf Pack. They scored six times in the top of the first inning, giving Tanner Scheppers a comfortable lead to work with. With a number of major-league scouts gathered to watch his performance, Scheppers fought his way out of trouble in the bottom of the first. He hit the first batter of the game, bringing Nevada players to the edge of their dugout shouting at the Bulldog pitcher in anger. A two-run home run gave the Wolf Pack a feeling of revenge before Scheppers mowed down the next two hitters via swinging strikeouts, preventing any additional damage from being done. The emotions of the opening inning gave way to near monotony. In three of the following five innings, Scheppers set the Wolf Pack down in order while building his strikeout tally to an impressive twelve. After a strikeout to open the seventh, Scheppers allowed two walks, and with his pitch count reaching 134, Mike Batesole brought his per­ formance to an end. Kris Tomlinson and Holden Sprague kept Nevada off the scoreboard in the final two innings to complete a 9–3 Fresno State win. The win was Fresno State’s sixth win in seven games. They were now 26–17 for the season, 14–3 in WAC play. Over the next two weeks, though, wins for the Bulldogs would become scarce.

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As Fresno State left the campus ballpark celebrating their latest tri­ umph, one major-league scout who had watched the game wondered if he spied the onset of trouble. He would relay information to his front office that he noticed a slight change in Tanner Scheppers’s delivery. When he combined the slight head tilt with the night’s pitch count and memory of a 130-pitch game seven days before, he mulled the thought that Scheppers might be pitching with an injury. He felt that it war­ ranted a further look. Fifteen hours later the two teams lined up to meet again. On the mound for Nevada was a pitcher who had exploited Mike Batesole’s isolate-the-fastball plan and snapped a six-game Fresno State win streak back in late March. Kyle Howe was about to do it again. Feeding the Bulldogs a steady diet of sliders and changeups, he kept Fresno State off the board through six innings. Rarely was Howe ever in trouble. When the Nevada senior found himself in fastball situations, he made sure he kept the ball out of the strike zone. The result was a one-run Bulldog effort while Howe induced eleven ground-ball outs and struck out five. Just as he did in March, Howe pitched Nevada to a streak-snapping 4–1 win. After losing the second game of the doubleheader 7–3, the Bulldogs turned their efforts toward splitting the series in Sunday afternoon’s finale. The largest crowd of the season, thirteen hundred fans, came to the ballpark for the sun-drenched afternoon game. Fresno State sent Justin Miller to the mound. In a start at New Mexico State the previous week, the win improved his record to 6–0. Against Nevada, Miller failed to make it out of the second inning. When Miller joined the program, Batesole was enamored with the junior college transfer’s slider. Over the first half of the season, when teamed with his fastball the pitch had devastating effect. Reliance on the pitch soon reached overreliance. Word quickly made its way

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through the WAC and into teams’ scouting reports. Hitters were told to lay off the breaking pitch. Miller suddenly lost command of his fastball. His mechanics went awry. Through the remainder of the season, he would work extensively with Mike Mayne but also search for answers elsewhere. Miller never got completely back on track and failed to win any of his remaining regular-season starts. In the second inning in Reno, his control betrayed him. Miller hit two batters, walked another, and was stung for three hits, two of them doubles. He exited, turning the game over to Holden Sprague. Over the next three innings Nevada added to their tally and took an 8–6 lead into the eighth inning before Fresno State erupted. The Bulldogs scored five times in the inning, three on a home run by Erik Wetzel, the other two on a home run by Alan Ahmady. They would need to record six outs to celebrate a stirring come-from-behind win. Jason Breckley was brought on to pitch in relief. After struggling early in the season, the right-hander had reeled off a pair of scoreless relief appearances in his last two turns on the mound. In his most recent two games, Breckley had been touched for just one hit. Nevada opened the bottom of the eighth inning with a double down the leftfield line. Breckley retired the next two hitters before he surrendered a single that brought in a run. With the run, Nevada reduced Fresno State’s lead to 11–9. Another single put Wolf Pack runners at first and third. Battling to get an out and escape the jam, Breckley engaged in a fierce ten-pitch duel with the next Nevada batter. Four straight times Breckley’s pitch induced the hitter to swing, only to foul the pitch off and keep the battle alive. Their battle had all in the small ballpark riv­ eted before the sound of hard contact raised the spirits in the Nevada dugout. After four straight foul balls, Breckley’s pitch was drilled over the left-field wall for a home run. The three-run blast gave Nevada a 12–11 lead.

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When the Bulldogs went down quietly in the top of the ninth inning, not only did they watch Nevada celebrate a 12–11 win, but the Wolf Pack took the series three games to one, the first time Fresno State had lost a WAC series all season. In a city where hundreds if not thousands of visitors leave town losers each day, Fresno State’s departure involved the loosening of their once firm hold on the Western Athletic Conference lead. With problems to sort out, Fresno State motored home facing four games with New Mexico State. The Bulldogs’ conference lead was just two games on Nevada. There were only twelve WAC games left to be played.

16

CHAPTER

The Tattered Dream

MAY 5, 2008—The pain woke Tanner Scheppers from his sleep.

It was the middle of the night, and a dull ache coming from the back of his right shoulder made him rise up in bed. When he tried to lift his right arm but could not, Scheppers knew something was seriously wrong. As Scheppers lay in bed, he thought back to the pain’s origins, the previous day’s game. Never before had he felt the level of pain mixed with physical exhaustion that enveloped him twelve hours earlier. It was a critical game, and much was expected of the pitching staff’s ace. Over the previous ten days Fresno State had fallen into a tailspin. The torrid streak of ten wins in twelve games enjoyed through much of April had dissolved into a dispiriting losing streak. The only two games won over their previous eight were those with Scheppers on

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the mound. With each defeat, the Bulldogs’ seemingly tight grip on control of the league title race loosened. The pitching staff was depleted. Despite scoring eleven runs and getting two home runs from Steve Susdorf, Scheppers was needed to get the final two outs of Friday night’s game, when the Bulldogs fought to hold off New Mexico State, 11–8. Entering the final game of the series, New Mexico State had scored twenty-nine runs in the first three games of the series and beaten the Bulldogs twice. Another loss and a win by second-place Nevada would shrink Fresno State’s WAC lead to just a half game with eight left to play. Equally important to Scheppers was the upcoming major-league draft. With one month remaining to evaluate talent, more than a dozen scouts for major-league clubs would be on hand to watch him pitch. The scouts who were in the ballpark Friday night couldn’t stop talking about his brief effort out of the bull pen. One fastball he threw in the ninth was clocked by a scout’s radar gun at ninety-nine miles an hour. It was the fastest Scheppers had been clocked all year. The season had seen Scheppers grow into one of the most success­ ful and dominant pitchers in all of college baseball. He entered the game second in the nation in strikeouts, having amassed ninety-nine in seventy innings. His tally of seven led all Western Athletic Confer­ ence pitchers in wins. In the eyes of his coaches, he had become almost a guarantee of victory whenever he pitched. Scheppers had won four in a row and had not been beaten in almost two months. Through the first four innings of the Sunday-afternoon game, Scheppers held all in awe. In the first, third, and fourth innings, he set New Mexico State down without a hit. Through four innings he had amassed seven strikeouts. The only trouble Scheppers encountered came in the second inning and was self-inflicted. He shook off a call from the dugout to throw a slider, opting instead to deliver a changeup. Scheppers could hear Matt

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Curtis shout “No” from the dugout at the pitch decision. The eightyeight-mile-an-hour offering shot off the Aggie hitter’s bat toward the right-field wall and became a double. Scheppers might have exited the inning without further damage if not for an error that brought the runner home to score. It gave New Mexico State a 1–0 lead. Steve Susdorf raised the spirits of the Beiden Field crowd when he hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth. The blast gave Fresno State a 2–1 lead. The run of pitching mastery ended in the top of the fifth inning when Scheppers began to struggle. From the stands, it looked to his father as though fatigue was setting in. After a quick out to open the inning, Scheppers surrendered a five-pitch walk. On a ground ball to Ahmady, Scheppers ran to cover first base. After the play, coaches in the dugout noticed Scheppers out of breath from the scamper to fi rst base. He walked slowly back to the mound, fighting to catch his breath and regain his composure. Mike Mayne walked through the dugout to Mike Batesole and pointed out Scheppers’s fatigue and number of pitches thrown. “He’s at ninety. We need to do something here,” the pitching coach told his boss. “Ah, he’s OK” was Batesole’s reply. On the diamond, the pitcher’s performance began to deteriorate. Scheppers uncorked back-to-back wild pitches that enabled New Mexico State to score and tie the game. When a six-pitch walk put runners at first and third, Ann Scheppers turned to her husband and asked if he thought their son would be coming out of the game. “If I were the coach he’d be out of there right now,” Dave Scheppers replied. One pitch later a ground ball to Alan Ahmady at first base ended the inning and sent the pitcher to the dugout bench for rest and relief. The Bulldogs recaptured the lead by scoring twice in their half of the fifth inning. When the third out was recorded, Dave Scheppers kept

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his eye on the Fresno State dugout and was surprised to see Tanner emerge to pitch the top of the sixth. A hard slider on the outside corner set the first New Mexico State batter in the inning down on strikes. In a corner of the dugout Danny Grubb noticed a potential reason for alarm—Scheppers’s pitch count. Seated next to a teammate who was charting pitches, Grubb noted the tally and alerted Mike Batesole. From the mound Scheppers could hear Grubb say in a loud voice, “Hey coach, he’s at a hundred.” After throwing two quick strikes to the next hitter, Scheppers surrendered a single, then threw a wild pitch that sent the runner to second base. The pitcher breathed deeply on the mound, trying to fight off fatigue and maintain concentration. Frustration now crept into his mind as the Aggies’ hitter fouled off successive pitches. “Hey, shouldn’t we get somebody warmed up? That’s one-ten.” Scheppers could hear Grubb raise his voice and make note of the growing pitch tally. In need of something extra to end the feud, Scheppers resorted to his cut fastball, caught the outside corner, and sent the batter to the dugout, another strikeout victim. Looking into the dugout, Scheppers saw his head coach and pitch­ ing coach having words. He assumed Mike Mayne was making the case for a pitching change. That same glance into the dugout brought eye contact with teammates. Seeing their faces reminded Scheppers of the importance of winning this game. Fighting to maintain composure, he turned his attention to the next hitter. His frustration rose and fatigue grew as the batter fouled off three straight pitches. It was a relief to Scheppers when the hitter finally put a ball in play: a drive to left field that Steve Susdorf smoth­ ered in his glove for the final out of the inning. The Bulldogs added one more run to their tally and held a 5–2 lead after six innings. In the stands, Dave Scheppers shook his head in disbelief at the sight of Tanner walking from dugout to mound for the seventh inning. From one end of the Bulldogs’ dugout to the other,

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all were fully aware of Scheppers’s mushrooming pitch count. In Batesole’s eyes, however, there was no problem. This was an important game. Yes, the coach was aware of the numbers, but he also kept a keen eye on his pitcher’s body language: the bend to Scheppers’s knees, his arm slot, the quality of pitches, and how smoothly the ball left the hurler’s hand. Butter, Batesole thought of the ease with which Scheppers was throwing his ninety-six-mile-an-hour fastballs. With every pitch he threw, there was much at stake for Tanner Scheppers. Web sites, magazines, and blogs devoted to the upcoming major-league draft were making lofty projections. Some were adamant he would be a top-ten pick. There were others who went further out on a limb, predicting Scheppers would be among the first five players chosen. Millions of dollars were at stake. Most important right now to Tanner Scheppers was winning, and he opened the top of the seventh by striking out New Mexico State’s leadoff hitter. With each pitch he was finding himself more and more drained of energy. Scheppers quickly fell behind the next hitter. “That’s one-twenty. Don’t you think we should get him out of there!” he heard Danny Grubb shout in the dugout. Fatigue convinced his body to betray him. His stride shortened, and his step toward the plate took his body out of balance. He struggled to hit desired spots with his pitches. Scheppers walked not one or two but three Aggies hitters in a row. Emotionally, Scheppers was begin­ ning to fall apart as well. Throughout the season, maintaining con­ centration, composure, and focus was his priority. As his pitch count rose, his body became more and more weary and his shoulder more painful. Scheppers lost his composure. He reached for a bounding ball sent in his direction, missed, and in frustration punched the infield grass while watching the ball reach the outfield and produce a hit. This meant he would have to face yet another batter. It didn’t. The hit brought Mike Batesole to the mound, Holden Sprague on in relief, and an end to a 137-pitch effort. It was the most

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grueling game of Tanner Scheppers’s young life. The walk to the dugout brought appreciative applause from the fans in Beiden Field. Few could know that it was very likely the last time they would ever see Tanner Scheppers wearing a Fresno State uniform. The next morning’s daybreak sent Scheppers to the athletic training room. His first final exam was on the horizon, but priority number one was the pain in his right shoulder. “There’s something wrong. I can’t lift my arm,” he told the baseball team’s trainer. Quickly phone calls went from the trainer to the coaching staff, then to the team doctor. “I need to get an MRI on Tanner’s shoulder.” “How soon?” “Yesterday! These coaches are really on me to get this thing done as soon as possible.” Arrangements were swiftly made, and soon Scheppers was on his way to have an MRI on his shoulder. Though hurting, Tanner was not surprised to be in pain. Over the previous seventeen days he had pitched in four games. He started three of them and had thrown 411 pitches. In each of the three games he started, Scheppers had thrown 130 pitches or more. He believed the pain he now felt to be related to shoulder fatigue. Scheppers’s shoulder initially had given him trouble six weeks ear­ lier. Pain flared up after a strenuous week in late April. During that ten-day stretch of games, Scheppers made three starts. In the two WAC games and a nonconference meeting with Cal Poly that Batesole desperately wanted to win, Scheppers threw 336 pitches. Not long after the last start in that stretch, he felt soreness in his right shoulder. Rest, acupuncture, and massage rid him of that pain, and he had not felt a recurrence until now. This would be different. The MRI showed evidence of a tear in the rotator cuff. Scheppers was told he might have suffered a stress fracture. The team doctor told him a high percentage of major-league pitchers have differing degrees of rotator-cuff tearing. It’s a normal

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product of the amount of wear and tear pitching puts on the shoulder. A former major-league pitcher he once treated had far greater tearing and never needed surgery. Scheppers was told he would not be able to pitch for six weeks. His heart sank. My draft’s screwed, he thought. He quickly called his mother in southern California and then Mike Batesole, breaking the grim news to each. Within an hour of leaving the doctor’s office, Scheppers heard his cell phone begin ringing. Call after call came in from scouts wanting to know more about the injury. Already disheartened at the initial di­ agnosis, Scheppers became upset. Who had told them? In pain, upset, and worried about his future, the pitcher sought out the team’s trainer. “Who the fuck did you tell? You guys aren’t supposed to say anything,” Scheppers shouted in anger. “How can you tell someone I have a stress fracture when we don’t know for sure?” Calmed by a convincing explanation, Scheppers accepted that the training staff was not responsible for violating his medical privacy. Scouts who had not yet heard about the injury would soon become suspicious of one. Matt Curtis had developed an effective and appreci­ ated text-messaging system to notify area scouts of Scheppers’s next scheduled start. With very few games left before the June draft, many scouts were receiving pressure from their ball clubs to quickly learn when Scheppers would pitch next. Cross-checkers, scouting directors, and, in a couple of cases, gen­ eral managers wanted to fly to Fresno to watch his next start. They needed to make travel arrangements and were pressing for informa­ tion from Fresno State. When an initial text message from Curtis was soon followed by another with differing information, scouts quickly became suspicious. Fearing that an injury might be responsible, many quickly alerted their scouting directors and received orders to glean any and all informa­ tion they could.

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Anxious for answers, too, was Tanner Scheppers. His family hur­ riedly arranged an appointment with a renowned shoulder specialist in southern California, Dr. Lewis Yocum. The team physician for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim put Scheppers through an extensive examination. In addition to a standard MRI, Yocum ordered contrast dye to be injected into the pitcher’s right arm. The twenty-one-year­ old then slid into an MRI tube, and the injured shoulder was photo­ graphed. Scheppers’s parents anxiously awaited the results. Once Yocum had evaluated the photographs, he gave the Schepperses reason to exhale. There was no stress fracture. The Fresno findings were accurate. There was a slight tear of the rotator cuff. The contrast dye produced evidence of fraying of the labrum. Neither was signifi­ cant enough to require surgery. With six weeks of rest and physical therapy, Tanner would be healthy and able to audition for teams before the August signing dead­ line. The news was a relief. It was not long, however, before events would cause anger to boil once again. “What’s this? I heard you shattered your shoulder in a bar fight!” The call from Brandon Miller, a former Fresno State teammate, shocked Tanner Scheppers. “Are you serious?” Scheppers asked, explaining, “I threw 137 pitches two days after I closed. It’s wear and tear on a shoulder. It’s not a stress fracture.” When a similar query came from a scout, Dave Scheppers became furious. The scout told the family he had heard that Tanner’s injury came from being body-slammed by a teammate while wrestling in a bar. Soon Tanner found the story circulating on blogs. It was not long before additional rumors began to fly. One had Tanner angry after a frustrating inning, flinging a heavy chair and later telling two team­ mates he had just “wrecked” his shoulder. Another, heard by several teammates, was that Tanner became upset during a telephone con­ versation with his girlfriend and hurled a chair across the room in his apartment. Both rumors were vehemently denied by Scheppers,

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and teammates told questioners they had simply heard the stories but never seen such incidents. The senior Scheppers believed that rumors were being spread by Fresno State’s coaches in an attempt to deflect blame for the injury. Angry and upset at the rumors’ potential impact on his son’s baseball future, Dave Scheppers voiced thought to suing the university. With­ out evidence to support his concerns, the lawsuit never materialized. With the team clinging to their WAC lead and just eight games remaining in the season, coaches discussed options for replacing Scheppers in the rotation. Little discussion was needed to conclude that Holden Sprague would fill the void. Early in the season Batesole had concerns about the junior. Mike Mayne put in considerable effort working with Sprague and was convinced he would meet the chal­ lenge. News that Scheppers would miss six weeks with a shoulder injury left many teammates dispirited. They had come to believe that having the standout on the mound meant certain victory. Confidence through­ out the locker room was high in games Scheppers was scheduled to pitch. The tone and focus changed. Talk of the regionals, Super Re­ gionals, or even College World Series ceased both among Batesole and his players. Many players had remained optimistic about their chances of winning the Western Athletic Conference title. Without Scheppers, those same players felt, their chances of success in the postseason were now very likely nil. Steve Susdorf checked the calendar and quickly realized that the earliest they might have the pitcher back would be the start of the Col­ lege World Series—and that was if they miraculously made it that far.

17

CHAPTER

Down to the Wire

MAY 16, 2008—The clatter of metal spikes on the concrete, the

heads that were slumped, the absence of chatter or laughter—all painted a dismal picture. Fresno State’s players walked from Hornet Field to their awaiting bus after one of their most disheartening de­ feats of the season. When they arrived at the ballpark five hours earlier, they held a onegame lead on the University of Nevada in the Western Athletic Confer­ ence standings. Just four games remained in the season. Nevada was facing San Jose State. The Bulldogs were playing Sacramento State. The Bulldogs had rallied from the loss of their pitching ace, Tanner Scheppers, to win three of four games from San Jose State the previous weekend. Holden Sprague stepped into the void, earning a win with a

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strong start. Scheppers accompanied his teammates here for the regular season finale. His father was engrossed in conversation with a trio of scouts seeking information about his son’s injury. The hosts were not in the WAC title chase, but they had three play­ ers who wanted to beat Fresno State more than almost any other team on their schedule. Ryan Blair and Jeff Hannah were from Visalia, just south of Fresno. They had known and been teammates of the Bulldogs’ Kris Tomlinson and Clayton Allison since elementary school. Gabe Jacobo, Sacramento State’s best hitter, was a Central Valley product, too. It was Jacobo who began what would be a triumphant Hornets’ ninth inning and an ugly ending for the Bulldogs in the first game of the four-game series. His double off of Justin Miller put runners at first and third with one out in the bottom of the ninth. It wasn’t anything to cause concern in the Fresno State dugout. Rallies in the eighth and ninth innings had produced enough runs to give the Bulldogs an 8–3 lead. With two outs, Justin Miller walked a batter to load the bases and then gave up a single that scored Sacra­ mento State’s fourth run. Batesole brought Tomlinson in to pitch, and he promptly walked Hannah, his former high school teammate, to force in the Hornets’ fifth run. Batesole quickly yanked Tomlinson in favor of Jason Breckley. The stocky senior had pitched impressively out of the bull pen five days earlier. He came on in the sixth inning of the game against San Jose State to pitch shutout ball and preserve the win. As late afternoon turned to evening in Sacramento, Breckley walked to the mound, inheriting a perilous situation. Fresno State’s five-run lead had been whittled to three. The hundred-degree temperatures from a heat wave that had enveloped the Sacramento area quickly produced beads of sweat on the pitcher. Stepping into the batter’s box was Brent Hottman, a freshman who had entered the game as a defensive replacement in the top of the ninth inning. Hottman and Breckley battled to a two-ball, two-strike count.

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Runners slowly stepped off of each base, creeping out to a lead. Strat­ egy told Hottman to expect a good pitch, that Breckley would not want the count to go three balls and two strikes. The scouting report told the Hornets that the pitch would likely be a slider. The Bulldog senior turned to look briefly at each of the three run­ ners before switching his attention to the glove of his catcher, Ryan Overland. Raising his left knee slightly, Breckley began his delivery. Infielders dropped into their stance; outfielders prepared to react to the sound of contact. As the pitch hurtled toward the plate, the fresh­ man hitter reacted. Hottman thrust his bat across the plate, meeting the pitch at its powerful median. Contact brought shouts of “Yes!” and “Go, go, go!” from the Sacramento State dugout and from the few hundred green-and-gold-wearing fans in the stands. Breckley turned and watched as the ball climbed high into the air and traveled deeply toward left field. The ball’s height instantly gave Steve Susdorf a bad feeling. It got even worse as he watched the ball travel well over the left-field wall and smack the wall of an adjacent five-story parking structure. Sacramento State’s players mobbed the freshman when he reached home plate, celebrating both his first collegiate home run and a 9–8 come-from-behind win over the Bulldogs. It would be almost four hours later that some of the sting was taken out of the loss. That’s when the Bulldogs learned that Nevada lost its night game to San Jose State. Fresno State was still on top of the WAC standings by a game, with three left to play. The Bulldogs were back on the field twenty-fours later. As the title chase tensions mounted, Mike Batesole chose to leave his cell phone on and in his pocket during the game. He had never done this before, but on this day he was anxious to receive text messages with score updates on the San Jose State game with Nevada. Clayton Allison had never enjoyed success against Sacramento State’s Fresno-area trio. Game two of the Bulldogs’ series with Sacra­ mento State would be no exception.

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After Ryan Blair doubled off Allison in the bottom of the third, Jacobo singled him home for the first of two runs Sacramento State scored in the inning. An inning later, Blair doubled off Allison again, driving in a run to give the Hornets a 3–0 lead. The lone bright spot came when Batesole was able to call out to his players in the dugout that San Jose State had taken a lead on Nevada with a two-run home run in the fourth inning. In the sixth inning, Allison’s hometown nemesis Hannah tripled down the right-field line and later scored the Hornets’ fourth and final run of the game. Five Sacramento State pitchers teamed to shut out the Bulldogs 4–0. It was an aggravating afternoon for Fresno State. They squandered a number of potential scoring opportunities. In the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth innings they had runners in scoring position yet were unable to get them home. In all, the Bulldogs left a dozen runners stranded on base. It was not long before word reached the dugout that second-place Nevada had lost again. The Bulldogs’ one-game lead remained intact with two games left to go. Holden Sprague was shouldering a great deal of responsibility when he planted his spikes into the rubber of the pitcher’s mound in the second game of the doubleheader. It was his second start in place of the injured Tanner Scheppers. Now Sprague also had the weight of the title chase on his shoulders, with the Bulldogs in must-win mode entering the game. His first inning of work included a pitcher-rattler that he success­ fully shook off—a throwing error by Danny Muno, the shortstop’s twentieth of the season. Sprague quickly retired the next two hitters on one-pitch outs and walked back to the dugout unscathed. The Hornets scored single runs in each of the next four innings to cast a funk over the Bulldogs. That dejected mood was lightened when Batesole received a text message and shouted to his players that San

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Jose State had just scored four times in the sixth inning to take a 6–2 lead over Nevada. Sacramento State took a 4–1 lead over the Bulldogs going to the top of the eighth. That’s when Fresno State’s tablesetters lit a spark. Danny Muno and Gavin Hedstrom opened the inning with singles. Erik Wetzel cut Sacramento State’s lead to two runs with a single that scored Muno. Steve Susdorf followed with Fresno State’s fourth con­ secutive hit. It brought in two runs, and the game was now tied, 4–4. A Sacramento State pitching change failed to stop the Bulldogs’ rally. Alan Ahmady doubled, putting runners at second and third, with Steve Detwiler next to hit. Playing in pain since an April thumb injury, Detwiler slugged the second pitch he saw into left field. It scored Susdorf and Ahmady, giving the Bulldogs a 6–4 lead. After seldom-used Jake Hower pitched three scoreless innings of relief, Batesole brought Brandon Burke in to close out the game in the bottom of the ninth. “Comin’ to you, Muno,” Burke warned his short­ stop when he had completed his warm-up pitches. The senior inher­ ited a runner at first. There was nobody out in the inning. Coming to a stop in the stretch position, Burke snuck a look at the runner off first base, then delivered his pitch to the plate. The hitter sent the ball right back at Burke, who gloved it, turned, and threw to Muno, who was covering second for the first out of the inning. Infielders didn’t need Burke’s humorous comments from the mound to know that any pitch could send a ball headed their way. They could see the natural sink to his fastball, and its break would tell them where it was likely to go. The scoreboard beyond the outfield fence read two balls, one strike, and one out as Burke delivered his pitch to the next Sacramento State hitter. At the sound of the ball hitting the aluminum bat, Danny Muno broke, scooped up the roller, and flipped the ball to Erik Wetzel, covering second, to get the out. Wetzel turned and flung the ball to Alan Ahmady at first base to complete a game-ending double play.

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The quicker-paced sound of cleats on concrete told of a more upbeat attitude among the players than that of Friday afternoon. Brandon Burke’s sixth save of the season and the team’s 6–4 win increased hope that Fresno State would leave Sacramento as WAC champions. Leaving the ballpark, players up and down the team bus were anx­ ious to learn the final score from the Nevada–San Jose State game. As the bus approached the team’s hotel, word came in that Nevada had lost again. The Bulldogs were the Western Athletic Conference champions. It was a loud, raucous band of Bulldogs that spilled off the bus and into their hotel. Later that night the team gathered to celebrate their success. The pressure was off, the league title won, and thoughts would soon turn to the WAC tournament. The next afternoon, the Bulldogs hammered out eighteen hits to win their regular-season finale 13–6. They played loose, fun, and care­ free baseball. Batesole made several changes to the lineup. Gene Escat, the freshman pitcher, played right field. Erik Wetzel started at short­ stop, and Danny Muno played second base. It was a test to see if they were better suited to play those positions in 2009. Justin Wilson was the designated hitter for the game and responded with three hits. Steve Susdorf ripped his ninth home run of the season and drove in three runs. In the seventh inning, with Fresno State leading 7–5, Batesole brought Brandon Burke out of the bull pen. In closing out the win, Burke earned his ninth save of the year and eighteenth of his career. The mark made Brandon Burke Fresno State’s new career record holder in saves. Heading home from Sacramento, coaches noticed a different de­ meanor to the team. With the anxiousness of the title chase gone, the players seemed and played much more relaxed. They had played pressure-free baseball. The coaches hoped it would continue into the upcoming WAC championship tournament.

18

CHAPTER

Decision Dividends

MAY 23, 2008—As he walked from the on-deck area toward home

plate, Steve Susdorf felt it. The heat and humidity stifling Ruston, Lou­ isiana, on this Friday afternoon produced sweat that would not stop. Following batting practice, the Fresno State left fielder and many of his teammates had no choice but to discard their batting gloves. The pre­ game workout left them completely saturated with sweat. Now, walk­ ing toward home plate and his first at bat of the game, Susdorf could feel the moisture building in his new pair of gloves. The implications that Fresno State’s players knew existed as they began play in the Western Athletic Conference championship tour­ nament could cause sweat and even nervousness of their own. Win­ ning this event was likely Fresno State’s only avenue into the NCAA regionals.

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With an uninspiring regular season record of 33–27 and a bevy of defeats to unranked nonleague foes, Fresno State’s coaches and players knew they had almost no hope of receiving one of the thirty-four atlarge regional bids should they fail to win this tournament. The WAC was among thirty conferences whose champion received automatic entry into the NCAA regionals. The league reserves the reward for the winner of its postseason tournament. Fresno State had to win the WAC tournament to reach the postseason. As with all such double-elimination format events, getting into the winner’s bracket on day one was vital. Ruston’s heat and humid­ ity made that all the more important. Fatigue was an opponent to be taken seriously. A title run through the winner’s bracket could mean playing only four games during the four-day, six-team event. Falling into the loser’s bracket could force a team to play as many as six games in four days to try to win the championship. Few coaches at the event would admit to planning for games beyond the WAC tournament, but the NCAA’s and its sixteen fourteam regionals would beckon only days after completion of the league event. Winners of the sixteen regionals would have just four days before beginning a one-on-one best-of-three super regional. Five days later, the eight Super Regional winners would open the College World Series. Anyone hearing Fresno State’s coaches or players discuss pitch­ ing strategy with the College World Series in mind would have been reduced to side-splitting laughter. The WAC had awarded its postseason championship tournament to Louisiana Tech. But the host school failed to finish in the league’s top six and thus did not qualify to participate in the tournament. Not only was the home team not participating, but school was out. It left J. C. Love Field quiet, and crowds for the event sparse. That suited Steve Susdorf just fine. As he settled into the batter’s box to face the San Jose State pitcher, he was relieved not to hear the usual heckling that came with playing in this ballpark. Tech’s rabid

Photographic Insert

Tanner Scheppers was among the nation’s top pitchers before injury ended his season in May 2008. Courtesy of Juan F. Villa/The Collegian

Todd Sandell makes a diving grab. The senior walked out in frustration during a game. Courtesy of Joseph Edgecomb/The Collegian

Despite his struggles at the plate, Tommy Mendonca’s defense was invaluable. Courtesy of Juan F. Villa/ The Collegian

Mike Mayne’s work built a successful and fiercely loyal pitching staff. The coach (left) prepares for the start of a game with Justin Miller and Danny Grubb (right). Courtesy of Mark Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska

Few pictured the Bulldogs here: taking in opening ceremonies at the College World Series. Courtesy of Mark Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska

Danny Muno drove in five runs in a stunning College World Series opening win over Rice. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

Kris Tomlinson’s unique “skullet” haircut brought tension relief and levity to the Bulldogs in the College World Series. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

Steve Susdorf’s emotion and energy were as vital to the Bulldogs’ success as his hitting and defensive skills. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

With each win, the fan support for the Bulldogs grew. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

Observers and television viewers found Mike Batesole’s lack of emotion during the College World Series puzzling. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

Justin Wilson made three outstanding starts in the College World Series, including a seven-scoreless-innings performance in the title game. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

Despite playing with a painful thumb injury, Steve Detwiler ripped two home runs and drove in all six Bulldog runs in the title game. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

Brandon Burke leaps with joy after the final out is recorded in the title game. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

Celebrating the College World Series title with the dog pile. Courtesy of Mark Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska

Fresno State: 2008 NCAA Champions. Courtesy of Andrew Woolley

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fans were known to lean into the dugout and express their feelings to opposing teams. The ballpark had seating beyond the fences, which meant outfielders like Susdorf could get an earful throughout a game. With few if any voices shouting encouragement from the stands, Susdorf was presented with men on base, the kind of run-scoring op­ portunity that would usually bring a ballpark to life. Danny Muno had opened the game with a walk. Gavin Hedstrom reached base on a bunt single. Erik Wetzel succeeded in moving both runners up a base with a sacrifice bunt. A single would get Fresno State on the scoreboard. A day earlier, in Fresno State’s first game of the tournament, Susdorf came through in a similar situation. He produced a runscoring single in the first inning. It helped the Bulldogs to a 3–2 win over Sacramento State. Now Susdorf had the chance to do it again. Two pitches into this at bat, he had seen a ball and a strike. As he waited for the third offering, he could see Muno and Hedstrom step away from their bases. The Spartans’ pitcher gave both a quick glance and then turned his attention back to Susdorf. The delivery was driven to right field, and it quickly brought the Fresno State dugout to enthu­ siastic life. Muno jogged home from third with the game’s first run. Hedstrom was held at third base by his coach, while Susdorf pulled up at second base with a double. In the press box it was noted that the run batted in moved the senior one shy of Fresno State’s career record. The year had seen Susdorf chase records and produce accolades. Forty-eight hours ear­ lier he had been named the WAC player of the year. Bulldogs swept the league’s top honors. Tanner Scheppers was named pitcher of the year; Danny Muno, freshman of the year; and Mike Batesole, coach of the year. While Susdorf appreciated the recognition, it was the team’s suc­ cess that made the season gratifying to him. At this time a year ago, he was being peppered with questions from major-league scouts who were trying to gauge his signability. He was finishing up a junior season that

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would produce a .340 batting average with sixty-eight runs batted in. The scouts liked what they saw. Those scouts, though, knew that Susdorf was an outstanding stu­ dent majoring in a difficult pursuit—civil engineering. They had to know what it was going to take to convince him to sign should they draft him. “Seventh-round money, a six-figure bonus,” he told them. Susdorf was adamant; it would take the sort of signing bonus usually paid to players chosen in the seventh round of the draft or higher to persuade him to leave school. He would have no trouble returning for his final season at Fresno State if anything less was offered. “If you can’t do that,” he told the scouts, “don’t waste your time, because I will come back.” The Detroit Tigers took a shot. They drafted Susdorf in the twenty-seventh round. But an offer of fifty thousand dollars failed to persuade him to sign. An additional reason Susdorf did not mind coming back to Fresno State was the potential he saw in the 2008 team. He would tell family and friends he thought the team could be good. Being part of a poten­ tially successful team excited him. As the Bulldogs battled San Jose State in their second game of the WAC tournament, Susdorf capped Fresno State’s three-run first inning by scoring on a Tommy Mendonca single. Fresno State’s lead would last two more innings. By the time the bottom of the fourth concluded, San Jose State had tied up the game. The 3–3 duel con­ tinued into the seventh. Gavin Hedstrom led off that inning with a double down the left-field line. Erik Wetzel singled to right, putting runners at the corners, with Susdorf again coming to the plate. His recent hot hitting was a far cry from the early season struggles that Susdorf endured. A number of factors figured into his early troubles. When lineup changes increased his opportunities to hit with runners on base, the situational approach Susdorf adopted at the plate saw

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him get hot with the bat. His fifteen-game hitting streak fueled the team’s surge to the top of the regular-season WAC standings. Now Susdorf had the chance to continue Fresno State’s run toward a spot in the NCAA regionals. He reacted to the first pitch thrown, his swing sending the ball high in the air toward the stands beyond the right-field wall. Seeing the right fielder look up to watch the ball’s flight told the Bulldogs’ dugout it would reach the stands. As the dugout erupted with noise, the scoreboard operator changed the display to show a new leader. Fresno State was now on top 6–3. Susdorf jogged the base paths while teammates enthusiastically waited to celebrate his feat at home plate. In the press box, Fresno State’s sports-information assistant, Steve Schaack, made note that the school had a new career runs-batted-in leader: Steve Susdorf. A third hit of the game by Susdorf pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to 7–3 in the top of the eighth inning. Batesole brought Brandon Burke out of the bull pen to wrap up the win. On just three pitches, Burke regis­ tered two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Quickly getting two strikes on the third Spartans hitter of the inning, Burke tried some­ thing different. He lowered his arm angle and threw a sidearm pitch. The San Jose State hitter swung and managed to foul the ball away and keep his at bat alive. He shot Burke a “What was that?” look. Burke’s next pitch was from its usual three-quarter angle and was promptly whacked hard to center field. As the pitcher turned to watch Gavin Hedstrom run it down and make the catch to end the game, Burke heard the Spartans’ batter shout, “You son of a bitch. What the hell was that?” Turning, Burke saw the San Jose State player laughing in a friendly display of respect. The win kept the Bulldogs undefeated and coasting through the winner’s bracket. Their next opponent would be the University of Hawaii. A win over Hawaii would move the Bulldogs into the cham­ pionship game.

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Justin Miller got the call to start. Teammates and coaches were hopeful of seeing the sort of performance from Miller that had pro­ duced six innings of shutout baseball two weeks earlier. They were also wary, for Miller had given up six hits in two innings the previous week in Sacramento. Through the first five innings, Miller held Hawaii to a paltry two hits. In the sixth he faltered, giving up back-to-back home runs to start the inning, followed by a pair of walks. Batesole quickly went to his bull pen and brought Jason Breckley in to replace Miller. A single by the first hitter Breckley faced put Hawaii up 3–1. With one out in the inning and a runner on third base, Hawaii’s batter drove a ball to right field. Steve Detwiler chased it down, making the catch for the second out of the inning. He then unleashed a strong throw to the plate, where Ryan Overland grabbed it and tagged out the runner who was trying to score. The double play ended the inning. The surge of momentum carried into the bottom of the sixth, where Fresno State sought to prove Batesole’s victory theory right. The coach believed that answering back after surrendering a lead was a key to victory. In Fresno State’s half of the sixth, Danny Muno and Gavin Hedstrom worked three-and-two counts into walks. Erik Wetzel then doubled to left center field and both runners came in to score, tying the game 3–3. Steve Susdorf then padded his new school runs-batted­ in record with a single. Wetzel trotted home, giving Fresno State a 4–3 lead. The Bulldogs’ outburst was far from over. The next hitter, Alan Ahmady, extended the lead by hitting a two-run home run. Two bat­ ters later, Steve Detwiler equaled Ahmady’s feat. His two-run home run capped a seven-run inning. Fresno State roared into a command­ ing 8–3 lead after six innings. An inning later Susdorf added another run-scoring single. From first base he had an ideal view when Ahmady crushed the first pitch thrown to him over the right center-field wall for his second two-run

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homer of the game. The resounding 11–4 win over Hawaii sent the Bulldogs into the WAC tournament’s championship game. Fresno State was now just one win away from a trip to the NCAA regionals. The team had successfully continued its improved late season hit­ ting production right into the WAC tournament. The thirty-seven hits amassed in their first three games in Ruston came on the heels of a seventy-nine-hit binge over their final eight regular-season games. Fresno State’s early season struggles with the bat were now long gone. Any fear of failing at the plate, incurring the ire of the head coach, and potentially losing playing time was no longer on many players’ minds, if any at all. The negative source of motivation was ignored and sup­ planted by player-to-player support. Borne of friendships, bred by advice and encouragement, the desire to contribute to success of the team fostered confidence that saw increased productivity. Among the more productive Bulldog hitters over the final month of play had been Tommy Mendonca. After hitting in six straight games late in the season, the third baseman produced five hits in the first three games in Ruston. In the title game with Nevada, the Wolf Pack grabbed a 2–0 lead by hitting a pair of solo home runs in the second and third innings off of Holden Sprague. Soon the Bulldogs would strike back. Danny Muno and Gavin Hedstrom had been instrumental in launch­ ing rallies in the previous two games and did so again in the top of the fifth inning. Muno’s two-out double followed by Hedstrom’s single put Fresno State on the scoreboard. Erik Wetzel then sent a three-ball, twostrike pitch screaming down the left-field line. It brought home both Muno and Hedstrom to even the score 2–2. Walks to Susdorf and Ahmady loaded the bases. After Steve Detwiler tallied Fresno State’s third run with a fielders’ choice, Tommy Mendonca singled to center field, putting two more Fresno State runs on the scoreboard. The out­ burst shot the Bulldogs into a 5–2 lead. Fresno State took a 6–3 advantage into the eighth inning. Nevada quickly raised concern. Three successive hits got the Wolf Pack within

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two. There were still no outs in the inning. Nevada had runners at first and second base, with the potential go-ahead run coming to the plate. Batesole summoned Brandon Burke from the bull pen in hopes of stopping the threat. It was Burke’s third appearance in four games in the humid Ruston heat. His sinker produced a ground ball to Muno, who stepped on second base for a force out—the second out recorded in the inning. Burke then ended the rally with an exclamation mark, picking off the Nevada runner with a snap throw to first base to end the inning. After the Bulldogs left Tommy Mendonca stranded at second base in the top of the inning, the game went to the bottom of the ninth inning with three outs separating the Bulldogs from the NCAA re­ gionals. The enthusiasm, anticipation, and anxiety of the moment brought Bulldog players to the top step of their dugout at J. C. Love Field. Late af­ ternoon had turned to evening in Ruston, Louisiana. The stadium lights would soon glisten off the WAC championship trophy, which players from one of the two dugouts would hoist in a matter of minutes. Nevada quickly put a runner on base. An error by Erik Wetzel gave the Wolf Pack opportunity. There was little cause for alarm in the Fresno State dugout, though. Coaches knew that the natural sink to Brandon Burke’s pitches could give them a double-play opportunity that would erase any threat. Indeed, the very next batter sent a ground ball to Danny Muno at shortstop. He flipped it to Wetzel, covering the bag at second for one out, but the Bulldogs could not complete a double play. Burke succeeded in putting down his next challenger. The pitcher produced a foul fly ball, which became the second out of the inning. This put Fresno State within one out of a spot in the postseason. On the mound there was no need for a gentle reminder of Mike Mayne’s tutoring. No coaxing was required from the “old guy” he’d come to respect. Burke remembered the importance of getting ahead of hitters.

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He knew not to let emotions force him to rear back and throw harder than he should. As Burke looked in to his catcher and saw Ryan Overland flash the signs, the runner took his lead off first. Burke went into the stretch, putting his right hand into the pocket of his glove and getting the proper grip on the ball. He raised his left knee to begin his motion and quickly fired to the plate, getting strike one. Beyond the dugouts, administrators from the WAC completed ar­ ranging the trophies and awards they would hand out at the game’s conclusion. On the mound, Brandon Burke again went into the stretch. His brief look brought the runner to a stop three steps off first base. Burke then fired the pitch to the plate. It popped the thick leather catcher’s glove and brought the umpire’s right arm into the air, signal­ ing strike two. Excitement spread rapidly up and down the Fresno State dugout, especially among the freshmen, who had never experienced being part of a collegiate championship. Many were glued to Burke on the mound, while others glanced between pitcher, base runner, and Nevada batter. Burke again brought his right hand into his mitt, glanced over his left shoulder to the runner at first, and then delivered his pitch. Nevada’s hitter unleashed a swing. The sound of bat slicing through heavy air was followed by that of the ball smacking the leather catch­ er’s mitt. Behind home plate the umpire bellowed his strike-three call, launching the celebration. Fresno State was the champion of the West­ ern Athletic Conference tournament. Bulldog players spilled from the dugout onto the field, joining teammates in celebration. Coaches from both teams shook hands and offered congratulations. Both teams exchanged handshakes and com­ pliments. The players encircled and hoisted the WAC title trophy aloft. Team­ mates cheered when Steve Susdorf was announced the tournament’s

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most valuable player. Amid the celebrating that carried into the locker room, Brandon Burke turned to Holden Sprague and told his team­ mate he would likely be starting his long-promised diet sometime in the next two weeks. “Why then?” Sprague asked him. “Because when we get to the regionals we’re going to be two-and­ out, and the season will be done.”

19

CHAPTER

Beef at the Beach

MAY 30, 2008—Fans lined up to buy tickets at the box office. Others

were spinning turnstiles as they entered Blair Field. Many came clad in brown and yellow, filled with hope that the home team would add more excitement to its thus-far memorable season. Long Beach State had just won its first conference title in five years. They boasted a national ranking of eighteenth. Adding to their mem­ orable season, the school had been selected to host this fi rst-round NCAA regional playoff. The field for this regional was strong. Many observers and mem­ bers of the media felt that it was the strongest of all sixteen regionals scattered around the country. Three of the four teams in this field oc­ cupied spots in the national rankings. The only one that did not was Fresno State.

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In Mike Batesole’s eyes, it was a difficult regional. Not only were the opponents extremely strong, but the coach did not feel that his team was suited for success in Blair Field. The fifty-year-old ballpark had cavernous dimensions. “You can’t hit one out from second base,” Batesole cracked. The Bulldogs were seen by some as the tournament’s sacrificial lamb. They were the team tossed into this field to be fodder for the hosts, seventh-ranked University of San Diego and fifteenth-ranked Cal. After all, some were quick to point out, Fresno State had backed into winning their conference title. The Bulldogs’ regular-season record in a field of teams boasting sterling win-loss marks was barely above .500. Steve Detwiler didn’t see it that way. On the bus to the ballpark, he was quick to lay out a scenario he had thought through. It was a path he was sure would play out and see the Bulldogs advance. The right fielder told his teammates he was confident Fresno State would win its opener with Long Beach State. In the other game he expected the University of San Diego to beat Cal. Detwiler suggested to his teammates that the Toreros would use up their standout pitcher, Brian Matusz, in the Cal game. He would likely be done for the re­ mainder of the tournament. Detwiler reminded his teammates they had beaten the Toreros three times in postseason play the previous two seasons. He predicted that the Bulldogs would beat the Toreros, then “spin around and play whoever’s in the losers’ bracket. So all we have to play is Long Beach and San Diego, and once we get USD, it’s game over and we win!” Detwiler’s prophecy drew a lot of inward and a bit of outward laughter from his teammates. The outfielder wasn’t kidding. He was serious, remembering past battles with both Long Beach State and the University of San Diego. Fresno State had split a pair of one-run games with the 49ers earlier in the season and had done well in previous sea­ sons against the Toreros. He hoped his teammates would remember and take added confidence into the game as well.

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As the Bulldogs arrived at the ballpark, the first part of Detwiler’s prophecy was unfolding. San Diego was defeating Cal. The Toreros’ pitching ace, Brian Matusz, was in the process of throwing a complete game. The Bulldogs realized that it was highly unlikely the prospective first-round draft pick would pitch again in the tournament. Not long after San Diego completed its win over Cal, Fresno State and Long Beach State got their game under way. Play was barely into the second inning when the Bulldogs got on the scoreboard. After Steve Susdorf was hit by a pitch to open the inning, Alan Ahmady dou­ bled him home. Ahmady was on second base brief ly before Tommy Mendonca singled to bring him in to score. Fresno State led 2–0. After adding a third run to their tally an inning later, potential disaster struck. In the bottom of the third inning, Mendonca futilely leapt for a ball well over his head. As he landed, his right foot slipped from under him. It sent the third baseman tumbling to his right. He stuck out his right hand to break the fall but landed awkwardly and bent several fingers backward. In an instant, severe pain shot through the standout’s hand and right arm. He threw the mitt off his left hand and dropped to the ground, clutching his right hand. Trainers and his head coach dashed from the dugout to tend to the player. Teammates and coaches in the dugout who had a clear view of the mishap felt physically ill at what they saw. They were certain Mendonca had suffered broken fingers. Severely double-jointed, Mendonca told attending trainers two of his fingers had bent so far back they had touched his wrist. As the medical team treated the injury, it became apparent he could not remain in the game. His father, watching from the stands, feared the worst. He grabbed his cell phone and hurriedly called his wife, telling her he thought their son had just broken his wrist. Gavin Hedstrom moved from center field to third, replacing Mendonca, and Trent Soares entered the game to play center field. When the game resumed, Long Beach State quickly struck for two runs and cut Fresno State’s lead to 3–2.

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Justin Wilson was pitching well. He set the 49ers down in order in each of the next two innings. When he reached the dugout after the fifth inning, though, he brought a potential problem to the attention of his coaches. Wilson was developing a blister on his throwing hand. The left-hander had been outstanding. The two-run, two-hit second inning was the only inning in which Long Beach State had managed a hit off of Wilson. He showed his coaches the forming blis­ ter but insisted he was OK. He wanted to stay in the game. How much longer the developing blister would permit him to pitch, though, was anybody’s guess. Batesole pondered a plan and made the call to have Justin Miller warm up in the bull pen. “No, you got the wrong guy up,” shouted Mike Mayne, disagreeing with the head coach’s call. He told Batesole that Holden Sprague should be the pitcher they got ready. A mere sug­ gestion in words erupted into a dugout shouting match between the pair. Mayne stomped from the dugout, angrily marching in the direc­ tion of the Blair Field bull pen. Pitchers who had been idly sitting and watching the game were surprised by their coach’s arrival and, more so, his demeanor. “Deep breaths, Mayner,” laughed Brandon Burke at his angry, muttering pitching coach. But the pitchers quickly realized that while their coach’s actions appeared humorous, what had just oc­ curred in the dugout was not. In the Fresno State half of the eighth inning, Soares, Detwiler, and Jordan Ribera each drove in runs that pushed Fresno State to a com­ manding 7–2 lead. A half inning later, Wilson could go no more. Batesole made a pitching change and summoned from the bull pen Holden Sprague. Sprague closed out the game and sealed a 7–3 Fresno State win. After the game, Mendonca’s father checked in with Fresno State’s coaches alongside the team’s dugout. The enthusiasm from the win was tempered by concern over his son’s injury. Ray Mendonca was cer­ tain his son’s season was over. Mike Batesole shook his head and told

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the injured player’s father things did not look good. His right hand was in a compression cast and being iced. There was surprise on learning that Tommy was still at the ballpark. Why hasn’t he been taken to a hos­ pital for treatment? Ray Mendonca wondered. The answer? His son’s name had been among those randomly selected to take the mandatory NCAA postgame drug test. Tommy Mendonca could not leave Blair Field until he had given the testers a urine sample. It would be a late night for some at the team’s hotel. Mike Batesole pondered a lineup for the Bulldogs’ second-round game. There was a scouting report to review about the second-day opponent, the Univer­ sity of San Diego. Would he have Tommy Mendonca for the game, or would he have to make changes? Whom would he start at third base if Mendonca was unable to play? When the coaches left the ballpark, chances of having Mendonca for the game didn’t look good. Mike Mayne stewed. He believed that differing opinions made for a good coaching staff. Competitive, opinionated, and driven to win, Mayne was both angry and remorseful that the dugout spat broke out. The enthusiasm he held when he joined Mike Batesole’s staff in No­ vember was eroding. Mayne pondered the lifestyle he had given up to return to the game: his southern California home on a golf course; the forty-acre Montana ranch that had been painstakingly constructed over a twenty-year span. The seven months his family spent on the ranch each spring and summer meant a great deal. Another season on the Fresno State coaching staff would mandate year-round relo­ cation to Fresno and little time to enjoy the respite of the ranch and the friends it had brought. The blowup with Mike Batesole earlier that night added to Mayne’s contemplation. He was seriously leaning toward calling it quits at season’s end. As the noise of the day’s activity at the hotel descended into the silence of sleep, tranquillity was punctured at almost 2 a.m. The automatic door at the hotel’s entrance spread open, making way for two arrivals. It was Tommy Mendonca returning from the hospital,

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accompanied by a member of Fresno State’s training staff. Nothing was broken; nothing was torn. The Bulldog standout’s pain was dulled by ibuprofen. Two of his fingers were swollen considerably. Ligaments in the finger had been damaged. It appeared that the two fingers had been dislocated. The chances of his playing did not look good.

20

CHAPTER

Diamond Disbelief

MAY 31, 2008— Brandon Burke sat next to Clayton Allison on the

bench in the Fresno State dugout. “Dude,” he blurted in a tone of exas­ peration clearly tinged with sarcasm, “there’s a lot of people here. This is the biggest game you’ll ever pitch!” Getting a smile out of the day’s scheduled starting pitcher told him he may have released some of the pressure Allison was feeling. Both remembered Fresno State’s second game in the NCAA regionals the previous year. Allison had drawn the pitching assignment against Cal State Fullerton. He was admittedly nervous, “a mess,” he told friends, and Fresno State had lost the game 6–5. Both Burke and Allison, and for that matter everyone in a Fresno State uniform, understood the importance of winning the second game in a regional. The winner would avoid a potentially lethal,

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pitcher-taxing day-three doubleheader. A Bulldog win could make their next game a final at best, a semifinal at worst. Fresno State’s opponent would be the University of San Diego, a team they had lost to 5–2 early in the season. In postseason play, however, Fresno State had defeated the Toreros three straight times. San Diego would pitch Josh Romanski, who was a perfect 9–0 and unbeaten in more than a year. When Ray Mendonca saw his son that morning at breakfast, he was convinced he would not be cheering Tommy’s play in that day’s game. Two fingers on the player’s right hand were grotesquely swollen from the previous night’s injury. Doctors and the trainer talked of dislocation and ligament damage. The player was in pain. Gripping a ball to make a throw, or even a bat to swing, seemed impossible. Hours later, when he arrived at the ballpark, Mendonca and his wife, Tami, scanned the field for any sign of their son. A fan walked in their direction shaking his head and told them, “He just hit three buckets of balls.” The Mendoncas were stunned until they saw their son jog to his position for pregame infield practice. Tommy Mendonca couldn’t tape or wrap the injured hand. To do so would affect his ability to throw a ball. Twenty-four hours after the injury, the knuckles on his right hand were still badly swollen. Mendonca had taken ibuprofen to try to dull the pain. He invested a great deal of time before the game experimenting with grips before finding one that would let him swing the bat effectively without caus­ ing significant pain. That accomplished, he then turned his atten­ tion to the challenge of throwing the ball. With experimentation he settled on an altered motion, slinging the ball to get it across the diamond as forcefully as he could with as little pain as possible. It took one throw for all to know optimism was not yet their partner. The first ball Tommy Mendonca fielded and threw was flung high over the Bulldogs’ first baseman, Alan Ahmady, and into the stands. Earlier in the day Mike Batesole talked at length to the team’s

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trainer. Would playing Tommy make things even worse? Could it cause serious injury? The coach wanted to know. When Batesole was told it would not, Mendonca’s name went on the lineup card. He would start at third base. Fresno State took the field first, and the focus was on Mendonca’s warm-up throws. His parents looked on anxiously as Ahmady threw a bouncing ball in their son’s direction. They winced as their son’s throw flew high over Ahmady and into the stands again. After watching the flight of the ball, Ahmady turned and looked toward Mendonca, pointing in the third baseman’s direction. The gesture was intended to motivate Mendonca to concentrate harder on the mechanics of his altered throwing motion. Angrily, Mendonca threw his glove to the ground and gathered himself for another at­ tempt. Fielding the next Ahmady-thrown grounder, Mendonca straight­ ened up and whistled a throw across the diamond that traveled di­ rectly into the awaiting first baseman’s glove. Instantly Ahmady broke into a wide smile, and relief was felt by coaches, teammates, and par­ ents. All became confident that Mendonca was up to the task. With a fastball that topped out at eighty-eight miles an hour, Clayton Allison was not a pitcher who would get a lot of swinging strikes. His game involved pitching to spots and trying to induce hitters to send ground balls to his infielders. That challenge was met swiftly in the top of the first inning, when he retired three Toreros hitters in order on only six pitches. In the Blair Field stands, Allison’s father was pacing nervously. Such was Buddy Allison’s habit when his son pitched. Allison’s split-finger fastball was especially good on this day. It had wicked sink to it, befuddling the San Diego hitters. To be able to use the pitch with extreme confidence requires a catcher adept at blocking balls in the dirt. Matt Curtis put in a great deal of work with Danny Grubb over the course of the season to cultivate blocking

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technique. The result was a skill at blocking balls in the dirt that removed any hesitation Bulldog pitchers may have had at throwing pitches with sink. With two outs in the third, Allison unleashed a split-fingered fastball that fooled the Toreros’ batter. He swung and missed the sinking pitch, but the ball bounced in the dirt, and the runner took off running for first base. Grubb quickly recovered the ball and fired to first, completing the out and the inning. As another zero went up on the scoreboard following the bottom of the third inning, two developments stoked Buddy Allison’s ner­ vousness. He noticed former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda sitting in the stands, and his son was pitching a no-hitter. As good as his Fresno State pitching rival was, Romanski was equally impressive. Through three innings Fresno State had just one hit more than did the Toreros. However, with one out in the top of the fourth, Fresno State loaded the bases. Steve Detwiler was hit by a pitch to force in the first run of the game. Tommy Mendonca walked to the plate. His first time at bat he had struck out swinging and looked bad doing so. He flailed away with just one hand, badly missing a break­ ing pitch. When he returned to the dugout, Mendonca was pulled aside by Batesole. The coach pointed out that pitchers often begin the next at bat throwing the same pitch they struck a hitter out on. The coach urged Mendonca to remember that and look for the same breaking ball to be the first pitch thrown his next time up. A moment that could define the season now lay before all. In the dugout and in the stands there was wonder if the injury would let Mendonca grip a bat well. Actually he could, just not as tightly as he normally gripped one. Squeezing was still a painful task for him. Odds were rarely in a left-handed batter’s favor when facing a lefthanded pitcher. As in most such lefty-lefty confrontations, Mendonca strained to pick up the pitcher’s release point.

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With Bulldogs walking away from each base, Romanski went into his delivery. The pitch was the expected breaking ball. Mendonca swung at the offering and sent it sailing toward deep right field. The San Diego right fielder turned in pursuit. With a thud the ball smacked off of an advertising board that covered the outfield wall and dropped to the warning track. Mendonca rounded first base and raced toward second. The last of the three Bulldog runners on base rounded third and dashed for home. Mendonca reached second base successfully with a double while at home plate his three teammates celebrated scoring. Their runs gave Fresno State a 4–0 lead. Clayton Allison’s mastery over the Toreros grew in the top of the fifth inning. He set down the three San Diego hitters on just five pitches and confidently trod back to the dugout. Waiting for him was Brandon Burke, who nonchalantly approached the pitcher. “Dude, I don’t know how you’re not nervous out there,” Burke teased. “Those are good hitters, crazy!” A single to open the top of the sixth inning broke up Allison’s no-hitter. He quickly regrouped and induced a pop out and two flyball outs, keeping San Diego off the scoreboard. The bottom of the sixth inning would see Fresno State rally for more runs. Erik Wetzel led off the inning with a double down the left-field line. Steve Susdorf found himself in a difficult spot with a no-ball, two-strike count. He took advantage of a pitcher’s mistake, ripping a single that brought Wetzel home to score. With two outs in the inning, Mendonca came to bat. He again attacked the first pitch thrown, driving the ball into left field. His single drove in Susdorf and gave the Bulldogs a 6–0 lead. Teammates were amazed at what Mendonca was able to do. Twenty-four hours earlier he was headed for a hospital to have two badly injured fingers on his throwing hand treated. A half inning later, amazement at Mendonca grew even more. With two outs, San

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Diego managed a pair of singles. Allison found himself in a jam. He fell behind the Toreros’ batter three balls and one strike. A walk would load the bases. The San Diego hitter turned on an inside pitch, sending a high chopper to the left side of the infield. The ball looked destined to bounce into left field and bring in a Torero run. Tommy Mendonca snared it with his glove and fired a throw across the diamond to record the third out of the inning. In the stands, Ray and Tami Mendonca rose to applaud and were joined by dozens of red-clad Fresno State fans. Fans clapped, whistled, and shouted their appreciation. On the field, Mendonca jogged toward the dugout, receiving glove taps from appreciative teammates. His father couldn’t believe the guts and courage his son was showing. Tommy Mendonca was determined he would not let his teammates down. After both sides went down in order ending the eighth inning, Allison took the mound for the ninth, having thrown a conservative eighty-two pitches. He threw two quick strikes to the leadoff hitter before getting him to fly out. A double raised hope among San Diego’s fans. But as quickly as ideas of a come-from-behind rally were being formulated, Clayton Allison quashed them. Working the corners effectively, he induced each of the next two batters to hit ground balls to Mendonca at third base. Showing almost no sign of injury, he threw both out to end the game. Allison accepted high fives on the infield grass from his catcher, Danny Grubb, before each of the infielders joined in the celebration. The senior successfully set down the tournament’s number-two seed and tossed a complete game shutout to do it. Allison scattered just five hits and did not walk a batter. His coaches beamed and called it one of the best games pitched by a Bulldog all season.

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With wins over the top two seeds, Fresno State advanced to a Sunday-night game, where they would play the winner of an elimina­ tion game between Long Beach State and San Diego. As the score went out over the wire service, it was bound to startle college baseball enthusiasts and editors at publications. Fresno State was a win away from its first-ever trip to the NCAA Super Regional.

21

CHAPTER

Cancel Vacation

JUNE 2, 2008—The fastball cut through the air and smacked the

glove of Danny Grubb, its contact sending a loud sound reverberat­ ing through the near-empty bull pen. Holden Sprague was preparing for the biggest game he had pitched while at Fresno State. As the sun began to set, the crowd within Blair Field was stirring in anticipation of the final game of this NCAA regional. In the event’s doubleelimination format, the University of San Diego had worked their way back into this deciding title game. The Torero’s had rebounded from their loss to Fresno State by beating Long Beach State and then defeat­ ing the Bulldogs to force an all-or-nothing game for the regional title between the two teams. Mike Batesole put both the ball and Fresno State’s hopes of ad­ vancing to the Super Regional in Holden Sprague’s hands. The junior pitcher had come a long way in six weeks. Since his mechanics were

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restored in mid-April, Sprague had become one of Fresno State’s most dependable pitchers. Now he was being handed the responsibility of pitching in the game that could send the Bulldogs to the Super Re­ gional for the first time. The growing numbers of red-clad fans in the Blair Field stands confirmed the significance of the evening game. Gone were the locals. Their dreams had been doused by Long Beach State’s elimination. The noise on this night came from several hundred family members, friends, and fans of Fresno State. “This is the biggest game you have ever thrown,” Brandon Burke deadpanned in the dugout. Sprague’s grin told his fellow pitcher he was ready for the challenge. The friends were frequent jokesters and continually sought to keep one another loose. Burke was impressed with the improvement Sprague had made. The two laughed at an exchange they had shared earlier in the season. “How do you get people out? You suck.” “I know.” The top of the first inning put to rest any doubts about Sprague’s ability to handle the challenge. Aside from Danny Muno’s twentysecond error of the season, the Bulldogs’ pitcher breezed through the inning, setting the Toreros down on just nine pitches. Sprague fell into a rhythm. Over the next three innings his mechan­ ics were solid and his confidence high. By the fifth inning the game was a scoreless duel. San Diego had managed just two hits off Sprague. In the top of the fifth, the scoreless duel ended when Alan Ahmady’s throwing error gave San Diego a 1–0 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Fresno State had the opportunity to answer back. An inning earlier, the Bulldogs had loaded the bases but failed to score. Now they had two runners on as Gavin Hedstrom came to bat. Two were out in the inning. Tommy Mendonca was on third base and Danny Grubb at second. Hedstrom already had two hits to his credit

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against San Diego’s starting pitcher, Sammy Solis. Now the left-hander focused to try to work out of this latest jam. He managed to get two strikes on Hedstrom before a late swing sent the ball headed to right field for a single. Mendonca trotted home from third base with the tying run. As the San Diego right fielder fielded the ball and threw to the cutoff man, Grubb was waved home. Mendonca stood beside the plate waving to let his teammate know the play was going to be close and he should slide. Reaching the circle, Grubb went into his slide as the relay throw streaked across the infield toward the catcher. In a split second the ball hit the catcher’s glove as Grubb slid toward the plate. In the dust cloud from the slide, Grubb reached the plate an instant before the Torero catcher slapped the tag on his body. The umpire bel­ lowed, “Safe,” and the Bulldogs cheered their 2–1 lead. A single and a wild pitch in the top of the sixth gave threat to that just-earned Bulldog lead and brought Mike Batesole to the mound to make a pitching change. Brandon Burke was summoned from the bull pen. Applause poured from the Fresno State fans around Blair Field as Sprague walked off the diamond. In a pressure-cooker situation he had displayed calm. On a night that sought his best, he had pitched into the sixth inning, allowed just five hits, surrendered only one run, and left the game with a 2–1 lead. Just as confidence within the team had grown for Sprague, Bull­ dogs felt that the sight of Brandon Burke coming out of the bull pen meant game over. He entered the game well rested. The efforts by Justin Wilson and Clayton Allison and the blowout loss the night before had precluded a need for Burke thus far in the regional. Danny Grubb reminded Burke of the one-out and runner-on­ second situation, then settled in behind the plate. Infielders knew to be prepared with Burke on the mound, and the first pitch he threw justi­ fied that. The ground ball to shortstop was fielded cleanly but thrown wildly to first base. Danny Muno’s second error of the game and twenty-third of the season put the potential go-ahead run on base.

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Burke quickly got ahead in the count to each of the next two hit­ ters. A fly out and a strikeout brought an end to the threat and inning. Once Burke’s slow walk brought him back to the dugout, he was met by Sprague, who smiled and echoed, “This is the biggest game you’ve ever thrown.” Burke chuckled at the return—a laugh that told Sprague the game was in safe hands. In the seventh inning the Toreros changed their approach, swing­ ing at the first pitch from the Bulldog relief ace. Three ground-ball outs were the result, and the Toreros were retired on just six pitches. Slowly, confidently, Burke strolled to the dugout. It was a trait he started early in the season. What began as a challenge had evolved into a persona. Early in the year Burke sought to recruit Clayton Allison and Tanner Scheppers into a contest to see who could walk slowest from the mound at the end of an inning. The others declined. The Burke stroll was now a part of his routine, something he felt projected confidence and control. When Burke reached the dugout, Mike Mayne fired a shot of sarcasm to the pitcher. “How slow can you walk?” “Come on, I look good.” In the top of the ninth inning, Fresno State added breathing room to its lead. Three hits and a San Diego throwing error put three more runs on Fresno State’s half of the scoreboard. It grew the Bulldogs’ lead to 5–1 and, with it, increased excitement at the possibility of reaching the Super Regional. Many of Fresno State’s players leaned, while a few knelt, on the highest of the five steps in their Blair Field dugout. The shouts of en­ couragement from Bulldogs fans echoed off the stadium’s sloped blue roof. The team stood three outs from its first-ever trip to the Super Regional. Brandon Burke’s first pitch was promptly hit to Erik Wetzel at second base. The short throw to Alan Ahmady produced the first out

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of the inning. The situation heightened cheers from the Bulldogs fans and brought anxious anticipation to the Fresno State dugout. When the second Torero hitter in the inning was thrown out by Danny Grubb, dozens of video cameras were raised by Fresno State fans and the parents of Bulldog players. Each hoped to record for memory the historic accomplishment. Just one out stood between Fresno State and the biggest upset in any of the year’s sixteen regionals. When Burke’s fourth pitch to the San Diego batter was hit in the direc­ tion of Alan Ahmady at first base, fists and arms were raised, acknowledg­ ing triumph. Ahmady gloved the ball and stepped on the bag. In an instant, players spilled onto the field from the Fresno State dugout. Teammate turned and hugged teammate. Some were fervent and others apprehensive about the idea of leaping atop one another in a celebratory dog pile. Fans and parents in the stands alternated hugging, high-fiving, and trying to steady their video cameras to capture the historic achieve­ ment. Handshakes were exchanged between coaches. In postgame in­ terviews Mike Batesole lauded his seniors as a “special group.” He said he had been confident that Brandon Burke would successfully close out the title-earning win and told the media of the pride he felt for his seniors. Fresno State’s 5–1 victory meant a trip to Tempe, Arizona, for the school’s first-ever berth in the NCAA Super Regionals. It also put the Bulldogs in rare company. They were now just the second four-seed ever to make it to a Super Regional round. While the magnitude of the achievement was setting in among several of the Bulldogs, a few realized it meant a potential problem. Several players had to hastily cancel vacation plans they had made. A number of Fresno State’s southern California natives had made plans before the regionals to join friends for fun at the beach. They never dreamed their season would extend into the Super Regionals.

22

CHAPTER

The Coveted Call

JUNE 5, 2008—For months it had been a day dreamed of. When

it at last arrived, Tanner Scheppers feared that Draft Day could wind up being a nightmare. Though Scheppers had been lauded by scouts and baseball publications through March and April, his May shoulder injury left doubt over what would occur on the day major-league base­ ball’s thirty teams selected eligible amateur players. His performances for Fresno State brought raves. Magazines, blogs, and Web sites devoted to the draft had lofty projections for Scheppers’s destination. There were predictions he would be a top-ten or even first­ five pick and, with it, receive a multimillion-dollar signing bonus. Since his May shoulder injury, the publicity and attention over Scheppers had been reduced to rumor. Most media agreed that his stock had dramatically fallen. How far was anybody’s guess. As Scheppers and his parents settled in to watch the draft, they were

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prepared for the worst. Their legal adviser had warned the family that Tanner’s name was not likely to be called during ESPN2’s telecast of the first round of the day’s proceedings. They watched anyway. Like others drawn to the coverage, they were curious as to who would become immortal when the commissioner of baseball stepped to the podium and opened the proceedings. Bud Selig’s gray suit and red tie lent an air of importance to the occasion. Around the country hundreds, if not thousands, of college and high school players as well as their parents waited to hear what he had to say. “With the first selection in the first round of the 2008 first-year­ player draft,” Selig announced, “the Tampa Bay Rays select Timothy Beckham. . . .” Cheers and the noise from cowbells shaken frenetically by Tampa Bay Rays fans drowned out much of Selig’s remaining an­ nouncement. Several of Scheppers’s teammates were also concentrating on the broadcast of the draft. There were both interest and curiosity at how high and where their talented teammate might wind up. Many of the interested Bulldogs were also anxious to learn their own destiny. The draft had been very much on Justin Wilson’s mind for weeks— with good reason: his skills and a productive junior season made him attractive to many of the big-league clubs. Justin Miller was hopeful of being selected, too. Steve Susdorf had gone through the butterflies and negotiations a year earlier and was hopeful of being chosen higher than he was twelve months before. Erik Wetzel knew there was interest from scouts. So, too, did Clayton Allison. Brandon Burke had hope, but after having been passed over when eligible for selection the year before, he was not optimistic about his chances now. When the draft reached the fourth pick, a player familiar to the Bulldogs was announced. The Baltimore Orioles took Brian Matusz, Scheppers’s onetime pitching rival from the University of San Diego. The Giants closed out the top five by selecting Florida State catcher

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Buster Posey. With blog writers and reporters having hailed Scheppers as a potential top-five pick at one time during the season, he was now left to shake his head at what might have been. Knowing that disappointment would grow as the afternoon wore on, Tanner Scheppers pulled himself away from the televised coverage. He had no interest in following the progress of the draft on the Inter­ net, either. He simply decided to take a nap. Scheppers had just dropped off to sleep when he was suddenly being shaken awake. He had just been chosen. The Pittsburgh Pirates took him with the second pick of the second round. Throughout the afternoon the draft slowly progressed. It pro­ gressed too slowly for those anxious to be chosen. The television cover­ age had long signed off. One had to follow live pick-by-pick revelations on the Internet. The thirty teams would fill six rounds of selections on day one. The following rounds would be conducted the next day. Not long after the draft entered the fifth round, Justin Wilson got the news. Like his teammate, he, too, had been chosen by the Pittsburgh Pirates. While many of their teammates were caught up in the enthusiasm of the impending Super Regional series with Arizona State, the draft occupied the thoughts of a handful of Bulldogs. Travel for the series brought the Bulldogs to Tempe, Arizona, where draft anxiety moved from players’ homes and apartments to the team’s hotel. Restless play­ ers waited in their hotel rooms for any news of selection in the draft. Erik Wetzel’s concentration was interrupted by a telephone call to his room. “Erik, this is Bert Holt,” came the voice over the phone. The scout was bringing relief with news that the Colorado Rockies had chosen him in the thirteenth round. It wasn’t long after Wetzel received his news that Justin Miller got a similar phone call. His was from the Texas Rangers, with news he was their sixteenth-round selection. Steve Susdorf’s curiosity would have to wait longer to be put to rest. Three rounds after Miller’s selection,

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Susdorf’s name was called at the draft headquarters. Minutes later the phone in his Phoenix-area hotel room rang. It was the call he had waited two days for. The Philadelphia Phillies made him their selec­ tion in the nineteenth round. He was picked eight rounds higher than the year before. Their love of the outdoors had sent Clayton Allison and Justin Wilson on a mission. They left the team’s hotel to visit a popular outdoor-equipment store in the area. While en route, Wilson kept his laptop connected to the Internet and followed the draft proceedings. Suddenly, Wilson enthusiastically shouted to his teammate. Allison’s name had popped up on the major-league baseball draft Web site. Mo­ ments later Allison’s cell phone rang. He smiled as he listened to the news. It was a scout phoning to tell him he was the twenty-seventh­ round selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers. While Brandon Burke was whiling away the day, his phone did not ring with news from a professional team. To the pitcher’s disappoint­ ment and frustration, he had once again gone unselected in the draft. The Bulldogs later gathered for practice. News of good fortune was shared with teammates. Those chosen were congratulated by their happy and, in some cases, envious fellow Bulldogs. The draft now done, the celebrating complete, attention turned to the team’s first­ ever Super Regional and the next night’s game with powerful Arizona State.

23

CHAPTER

Desert Heat

JUNE 6, 2008—The column in the sports section of the morning

Fresno Bee was about to change Mike Batesole’s mood. Readers un­ folding the section to read the front page were drawn to Matt James’s column and its headline: “Pitching staff’s Mayne man says he’s one and done with Bulldogs.” With such a crucial series about to begin, the timing of the column provoked Batesole’s fury. The column’s contents were a source of anger to the Fresno State head coach as well. James lauded Batesole’s pitching coach, told of the long relationship between the two Fresno State coaches, and then dropped a bombshell on the public: unhappy with elements of the job, Mike Mayne would not return for a second season. Both coaches were strong willed and firm in their baseball opin­ ions. Each was set in his own time-fired philosophy of game strategy and how to teach, discipline, and reward players. Their beliefs in some areas were polar opposites.

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Bulldog players saw Mike Mayne’s approach as velvet glove in con­ trast to Mike Batesole’s iron fist. They spoke openly of their fondness for Mayne. The respect stretched beyond the pitchers he tutored. Posi­ tion players had high regard for him, too, for he refused to limit in­ struction, positive comments, and reassurance to his pitchers. Rare was the road game where Fresno State’s players didn’t see Mayne renewing acquaintance with a fan, umpire, scout, or coach. It made an impression. As the season progressed, Mayne found the restrictions placed on the pitching coach not only a hindrance, but contrary to his baseball beliefs. He liked Mike Batesole and felt that the toughness and hard work displayed by the players were a reflection of the coach’s personal­ ity. But he did not like being shut out of pitching decisions. On the day of the biggest game Fresno State would play in Mike Batesole’s six seasons as head coach, a portion of his thoughts involved displeasure with Mike Mayne. When the two men finally crossed paths, the meeting was not pleasant. Batesole’s anger quickly put Mayne on the defensive. The head coach demanded to know the accuracy of the intention reported in the Fresno Bee column. “It is true,” Mayne told him. He noticed that Batesole had papers in his hand. They were Mayne’s job description. “You don’t like your role here? Read your job description. You signed it.” “I know my job description. If you don’t want your coaches talk­ ing to the media, tell sports information not to arrange them.” So in­ tense was their argument that Batesole would later say he “emptied the tank” on his pitching coach. “That he did,” Mayne later agreed. When the verbal exchanged ended, Batesole extended his hand and said, “We couldn’t have done it without you.” The compliment cleared the air between them.

24

CHAPTER

The Gold Standard

JUNE 7, 2008—From the Fresno State dugout, Steve Susdorf in­

tently watched Arizona State’s players take batting practice. Each swing produced the sound of hard contact and turned Susdorf’s head to watch ball after ball soaring toward the palm trees standing tall behind the outfield fence. When the Bulldogs arrived at Arizona State’s Packard Stadium, Susdorf felt he had seen talent. After all, Fresno State was fresh from knocking off seventh-ranked San Diego twice in the regionals. They had also beat Long Beach State in the regular season, when the 49ers were ranked ninth. The batting-practice scene taking place before him, though, sent Steve Susdorf into a state of awe. Watching the hitting of Arizona State’s recent first-round draft picks, Brett Wallace and Ike Davis,

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made the Fresno State left fielder think, They are just on a completely different level. Mike Batesole was also overwhelmed by the batting-practice dis­ play he witnessed. The Bulldogs’ coach felt he had seen more home runs hit in the session by Arizona State’s players than were hit by his own team all season. Adding to the awe was the news trumpeted that fifteen of the Sun Devils’ players had been selected the previous two days in the major-league draft. Teammates greeted Tanner Scheppers. Though still unable to play, Scheppers took a break from his physical therapy schedule and trav­ eled from his home in southern California to be with his teammates and watch the series. Brandon Burke playfully prodded him to suit up and pitch. “A few miles an hour slower than what you were is still pretty good,” he pleaded. Arizona State’s gold-clad fans were quickly filling up the ballpark. Their following was impressive. Many Sun Devils fans thought a repeat trip to the College World Series was a cinch. The numbers gave cre­ dence to their confidence. Their team had swept the regional in three games, was coming in ranked third in the country, and was playing a number-four regional seed. The gaze of Bulldogs around the ballpark was met with trappings of Arizona State’s rich baseball success. On the outfield wall were cir­ cular tributes, each emblazoned with the name and number of one of the school’s all-time greats, among them Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds—two of the greatest to play the game. Banners trumpeted the school’s five national championships in the sport. Rapt attention was directed to the field when Danny Muno stepped into the batter’s box to begin the game. The parents of Fresno State’s players quickly realized that the Sun Devils fans seated around them had talent as impressive as their own team’s players. “Hey, Muno,” one student barked at the Bulldogs’ smallest player, “you didn’t get any of those stickers for eating, did ya?” referring to the dog paws affi xed to his batting helmet.

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The laughter from the student rooting section ended shortly after Muno was retired by Mike Leake. Arizona State’s Pac-Ten Conference pitcher of the year then set down Gavin Hedstrom for the second out of the inning. Erik Wetzel battled Leake to a two-ball, two-strike count and expected it would bring the Sun Devil ace’s best pitch. Wetzel drove Leake’s fastball into center field to become the first Bulldog to reach base. As Steve Susdorf strode to the plate, he felt a sense of calm in the desert heat. Before games in the previous week’s regional, he had made it a point to pray. On reflection, Susdorf believed divine help had played a part in the Bulldogs’ upset regional win. Digging the cleats of his left foot into the batter’s-box dirt, Susdorf got comfortable footing, assumed his stance, and looked toward the Sun Devils’ pitcher for an offering to hit. When the count fell to three balls and no strikes, Susdorf knew he would see a pitch in the strike zone. Though he was intensely focused on the offering, Susdorf’s swing was a fraction late. At the sound and feel of contact he flung the bat aside and began hustling toward first base. The ball sliced past Ari­ zona State’s third baseman and into left field. Wetzel was waved home to score. While the Sun Devils chased down the ball, Susdorf rounded second base, put his head down, and increased his foot speed, trying to reach third. Once successfully on the bag, he could hear cheers from the Fresno State fans scattered in various parts of the stands. Susdorf peeked over his left shoulder at the large scoreboard in left center field, which dis­ played results of his triple: Fresno State 1, Arizona State 0. Fans remained on their feet, hoping their clapping and cheering would be rewarded with another run by Alan Ahmady. After a strong start, Ahmady’s hitting had cooled in the regionals. His two-hit game was a highlight of the win over Long Beach State, but in the next three games the slugger managed only one hit. Leake again fell behind, and with the count three balls and one strike, Ahmady was looking for a pitch in the strike zone. At the sound

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of contact Susdorf broke for the plate. Ahmady’s swing sent the ball toward the right side of the infield. Looking over his left shoulder, Susdorf saw Arizona State’s second baseman successfully field the ball and throw Ahmady out at first base to end the inning and the oppor­ tunity to do more damage. The Sun Devils answered back off Justin Wilson, scoring a run in their half of the first to even the score. Two innings later they gave the four thousand fans in the park and an ESPNU audience a glimpse of the talent that had brought them this far. After a fielding error put a runner on, Ryan Sontag drilled Wilson’s pitch over the right-field fence for a two-run home run. The blast brought fans to their feet, celebrating what they hoped was their team’s first step toward another trip to the College World Series. The 3–1 score would not change for another two innings. As the game reached its midway mark, Fresno State was still within striking distance. The closeness of the score failed to diminish the fervor of the Arizona State heckling. The student section continued to impress and annoy Fresno State’s fans with the knowledge they incorporated into their haranguing of the Bulldogs’ players. A check of the batting order gave answer to the fans’ stirring. The Sun Devils’ big bats were coming up in the inning. Recent St. Louis Cardinals first-round draft pick Brett Wallace would bat third. Should any of the first three hitters reach base, Ike Davis would bat. Davis had been chosen in the first round of the draft by the New York Mets two days earlier. The Sun Devils opened the inning with a single before Wilson re­ corded a strikeout. It would be the last applause Justin Wilson would hear other than the smattering he received when he left the game. An infield single by Wallace loaded the bases for Arizona State. Davis followed with a single to right field. Steve Detwiler’s strong throw prevented the Sun Devils from scoring more than one run on the play. A fourth consecutive Arizona State hit brought two more runs in to score and increased their lead to 6–1.

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Wilson was struggling mightily, falling behind in counts. Was he tiring in the hundred-degree heat? The Sun Devils had ten hits. Were they guessing right? Could he have been tipping his pitches? Mike Batesole ordered Justin Miller to get ready in the bull pen. The count read three balls and one strike to the seventh Arizona State batter in the inning. Wilson stared at Ryan Overland for the sign. Nodding yes to it, he brought his hands to his chest, left hand going into his mitt to find the seams and grip the ball. Wilson made the mandatory stretch-position pause. Quickly he took a side-to-side look to make sure the Sun Devils’ runners were not straying too far off of first and third base. Wilson raised his right knee, pulled his left elbow back, pushed off the rubber with his left foot, and thrust forward, propelling his pitch toward Overland. The Arizona State hitter swung and sent the ball past Wilson into center field. The fi fth consecutive hit brought home Arizona State’s fourth run of the inning. The Sun Devils now led 7–1. Mike Batesole walked to the pitcher’s mound. He had no choice but to turn to another pitcher in hopes of ending this outburst. The Bulldogs’ coach signaled to the umpires that he wanted Justin Miller to come into the game. The Bulldog outfielders gathered during the pitching change. Looking up at the scoreboard, Susdorf couldn’t help but think the Bulldogs were in trouble. With their best pitcher now in the dugout, driven from the game by five consecutive hits and four more runs, Susdorf worried the Bulldogs might be outmatched. The Sun Devils added another run to their tally before Justin Miller was able to bring an end to their outburst. With four innings to play, they had taken control of the game by an 8–1 score. Since Susdorf’s triple back in the first inning, Fresno State had managed only one hit off Arizona State’s pitching ace Mike Leake. In the top of the seventh, Susdorf belted his second hit of the game to generate applause from the mostly quiet Fresno State fans.

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In the stands, a pair of Sun Devils fans walked in front of Bob Detwiler, father of Bulldogs right fielder Steve. “It’s not over yet,” Detwiler teased. One of the fans turned and quickly snapped back, “Son, this game was over before it began.” Fresno State’s fans thought they might soon have the last laugh. After Alan Ahmady grounded into a double play, the Bulldogs loaded the bases with two outs in the inning. A wild pitch brought Tommy Mendonca in to score Fresno State’s second run of the game. There was hope for more when the ball launched off Jordan Ribera’s bat. But disappointment flowed when his fly ball landed harmlessly in an out­ fielder’s mitt for the final out of the inning. The Bulldogs rallied again in the eighth inning. With two outs, Erik Wetzel reached base on an error. Susdorf doubled for his third hit of the game. Optimism was rising among the smattering of red-clad fans enveloped by far louder fans in gold. Vocal roles reversed when Ahmady smashed a double to right center field, and both Wetzel and Susdorf jogged home to score. Fresno State trailed 8–4. The Sun Devils made a pitching change, and Ike Davis produced just what his coaches hoped. He came on to strike out Mendonca and end the Fresno State rally. Jason Breckley was now on the mound, pitching for Fresno State, and it was not long into the bottom of the eighth inning that Arizona State’s hitters were tagging his offerings, too. Ryan Sontag’s second home run of the game added two more runs to the Sun Devils’ total. Batesole brought Jake Floethe on to replace Breckley, and Arizona State continued its offensive eruption. Two more runs scored on an error by Ahmady built ASU’s lead to 12–4. The Bulldogs went down quietly in the top of the ninth and trudged to the locker room, disap­ pointed at the result. To many exiting the ballpark, the game played out as they had ex­ pected it to. The 12–4 score was what one would expect of a meeting between the third-ranked team in the country and a number-four re­

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gional seed. There was no surprise in the Fresno State locker room. Many felt that the Sun Devils’ performance proved they were in a dif­ ferent class, destined to bring the series to a quick end. Yet there were optimists in the room who noted that Fresno State had had chances in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings, only to leave runners stranded in scoring position. The Bulldogs were past Arizona State’s best pitcher. They would likely not see Mike Leake again in the series. If there was a drop-off in talent among the rest of the Sun Devil staff, perhaps they had a chance. The Bulldogs were in a must-win situation. Lose one more, and their season would be over.

25

CHAPTER

The Devil’s Field

JUNE 8, 2008— Stepping off their bus and walking to the locker

room brought to the Bulldogs’ ears sounds of a ballpark’s energetic preparations for an important game. Close by, snapping sounds from a concession stand told of soft-drink carbonators being tested. In the distance, the noise of the grounds crew’s cart let the Bulldogs know that the batting cage and pitching screen had been put in place for batting practice. A representative of Arizona State’s ticket office placed pass-list pa­ perwork around in Fresno State’s locker room. Another packed house was expected. The athletic department would meet, if not exceed, the figures projected when it bid to host this event. Congestion in the visitor’s locker room waned as players ventured into the hundred-degree heat to take batting practice. No one need breathe a word about the importance of the game. Nine innings could

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separate the Bulldogs from the end of their season or the most impor­ tant baseball game of Mike Batesole’s charge. Plenty of notes were made about the Sun Devils’ approach at the plate the night before. The fifteen hits and twelve runs their hitters produced gave reason to consider changing the pitching approach. Mike Mayne would soon get together with Clayton Allison and discuss a game plan. The senior’s effort a week earlier when he shut down the University of San Diego in the regionals was one of his best performances of the season. There was no reason to doubt he could help extend the Bulldogs’ season for another day. On the field, the Bulldogs were taking batting practice. The bright desert sun glistened off gold-colored aluminum bleachers, which spanned the area behind first base around the plate to third. The day was hot, yet, as in Fresno, devoid of significant humidity: a dry heat. In the cage, Trent Soares was taking his cuts. Behind him, lean­ ing against the iron support pole, watching, Batesole barked, “This is choke-up time.” The coach was referring to “two-strike”—a portion of batting practice in which he wanted players to adopt a more defen­ sive approach. They were instructed to choke up an inch or two on the bat, shorten their swing, and attempt to simply make contact with the ball. Throughout the season, few if any Bulldogs took this session se­ riously. There were starters who felt that choking up hindered their normal swing. It was not uncommon for players to ignore the chokeup edict during two-strike. “This is choke-up time,” the coach gruffly repeated, noticing Soares fail to adjust his grip or swing. Despite hearing the comment, Soares continued to swing away. Like many of his teammates, he incurred the stern treatment fresh­ men typically received from the head coach. Upper-class players would try to console frustrated freshmen. They would explain that the coach intended to toughen newcomers and teach them the way he wanted the game played. As it had for others, the coach’s method—the

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criticisms, inconsistent playing time, and removal from the starting lineup—chipped away at Soares’s confidence through his first season of college ball. Some seniors urged him to be tough and play his way through it. Others suggested that the best approach was to ignore the head coach and play the way he had done to earn his scholarship in the first place. As Soares failed to respond to the choke-up command, Batesole became agitated. “Get the fuck out of there!” he screamed at the fresh­ man. Not sure what to make of the coach’s intent, Soares swung at yet another pitch. “Get the fuck out of there!” Batesole shouted louder. Soares stopped what he was doing, turned, and slowly walked from the cage. He walked past Jordan Ribera, who took his place in the batting cage for his round of cuts. Once Ribera assumed his hitting stance, batting practice resumed. Watching from the first-base side of the cage, Soares noticed that Ribera was swinging away, his grip low and at the knob end of the bat. He chuckled and said to his friend, “Attaway, Jordie, way to choke up!” Hearing the comment, Batesole became enraged. He looked toward Soares and shouted at him, “Get the fuck off my field!” Stunned, Soares failed to move. This further angered the coach. Batesole walked closer to the freshman and shouted in an even louder tone, “I said get the fuck off my field!” The forty-six-year-old then brought his hands upward and shoved the nineteen-year-old. Soares backpedaled from the force, fighting to maintain his balance. That achieved, he quickly fought to maintain his composure. In the cage, Jordan Ribera was stunned at what he had heard and seen. Hearing the commotion, Mike Mayne turned and glanced at those seated in the stands to see who may have witnessed the outburst. When he spied Soares’s parents, he knew that damage control would become a future order of business.

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His embarrassment becoming rage, Soares turned and walked into the dugout. He scanned, found his equipment bag among those of his teammates, picked it up, and marched as far from the coach as he could. Some who watched wondered if he was also marching away from the game of baseball. Soares’s march did not stop until he was beyond the outfield fence. There Holden Sprague and Brandon Burke were seated. They had volunteered that day for home-run duty. Retrieving batting-practice home-run balls meant the chance to sit down and get relief from the intense heat. Conversation between the pitchers was interrupted when Trent Soares emerged, angry and spewing profanity. “Dude, what just happened?” Burke asked, stunned to see the freshman, and in such a state. Before Soares could answer with detail, Pat Waer, Fresno State’s volunteer assistant coach, summoned him. At Batesole’s behest he had gone after Soares to coax him back to the team’s dugout. Batesole stood at the top step of the dugout waiting, and upon Soares’s arrival he threw an arm around the shoulder of the freshman as the two began a private conversation. In the dugout and visitors’ locker room, talk of the Soares incident reached players who had not seen it. Many shook their heads on learn­ ing from the player that he had been forced to apologize to the coach or be banished from the dugout that night. That the coach shoved a teammate added to the loathing many players felt for him. Tirades from the coach were not new. They had seen them in practice over the previous months. Brandon Burke told an acquaintance, “We all love baseball. We just hate Bates-ball,” referring to his head coach. Soon another angry Bulldog was stirring talk among teammates. An agitated Tanner Scheppers told his teammates that the coaches had just barred him from watching the game from the dugout. They cited NCAA squad limits and told the injured pitcher he would have to find a seat in the stands. Scheppers had paid his own way to travel to the game. He knew the team’s student assistant coach wasn’t there

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in Tempe and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to have that spot on the roster. Scheppers wondered aloud if there was an ulterior motive for the move. Game time brought an overflow crowd to Packard Stadium. More than a thousand fans, unable to find seats in the stands, assembled on the grass-covered berms that stretched down the right- and leftfield lines. Many sat beneath umbrellas, shielding themselves from the bright sun on this 104-degree day. The Bulldogs took the field first, designated the home team for the game. Clayton Allison picked up where he left off in Long Beach. He breezed through the first two innings, allowing only one single. In the second inning, Steve Detwiler ignored the pain of his thumb injury long enough to drive a two-run home run over the right-field wall and give Fresno State a 2–0 lead. While teammates were celebrating Detwiler’s home run, two Bulldogs were discussing a potential problem. “Dude, my arm is kill­ ing me,” Clayton Allison confided to his catcher. Allison and Danny Grubb discussed what to do about the problem. The pitcher vowed to fight through the pain and continue. Where he enjoyed mastery over the Sun Devils during innings one and two, he now painfully struggled to get batters out. Arizona State capitalized on their fortune and suddenly gave the game the appear­ ance of batting practice. Four hits and a walk to open the third led to a three-run rally. An inning later they struck again and scored more. A trio of hits and a hit batter capped a two-run fourth and helped the Sun Devils take a 5–2 lead. Standing near third base, Brett Wallace remembered the scouting report drilled into the Sun Devils by their head coach and felt con­ fident. Pat Murphy told his players that Fresno State was “a team of grinders” and that “grinders will always break under pressure.” The Bulldogs came to bat in the bottom of the fourth, with mo­ mentum having changed dugouts. As silent as Fresno State’s fans had

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been, the bats of the Bulldog hitters were hushed even more. They managed just two hits through the first three innings. In the fourth, that luck would dramatically change. With two outs in the bottom of the inning, the Bulldogs scored, then loaded the bases with a trio of singles. Murphy decided to make a pitching change. Fresno State had a right-handed hitter, Gavin Hedstrom, due up, so the Sun Devils’ coach chose to play the percent­ ages. Murphy replaced his struggling left-handed pitcher with a right­ hander, Stephen Sauer. He hoped his pitcher’s talent and the odds in a matchup of right-handed pitcher and batter might work in his favor. Hedstrom stood near the on-deck circle, intently watching the new pitcher warm up. Paying close attention, he got an idea of the move­ ment on the breaking ball, the release point for the fastball, and how much zip the pitch had. Preparing for his turn at the plate, which was still two hitters away, Steve Susdorf walked to the bat rack and grabbed his helmet, gloves, and bat. He, too, watched the new Arizona State pitcher closely. Susdorf was impressed with the reliever’s slider and curveball—so much so that he thought, Oh man, we’re in trouble. He feared that his teammate might not be able to capitalize on the two-out opportunity. Looking out at the field, taking stock of the moment and all that was at stake, Susdorf paused and silently prayed. Hedstrom adjusted his white batting gloves and stepped into the right-handed batter’s box as the umpire signaled for play to resume. Tall and slender, the Bulldogs’ center fielder flicked his wrists, waving the bat up and down above his right shoulder. As the ball came out of the pitcher’s hand, the wrists quickly changed direction. The bottom wrist and forearm thrust his hands and upper body fiercely into the pitch. Contact sent the ball rocket­ ing off Hedstrom’s aluminum bat. The three Bulldog runners on base looked up and turned to watch the ball quickly pass high over the in­ field.

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Fresno State’s fans leaped to their feet, sensing that the ball had the velocity to carry to or beyond the outfield wall. Teammates in the dugout anxiously leaned over the protective railing as if body language might will the ball out of the park. As the ball sailed over the outfield fence, a collective roar went up from the red-clad Fresno State fans. Arizona State’s fans fell silent. The Sun Devils’ players were stunned. Bulldog players celebrated with high fives and hugs. Many shouted with elation. The digital readout on the scoreboard changed to now show Fresno State 7, Arizona State 5. The lead regained, attention turned to holding it and pitching. Clayton Allison was unable to continue. Holden Sprague was given the responsibility of preserving Fresno State’s just-gained advantage. While the Sun Devils hit his offerings hard, Sprague escaped with a single, the only blemish to his line score. Arizona State opened the sixth, putting the Bulldogs on their heels. A double, single, and sacri­ fice fly drew the Sun Devils within a run. The jubilation felt two innings earlier by Fresno State’s fans turned to concern. Such can be the curse of an emotional investment in a game fickle to its core. Walking to the mound, Batesole motioned with his right arm, signaling to the umpires that he wanted a new pitcher. As teammates turned their attention toward the bull pen, the sight of Brandon Burke entering the field brought assurance from player to player. There was good reason for the belief. Since earning his first save at the season’s midway mark, Burke had amassed ten more. He stood on the mound, tied for the school’s single-season record for saves. The warm-up pitches complete, Burke turned to his shortstop and teased, “Coming to you, Muno.” The freshman nodded in return. Stepping onto the mound, Burke adjusted his socks and looked to Ryan Overland for the sign. His first pitch to Arizona State’s all-American Brett Wallace was sent to Muno, but the shortstop mishandled the ball for an error. Both runners were safe at first and second base.

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In the stands, Bulldogs fans reacted verbally with angst and dis­ played looks of frustration. Around them, Arizona State’s fans cheered and howled with delight. Their Sun Devils now had the potential goahead run on base. The dangerous Ike Davis was walking toward the batter’s box. A six-foot four-inch left-handed batter, Davis was being showered with verbal encouragement from most of the four thousand fans in the park. Several times over the course of the season, Arizona State’s fans had seen Davis belt home runs that changed the momen­ tum of a game. Many fans were hoping to see the Sun Devils’ first team all-America first baseman do that again in this situation. Burke fell behind as Davis patiently built the count to his advan­ tage: three balls and one strike. On three and one Davis swung at the offering and whistled a shot toward Muno at short. He gloved the ball and tossed it to Erik Wetzel, who stepped on second base for the force out on Wallace. Wetzel’s throw to Ahmady at first base beat Davis. The double play ended the inning and sent the Bulldogs jogging back to their dugout amid relief. Nothing but zeros went on the scoreboard for the next two innings. Ryan Overland led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a double and advanced to third on Danny Muno’s single. It brought an unwel­ come sight to the thousands of Sun Devils fans: Gavin Hedstrom step­ ping into the batter’s box with runners on base. A no-ball, two-strike count to Hedstrom left almost everyone in suspense before the third pitch thrown to him was drilled into left center field for a single. Overland jogged home with the Bulldogs’ eighth run, five of them driven in by Hedstrom. With three outs needed to keep Fresno State’s season and College World Series hopes alive, the level of tension grew all around the ball­ park. It heightened when Burke walked the first two Arizona State hit­ ters and a sacrifice bunt moved both runners up a base. Fans reacted nervously when a tricky squibber was hit in the direc­ tion of Ahmady. The Bulldogs’ first baseman reached out with his bare

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hand to snare the ball and make an outstanding play, which recorded the second out and kept the runners from advancing. Arizona State’s fans continued to exhort their heroes. Hundreds waved maroon-and-gold “Go Devils” placards and shouted encour­ agement even as Brandon Burke built a no-ball, two-strike count. Burke’s third pitch was swung on and sent in the air to center field. Gavin Hedstrom drifted under the ball, followed its flight directly into the webbing, and squeezed it for the out to end the game. Jogging back into the infield brought high fives, handshakes, and pats on the back for the smiling Hedstrom. He joined his teammates and coaches in celebrating an 8–6 win. His heroics prevented elimi­ nation and kept hope alive. Above them, forty-four hundred fans left Packard Stadium. Those in red were elated, while many in maroon or gold were dispirited. Already on the minds of most was the game still eighteen hours away that would send the winner to the College World Series.

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CHAPTER

Inconceivable Meets

Unbelievable

JUNE 9, 2008—The Bellagio Hotel was abuzz with activity. June

always meant a bevy of vacationers, gamblers, gawkers, and players arriving at the gleaming Las Vegas hotel and casino. This day was no different. Among the throng staying here was Todd Sandell. A job—work­ ing for the father of his best friend—brought the former Fresno State shortstop to the Las Vegas strip on this day. A long day awaited, replac­ ing windows in the hot desert city sun. Sandell hoped to complete the work and be back in time to watch his friends and former teammates play their deciding game in the Super Regional against Arizona State. Two hundred and sixty miles to the southwest, the stands were fi ll­ ing at Packard Stadium. Perhaps the heat was to blame, but the crowd

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was much smaller than that of Sunday night. Game time was set for four o’clock, which was the hottest part of the day. The temperature was to reach 108 degrees. In the Fresno State dugout the subject wasn’t brought up, but every one of the relief pitchers knew. Each had to be ready for action. The heat would be taxing. But each was also aware Justin Miller was going to start. Since opening with six straight wins, Miller had not pitched well consistently in more than a month. A week ago in the regional he failed to make it out of the third inning, allowing six runs. In the broadcast booth, the ESPN2 crew was showing videotape and talking about a pregame scuffle between Arizona State’s allAmericans Brett Wallace and Ike Davis. To outsiders it appeared that the Sun Devils were the team coming apart. The small but staunch group of Fresno State fans cheered their Bulldogs as the game began. But, showing little patience at the plate, Fresno State was quickly three up and three down on just six pitches in the top of the first. Three singles and a walk given up by Miller saw Arizona State get on the scoreboard first. But Fresno State had an answer for the Sun Devils’ two-run first, striking back a half inning later. Steve Susdorf continued his torrid hitting, stroking a single to left center that opened the inning. Alan Ahmady fought back from a two-strike deficit with a single to reach base as well. Tommy Mendonca, who had twice as many strikeouts as hits in the first two games, made his third hit of the series one to remember. Mendonca blasted a one-and-one pitch over the fence in right center field. The three-run home run erased Arizona State’s two-run lead. The Bulldogs added a fourth run to their total an inning later, when Alan Ahmady’s single built the score to 4–2. Over the next three in­ nings Arizona State showed the hitting skills that helped them achieve their lofty pretournament ranking. They scored single runs in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, taking the lead in the seesaw battle, 5–4.

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The Bulldogs’ bull pen was kept busy. Jason Breckley relieved Miller in the fourth and successfully pitched his way out of a jam. He gave way to Holden Sprague, who would surrender the home run that gave Arizona State their lead in the bottom of the fifth inning. Little-used Kris Tomlinson came on for Sprague to begin the sixth and promptly struck out the first hitter he faced. The magnitude of his challenge grew when the toughest part of the Arizona State batting order was coming up. Tomlinson coaxed Sun Devils all-American Brett Wallace to line out before striking out Ike Davis, completing a perfect inning of work. In Las Vegas, his workday done, Todd Sandell returned to the Bel­ lagio. The building’s air-conditioned comfort was a sharp contrast to the heat in which he had spent much of the day toiling. As he passed a bank of television screens, his attention was pulled to one display­ ing a baseball game. He noticed the gray uniforms and the dark blue caps. Those were his friends. ESPN2 was showing the broadcast of the Fresno State–Arizona State game. Sandell quickly surmised from the on-screen graphics and the an­ nouncer’s call that the game was in the seventh inning. The bases were currently loaded. Gavin Hedstrom had just been hit by a pitch to force in a run and give Fresno State a 6–5 lead. Sandell stared at the screen and recognized Erik Wetzel preparing to hit. Turning to find a friend who was seated at a video poker machine, he urged, “Watch this guy.” Sandell explained: “This is my second baseman. I played with him for three years. This guy’s clutch. He’s going to get a hit right here.” Wetzel made Sandell prophetic. He lined the second pitch he saw the opposite way, the ball streaking down the right-field line. All three Bulldog runners raced home to score, and Wetzel ended up standing on second base with a double. Fresno State held a 9–5 lead. Wetzel wasn’t left standing on second base long. Steve Susdorf was the next Bulldog to bat. Only an inning earlier he had tied the game

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with a run-scoring single. Five pitches into his seventh-inning turn at bat, Susdorf sent a fastball sailing over the right center-field fence for a two-run home run, giving the Bulldogs an 11–5 lead. When Kris Tomlinson issued a walk and then hit a batter to open the bottom of the seventh, a pitching change was made. The bull pen was full of fatigued pitchers. There were not many options left. Batesole had little choice but to trust and summon Sean Bonesteele. The right-hander had endured some rocky outings in recent weeks. As he warmed up, teammates did not know what to expect. The outfielders assembled to talk over possibilities. “We’re going to have to play good defense,” Steve Susdorf said to Gavin Hedstrom and Steve Detwiler. Bonesteele quickly found himself in trouble when a pitch got past Danny Grubb and allowed the Arizona State runners to move up to second and third base. The right-hander showed a gritty determina­ tion, striking out the next two batters, then inducing a ground out to Danny Muno to end the Arizona State threat. In the eighth, Bonesteele was again forced to pitch out of a jam. He successfully escaped without giving up a run, leaving two Sun Devils runners stranded. Fresno State added a final run to its tally on Tommy Mendonca’s single in the top of the ninth. By now the small assembly of Fresno State fans in the throng of three thousand were making a great deal of noise. Some were chuckling as they watched a number of Arizona State’s once-loud supporters silently pack up their things and head for the exits. In the bottom of the ninth, any chuckling being done among the Fresno State fans in the stands ceased. Mental planning for a trip to Omaha was proved hasty when Arizona State gave hope to a come­ back. After striking out the first batter of the inning, Bonesteele issued a walk. He added to his woes when he hit the next batter. The base run­ ners gave new life to the previously silenced voices in the stands. As the Sun Devils fans grew loud again, Mike Batesole walked to the mound.

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Bonesteele had given him an impressive two-plus innings. All in the Bulldogs’ dugout applauded. With the game on the line, Batesole wanted Brandon Burke to get the biggest two outs of his coaching career. Quickly, however, anxiety built: Burke walked the first batter he faced to load the bases. A doubleplay ball, the sort Burke had become adept at producing, could end the uprising quickly. Keeping the ball away to the hitter, Burke’s pitch was driven to the right side. It got through the infield and brought home a run. The 12–6 score saw Arizona State’s confidence grow. Burke still had not recorded an out when yet another single saw two more Sun Devils runners race home and score. Fresno State’s lead was 12–8. The decibel level in Packard Stadium rose sharply as the Sun Devils sent all-American Brett Wallace to the plate. Heroics were hoped for out of the Pac-Ten player of the year, who swung fiercely at Burke’s second pitch and sent a fly ball to Susdorf in left, who gloved it for the second out. The drama failed to weaken as Ike Davis came to bat. He promptly singled to center, bringing home Arizona State’s fourth run of the inning. A walk loaded the bases and brought the potential winning run to the plate. All around Packard Stadium, fans implored their favorites. The Bulldogs’ fans hoped their voices could will Burke’s pitches past the Sun Devils’ bats. Arizona State’s fans had seen their Sun Devils cast aside challengers to amass forty-nine wins throughout the season. The fiftieth could produce the greatest prize yet. A watch glanced at in the press box told that the game had passed the four-hour mark. The pitch counter told that Burke had thrown more than half the number of pitches he had the night before. In that game he pitched three times longer. The scoreboard read a ball and a strike on the hitter. Burke glanced at the runners, then delivered his pitch toward the plate. The ball flew off the bat in the direction of left field. Susdorf broke forward,

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running quickly, trying to reach the ball before it dropped and became a hit. His eyes transfixed on the growing sphere, he leaned slightly to his left to stay in front of it and kicked out his left leg, dropping into a slide. His body skidding across the top of the grass, Susdorf raised his glove in front of his left eye, watching as history rocketed his way. Feel­ ing ball smack the palm of his mitt, Susdorf, as he’d done millions of times since childhood, squeezed tightly. He enveloped leather around ball to produce the “Out” call from the third-base umpire. In an instant he leaped to his feet, a chunk of turf flying from his left knee. Susdorf raised his arms in triumph, eyes wide with glee, and leaped up and down. Brandon Burke thrust hands toward thighs and let out a primalsounding yell. Danny Grubb dashed from behind the plate to hug the pitcher. Players leaped over the dugout railing to race onto the field. Soon exuberant teammates were jumping atop one another in a dog pile on the infield grass. Like Susdorf, Gavin Hedstrom and Steve Detwiler sprinted from their outfield positions to join the celebrating taking place on the in­ field. Reaching the infield, Susdorf flung the glove and ball from his left hand. He felt someone grab him. It was Ryan Overland, a fellow four-year senior, who shook Susdorf and shouted, “We’re going to Omaha. I don’t believe it, we’re going to Omaha!” The Packard Stadium celebrating moved from the field to the visitor’s locker room. Surveying the situation and what lay ahead, Brandon Burke shouted, “Better celebrate, boys. That’s the last game we’re going to win together!” Celebrate was what the players wanted to do long into the night. Normally they were prohibited from going out at night when on road trips. Coaches confiscated players’ IDs to prevent such excursions. It appeared on this night that Burke’s primal yell following the last out of the game had been heard. Players were getting the word that the coach would let them go out on the town and savor their success. Several

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laughed that at the end of one of the biggest wins in the program’s his­ tory, Brandon Burke’s final-out yell on the middle of the diamond was a plea to party: “Gimme my ID!” Once back on the team bus, they realized the magnitude of what had just been accomplished. Player after player switched on his cell phone to find dozens upon dozens, even hundreds, of text messages that had poured in since the final out. Some were from family; some were from friends not seen or heard from in years. All offered con­ gratulations on the win and for earning the trip to the College World Series. In the span of seventy-two hours, inconceivable had become un­ believable. No team with this many losses had ever reached the Col­ lege World Series. Never had a number-four regional seed conquered a Super Regional. For a group of players piqued with frustration in March, resolve had produced remarkable. Under the searing desert heat they had toppled a giant, defeating third-ranked Arizona State to win the NCAA Super Regional two wins to one. An event known to players only through dreams and television was about to become reality. The Fresno State Bulldogs were going to the College World Series.

27

CHAPTER

The Land of Awes

JUNE 11, 2008—There wasn’t an eye in the bus not trained in its

direction. Players managed a glimpse of it the night before, but now Rosenblatt Stadium was about to come into view, and everyone on the Fresno State team bus was anxious to savor their first daytime look at college baseball’s Mecca. Over the previous twenty-four hours Fresno State’s players and coaches endured a roller-coaster ride of emotions. This trip to Omaha had come from an improbable journey that saw Fresno State succeed where few gave them any chance. Upset win after upset win propelled them through the regionals, then the Super Regional, into one of eight spots in the hallowed College World Series. Never before had a team with so many losses to its record, a re­ gional seed as low to its name, and a power rating as poor as the Bull­ dogs had amassed fought its way into this elite eight-team field.

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The previous evening the team had arrived in Nebraska from a day of emotional highs and lows. No sooner were they on the ground than exhaustion replaced relief as the overwhelming feeling within many. One by one, players dropped their weary bodies into seats on the team’s charter bus. Many were quick to let fatigue carry them off to sleep. Five hours earlier the players had been fueled by adrenaline. Media videotaped, photographed, and interviewed them as they left Beiden Field for the airport in Fresno. Friends, family members, and boosters gave them a spirited send-off as they prepared to board their charter flight. Takeoff carried them above a city rapt with excitement. Through that flight, players were chatting with one another. Holden Sprague turned to Brandon Burke and asked about the plan he’d heard his teammate talk about for weeks. “When are you going to start that diet?” Sprague asked. Burke turned and grinned, “This time next week.” Sprague wondered aloud, “Why next week?” “Because we’ll be two and out in Omaha, and the season will be over,” Burke laughed in response. They weren’t alone in laughing and joking. Gavin Hedstrom and Steve Detwiler were listening to music. A few teammates were trying to sleep when, a half hour from Omaha, their plane made a sudden and dramatic drop in altitude. The charter flight flew into severe turbulence spawned by a violent midwestern storm. Anxious players gripped armrests. A drop of what seemed like one hundred feet in an instant sent Hedstrom’s laptop flying from the tray table. Motion sickness hit Steve Susdorf. As the plane bounced through the air, he felt certain he was going to throw up. Clayton Allison turned up the volume to the Slayer song on his iPod, hoping it would make the unwelcome adventure end soon. Next to him, Justin Wilson was pitched from his seat by a severe drop and hit his head on the overhead compartment. So, too, did Mike Batesole,

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who was not wearing his seat belt when the turbulence was met. Blake Amador turned to Tommy Mendonca, seated next to him, and asked if it was time to pray. Burke, a surfing enthusiast, threw up his arms and let out a “Woo hoo!” as if enjoying a ride on a wave. Hedstrom and Detwiler joined in, their arms swaying to the music they were listening to. A teammate pointed out Gene Escat to another. The freshman was a picture of dis­ tress, looking particularly anxious, his hair disheveled. News that the flight was being diverted to Lincoln and would land soon was met with widespread relief. Many of the players hoped they would not have to get back up in the air for the remainder of their jour­ ney. The reaction to the plane’s touchdown at the Lincoln airport was almost as euphoric as that for a game-winning walk-off home run. The team that had miraculously failed to let injury or obstacle allow them to come up short in quest of reaching the College World Series was forced down sixty miles shy of Omaha due to the fierce storm. In driving rain their bus pulled away from the Lincoln, Nebraska, airport to begin the final leg of their improbable journey to Omaha. The bus was quiet, in contrast to much of their fl ight. Lights being turned on ended shut-eye for the sleepy. They were pulling into Omaha, and their bus driver had a surprise in store. As the bus motored down Interstate 80 toward the team’s hotel, the driver eased his foot off the throttle slightly and made an announcement to his passengers: “Over there is Rosenblatt Stadium. That’s where you’re going to be playing.” Emotion pushed sleep aside. All eyes were riveted onto the stadium as the bus drove past. The brief glimpse heightened everyone’s enthu­ siasm for tomorrow’s one-hour workout within the big ballpark. Travel weary, the Bulldogs at last reached their hotel. When room­ mates Brandon Burke and Clayton Allison got into their room, Burke turned on the television, and the two were stunned by a report on the local news.

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The tornado responsible for the violent turbulence that shook their flight had had deadly consequences in the Omaha area. It tore through a camp sixty miles away and left four young Boy Scouts dead. The team’s first full day in Omaha offered a one-hour session for practice in the big stadium. After driving past a neighboring zoo, the bus driver made a right turn, entered the stadium parking lot, and gave players their first real look at this stadium viewed by many each June on television. Eyes darted from the ballpark’s blue roof to the red-and-white­ striped portable canopies outside the main entrance. Above the entrance, the raised off-white letters announced to all “Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.” Interest also absorbed the emotion-capturing statue to the left of the stadium’s main entrance. It depicted three play­ ers hoisting a jubilant teammate and was titled Road to Omaha. As the bus came to a halt, noise took the attention of the players from the stadium to an assembly of people on the near curb. A mix­ ture of local and Fresno State fans were awaiting the team’s arrival. They clapped and shouted encouragement to the players and coaches as they stepped from the bus. Players were surprised at the welcome they received and were im­ pressed with the enthusiasm and devotion of the fans. A few stopped and obliged autograph requests. Their scrawled signatures produced smiles and appreciative thank-yous. High above the stadium’s exterior concourse waved an American flag. Flanking the silver pole were four identical poles on either side. Atop each waved a flag representing one of the eight schools in this year’s College World Series field. “Pretty cool, huh?” said Holden Sprague, pointing out the redand-blue flag emblazoned “Fresno State.” “Way cool!” Brandon Burke replied, not letting the question interrupt his absorption of the scene. Players noticed the other flags rippling in the Nebraska wind. The colors and names represented the best programs in college baseball,

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the seven other teams in the field: Stanford, North Carolina, Georgia, LSU, Florida State, Rice, and Miami. Each was an almost regular par­ ticipant in this championship event. Fresno State was the outsider. Players walked with ardor into the dugout and got their first inperson look at the field. All soaked in what they had longingly seen over the years on television. It began to sink in: they were actually here. Stepping from the dugout onto the warning track, a few players tossed baseballs into their mitts as they slowly turned their heads and scanned the stadium. They were impressed at how many fans had turned out just to watch them work out. Also impressive were the col­ orful stands: a few rows of royal blue chair-back seats at field level, several rows of bright yellow seats behind, and a number of rows of red seats above. Looming above the main stands was the true picture of the edi­ fice they had partially seen from outside. The press box, with its blue peaked roof, was seemingly held aloft on stilts. A few asked bystanders how many fans the ballpark held. They were surprised to learn that Rosenblatt could fit over twenty-five thousand and for College World Series games occasionally did so. More and more players began stepping onto the field, playing catch, and stretching to ready themselves for their workout. Nods and open mouths gave evidence to their fascination as sight of the Bulldog logo on the stadium video board fueled added wonderment. Coaches could not possibly be immune to the awe. Walking onto Rosenblatt’s lush green infield grass brought Mike Batesole to a place that had twice previously meant disappointment. During his fi rst season as a collegiate player at Oral Roberts University and his first season as head coach at Cal State Northridge, Batesole’s teams lost their regional final and fell one win short of a coveted trip to this place. Matt Curtis, too, had come close before. He became a Bulldogs player two years after the program’s last trip to the College World

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Series. Veteran teammates told stories of their Rosenblatt experience. In Curtis’s first season of college ball, the Bulldogs reached the regional final only to lose a heartbreaking extra-inning title game, which cost the team a trip to Omaha. Mike Mayne relished the scene before him. While this was his first time in Rosenblatt as a coach, he had been here previously in a more emotional capacity. He had attended games in the 1988 College World Series to watch his son Brent play for Cal State Fullerton. This year Brent’s nine-year-old son, Noah, would join his grandfather at the College World Series and serve as Fresno State’s batboy. From the batting cage, first Steve Susdorf and then Steve Detwiler, Tommy Mendonca, and Alan Ahmady uncorked swings that sent balls flying into the right- and left-field seats. Hearing a cheer go up each time one reached home-run distance added to the day’s thrill. A large number of children had come to the stadium to watch the workout sessions. Players in the outfield were implored almost nonstop for a ball, wristbands, or an autograph. If urgings came from an attractive female, a few players obliged, but only after writing a message on the baseball. Trainers were three days into their work on Clayton Allison’s in­ jured right shoulder. The diagnosis was biceps tendonitis. The shoul­ der was being iced several times a day. Stimulation electrodes and massage were being used by the medical staff to generate blood flow and promote healing. Rest would be the biggest weapon in the fight to get Allison ready to pitch in game two. Both Tommy Mendonca and Steve Detwiler were playing through finger-ligament injuries. While painful, neither player’s injury had been a significant deterrent. Justin Wilson would pitch game one. There wasn’t great concern about his nine-hit, eight-run outing against Arizona State in the Super Regionals. The left-hander had been stellar in the regional opener with Long Beach State and gave nobody reason for doubt.

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Bracket play would break the eight-team field into two groups of four. Fresno State would duel Rice, North Carolina, and LSU in bracket two. Bracket one would match Georgia, Stanford, the Univer­ sity of Miami, and Florida State. The winner of each bracket would ultimately meet in a best-of-three title series that would determine college baseball’s national champion. Fresno State’s first game opponent, Rice, was a team on a tear. After losing their conference tournament, the Owls swept both their regional and Super Regional to get to Omaha. Rice came into the Col­ lege World Series ranked fifth in the country. The Bulldogs’ head coach knew Wayne Graham’s program well. The Owls were a member of the Western Athletic Conference during Batesole’s first three seasons at Fresno State, before leaving in 2006 to join Conference USA. In each of those seasons Graham’s teams won the league title. The Rice program had an added aura of confidence when it came to playing in Omaha. In 2003 they came to Rosenblatt Stadium and left with the national championship. As the teams’ practice session came to a close, the players’ exu­ berance evolved into comfort. Few would confess to feeling any pressure—either from the bright lights or the national television ex­ posure. They had dealt with the ESPN cameras at the Super Regional in Tempe, where their games were carried nationwide. There was no pressure or expectation. Fresno State’s players weren’t even expected to be in Omaha. Their plan was simple: go out, play baseball, and see how well they fare.

28

CHAPTER

They Don’t Give a Hoot

JUNE 15, 2008— One by one, as they stepped off the team bus they

heard the shouts. Dozens of fans, some from Fresno, others locals who had adopted the Bulldogs as their College World Series team of choice, were clapping, chanting, “Fresno State!” and wishing the players good luck. It was easy to root for the underdog. Omaha had never seen a bigger underdog than Fresno State. Believing in an underdog was an entirely different matter. As Fresno State’s players walked to their locker room, they clearly heard some distant shouts: “You’ll be two and out! You’ll be back on the plane Wednesday!” Some Fresno State players would have been lying to say they didn’t have similar thoughts. The amount of clothes in their luggage would attest to that.

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Already their trip had produced memories. The night before, there had been a banquet, an Olympic-style team march into the stadium, and elaborate fireworks to welcome all to Omaha. There were congratulations offered to Mike Batesole. He had just been named college baseball’s coach of the year, recognition for the team’s Herculean feat. Outside Rosenblatt Stadium, thousands were streaming through the turnstiles. Fresno State’s first trip to the College World Series in seventeen years was churning up the passions of fans and former play­ ers. Bobby Jones, the former major-league pitcher and a onetime Bull­ dog standout, chartered a plane and traveled with friends to the game. Ray and Tami Mendonca drove the thirteen hundred miles from their Turlock, California, home to Omaha. When the couple pulled up out­ side the ballpark, they were made breathless by the reality of the event. Like other players’ parents, they would put their camera to dizzying use recording memories for posterity. Beating Arizona State sent the Bulldogs to Omaha with a huge dose of confidence. They had never seen hitters as talented as the Sun Devils. Scanning the field of teams assembled in Omaha, many Fresno State players doubted they could possibly face a lineup as impressive as Arizona State’s. The afternoon sun brought out visors, caps, and sunblock. The brightness of the moment brought out the best of Bulldog pitching standout Justin Wilson. In the bottom of the first inning, he pitched more like he had in the regional win over Long Beach State than in the Super Regional loss to Arizona State. The strong left-hander gave up a leadoff single but recovered, getting a double-play ball to Danny Muno at shortstop, then a strikeout to complete the first inning with relative ease. In the Bulldogs’ half of the second inning, the curious and those in doubt became witness to what was evolving into the incredible. Fresno State loaded the bases against the Owls. With two outs, Muno came to

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bat. Along the first-base side of the ballpark, dozens of red-clad Fresno State fans sat nervously through the duel. Muno wagged the bat back and forth above his shoulder, hips slightly turned and bent at the knees. The drama of the duel intensified when the count reached three balls and two strikes. A lack of encouraging noise from the crowd indicated that curiosity reigned. Muno answered by driving a single past the pitcher. Once the ball cleared the infield and bounded on the outfield grass, fans leaped to their feet, releasing shouts of excitement. In the Fresno State dugout, a fervor rippled through the players. Two runners dashed home to score. Fresno State led 2–0. Gavin Hedstrom fought out of a no-ball, two-strike hole and sent a double down the left-field line. His hit put two more Bulldog runs on the scoreboard. Fresno State led after two turns at bat, 4–0. Over the next two innings, Wilson continued to keep the Owls at bay. He breezed through the second, not allowing a base runner, then pitched out of a jam with two runners on, escaping the third without surrendering a run. In the top of the fourth inning amusement would turn into as­ tonishment. The outsiders showed little regard for the College World Series regulars, unleashing yet another explosive rally. After Ryan Overland and Jordan Ribera reached base with singles, Muno struck again. This time the Bulldogs’ shortstop crushed a three-run home run, extending Fresno State’s advantage to 7–0. The outburst was far from done. Gavin Hedstrom walked. Erik Wetzel sent a double to center field that brought Hedstrom home to score. It was 8–0 Fresno State. Graham marched to the mound and made a pitching change. It failed to stop the outburst. Steve Susdorf was hit by a pitch and joined Wetzel on base. The situation brought Alan Ahmady to bat. Baked by a bright sun, Rosenblatt Stadium was remarkably subdued as the stocky righthanded batter prepared for his turn. Whether from shock or expecta­ tion, chants and cheers were almost nil.

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Bedecked in their white uniforms, the Owls sought to end the on­ slaught. Ahmady, white batting gloves gripping the bat just in front of his right shoulder, focused his attention on the delivery. With the count at two balls and two strikes, the Rice pitcher turned and bluffed a throw to second base, attempting to keep Wetzel from straying far from the bag. Fans seated along the left-field line could hear the pop of a base­ ball smacking a padded glove. Wayne Graham had another pitcher warming up in the bull pen in case trouble grew. A vendor’s cry was the loudest voice from the stadium stands as Ahmady readied for the next pitch. The left-hander began his delivery, flicked his glove, and instantly the ball was hurtling toward home plate. Instinct sent Ahmady’s compact swing into motion. The meat part of his bat connected with the pitch, thigh high over the outside half of home plate. His strength instantly sent the ball shooting into the air down the left-field line. Dozens if not hundreds of fans seated along third base craned their necks to see if the ball would land fair or foul. The Rice left fielder ran toward the corner but to no avail. The ball sailed over the left-field wall, bounced over an ambulance parked near the stands, and produced a loud cheer from many in the crowd. As Alan Ahmady trotted around the bases, dozens of Fresno State fans stood and applauded the three-run home run that gave the Bulldogs a staggering 11–0 lead. Teammates poured from the dugout. Raised batting helmets were tapped, backs were patted, hands extended to complete high fives. Around Rosenblatt Stadium disbelief in a thirty-three-win, twentyseven-loss team’s ability to avoid embarrassment in the College World Series was turning into admiration at the skills being displayed. Justin Wilson pitched his way out of trouble in the fourth inning. He had runners at second and third with two outs and managed to escape damage. The Bulldog pitcher could not keep Rice off the score­ board in the fifth inning, however. The one run scored by the Owls

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was quickly rendered even more meaningless by yet another Fresno State onslaught in the sixth. A walk to Erik Wetzel, a single by Ahmady, and another walk to Ryan Overland brought Steve Detwiler to bat with the bases loaded. The postseason had been a battle with frustration for the Bulldogs’ right fielder. Through the regional and Super Regional rounds, Detwiler had managed just two hits. Now he was afforded the chance to be a part of the respect-generating onslaught. With the count three balls and one strike, the Rice pitcher needed to throw a strike or walk in a run. Getting just the pitch he expected, Detwiler drove the ball up the middle for a single that scored Wetzel and Ahmady to make Fresno State’s lead 13–1. The Owls had gone through five pitchers, and none had been able to keep the Bulldogs from adding to their score. Nor would their cur­ rent pitcher be able to avert a deeper deficit. Jordan Ribera, given the start as the designated hitter, reached down for a low-and-away curveball and muscled the ball. It carried high over the centerfield wall, 408 feet from home plate. The ball smacked hard against the twenty-two­ foot-high batter’s eye wall that stood behind the outfield wall. The sound was quickly drowned by the cheers coming from the crowd. His was the third three-run home run hit by the Bulldogs in the game. The scoreboard now displayed a staggering 16–1 Fresno State advantage. Justin Wilson was touched for a run in the sixth, then set Rice down in order in the seventh. The inning would be his last. There was little hesitation to bring Sean Bonesteele in to pitch the final two in­ nings. His stellar work in the Super Regional had built a greater level of confidence within his head coach. Fans late for the eighth inning’s start after making a dash to the concession stand missed Fresno State’s final run of the game. Tommy Mendonca hit the first pitch thrown in the inning over the left-field wall for yet another Fresno State home run. Clapping their hands as they watched Tommy jog the bases, Ray and Tami Mendonca

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savored the moment. Turning to his wife, Ray said, “Nobody can take that away from us. Our son hit a home run in the College World Series.” Lost in the team’s hitting heroics was the stellar pitching per­ formance from Justin Wilson. Over seven innings he held Rice to just two runs while striking out five batters. In the bottom half of the eighth inning, Sean Bonesteele was summoned to get the fi nal six outs of the game. His second pitch, though, smacked the Owls’ leadoff hitter, and Rice quickly had a runner on first base. Wayne Graham called for the bunt to try to move the runner into scoring position. Tommy Mendonca fielded the rolling ball but threw wildly to first base, allowing the Owls’ runners to dash to second and third. Rice third baseman Diego Seastrunk took advantage of a rare scor­ ing opportunity presented to his team in this game. He laid into the first pitch Bonesteele threw to him and sent it into the right-field stands for a three-run home run. The score was now 17–5. Bonesteele didn’t let the home run bother him. After a quick pop out to center field, he recorded out number two on a ground ball to Ahmady at first. Bonesteele then ended the Owls’ inning with a ground-ball out, hit to Mendonca at third. The ninth inning, occasionally a stressful time, was instead an anticlimactic rehearsal for the end-of-game celebration. With Fresno State sitting on a twelve-run lead, drama was nowhere to be found in Rosenblatt Stadium’s final inning. First the Bulldogs went down quietly in the top of the inning, and then Bonesteele retired the Owls on six pitches to end the game. A cheer went up from the Fresno State rooting section while Bulldog players jogged onto the field to celebrate. Believers were multiplying. The team that was tight and pres­ sure fi lled, fighting to win the regular-season WAC title. had made a 17–5 win over the nation’s fifth-ranked team look almost effortless. Like many fans, as well as players and coaches of other teams in the field, Wayne Graham was greatly impressed with Fresno State’s per­

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formance. “It’s hard to hit the ball that hard in batting practice,” the veteran Rice coach commented in awe after the game. The door to the Bulldogs’ locker room flew open, and Justin Wilson jogged out, dashing to wrap a hug around his parents and sister. Children clamored for a wristband or souvenir. The run tally was attention-grabbing, the win respect-building. Fresno State’s seventeen runs were the most scored by a team in the College World Series in seven years. They would have a day off while teams in bracket one played. Their second game in the series would pose an even tougher challenge: the second-ranked team in the country, the University of North Caro­ lina.

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The Darlings of Omaha

JUNE 17, 2008— Steak sizzled at the Grand Slam Grill. The smell

of the renowned College World Series treat wafted through parts of Rosenblatt Stadium and lured fans to line up by the thousands to buy the popular food item. Also popular at the College World Series was jumping on the Fresno State bandwagon. Baseball fans in the city were buzzing about the astonishing 17–5 win over Rice that thrust the underdogs into the national spotlight. Around Omaha, faces of Fresno State standouts smiled from news racks. The Bulldogs were featured prominently in the Omaha World Herald and in USA Today. Karen and Mark Hedstrom learned just how big Fresno State’s grow­ ing popularity was among people in Omaha. The parents of Bulldogs center fielder Gavin Hedstrom had produced six dozen T-shirts em­ blazoned with Fresno State’s new slogan: “Underdogs to Wonderdogs.”

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They distributed the shirts to family members of their son’s teammates. It wasn’t long before fans saw the shirts and were clamoring to get some for themselves. The luminaries in the middle of the enthusiasm were focused on more-pressing concerns. Clayton Allison’s right shoulder was going to play a big part in mapping out the Bulldogs’ pitching plans. Allison’s bull-pen session during off-day workouts at Creighton University was encouraging. It had been nine days since tendonitis pain chased him from the mound during the Super Regional. When he completed his practice pitching session, Allison told coaches his shoulder did not give him any trouble at all. In fact, he was pain free. Game two of the College World Series had important planning implications. It would push the winner into the title game for their bracket. A win would also mean a day off and two more recovery days for Allison. As much as all hoped to watch Allison pitch and throw an­ other dazzling game as he did at the Long Beach regional, the decision was made to hold him out. Justin Miller would start instead. Parents and family members of Bulldog players greeted one an­ other upon reaching their seats. Surrounding them were dozens if not hundreds of Fresno State fans anxious to see the Bulldogs continue to make doubters eat their words. Others brought curiosity into the ballpark, wanting to see if the Bulldogs were for real. Still more arrived wondering if a game against such a heralded opponent would prove the day Fresno State came crashing back to reality. The Bulldogs were to face the University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels were the number-two seed and fresh from defeating LSU 8–4. Two was also a number that burned motivation into the pro­ gram’s fans and players. In each of the last two years, North Carolina had come to the College World Series with high hopes, only to leave runner-up to a surprising upstart, Oregon State. When Justin Miller took the mound, he was a pitcher on a short leash. His bread-and-butter pitch, the slider, had become inconsistent

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over the last month of the season. The quality of his fastball had di­ minished as well. Pitchers in the bull pen knew to be ready at the first sign of trouble. Trouble was nowhere to be found through Justin Miller’s first three innings of work. A single in the first inning and a walk in the third were the only base runners North Carolina managed against the right­ hander. Fresno State’s hitters would be challenged by a seldom-beaten Tar Heels standout. Adam Warren brought a 22–1 career record into the game. In the first inning the Bulldogs put runners on base with a walk and a double but were unable to score. As the hour approached four o’clock in the afternoon, the tower­ ing press box blocked the sun and threw shadows across the infield. Clad in powder blue jersey and white cap, Warren stared in for a sign from his catcher and prepared to pitch to Ryan Overland. With two balls and a strike, the left-handed-batting Fresno State catcher took a mighty swing and missed. His momentum sent him almost into a stumble across home plate. Overland walked back into the batter’s box, adjusted his red-and­ white batting gloves, then bent at the knees, reassuming his stance. A quick couple of wags of the bat over his left shoulder set his timing for the pitch. Warren’s motion featured an almost upright upper body. The right-handed pitcher reached back, brought his body quickly for­ ward, and fired the pitch, attempting to hit the catcher’s target an inch or two outside. The pitch drifted over the outer half of the plate, and Overland ea­ gerly reacted. He dipped slightly at the knees, whipped his bat around, and sent the ball on a high arc toward deep left field. Jogging toward first base, Overland looked over his left shoulder, anxiously watching to see how far the ball would carry. Fans rose to their feet in the first two rows of the left-field stands. Heads tilted to watch the flight of the ball. A few fans anxiously extended their arms in hopes of grabbing a

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souvenir. A cheer went up and a brief scramble for the ball ensued as Overland trotted around second base, having hit a home run. In parts of Rosenblatt Stadium fans shook their heads. The un­ derdogs, the Cinderella team, had done it again. If the seventeen runs against Rice weren’t convincing, the Bulldogs had struck for a home run against the nation’s best pitching staff. Fresno State fans cheered and celebrated their team’s 1–0 lead. In contrast to the giddiness in the stands above, Mike Batesole sto­ ically took in the action. His ever-present yellow pencil tucked behind his right ear and stuffed beneath his red Fresno State cap, the Bulldogs’ head coach leaned against the wall of the dugout in steely silence. After breezing impressively through the Tar Heels’ lineup, Justin Miller would encounter different results the second time he faced North Carolina’s hitters. In the bottom of the fourth inning, a single and a triple put the Tar Heels on the scoreboard and tied the game 1–1. After recording an out, Miller was tagged for another double. This one gave North Carolina the lead. Before the inning was over the Tar Heels scored again. A single put Fresno State in a 3–1 deficit. The call went from Fresno State’s dugout to the bull pen to begin warming up a relief pitcher. The sight of the North Carolina rally and a struggling pitcher motivated anxious cynics to call it the Bulldogs’ return to earth. When Miller gave up a single and then hit a batter to begin the fifth inning, Batesole made a pitching change. He brought in the lefthanded Kris Tomlinson to face a left-handed batter. Tomlinson suc­ cessfully induced a first-pitch ground out to Ahmady at first base. Batesole ordered the next hitter be walked intentionally to load the bases. Strategically, it would set up a force-out situation at any base. With Tar Heels runners on every base and a hit-producing one run, perhaps even two, Tomlinson was facing one of North Carolina’s most dangerous hitters, Kyle Seager. Craftily changing speeds on his pitches, Tomlinson gained the advantage, building a one-ball, two­

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strike count. Bent at the waist, hands on knees, the pitcher stared at Overland for the sign. The long hair flowing from beneath his cap shook as he turned his head from side to side, checking base runners and batter. Kicking up his right leg, Tomlinson began his motion, de­ livered a pitch, and felt a rush of adrenaline as the North Carolina batter swung and missed for strike three. A dangerous right-handed batter, Chad Flack, was standing in the on-deck circle. Batesole again sought to play the percentages and re­ placed Tomlinson with the right-handed Jason Breckley. The stocky slider specialist with a quiet demeanor produced big noise from the Fresno State fans in the stands. When Breckley got Flack to send a fly ball to right field, Steve Detwiler hauled it in for the final out. It ended an anxious inning and left North Carolina’s dugout to ponder what might have been. In the bottom of the fourth inning, the long ball brought Bull­ dogs fans to their feet with excitement once again. This time it was Steve Susdorf who hit one. His eyes lit up when he saw a slow swoop­ ing curveball heading over the plate. Susdorf’s swing drove the pitch high over the right-field wall to get the Bulldogs within a run of North Carolina’s lead. An inning later, the Fresno State tablesetters who had caused misery for pitchers throughout the Western Athletic Conference gave angst to North Carolina’s as well. Danny Muno, Gavin Hedstrom, and Erik Wetzel hit consecutive singles. Wetzel’s bunt loaded the bases and led to Warren’s exit from the game. The Tar Heels’ pitching change did little to cool the Bulldogs’ hit­ ters. Alan Ahmady drove the second pitch he saw into center field, bringing two runs home to score. The loud cheers from the fans clad in red celebrated a 4–3 Fresno State lead. The relief pitching corps remained busy. This time it was Holden Sprague called into action. The right-hander replaced Breckley to begin the top of the sixth inning. As successful as Sprague had been

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in his starting assignments over the final month of the regular season, the junior had developed into one of the Bulldogs most reliable pitch­ ers out of the bull pen as well. A double by the first batter he faced would be the only blemish, and three strikeouts were the highlight of the pair of scoreless innings Sprague threw. The Tar Heels were almost their own worst enemy in the bottom of the sixth inning. A fielding error, a walk, and a hit batter helped Fresno State load the bases. Much to the relief of North Caro­ lina’s now-frustrated fans and disappointment of Fresno State’s fans, the Tar Heels escaped the inning without giving up further runs. Though Fresno State held a 4–3 lead, it was far from safe against a team as talented as North Carolina. When a single gave the Tar Heels a pair of base runners with two outs in the eighth, Batesole wasn’t about to take chances. He marched to the mound and summoned Brandon Burke from the bull pen to try to prevent further damage. Burke was well rested. He had not pitched in eight days. The fifth Fresno State pitcher of the game would face a pinch hitter. Burke’s second pitch was smashed hard in the direction of third base. Tommy Mendonca gloved it impressively and threw across the diamond. Alan Ahmady reached back with his right leg, making sure his foot touched first base. He extended his left arm and heard the ball pop the leather mitt seconds before the base runner’s foot stomped the bag and the umpire called him out to end the inning. Confidence and pride were spreading through the stands. Fresno State’s fans were waving placards that read “Go Dogs” and “Remember the name” when the Bulldogs came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. Fresno State rewarded the support by adding another run to their total. It was their pesky top-of-the-order tablesetters who were at it again. Danny Muno opened the inning with a base hit through the right side of the infield. Gavin Hedstrom adeptly dropped a sacrifice bunt, which moved Muno up to second base. Erik Wetzel then drove a single to left field that brought Muno home to score. Fresno State now

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led 5–3. That neither Susdorf or Ahmady could drive Wetzel in and put another run on the scoreboard was of little disappointment to the Bulldogs fans, who by now were flirting with delirium. When Burke dispatched the Tar Heels with little trouble in the ninth, sealing Fresno State’s 5–3 win, more room was needed on the ever-swelling bandwagon. The darlings of the College World Series proved they were no fluke. Winning pushed the Bulldogs into the finals of their four-team bracket, another win from reaching the title series. The win also earned a day off, vital to bring rest to the pitching staff. It was also vital for the previously nonbelieving, who had some laundry to get done.

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CHAPTER

Carolina Blues

JUNE 21, 2008—Hitters were comparing notes and reaching an en­

thusiastic revelation. Regardless of the count, no matter the situation, the pitch they were likely to see was going to be a fastball. Coaches talked about it, too. The pitchers they had watched in games at Rosen­ blatt Stadium either were power pitchers or followed a power-pitching game plan. Few threw breaking pitches off their fastballs. Many simply relied on the fastball regardless of the situation. While there was still the challenge of hitting it, the matter of thought and guesswork was re­ moved for Fresno State’s hitters. When faced with the question of what the pitcher would throw in the first pitch of an at bat to try to get ahead in the count, or what pitch a hitter would see on need-a-strike counts such as two-and-two, three-and-one, and three-and-two, the answer was likely a fastball, and it would be thrown in the strike zone.

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This pattern of pitching enabled some of Fresno State’s more anx­ ious hitters to exercise greater patience during their at bats. It reduced the fear of failure that was associated with going deep in a count and being fooled with a breaking pitch for a called third strike. The more they watched, the more they realized such was not the tactic of the pitchers they were facing. Fresno State’s pitchers were also gaining a shot of confidence from deeper examination of the tournament field. Mike Mayne urged the pitching staff to evaluate Fresno State’s opponents and name which of their starters would be a starter if they played for the Bulldogs. As the players considered the lineups of the teams they had seen, none could count on the fingers of one hand the prospective candidates. Mike Batesole felt pride at the precision execution of his players, es­ pecially when watching what he considered sloppy, “spring training”­ like mistakes by others in the field. His players noted that their coach wasn’t injecting himself into their play in Omaha as he did during the regular season. They were being left to go out and play. North Carolina had eliminated LSU 7–3 and worked its way through the losers’ bracket for another shot at Fresno State. Win their meeting, and the Bulldogs would advance into the championship series to face Georgia. Lose, and an elimination game against the Tar Heels would await. Rain once again rolled through Omaha. A thunderstorm had al­ ready pushed this game back a day, and now heavy rain hit just as the teams were going through warm-ups. With five days having passed since Justin Wilson last pitched, Mike Batesole opted to send him to the mound. Clayton Allison would get another day, at least, to let his tendonitis abate. The Bulldogs staked Wilson to a quick lead. In the top of the first inning, with Gavin Hedstrom and Erik Wetzel on base, Steve Susdorf singled to right field. Hedstrom raced home to score, giving the Bull­ dogs a 1–0 lead.

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Wilson gave up a pair of walks in the bottom of the first but suc­ cessfully pitched out of the jam. Still, coaches noticed his pace being quicker than usual. Wilson seemed anxious, wanting to throw his next pitch soon after receiving the ball back from his catcher. In the second inning, control issues put him in a jam again. Backto-back walks with one out saw North Carolina’s fans rise to their feet with hope for a big inning. Wilson quashed those hopes by getting a ground ball driven to Wetzel at second base. He teamed with Danny Muno and Alan Ahmady to complete the inning-ending double play successfully. Fresno State was having little success against North Carolina’s pitcher, Matt Harvey. He had retired seven hitters in a row through the top of the third inning. Again Wilson caused some stomachs to knot and fingernails to be chewed when he gave up a pair of singles to put North Carolina runners at first and second with one out in the bottom of the third. There was no panic among the Bulldogs. Wilson had successfully escaped similar trouble in each of the previous innings. A called third strike and a double play had proved the escape in innings one and two, respectively. Fans were likely wondering what Wilson would pull off to escape this time. The count stood at two balls and one strike. Wilson brought his left hand into his glove, adjusted his grip on the ball, then rested hand and mitt against his chest. Quickly he took a glance at the North Carolina runners, turned toward his catcher, Ryan Overland, raised his right knee, and pushed his body forward to deliver the pitch. The Tar Heels’ batter swung and lofted a fly ball in foul territory to the right of first base. Alan Ahmady raced toward the tarpaulin rolled along the railing. Nearing the cylinder, he dropped to his knees and went into a slide. Dust from the warning track blocked the view of some fans. Ahmady extended the mitt on his left hand, successfully gauging the flight of the ball. It smacked the leather and was squeezed

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by Ahmady for the out. The first baseman was quick to recognize that the runner on second base would tag up and try for third. No sooner had the ball landed in his mitt than Ahmady bounced to his feet, turned, and fired a throw toward Tommy Mendonca. The Bulldogs’ third baseman positioned himself six feet up the line. He dropped to his knees as ball and runner arrived simultaneously. Mendonca snared Ahmady’s throw just as the runner slid into him. He tagged the base runner, hearing first the umpire shout, “You’re out,” then the jubi­ lant cheers of his teammates and hundreds of Fresno State fans in the stands. Few could believe what they had witnessed. Fans and media who had been watching College World Series games for many years were convinced it was one of the greatest plays ever pulled off in Rosenblatt Stadium. Throughout the night fans from coast to coast would marvel at repeat airings of it on editions of ESPN’s SportsCenter. By night’s end all were hailing it ESPN’s play of the day. Mendonca and Ahmady would continue the productivity a half inning later with their bats. There were two out in the inning when Ahmady singled. Mendonca stepped into the batter’s box, waved the bat back and forth above his left shoulder, then fiercely swung at the first pitch. Contact sent the ball high in the air toward the right-field wall. Fans enthusiastically rose to their feet while following its flight. The eyes of players and coaches in the Bulldogs’ dugout were glued to the white sphere as it streaked through the Nebraska sky. It landed in the rightfield stands, triggering an outpouring of jubilation in the form of raised fists, high fives, screams, and yells. Mendonca trailed Ahmady in a jog around the base paths. The scoreboard operator adjusted the numbers to read Fresno State 3, North Carolina 0. In the top of the fourth North Carolina produced trouble Justin Wilson could not escape. With runners at first and third following a

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double and single, the Tar Heels’ third consecutive hit in the inning put them on the scoreboard. A walk loaded the bases. A smash speared by Muno at shortstop could not be turned into a double play. The Bulldogs registered one out at second base, while North Carolina scored its second run of the game. Wilson preserved the Fresno State lead with a strikeout to end the inning. With one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, the ball was handed to Holden Sprague. Wilson exited with a 3–2 lead. He battled hard but had problems with control, walking six through five innings of work. Sprague inherited a runner on base and was quickly singing the praises of Tommy Mendonca when the third baseman snared a smash by North Carolina standout Chad Flack and threw to second base for the second out of the inning. A three-pitch strikeout brought applause from Fresno State’s fans as Sprague walked off the field, having suc­ cessfully preserved the Bulldogs’ 3–2 lead. In the top of the seventh, noise was coming from the red-clad Bulldogs fans around Rosenblatt Stadium. Through a Steve Detwiler double, a Jordan Ribera walk, and an intentional walk to Danny Muno, Fresno State loaded the bases. Hope grew that the Bulldogs would pad their precarious one-run lead. North Carolina made a pitching change. Mike Fox, the Tar Heels’ head coach, knew that his team’s season was on the line. Many more runs would deflate his players. He summoned his best pitcher from the bull pen. Alex White jogged toward the mound. The Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher of the year, White had recorded a 13–3 win-loss record. Now he was being placed into one of the most crucial chal­ lenges the Tar Heels faced in the postseason, asked to keep alive his team’s hopes of a third straight trip to the championship series. White quickly showed why so many honors came his way, strik­ ing out Steve Detwiler on four pitches for the inning’s second out. Confidence was still intact in the Bulldogs’ dugout when Erik Wetzel

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stepped into the batter’s box to face White. The pair battled to a twoball and two-strike count. White reared back and fired his next pitch. Wetzel’s swing was followed by the sound of the ball smacking the catcher’s mitt and low groans of disappointment from Fresno State fans. Nine straight fastballs clocking ninety-six miles an hour ended the inning and doused an opportunity for the Bulldogs to increase their run tally. North Carolina’s leadoff hitter opened the bottom of the seventh inning with a single, then was bunted to second base. Kris Tomlinson was called on to replace Holden Sprague and promptly struck out the first batter he faced. Another pitching change followed. Justin Miller jogged in from the bull pen. In a precarious spot where a hit could tie the game, Miller ended worries with a strikeout to maintain Fresno State’s lead. Miller remained in the game to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning. In the bull pen, Brandon Burke warmed up. North Carolina’s leadoff batter hit the second pitch he saw to right center field. As it bounced on the outfield grass, Detwiler and Hedstrom ran to track it down while the batter raced to second base with a double. In the bull pen Mike Mayne waved his cap, making the universal baseball sign to the dugout that a relief pitcher is ready. North Caro­ lina’s dangerous hitter Chad Flack stepped into the box to face Miller. Soon the Bulldogs’ pitcher was behind in the count. From the bull pen Burke joined Mayne, waving his cap, trying to gain the attention of coaches in the dugout. When the count reached three balls and two strikes, the pair were almost feverish in their attempt to get anybody in the dugout to look their way. Continuing to wave caps while watching for any sign their signal was seen, Burke and Mayne heard the unmistakable sound of hard contact between aluminum bat and baseball. The roar coming from North Carolina’s fans told them that the outcome might not be good. Relief pitcher and coach watched the ball soar high into the left-field

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stands. Flack had hammered a slider for a two-run home run that gave North Carolina the lead, 4–3. “Let’s go take a seat, Mayner!” Burke said dejectedly to his pitching coach as the cheers of the crowd filled their ears. White made quick work of the Bulldogs in the top of the ninth. He retired all eight batters that he faced, striking out five of them to secure North Carolina’s 4–3 win. The outcome meant the two would play the next night in a winner-take-all game. The victor would move into the championship series. The loser would go home. It was nothing new to the Bulldogs, who had faced such a challenge both in Long Beach and in Tempe. Players quickly gathered their equipment and filed through the dugout for the clubhouse. In postgame interviews and in the news conference, none expressed disappointment or seemed concerned at what they faced. The Bulldogs had beaten North Carolina once. To­ night they had come within three outs of eliminating the number-two College World Series seed. None confessed to feeling pressure to win. Any pressure that would form would likely be diffused by a Brandon Burke quip or comment. As Fresno State’s players walked to their bus, fans shouted encour­ agement. Children scampered after the players, pleading for a souve­ nir—a wristband, a ball, or anything they could spare. On the opposite side of Rosenblatt Stadium, a television crew was editing their report on the game. Just as the North Carolina team walked past, they were in the process of piecing together interviews taped moments earlier with Fresno State players. While heading toward their bus, the players turned their attention to the video. Real­ izing what was on the monitor and hearing the words of Fresno State players coming from the speaker, several stopped to hear what the Bulldogs had said. As sound bite after sound bite played the voices of Bulldogs saying they were confident of achieving success, a number of onlooking Tar Heels players simply grinned and laughed.

31

CHAPTER

Injury Makes Insult

JUNE 22, 2008—The onlooker on the field recoiled at the grotesque

sight of Tommy Mendonca’s right hand. It had been more than three weeks since he badly injured fingers in the first game of the Long Beach regional. Still his right hand was swollen. So severe was the swelling that the man speaking with the Bulldogs’ third baseman couldn’t tell where the knuckles began or ended. The dislocated fingers needed rest in order to heal. That was help Mendonca wasn’t prepared to lend the mending process. He had started all nine of Fresno State’s games since suffering the injury twenty-four days earlier. Winning and his teammates meant too much. There was no way Tommy Mendonca was coming out of the Bulldogs’ lineup. Mendonca’s play was a big reason the Bulldogs were on the thresh­ old of school history. Beating North Carolina would push Fresno State

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into the championship series. Never in three prior trips to the Col­ lege World Series had the program advanced this far, let alone into the event’s final two. While Mendonca continued to have difficulty gripping the bat properly, his late-season hitting surge had continued in the postsea­ son. He’d hit safely in eight of Fresno State’s ten postseason games. Dating back to the start of the WAC tournament he was hitting .360. A notorious first-pitch swinger, Mendonca continued to attack oppos­ ing pitchers early in the count. Five of his twelve turns at the plate in the College World Series had been one-pitch at bats. Two of them produced home runs. There was no sign of pressure or nerves as the Bulldogs went through pregame workouts. Mike Batesole and Matt Curtis joked and appeared loose to those on the field. The players were filled with con­ fidence from an earlier win over the Tar Heels and coming three outs from another win the night before. Weather and the schedule had given the pitching staff a lift. Rain that pushed one game back a day and careful planning gave Clayton Allison twelve days off. The down time and thorough work done by the training staff allowed his tendonitis to heal. A bull-pen session in practice convinced the coaches he was ready to go. He was given the starting assignment for this all-important game. Advancing deep into a championship tournament can tax a pitch­ ing staff. Fresno State’s staff was largely well rested. Holden Sprague, Kris Tomlinson, and Justin Miller had pitched in each of the last two games. More than half the pitchers in the bull pen had not seen game action in four days or more. The national anthem had ended. The color guard was marching off the field. Allison stood at attention, Mike Mayne by his side. Con­ cerned that the pitcher might be nervous, Mayne leaned toward his ear and said, “Clayton, just remember. Win, lose, or draw—when this game is over, the beer is going to be cold!” Allison turned and shot his

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pitching coach a “What the heck?” sort of look before breaking into laughter. The Bulldogs in their home white uniforms, red sleeves, and red caps jogged to their positions to loud cheers from the growing num­ bers of Fresno State fans flocking from far and wide. North Carolina brought an aggressive hitting plan into the game. Their leadoff batter belted Allison’s first pitch of the game for a double. Garrett Gore fol­ lowed, ripping a smash that was gloved by Mendonca and flung across the diamond to Alan Ahmady for the game’s first out. After a fly ball out to Steve Susdorf in left field advanced the Tar Heels’ runner to third base, Allison escaped trouble by inducing a ground-ball out to Erik Wetzel at second base, ending the inning. In their half of the second inning, Fresno State raised the hopes of their fans. Amid dozens of waving placards and loud voices filling the air, Mendonca, Ryan Overland, and Jordan Ribera occupied the three bases with two outs in the inning. The Tar Heels escaped the tough spot with a ground-ball out that ended the inning and prevented the Bulldogs from capitalizing and scoring a run. A half inning later, North Carolina put a runner on base. A one-out single brought Garrett Gore to the plate. In the first inning, his quest to bring a Tar Heels base runner home from second was thwarted by a Tommy Mendonca fielding gem. Now Clayton Allison fell behind to Gore, two balls and no strikes. Working from the stretch position, Allison peeked over his left shoulder at the runner being held close to first base by Ahmady. Allison raised his glove and right hand to his chest, fingers gripping the ball for the next pitch. He made one last check over his shoulder at the runner on first, then began his motion toward the plate and delivered the pitch. The ball bore in on the right-handed batter and began to sink. Ryan Overland adjusted his glove, lowering his left arm to get into position to catch the pitch. Gore swung, his bat making contact, sending the ball in the direction of third base. Mendonca reacted, thrusting his glove hand in front of

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the smash, snaring it, then throwing the ball to Wetzel. He grabbed the throw, quickly stepped on second base to record the out, then pivoted and fired the ball quickly to Ahmady, completing the inning-ending double play. Fans rose and cheered the fielding wizardry. In the dugout, team­ mates applauded, while North Carolina’s players could only lament another opportunity missed. The bottom of the third inning saw Erik Wetzel drop a one-out single into left field. Steve Susdorf sent Wetzel dashing for third base with a double to right center field. The Tar Heels’ coach, Mike Fox, ordered that Alan Ahmady be intentionally walked to set up a force play at any base. With the bases loaded, Tommy Mendonca stepped into the batter’s box. Focusing over his right shoulder at the North Carolina pitcher, Mendonca wagged the bat over his left shoulder, readying to engage his swing. Still unable to affix a tight grip on the bat, his injured fingers giving him pain, Mendonca and the pitcher took their duel to a full three-ball, two-strike count. Standing almost upright, with a slight bend at the knees, the left-handed batter readied to react to the upcoming pitch. Quickly Mendonca swung and directed the ball through the left side of the infield. Wetzel jogged home from third base to score the game’s first run. Steve Susdorf was waved around third by Matt Curtis and hustled home with another run. Fresno State held a 2–0 lead. The fourth inning brought the middle of the North Carolina order up to face Clayton Allison. Two singles and then a one-out walk sud­ denly produced a precarious situation for the Bulldogs. It was now North Carolina’s fans who took advantage of the chance to make some noise. Clad in sky blue, they stood around Rosenblatt Stadium cheer­ ing loudly to offer players vocal encouragement. When Allison fell behind the next hitter three balls and one strike, the roars grew louder. A pitch out of the strike zone brought the um­

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pire’s “Ball four” call as the Tar Heel fans celebrated the team’s first run. Runners jogged from base to base as Allison remained in a tough spot. The Fresno State senior responded to the challenge by record­ ing a strikeout for the inning’s second out. A ground ball to Danny Muno at shortstop was shovel-tossed to Wetzel as he moved toward second base. Stepping on the bag, Wetzel recorded the final out of the inning, and the Bulldogs jogged off the field, still leading 2–1, relieved to escape further trouble. North Carolina brought a new pitcher into the game to face the Bulldogs in the bottom of the fourth inning. After Jordan Ribera sent a one-out single to left field, a game of cat and mouse ensued between pitcher and base runner. Several attempted pickoff throws were sent to first base. All were designed to keep Ribera close to the bag. Not among the team’s speedier runners, Ribera continued to attract throws until one sailed wide of the first baseman. Quickly hustling to second, Ribera realized the throw had rolled into the right-field bull pen. He continued running until successfully standing on third base. The gaffe handed opportunity to the Bulldogs. Danny Muno was the hitter able to capitalize working the count full before getting a pitch he was able to drive. His single into right field scored Ribera with Fresno State’s third run of the game. The score remained 3–1 Bulldogs into the bottom of the fifth inning, when North Carolina called on Rob Wooten to pitch. The right-hander thrived on pressure situations and during three sea­ sons as a Tar Heel had actually thrown his best in postseason play. But Wooten walked Alan Ahmady to begin the inning and then faced Tommy Mendonca. Emotions grew all around Rosenblatt Stadium. Concern fi lled many of the blue-clad North Carolina fans in the crowd of fifteen thousand. They did not want to see the Bulldogs add to their lead. Fresno State’s fans were exuberant, standing and imploring Mendonca to continue his recent success with the bat.

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Wooten, one of North Carolina’s most effective relief pitchers, fired his first pitch past Mendonca for a strike. His second offering was met with a forceful swing. When bat connected with ball, it sent the white sphere traveling through the air well beyond the pursuing right and center fielders. The ball bounced on the grass, then caromed off the wall. Ahmady rounded second base and looked up to see Matt Curtis waving his arms, urging him to run to the plate. Pat Waer directed Mendonca to continue running for second base. The Tar Heels’ out­ fielders retrieved the ball, relaying a throw back to the infield. Ahmady successfully scored. Mendonca reached second base with a double. Amid the boisterous cheers of its fans, Fresno State increased its lead to 4–1. Clayton Allison’s pitching continued to hold North Carolina at bay. Aside from the rocky fourth inning, Allison never allowed more than one base runner in any of the first six innings. Like grains of sand passing through spread fingers, North Carolina’s hopes of reach­ ing the title series were slipping away. The number of raised video cameras among Fresno State’s fans was testament to the history being embraced with fervor. The bottom of the sixth inning raised the level of that fervor as Wetzel singled. Susdorf doubled, and then Ahmady brought home Fresno State’s fifth run of the game with a fielder’s choice. The intensity of the fans’ enthusiasm grew as Tommy Mendonca stepped up to bat. Already with two run-scoring hits, he would now face North Carolina’s best pitcher, Alex White. Swinging at White’s first pitch, Mendonca sent a ball over the head of the first baseman. Susdorf hustled home to score. Mendonca’s third hit of the game gave Fresno State a 6–1 lead. Fans were teeming with excitement. North Carolina’s fans could only react with grimaces and groans showing disappointment and dismay. Their team had produced miraculous comebacks throughout the postseason. Erasing a five-run deficit, though, would be a very dif­ ficult challenge.

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Holden Sprague took over for Allison as the game moved into the seventh inning. A pair of singles, the second one with two outs, were rendered meaningless when Sprague got Chad Flack to fly out to center field and end the inning. Brandon Burke was summoned from the bull pen to pitch the eighth inning. While skilled at utilizing his fielders with his pitching skills, the right-hander was considered one of Fresno State’s poorest fielding pitchers. On a three-ball, two-strike count, the inning’s leadoff batter hit a ground ball sharply between first and second base. Ahmady broke to his right in an attempt to field it but missed. Erik Wetzel ran to his left and was able to snare the ball with his glove. Stopping his momentum, the second baseman looked up to see Ahmady far from the bag. Sud­ denly he noticed Burke sprinting to cover first base. Wetzel fired a hard sidearm toss toward Burke’s chest and watched as the pitcher grabbed the throw, reached out with his right foot, and stepped on the base ahead of the runner to get the out. Remaining cynics in the Fresno State dugout looked to teammates with smiles. Destiny was their reply to the play. If Brandon Burke pro­ duced a fielding gem, it had to mean Fresno State was certain to win. Five outs stood between the Bulldogs and a spot in the title series. A single followed by an out-producing fielder’s choice kept the Tar Heels from moving a runner into scoring position. Burke got ahead in the count and finished off the North Carolina batter with a swinging strike three. It ended the inning and launched the pitcher’s habitual slow stroll to the dugout. Dismay changed sides through the bottom half of the eighth inning. When Steve Susdorf was hit by a pitch and then Alan Ahmady walked, bringing Tommy Mendonca to bat, the Bulldogs gave threat to another score. But neither Mendonca, Ryan Overland, nor Steve Detwiler could make the threat materialize. The Tar Heels fans sought to rally their team with noise and shouts of encouragement. Ranks

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of the disbelievers continued to disappear around Omaha. The term underdog was used to describe the Bulldogs less frequently. Describing Fresno State wins with the word upset was long over. If Burke’s fielding gem evoked the giddiness of destiny, Fresno State’s success again dealt the Tar Heels another bitter taste of fate. In each of the last two Junes, North Carolina had reached the College World Series final. Each time they left dejected, losing to a Cinderella team: Oregon State. North Carolina’s ninth-inning leadoff batter swung and pushed a Brandon Burke sinker ball to the right of second base. Erik Wetzel moved into position, fielded it, and threw to first base, moving the Bulldogs two outs from a spot in the finals. The second Tar Heels batter in the ninth drove a single to center field. Amid a smattering of encouraging shouts from fans, Garrett Gore walked into the batters’ box. Twice he had been robbed of poten­ tial hits in this game by fielding gems from Tommy Mendonca. Gore swung at Burke’s pitch, sending a smash toward the hole between third base and shortstop. “Oh shit, not again!” Bulldogs heard Gore shout as he sprinted toward first base, seeing Mendonca react and rob him of what looked to be a sure base hit. The Bulldog third baseman got off a throw to Erik Wetzel, who moved in to cover second. Quickly Wetzel pulled the ball in, stepped on the bag for the out, and then flung a relay toss to Ahmady at first base. The ball smacked Ahmady’s glove before the runner could step on the bag, the umpire’s cry of “Out” bringing an end to the game. As Fresno State’s players celebrated their 6–1 win, disbelief and doubt were long since faded memories. Confidence now ruled the Bulldogs’ dominion. Fresno State was going to play for the national championship.

32

CHAPTER

Dog Day Afternoon

JUNE 23, 2008— Never before had Fresno State stepped onto a

stage of this magnitude. After a four-month season and almost eigh­ teen thousand games contested, two teams had emerged to play one another for college baseball’s national championship. That the Fresno State Bulldogs were one of them evoked both astonishment and fervor. They, along with Georgia, were the final two teams playing for college baseball’s national championship. The silent respect shown during playing of the national anthem was broken soon after the song’s first line. With caps removed for the ceremonial song, fans all around the ballpark noticed a sight that pro­ duced double takes. Squints for a closer look, nudges to direct friends’ attention, smiles, and chuckles spread throughout sections of Rosen­ blatt Stadium. The curious and the amused were stricken by the “skullet.”

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Fresno State’s Kris Tomlinson sported the oddest haircut they had ever seen. Long locks flowed from the top of his right ear around to the top of his left. Above was an approximate three-inch strip of exposed, shaved scalp. Atop the pitcher’s head was a strip of closely cropped hair with the “FS” logo from Fresno State’s cap shaved into it. Tomlinson sought to bring good luck to his team’s postseason run with a promise of something unique for each postseason round his teammates won. He took a mullet haircut into the WAC champion­ ship tournament. That successful, Tomlinson grew a mustache for the NCAA regional at Long Beach. When Fresno State won and advanced to the Super Regional, Tomlinson’s teammate Holden Sprague got out the electric clippers and produced a “mull-hawk,” a hairdo combining features of the mullet and Mohawk. Tomlinson promised something unique should the Bulldogs reach the title series. The night before the game, Sprague wielded an electric trimmer to create Tomlinson’s new look in his hotel room. Through­ out the season Tomlinson and Sprague had been the team’s jokesters. It was not uncommon during tight games for the pair to duck into the clubhouse and emerge with a funny hairstyle each called the “rally comb-over.” It often brought admonishment from their coach but achieved their goal of relieving stress and reducing pressure. On a day and in an event usually associated with tight nerves and anxiousness, the skullet filled Fresno State’s locker room and dugout with laughter. “Georgia has no chance. The skullet is in full effect,” Brandon Burke laughed as he caught first sight of Tomlinson’s look. Cheers went up as Georgia’s nine starters bolted from the dugout and took their positions to begin the game. Georgia had reached the title series by beating Miami, then Stanford twice, to win bracket “A.” The national championship was a part of their program’s tradition. All season long their players dressed in a locker room replete with tributes to the school’s 1990 College World Series championship. This group hoped to earn their own tribute on those same locker-room walls.

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With both schools nicknamed Bulldogs, there were plenty of clichés and wisecracks made about the matchup. At the heart of the buildup and the hype, the dog-eat-dog, best-of-three series would crown col­ lege baseball’s new top dog. Danny Muno stepped into the batter’s box to applause and shouts of encouragement. The throng of red-clad fans that made the thirteenhundred-mile trek from Fresno to Rosenblatt Stadium continued to grow with every game. Muno used his penchant for patience to coax a walk and become the first base runner of the game. He would be left stranded on base, though. Trevor Holder, Geor­ gia’s starting pitcher and the ace of their staff, struck out Gavin Hedstrom, then got Erik Wetzel to ground out before Steve Susdorf struck out to end the top of the first inning. No sooner had Georgia left the field than Sean Bonesteele began his unlikely walk to the mound. The previous night, coaches pondered whom to make the starting pitcher for this game. The debate centered on Bonesteele and Jason Breckley. Fresno State’s pitching staff was fa­ tigued. Holden Sprague had thrown in three successive games. Brandon Burke, Justin Miller, Justin Wilson, and Kris Tomlinson had pitched in two of the three games. During the season Bonesteele made only three starts. His longest outing was four innings. Though he did not pitch much in the regular season, Bonesteele’s strong performance in the final game of the Super Regional was fresh on the coaches’ minds. Standing atop the pitcher’s mound, throwing his warm-up tosses, Sean Bonesteele was preparing for the biggest game of his life. When the season began, he was one of the pitchers Mike Batesole lacked con­ fidence in. He struggled with injuries during the season. At times he lacked consistent control of his breaking pitch. Mike Mayne worked with him to lower his arm angle, which gave Bonesteele’s pitches better movement and accuracy. His confidence, once flagging during the reg­ ular season, grew with strong performances against Arizona State, in the Super Regional, and against Rice during bracket play in Omaha.

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Bonesteele’s first challenge was Ryan Peisel. The Georgia leadoff batter was riding a late-season tear. Guessing Bonesteele would try to get a quick strike with a fastball, Peisel swung at the offering. He sent Steve Susdorf in hot pursuit as the ball shot off his bat into left field. By the time Susdorf ran it down and fired a throw back to the infield, Peisel was at second base with a double. Ryan Overland, the Bulldogs’ catcher, offered encouragement to his pitcher, reminded the infielders of the runner at second, then dropped into his crouch and prepared to flash Bonesteele the signs. He got the second hitter to line out to left field. When the following batter popped out to Wetzel at second base, it appeared Bonesteele would escape the jam. Fresno State fans used their voices and thoughts to try to will the unexpected starter from further harm. Georgia’s cleanup hitter, Rich Poythress—only a freshman, yet hitting over .400 in the College World Series—was a challenge to get out. Bonesteele worked carefully to the six-foot four-inch first baseman before Poythress lined a single to left field and brought home the game’s first run. If the hit fueled worry that Bonesteele wasn’t up to the task, it was soon proved unfounded. An inning later he set Georgia’s hitters down on just eight pitches. Mixing a very effective changeup with his break­ ing ball and fastball threw off the hitters’ timing. After the first-inning double, Bonesteele would retire the next seven Georgia hitters in a row. In the top of the third inning, Jordan Ribera stepped into the bat­ ter’s box to open the inning. Just a freshman, Ribera had been frustrated early in the season by a lack of playing time. Counseled by Brandon Burke to ignore the negativity of their head coach and play his game, Ribera’s confidence had grown. He no longer felt he had to hit a home run in order to get playing time. In Omaha his level of contact im­ proved. Ribera brought a .217 average into the College World Series but had three hits, and a couple of his outs were hard-hit line drives.

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Standing in the batter’s box, Ribera studied the pitcher. Bent slightly at the knees, he held his bat almost completely upright, just in front of his left shoulder. When the first pitch zipped into the strike zone, Ribera unleashed a powerful swing that drove the ball toward deep left center field. The sound of the ball hitting the bat brought fans to their feet and teammates craning their necks to follow its flight. The dugout filled with the sound of excited shouts when the ball sailed over the wall and landed in the stands for a home run. Ribera’s blast tied the score 1–1. Bonesteele was even more impressive in the bottom of the third inning. His changeup worked effectively and helped him retire the three Georgia batters on only six pitches. Also impressive and effective was the defense behind him, especially Tommy Mendonca. A pitch unleashed by Bonesteele was quickly turned into a screaming line drive by a Georgia batter. As the ball rocketed in the direction of third base, Mendonca reacted, dove, and caught the hard smash before it could get past and become an extra base hit. At inning’s end Bonesteele received enthusiastic pats on the back and handshakes from his teammates in the dugout. In this huge game, Bonesteele had come through with three stellar innings. The fresh­ man, Jake Floethe, would take over from here. Going into the game, Floethe was one of three Bulldog pitchers yet to see action in the College World Series. He responded well to his baptism by fire, getting the first two batters out that he faced. Things quickly changed, though. A single followed by a full-count walk lit enthusiasm in the Georgia dugout. Another single capitalized on the developing opportunity and brought home a run to give Georgia the lead again, 2–1. Floethe’s ineffectiveness left Mike Batesole no choice but to make a pitching change. He brought Kris Tomlinson out of the bull pen. Twice the left-hander had been summoned to get the Bulldogs out of

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tough spots in this College World Series. Both times Tomlinson had shone. Tomlinson was challenged to prevent Georgia from adding to its just-regained lead. With two out and runners on both first base and third, Tomlinson’s first pitch was sent on the ground toward Erik Wetzel at second base. He scooped up the ball, trotted over, and stepped on second base for the final out of the inning. One pitch was all it took for Tomlinson to extinguish the threat. By the time the game moved into the fifth inning, a sense of rest­ lessness ran through the stands. Rare was a College World Series game with so little scoring. Longtime fans of this event knew that a scoring outburst could be just a matter of a few pitches away. Ryan Overland led off the top of the fifth inning for Fresno State and drew a walk. That brought Steve Detwiler to the plate. The Bull­ dogs’ right fielder had managed only two hits thus far in seventeen College World Series at bats. Detwiler was now days from surgery to repair the torn ligament in his left thumb. He had shown great deter­ mination, playing in considerable pain since suffering the injury in early April. The right-handed batter took the first pitch thrown to him for a strike. Stepping out of the batter’s box, he readjusted his batting gloves before readying himself for the next pitch. As the pitcher moved from the stretch position into his motion, Detwiler’s focus intensified. Seeing the ball released from the pitcher’s hand and realizing its path would be over the middle of the plate, Detwiler swung. Contact sent the ball high into the Omaha night. Jaws dropped; a near breathless “wow” was heard from more than one fan in the stands. The ball sailed far, until it landed in the deepest rows of the left-field stands. In the press box, some who had seen many of the games played during the previous days called it one of the longest home-runs hit in this year’s College World Series. Batting helmets were raised at home plate by Overland and Jordan Ribera. Once his foot stepped on the plate, Detwiler lifted

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his helmet from his head and tapped it against those of his teammates, celebrating both the feat and Fresno State’s 3–2 advantage. The lead held up for another inning before Georgia struck back. By now Jason Breckley was pitching for Fresno State. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Georgia’s recent first-round draft pick, Gordon Beckham, led off with a single. Breckley battled to record two outs before another single put Georgia’s third run of the game on the score­ board and tied things up 3–3. Through seven innings Georgia’s starting pitcher, Trevor Holder, had thrown well. But his coach, Dave Perno, felt it was time to make a pitching change. With the potential for facing three left-handed hit­ ters in the inning, the Georgia head coach brought on a left-handed pitcher, Alex McCree. Working cautiously to the first hitter he faced, McCree issued a walk to Erik Wetzel. From the dugout Mike Batesole relayed the sign for a hit-and-run to Matt Curtis. Standing aside the left-handed batter’s box, Steve Susdorf got the sign from Curtis, then prepared to execute the call. As McCree began his delivery, Wetzel broke from first base, dashing for second. Susdorf swung at the pitch and drilled it to right center field. Wetzel rounded second base and sprinted toward third. He saw the third-base coach waving his arms in the signal to head for home. Seeing the outfielders chasing the ball, Susdorf rounded first and continued running toward second base. As he reached the bag he could hear cheers from the crowd. He looked toward home plate and saw Wetzel score. Alan Ahmady hoped to add to the 4–3 lead, but his line drive was snared by Gordon Beckham to the shortstop side of second base. Beckham doubled Susdorf off second base, and Georgia had a huge break. Fresno State’s fans’ immediate disappointment did not have time to become discouragement. Tommy Mendonca made sure of that by driving a pitch over the left center-field wall for a home run. It gave Fresno State a 5–3 lead. When Ryan Overland, the next batter, was

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hit by a pitch, Perno had seen enough. The Georgia coach promptly switched pitchers for the second time in the inning. Already with a home run to his credit, Steve Detwiler added to his big day by shooting a pitch deep enough to right center field to score Overland. Detwiler wound up standing on second base with a double. Fresno State’s lead was now 6–3. At the end of the inning, six outs re­ mained between the team and victory, a win that would put them one victory from claiming the national championship. When Georgia’s leadoff hitter singled to begin the bottom of the eighth, Mike Batesole chose to replace Breckley with Brandon Burke. The school-record-holding closer was entering his third game in the College World Series. In his two prior appearances in Omaha, he had not given up a run. As the new pitcher completed his warm-up tosses and customar­ ily adjusted his socks, one of Georgia’s best hitters strode to the plate. Gordon Beckham had been needled by his teammates, asked by the media, and questioned by his coach about not yet hitting a College World Series home run. He laughed and told his coach he was waiting for an important moment. With a runner on and his team trailing by three, Beckham settled into his stance, held the bat above his right shoulder, and readied to face Burke. The pitcher’s first pitch was a strike, and Beckham felt reasonably certain Burke would try to throw another fastball. Once it was on its path to the plate, Beckham reacted with a strong swing. Contact pro­ duced a sound that excited Georgia’s fans and brought stunned silence to the enthusiasm felt among Fresno State’s. Burke turned to see the ball traveling high in the air toward left center field. Susdorf and Hedstrom turned and began pursuit before quickly realizing it was futile and watched the ball land in the stands for a home run. Beckham’s blast brought Georgia to within a run, 6–5. Burke added to the mounting distress with a three-ball, two-strike walk before get­ ting a fly-ball out to relieve some of the worry. Before anyone could

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become comfortable, though, Georgia’s Matt Cerione ripped a Burke offering past third base and down the left-field line. By the time Susdorf was able to run it down and make a throw back to the infield, the base runner had scored. The game was tied 6–6. To the following batter, Burke again struggled with his control. He fell behind in the count, three balls and two strikes, before his pitch was sent screaming back up the middle of the diamond for yet another double. Cerione scored, and Georgia’s dugout was celebrating a 7–6 lead. Burke was finally able to bring an end to Georgia’s uprising with a pair of fly-ball outs. His was an angry walk back to the dugout at the end of the inning, forced as he was to listen as Georgia’s fans celebrated their team’s good fortune. Shout as they might, Fresno State’s fans were unable to coax an­ other run from their team. When Muno, Hedstrom, and Wetzel went down in order, Georgia had taken the first big step toward the national championship by winning 7–6. The loss dropped Fresno State into a do-or-die position. Yet it was a circumstance players were not strangers to. In the Long Beach re­ gional, in the Super Regional, and in College World Series bracket play they had faced similar situations and proven to be successful escape artists. Each time they had brushed aside the potential for elimination and fought back to continue. While there was disappointment in the Fresno State locker room, there was not despair. History had taught this team not to panic.

33

CHAPTER

Getting the Message

JUNE 24, 2008—Holding up his cell phone to check the text mes­

sage just received, Steve Susdorf did not recognize the number it came from. When he pressed the view button and read the message, Susdorf was convinced it was a prank. “It’s Pat Burrell and Chase Utley. We’re sitting in the dugout in Oakland playing the Athletics. We just wanted to say good luck tomor­ row.” In one instant ecstatic and the next dubious, Susdorf showed the message to a few of his teammates. His initial “Oh my gosh” out­ burst was quickly met with his teammates’ more cynical “Right.” Was it really a message from the Philadelphia Phillies’ standouts to their team’s recent draft choice or an elaborate gag concocted by one of the Bulldogs’ resident jokesters? Whether overwhelming, like the text message received by Susdorf, or subtle, like the symbolic two whistles another Bulldog received from

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his father in the stands, well wishes poured upon Fresno State’s players and coaches. The outpouring brought home the emotions being felt not only back in Fresno but around the country by people hopeful that the team would rally back from the game-one defeat. A win over Geor­ gia would force a deciding third game for the National Championship. A loss, and Georgia would win the best-of-three series and claim the College World Series crown. The opportunity to become a national champion ignited alumni, fans, and Fresnans. The calls, text messages, and e-mails reaching players were in stark contrast to the apathy that the empty seats in Beiden Field had displayed throughout the season. The first three innings failed to raise emotions among the Fresno State following. Georgia bolted to a 5–0 lead. Any dejection felt was limited to a small percentage of fans and was nowhere to be found in the Fresno State dugout. Fresno State doggedly chipped away at Georgia’s lead before Tommy Mendonca’s three-run home run erased the oncedaunting advantage and evoked revelry from alums, former players, and newly made fans. The team that successfully fought off elimination to come back and win both their NCAA regional and Super Regional series proved that those triumphs were no fluke. The growing numbers of people enthralled with Fresno State’s Cinderella-like surge were ex­ periencing awe at accomplishments Bulldog players felt to be routine. In the bottom of the fifth inning, after Gavin Hedstrom and Erik Wetzel drove Fresno State’s run tally to thirteen, Steve Susdorf whipped his bat into a pitch and drove it into the right-field stands. The tworun home run commanded amazement at a 15–6 fifth-inning lead. So overwhelming was the Bulldogs’ bat attack that seven Georgia pitchers struggled to end it. The staggering numbers of Fresno State base runners to jog or sprint their way around the bases to score runs was likened by Georgia’s shortstop, Gordon Beckham, to “a merry-go­ round.”

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Once the game reached the seventh, momentum began to change. Holden Sprague, who had come through time and time again with standout postseason efforts, now struggled to get anybody out. In the bull pen, Jake Hower began to warm up. After hitting Georgia’s leadoff batter, Sprague saw his struggles grow. He fell behind in the count, then surrendered a single to Geor­ gia’s second hitter. A pinch hitter was called upon, and he, too, singled, this one scoring a run. Fans catching sight of Hower warming up in the bull pen couldn’t have been faulted if they doubted he was the answer. Not only were his stats uninspiring, but Jake Hower had not pitched in a game in thirtyeight days. Mike Batesole had planned to use him in the Hawaii game of the WAC tournament, but Mike Mayne noticed Hower wince when throwing warm-up pitches. He went to Batesole and urged him not to put the pitcher in. It led to an angry exchange between Hower and his pitching coach, with Mayne telling him, “It doesn’t do you any good putting you in if you are hurt, and it doesn’t do the team any good if you pitch while you are hurt.” Now he was one of only two Bulldog pitchers yet to see action in the College World Series, but his bull-pen sessions convinced coaches he was all right. On the mound, Sprague fought to extricate himself from the de­ veloping trouble. A third consecutive single once again loaded the bases and brought Mike Batesole out of the dugout to make a pitching change. Reaching the mound, Batesole turned to the umpire and sig­ naled for Jake Hower to enter the game. Hower was another pitcher who had thought the best way to get out of a tight spot was to muscle up and throw harder. Being hit hard sent him searching for answers. Throwing while recovering from a stiff arm taught him the value of Mayne’s “less is more” sermons. Taking a little bit off his fastball gave the pitch more movement and made it more effective. As he exited the bull pen, Hower turned to his pitching

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coach and said, “Just going to get ’em out, coach. Just going to throw it.” Mayne smiled and wished him luck. The College World Series had been living proof over the years that tired pitchers and aluminum bats can make seemingly safe leads shaky. Having watched Fresno State turn a five-run deficit into a nine-run advantage was enough to convince any fan in Rosenblatt Stadium that a comeback was possible. Add to it the depleted Bulldog pitching staff, and, in the stands at least, there lived reason for a sliver of doubt. Hower reduced doubt by striking out the first batter he faced. Alan Ahmady’s fielding error, though, allowed the Georgia fervor to con­ tinue. It brought home another run and made the score 15–8. The bases were loaded again. Hower battled Gordon Beckham to a full count before losing the duel. The walk forced in Georgia’s third run of the inning. It was now 15–9. In the Fresno State bull pen, Clayton Allison turned to his pitch­ ing coach and said, “Time to bring Ahmady in.” A week earlier in the Super Regional, players told Mayne about the high school pitching ex­ ploits of Alan Ahmady. The Bulldogs’ hard-hitting first baseman was also a standout pitcher on his high school team. There were profes­ sional scouts who watched Ahmady in high school and felt that his fastball made him a viable prospect as a closer. The noise level coming from the Georgia fans continued to rise, while a mixture of confidence and concern spread among those in Fresno State red. Calm prevailed among Fresno State’s players, both those in the field and their teammates leaning on the dugout rail. A fly ball to center field was hauled in by Gavin Hedstrom for the second out. The ball was driven deep enough to allow Georgia’s base runner to tag up from third base and score. Hower escaped further damage, inducing a ground-ball out to Danny Muno at shortstop. It ended the inning with the four runs Georgia scored, reducing Fresno State’s lead to 15–10.

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The hope and enthusiasm produced by Georgia’s seventh-inning rally would be extinguished by the time Fresno State concluded its time at bat in the bottom of the inning. Once back on offense, Fresno State resumed their run-scoring outburst. If fazed by the Georgia rally, the Bulldogs’ hitters didn’t show it. A hit batter and two walks set the stage for Alan Ahmady’s single, which put two more runs on the scoreboard. Danny Grubb’s sacrifice fly added a third run in the inning and sent the game to the eighth with Fresno State in command, 18–10. As the Bulldogs took the field for the eighth inning, Batesole or­ dered a maneuver few in the stadium likely noticed. The Bulldogs’ right fielder, Steve Detwiler, was standing on first base throwing ground balls to warm up the infielders. In right field was Fresno State’s first baseman, Alan Ahmady. Squatting along the foul line was a back-up catcher, while some sixty feet away Ahmady fired throws. Ahmady was discreetly warming up should he be needed to pitch in the inning. Unlike his showing in his first inning on the mound, Jake Hower breezed through the eighth. Confidence grew that he could finish the job. The Ahmady idea could likely be shelved. Hower opened the ninth inning by striking out Georgia’s leadoff hitter. Optimism that they would see a deciding game three surged through Fresno State fans in the stands. The hope of watching a championship ceremony at game’s end dwindled in the minds of Georgia’s fans. A bounder hit to Ahmady at first base was successfully snared. His toss to Hower, covering the bag, produced out number two. A throwing error by Muno put a runner on but served only to tem­ porarily delay the inevitable. With Fresno State’s fans standing and cheering, Hower’s pitch was popped into the air toward second base, where Erik Wetzel gloved it to end the game. On the middle of the diamond, teammates and coaches celebrated the 19–10 win and Hower’s three-inning success. Like Sean Bonesteele in

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game one, another seldom-pitched Bulldog had used the skill honed and the self-confidence gained to produce success in an unlikely setting. The hopes raised by fall predictions, only to fade in a flurry of spring defeats, now blossomed into an inconceivable run. A team with an 8–12 record one-third of the way into its season stood at the cusp of history. Waiting outside Rosenblatt Stadium, several Fresno State boosters caught a sight that raised their spirits even more. They watched the Georgia players walk from their locker room to the team bus. One pointed out the somber mood and called it a funeral march. Another, a parent of a Fresno State player, turned to those he was with, nodded in the direction of the Georgia players, and confidently said, “We got ’em.” Nightfall chased the humidity. Wind blew out the last remnants of the rain that had earlier drenched Omaha. Steve Susdorf and a few teammates were out celebrating Fresno State’s victory when conversa­ tion turned to the text message received from Pat Burrell earlier in the day. His teammates challenged Susdorf to call the number and see if the Phillies slugger answered. There were laughs and more than a bit of teasing when Susdorf confessed to nervousness at the idea of placing the call. The jibes went back and forth before the Bulldog senior summoned the courage to grab his phone, pull up the message, and punch call back. His heart pounding, his mind racing, wondering what he would say, Susdorf gained both relief and amazement when the call went to voice mail. The voice at the other end was definitely Pat Burrell’s.

34

CHAPTER

Pride Is Forever

JUNE 25, 2008—At Rosenblatt Stadium the bunting was positioned

over the third-base railing, adding to the many trappings exhibiting the importance of the day. A clear sky and bright sun provided the natural spotlight to college baseball’s biggest annual day. Soon none would know the color of the ballpark’s twenty-five thousand seats. Each would be occupied by an ardent fan. Whether that fan was a local, prideful of the community’s signature sports event, or a follower of one of the two participating teams, the first pitch would bring a surge of adrenaline and have most awash in passion and pride. The championship game’s usual emotions were joined by the spec­ ter of fascination and even a bit of wonder. Never in this event’s storied history had the College World Series been crashed by a more distinct outsider. Sure, two years earlier a nontraditional power, Oregon State, arrived in Omaha from a region of the country not noted as a baseball

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hotbed. The Beavers’ arrival produced double takes. Their departure evoked amazement when they left toting the national championship trophy. In 2003 Southwest Missouri State generated Cinderella clichés when they earned a place in Omaha’s gathering of elite eight. Yet no team as statistically undeserving as Fresno State had ever set foot on Rosenblatt Stadium’s green grass during the month of June. If power rating alone determined the sixty-four-team NCAA regional field, Fresno State’s rank of eighty-nine would not have made the grade. The first number-four seed in the regional ever to ascend to Omaha was playing for the national championship. As outcast as they were made to be, these weren’t hillbillies stroll­ ing into the Biltmore. This was a group of young men forced by earlyseason frustration and chagrin to embark upon a talent-unlocking journey. Their lessons came from unlikely mentors. Answers were found closer to home than imagined. Friendships among the players and shared respect generated motivation to succeed. The ensuing as­ surance bred self-trust and a level of play that delivered them to des­ tiny’s door. Staggering numbers of runs scored and home runs hit, unforeseen relief pitching heroics, and dauntless starting pitching performances generated greater belief and optimism each day the tournament pro­ gressed. Players told in March by friends that their team “sucked” or who had classmates vow not to come to games because the Bulldogs were losers now found themselves beseeched with requests for inter­ views, autographs, and even game tickets. Players appeared confident and calm as they prepared to leave their hotel for the biggest game in the program’s history. Justin Wilson would be the starting pitcher, making his third start in the ten-day event. In the month and a half since Tanner Scheppers was injured, Wilson filled the number-one starting role on the pitching staff and shone. In the eyes of his teammates, he blurred the line between con­ fident and cocky. Over dinner the night before the title game, Wilson

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confidently told a teammate, “You know what, we made it this far. Screw it. I’m going out there and throwing. Whatever happens, hap­ pens.” If there was a concern felt by his coaches going into this game, it was Wilson’s pace in his last start. His coaches made note that he worked at a hurried pace during his start against North Carolina. They sur­ mised that it was a product of nerves. Concerned that the magnitude of this event might evoke too much excitement, Mike Mayne phoned the pitchers’ room before the team was to report to their bus. “I just have one suggestion,” Mayne said. “Starting right now, I want you to slow down and figure out everything you do between now and when we get to the ballpark. I want you to slow things down. Everything’s at your pace. You set the pace. You set the tempo. You be in command of everything you want to do. Don’t let the national championship thing get to you. Slow down and enjoy this thing.” When the players walked from their hotel to the bus, a smattering of fans shouted encouragement. They offered handshakes and pats on the back. Even more fans greeted the team when the bus rolled to a stop outside Rosenblatt Stadium. The chants of “We are Fresno” brought smiles to some of the players and coaches as they stepped from the bus and into the sea of enthusiasm. Mike Batesole gave a great deal of thought to his batting order for the game. He casually talked with the school’s sports information director, Steve Weakland, about his concerns for Steve Detwiler. He knew Detwiler was in considerable pain from his thumb injury. Batesole continually asked the trainers if playing would cause more se­ rious injury. Now the team was about to embark upon the biggest game in school history. Could he bring himself to bench such an important player and leave him to one day tell his children or even grandchildren that he did not play in the title game because his thumb hurt? One by one Fresno State’s players checked the lineup card and noticed that the batting order was different for the first time in

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Omaha. In each of the previous six games of the College World Series, Batesole had used the same starting lineup. The batting order had never changed. But Georgia planned to start a left-handed pitcher, Nathan Moreau, and Batesole gave a lot of thought to a corresponding tactical move. In the previous six games Tommy Mendonca hit sixth and Detwiler eighth. Thus far against Georgia, Detwiler had been swinging the bat well. He hit a home run in game one and had two hits in the second meeting. Batesole chose to move the right-handed-batting Detwiler up to sixth and drop Mendonca, a left-handed batter, to seventh. He would sit left-handed hitters Jordan Ribera and Ryan Overland. Both had started the previous six games. Right-handed batters Jake Johnson and Danny Grubb would start in their spots. Johnson, a freshman, would be the designated hitter and bat eighth. Grubb, now recovered from a rib-cage injury, would catch and hit ninth. For Grubb, getting the start raised his level of enthusiasm. He had become frustrated, even angry, at a lack of recent playing time. Grubb felt his coaches lacked faith in him. In his anger Grubb was consider­ ing transferring to another school at season’s end or giving up baseball to take up golf. His coaches were disappointed that Grubb had not stayed in good shape and become a bit sloppy behind the plate. He was their best defensive catcher, though, and with the ultimate stakes on the line, Grubb was in the starting lineup. Throughout batting practice, the Fresno State mood was relaxed. Reporters noted Batesole and Matt Curtis smiling and joking, in sharp contrast to what some expected coaches of such an unexpected final­ ist to display. In the bull pen were equally confident smiles, produced by Justin Wilson’s pregame warm-ups. Focus and control were words shared between Mayne and Grubb to describe the pitcher’s display. In the dugout, Brandon Burke approached Wilson. Generously de­ scribed as stocky by some, Wilson grinned when Burke said, “Good thing we’re wearing red. It makes you look thinner.” Knowing it was

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an all-or-nothing game, Clayton Allison approached his head coach. Noting that it had been three days since his six-inning, ninety-pitch outing, he told Batesole he could pitch in relief if needed. More than two million people were watching as ESPN began its coverage. At his parents’ home in southern California, Tanner Scheppers sat down with his father to watch the game. He’d been in Omaha for the Bulldogs’ first two games, but coaches cited NCAA rules and would not permit him to be around the team. Telling his teammates he felt betrayed, Scheppers flew home and resumed his reg­ imen of physical therapy to rehabilitate his injured shoulder. Several miles away in southern California, Todd Sandell pulled up a chair and joined friends to watch the title telecast. “I’m proud of you,” one said to the former shortstop. “You were on that team!” Danny Muno’s introduction as the first batter of the game brought cheers from the gathering of Fresno State fans. Video cameras were as much a part of their standard accessories as the signs, placards, red Fresno State caps, and “Underdogs to Wonderdogs” T-shirts. Monthsago dreams, weeks-ago hopes, were now three hours from realiza­ tion. The magnitude of the moment saw the numbers of fans traveling cross-country from California to take in the game swell. The travel weary and the adrenaline fueled would not have to wait long to be driven to delirium by their newly beloved. With one out in the top of the second inning and Steve Susdorf on first base, Steve Detwiler walked to the plate for his first at-bat in the game. The liga­ ment tear that had coursed intense pain through his hand would require surgery once the season was done. Frequently fans would see Detwiler shake his left hand after swinging at a pitch. On the field, opponents and teammates would see a more painful wince with each swing. The pain did not deter Detwiler’s patience at the plate. The right fielder battled Georgia’s pitcher, working the count to a dramatic three and two. On release of the pitch, Susdorf broke from first. Detwiler swung and hit a hard smash down the third-base line. Before cheers

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could grow, the umpire emphatically signaled the ball foul by inches. Standing outside of the batter’s box, Detwiler shook his left hand. He slowly wiggled his injured thumb and then assumed his stance, the bat held high behind his right ear. Yet another foul ball raised the level of nervousness among some fans in the stands. Almost to a man, Georgia’s players stood or leaned against the dugout railing, absorbed by the ongoing duel. Upon seeing the pitcher begin his delivery, Susdorf again took off for second base. Hearing the sound of the bat and ball connect, he glanced over his left shoulder. He saw Detwiler toss his bat aside. The direction players were looking indicated that the ball was headed toward right field. Turning to look in the opposite direction, Susdorf saw Georgia’s right fielder running toward the wall. He watched as the outfielder reached the warning track, slowed his run, and stopped just inches from the wall. The right fielder aligned his body with the path of the ball’s flight. He timed its descent, then leaped. His outstretched arm and open glove reached to try to make the catch. A fraction of an inch above the tip of the glove, the ball hit the top of the wall and caromed into the stands. It bounced into the hands of an enthusiastic souvenir-seeking fan while around him cheers went up for Detwiler’s two-run home run. Reaching home plate, Detwiler raised his batting helmet and tapped those of Susdorf and Tommy Mendonca in celebration. A few feet away his teammates stood waiting to offer their congratulations. Fresno State led 2–0. In the bottom of the second inning, a fielding error by Danny Muno and a subsequent single put Wilson in a tight spot. He retained his composure, showed no emotion, and determinedly struck out the next two batters on just six pitches. Another Muno error loaded the bases before Wilson got Ryan Peisel to fly out, ending the inning with the bases loaded. When Fresno State got on the scoreboard next, it was again Steve Detwiler who did the damage. In the top of the fourth inning, he

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walked to the plate, receiving loud applause to acknowledge his prior at-bat feat. There were two outs in the inning. Steve Susdorf stood on second base. After taking the first pitch for a ball, Detwiler swung at an offering that was down and in, driving it on a line to center field. Geor­ gia’s center fielder dove for the ball but was unable to make the catch. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet and dashed in pursuit of the ball, which had caromed off the wall and lay resting on the warning-track dirt. Realizing that the ball would not be caught, Susdorf rounded third base, hardly breaking stride. He raced for home and scored to give Fresno State a 3–0 lead. Detwiler jogged into second base fi lled with excitement. He forcefully clapped his hands and let out a loud yell that mirrored the noise coming from thousands in the Rosenblatt Stadium stands. In the Georgia half of the fourth inning, Wilson was again impres­ sive. With one out in the inning, Joey Lewis hammered Wilson’s pitch for a triple. He remained stranded ninety feet from home plate when the Fresno State left-hander set down the next two batters with strike­ outs to retain his impressive shutout. The ESPN cameras trained on the image of a dispassionateappearing Mike Batesole, leaning against the dugout wall. The un­ emotional display and seeming lack of interaction with his staff and players were diametrically opposed to what many fans expected from a coach in a game of such magnitude and in this high level of emotion. In actuality, Batesole was riveted to the goings-on on the field. The coach sought to think two pitches ahead and consider potential strate­ gies that developments in play might warrant. He believed cheerlead­ ing distracted a coach. While to Fresno State’s players a lack of emotion from their coach was nothing out of the ordinary, there were obser­ vant Bulldogs who were convinced he was different. Several Bulldogs thought their coach was less involved in the World Series games than during the rest of the season. Had Mike Batesole made a conscious decision to step aside and let his players play, or did the confidence

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shown by his players switch control into the hands of his pitchers and hitters? Assurance in their mechanics and game situation tutelage saw every member of the pitching staff contribute to a stunning stifling of heralded College World Series foes. At last comfortable with a mental approach that matched the opponent’s game plan, an array of hitters indulged in heroics that brought the Bulldogs to this historic day. In the fifth and sixth innings, Wilson retired Georgia’s hitters in order. With each inning pitched, he seemed to grow stronger. Wilson successfully worked both sides of the plate with his ninety-three-mile­ an-hour fastball and his accurate breaking pitches. His pace was con­ trolled, his demeanor that of a competitor in command of the game. A degree of disbelief sifted into Ryan Peisel’s thoughts. When this series began, the Georgia standout felt there was little chance Fresno State could put together the pitching depth or effort needed to win a championship series. Bonesteele, Hower, Allison, and now Wilson were proving him wrong. Adding to Georgia’s frustration was, once again, Steve Detwiler. In Fresno State’s half of the sixth inning, two impressive at bats set the table for more heroics from the Bulldogs’ right fielder. With two outs in the inning, Steve Susdorf found himself in a three-ball, two-strike hole. He managed to foul a pitch off to remain alive. Then with a fl ick of the wrist Susdorf sent the seventh pitch of the at bat into left center field for a double. Alan Ahmady strode to the plate next, and after two pitches that appeared to be wide of the strike zone were called strikes, the junior maintained his composure, remained focused, and worked a walk. That brought Steve Detwiler to the plate with two runners on. The emotions of the two dugouts could not have been more op­ posite. In Georgia’s was a concern at the additional damage Detwiler could do to a relief pitcher who was struggling to throw strikes. In Fresno State’s dugout was an almost giddiness that the need to throw strikes could give Detwiler a pitch he could drive and potentially in­ crease the lead.

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Georgia’s fears began to unfold when the first two pitches were called balls by the home-plate umpire. When the count reached three balls and a strike, nervousness grew. Detwiler focused his intense stare at the pitcher. He slightly wiggled his light blue aluminum bat. The fifth pitch he saw in his at bat was up in the strike zone, just below the letters on his jersey. Detwiler quickly reacted. A strong swing sent the ball into the air toward left field. Those fans watching the flight of the ball felt it had home-run distance to it. Those watching the left fielder for a sign of the play’s potential outcome received instant relief. His only movement was to watch the ball carry well above his head and far into the left-field stands for a three-run home run. Jubilation rippled through the Fresno State fans in the stands. There were smiles among casual observers who had questioned the team’s place in the final eight ten days ago and were now resigned to Fresno State’s imminent crowning as national champions. Detached from the excitement and joy being felt by his players, Mike Batesole’s mind was on the remaining nine outs that separated his program from a national championship. His bull pen was tired. Wilson’s pitch count was growing. As he stood silent, leaning against the dugout wall, myriad options ran through his mind. The second out of the seventh increased Wilson’s streak of retired hitters to ten in a row. An error and then a walk gave Georgia brief hope, but it was quickly quelled by a fly-ball out. In the stands, ex­ citement was turning to anxiousness. Six outs stood between Fresno State and the national championship. The team had never shown signs of a meltdown or collapse in any of its previous six games. Memories were fresh of the late-inning uprising two days earlier that robbed them of a win in game one against Georgia. This was still too early to exhale. Pitchers and catchers in the Fresno State bull pen were relaxed. Ryan Overland, Clayton Allison, and Brandon Burke were engaged in conversation when suddenly Jake Floethe appeared. He’d been sent

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from the dugout by Batesole to ask Allison if he was telling the truth. Was his shoulder pain-free? Could he work, if needed, in relief? Wilson returned to the mound to pitch the eighth inning, having allowed just four hits. The shutout he was weaving, however, came to an end when Georgia’s Gordon Beckham hammered the third pitch of the inning over the left-field wall. The home run gave his team their first run of the game. Beckham’s blast had barely begun its downward arc when Batesole bolted from the dugout. Quickly Matt Curtis grabbed his boss and tugged him off the field. “What are you doing?” Curtis asked, sur­ prised by his boss’s reaction. “He’s out of gas,” Batesole shot back. Quickly realizing that a judgment about Wilson was being made on the pitch belted for a home run, Curtis pointed out to the head coach that “the pitch was a changeup.” Understanding that the reason for such a slow pitch wasn’t fatigue, Batesole resumed his position in the dugout, and Wilson pitched on. Six pitches after inducing a pair of pop-fly outs, Wilson stared in against Georgia’s .303-hitting center fielder, Matt Cerione. A strike, two balls, and a foul ball put the left-hander’s pitch count for the game at 119. Matt Curtis sent the pitch signal from the dugout to Danny Grubb, who crouched behind home plate. Grubb dropped his right hand between his legs and dangled his fingers to signal for a breaking ball. Wilson brushed his chest with his mitt three times to let Grubb know it was not the pitch he wanted to throw. Smoothly the pitcher initiated his motion, raised his right leg, then powered his body for­ ward and fired the pitch toward the plate. In an instant it whizzed by Cerione, who heard first a loud thud as the ninety-two-mile-an-hour fastball smacked Grubb’s thickly padded leather glove. Next Cerione heard the umpire bellow the call of “Strike three.” We’ve got this one, Mike Batesole thought, impressed by the heart displayed by his pitcher. With his pitch count at 120, Wilson would not come back out to work the ninth.

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In the bull pen, both Clayton Allison and Brandon Burke were warming up. Out on the field, their teammates sought to add to the five-run lead. Nick Hom pinch-hit and singled to begin the top of the ninth. Trent Soares was sent on to pinch-run, stole second, and then advanced to third when Danny Grubb grounded out to first base. That would be as far as Soares could advance. He was left stranded at third when Gavin Hedstrom grounded out to end the inning. Rather than dejection at the opportunity missed, the end of the inning brought almost a perverse sense of relief to many of Fresno State’s fans. They were now face-to-face with opportunity. Before them was the final inning to be played in the season. The first-inning drama and jitters had evolved into nerve-racking suspense. Fresno State held a 6–1 advantage. Could they get these final three outs, or would Geor­ gia make hope a mirage and rally to steal away this chance at glory? When the bull pen was told that Allison would pitch the ninth, Brandon Burke was momentarily miffed. Quickly, though, reality struck. He surmised that all the grief he had given Batesole over the last four years probably made him the last guy the coach would want to see on the mound when a national championship was won. As his teammates saw Allison jog to the mound for his first relief work of the College World Series, several were struck with the same thought and felt bad for Burke. Allison’s second pitch in the bottom of the ninth was hammered hard to right field. When Steve Detwiler misplayed the ball, it put a Georgia runner in scoring position at second base. Shaking it off, Allison turned his focus to the hitter but had difficulty finding the strike zone with his first three pitches. Down three balls and no strikes, Allison got his fourth pitch over but walked the batter one of­ fering later. Concerned with his pitcher and the situation the team faced, Mike Batesole called time-out and walked to the mound. Allison let hon­ esty overpower competitiveness. He had trouble hitting his spots in his

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warm-up pitches, and he told his coach, “They’re timing me up pretty well. We gotta go to Burke here.” With that, Batesole signaled to the umpire for Brandon Burke to enter the game. Watching from the stands as the Bulldog relief pitcher made his way to the mound were the player’s parents, Mike and Debbie Burke. A Bulldog baseball cap covered Mike Burke’s head, which was shorn of hair by chemotherapy. His prostate cancer was now in an advanced stage. The significance of the event his son was such an important part of led Mike Burke to take leave from his job and treatments and travel to Omaha. The Burkes arrived expecting their stay to be a brief few days. The team’s unexpected success forced them to change hotels four times and split medications in half to get through the duration of the College World Series. Debbie Burke called their euphoric Omaha ride the greatest experience of their lives. Mike Burke wrote his boss that it beat chemotherapy. After completing his warm-up tosses, Burke turned to his shortstop, Danny Muno. “Hey, Muno, how many errors have you had today?” the pitcher cracked. The freshman shot back with a curt reply. Burke calmly pointed and said, “There’s a lot of people watching. They’re making judgments about you.” Muno turned his back to Burke and resumed his position. Reaching down to adjust his socks, the Fresno State pitcher knew the needling relaxed the shortstop, or at least that’s what he hoped as he rose and turned his attention to the hitter. David Thoms stepped in to pinch-hit, and Burke quickly had the count at a ball and a strike. Working from the stretch, he extended his arms, elbows slightly bent, right hand gripping the ball in the palm of his glove. Slowly Burke lifted his arms, stopping when his hands reached chest level. After a brief glance at the base runner, he quickly kicked his left knee upward in a slide step and twisted his upper body slightly to the right, pulling his hand and right arm backward from the glove. Burke drew his right hand behind his right hip, then stopped ever so slightly. His body changed direction, pushed forward by his

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right leg as he fired the ball toward Grubb. Thoms swung and sent the ball on the ground toward center field. Muno raced to his left, extended his gloved left hand, and snared the ball. In an instant he made a dif­ ficult yet accurate back-handed flip to Erik Wetzel, who was moving toward second base. All in the ballpark watched with anticipation as Wetzel stepped on the bag for the force out, made the pivot, and fired the ball to Alan Ahmady at first base to complete the double play. A loud cheer came from the stands. Teammates shouted with ex­ citement from the dugout. Fresno State was one out from the National Championship. Burke turned and gave Muno an appreciative grin. The Bulldogs were not out of trouble just yet. Georgia’s lead runner advanced to third base on the double play. Ryan Peisel, the .341-hitting third baseman, was up next. The count fell to two balls and two strikes when Burke uncorked a curveball. It appeared to cross the plate at the knees. Burke danced off the mound in excitement. But his hope of celebrating strike three and the end of the game was halted by the umpire’s call of “Ball three.” Burke’s next pitch missed the strike zone. Peisel walked. Georgia now had runners at first and third base. Fresno State’s fans did not want to remember the image of Burke surrendering a home run and losing the lead to Georgia back in game one. Dispirited Georgia players and fans now felt a tinge of optimism. Noise resumed from the previously silent. But the very next pitch changed all that. It’s a play every Fresno State player will see when they shut their eyes and reflect on the College World Series for the rest of their lives— the fly ball to right field. Steve Detwiler running to his left, holding his glove in front of his face, catching the ball for the out to make Fresno State national champions. Detwiler stuffing the ball in his back pocket, then raising his arms in triumph and sprinting toward the infield. There on the diamond-shaped cutout, unbridled joy sparkled. Images that will be remembered forever. The scoreboard reading Fresno State 6, Georgia 1. Brandon Burke, leaning backward on his left leg, right leg kicked outward, fists clenched, arms spread, head tilted

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back as he let out a loud yell of jubilation. The joy in Justin Wilson’s eyes as he sprinted, mouth agape, onto the field and hugged Brandon Burke. Detwiler, Muno, and Erik Wetzel leaping and hugging in shallow right field. Steve Susdorf, top three buttons of his red jersey undone, eyes wide with elation, sprinting toward the center of the diamond to leap onto the growing dog pile of elated teammates. The dog pile of Fresno State’s players and, atop it, Erik Wetzel grinning from ear to ear while pointing to the heavens. The Rosenblatt Stadium diamond was awash in an outpouring of Fresno State euphoria. The momentous accomplishment evoked jubilant expressions from all donning the Fresno State uniform save one: Mike Batesole. While many onlookers were taken by the sheer joy shown by players, there was also bewilderment at the lack of emo­ tion displayed by the school’s head coach. When television cameras honed in on Batesole during the celebrating, viewers could not help but notice that the monumental accomplishment failed to bring even the slightest smile to the coach’s face. Watching Batesole shake hands with members of Georgia’s coaching staff, it was impossible to tell who had just won a national championship. The lack of exuberance was so contrary to conventional championship expression that it led casual observers to wonder if it was from extreme calm or even quirkiness. Yet there were longtime baseball men watching the telecast who won­ dered from experience if the apparent disconnect amidst a sea of emo­ tion was a sign that players had broken from the coach’s teachings and used differing methods to achieve success. Hours later, players would tell family and friends of a quiet Batesole who offered few words to his team on its bus ride from the ballpark to their Omaha hotel. If heard, the cheers were not remembered—a testament to what adrenaline can do. If seen, the placards and signs were quickly forgot­ ten, so intense was the emotional focus of the players on their fellow teammates.

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As celebrating moved from the dog pile toward the presentation of a championship trophy, newspaper, radio, and television report­ ers mixed with players on the field. A television camera’s top light was switched on, a microphone extended, and further illumination sought from Steve Detwiler about his ability to excel with such a pain­ ful thumb injury, Steve Detwiler said, “It was mind over matter. The pain is temporary. Pride is forever.” Considering the journey they had taken, Brandon Burke brought laughter with a succinct revelation: “We’re the worst to win, ever!” The dream that months earlier was met with skepticism had been remarkably fulfilled. The storied programs of college baseball had been cast aside; expectation based upon reputation was ignored, con­ vention disobeyed. When celebrating the final out wound down and the trophy presen­ tation was made, players joined on the diamond to engender an image emblematic of their success. Held high by twenty-five huddled players was the national championship trophy. Beaming in the darkness of the Omaha night were the triumphant smiles of the Fresno State play­ ers. Each had heard skepticism over the previous four months. All had dealt with criticisms and frustrations. Arms extended, some gripped the wood base of the coveted prize with the palms of their hands. Fin­ gers of still others enthusiastically touched the trophy’s sides. Just as they had lifted the confidence of one another, raised the level of team­ mates’ skill with encouragement, and reached out to diffuse pressure with levity, they now extended their arms to hold aloft the trophy and lift their legacy as winners of the most improbable college baseball championship ever won.

E P I LO G U E

Bert Holt walked into his Visalia home to the ringing of the telephone. Months spent traversing central California to observe and evaluate high school and college talent for his employer, the Colorado Rock­ ies, had come to a close. Days earlier Holt had successfully persuaded Fresno State’s second baseman, Erik Wetzel, to sign a contract with the Rockies. On this night Holt took advantage of a quiet evening to enjoy dinner out with his wife. Putting telephone to ear, the longtime scout was greeted by a familiar voice on the other end of the line. “Coach, I need to tap your knowledge,” the caller said. “Well, go ahead,” was his welcoming reply. “How does a thirty-three and twenty-seven team win the national championship?” came the query. “They don’t!” was the longtime baseball man’s quick retort. He had seen the Bulldogs play dozens of times over the course of the season. From a seat in the stands, Holt watched the struggles of February firsthand, then witnessed the triumphs in June on televi­ sion. Reflecting on the just-completed miracle season, Holt was quick to share his theory: “It was chemistry. Something happened that brought that team together. I don’t know what it was. Maybe we’ll never know what it was. But that wasn’t the same team we saw in March; that wasn’t the same team we saw in April. Something brought those players to­ gether. It was a real Cinderella story, an absolute Cinderella story!”

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STEVE SUSDORF BOUNCED UP the three short concrete steps

onto the lush green grass of the major-league field. The scene his eyes gazed upon produced awe: 43,500 sapphire blue seats making up the gleaming Citizen’s Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies. The stare of the awe-struck Phillies draftee was broken by the crack of ball on wood bat. It pulled his attention toward the large batting cage at home plate, where a Phillies player was taking batting practice. Susdorf quickly recognized the low-squatting stance as that of Pat Burrell. It made Susdorf nervous. He knew he must speak with and thank Burrell, but he was Pat Burrell, the power-hitting major-league star! As Burrell completed his round of hitting and strode from the cage, Susdorf walked in his direction and gathered up courage to speak to the slugger. “Hey, Pat, I want to introduce myself. I’m Steven Susdorf.” Burrell broke into a big grin, walked toward Susdorf, extended his right hand, and shouted, “Oh my gosh, College World Series kid is here!” The pair enthusiastically shook hands as Burrell called his teammates over to meet the Phillies’ recent draft pick. “You got time? Come on back in the clubhouse,” Burrell invited. Over the next hour Susdorf was introduced to the Philadelphia players. He spent time visiting with Burrell and Jayson Werth in the Phillies’ clubhouse. “You need some bats to swing?” Burrell asked. He knew the transition from college aluminum to professional wood bats Susdorf was about to make might be difficult. Burrell then instructed the Phillies’ clubhouse manager to ship three of his bats and three be­ longing to teammate Chase Utley to the farm club at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. There, the next night, Steven Susdorf would might­ ily swing one of the Chase Utley model bats and smash a grand slam home run in his very first time at bat in a professional game.

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THE DISAPPOINTMENT BRANDON BURKE felt at not being

selected in the major-league draft ended shortly after he returned from Omaha. Within hours of the College World Series’s conclusion, his phone began ringing. Soon he had offers from four clubs. Burke went back and forth with a couple of the teams, trying to push their offers higher before choosing to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Burke was sent to their farm team in Missoula, Montana. There he would endure a summer that was a far cry from his magical season at Fresno State. The Missoula Osprey would finish with the worst record in the Pioneer League, winning just twenty-one games while losing fifty-four. Along the way Burke would twice surrender game-winning home runs and be chastised in a team meeting for being selfi sh. Despite the setbacks, Brandon Burke regained his enthusiasm for baseball over that Montana summer. He developed an appreciation for his pitching coach and the added nuances taught to make him a better pitcher. Burke became goal-set to move up within the Diamondbacks’ organization. Also a realist, Burke began preparing for a life after baseball. Ever the producer of laughs, he began compiling material to become a standup comedian.

HALF A WORLD AWAY, Tommy Mendonca wore a different red,

white, and blue baseball uniform as he strode to the plate. It was dif­ ficult for his family and friends to keep track of his progress. He was playing in, of all places, Regensburg, Germany, for the United States National Team. Adding to the difficulties in following Tommy’s Team USA exploits was his College World Series success. It had flooded his cell phone with thirty-five hundred text messages. One look at their bill, and his parents instructed him to turn off his phone. This game marked the first time a U.S. national team had played baseball on German soil. It was an exhibition game to prepare for the upcoming world championships. Mendonca dug his cleats into the

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dirt batter’s box and readied to face a relief pitcher who had just hit the previous batter to load the bases. Mendonca swung and missed at the first offering. He stepped out of the batter’s box and swatted the bat head with the palm of his left hand in frustration. The United States had extended its lead on Germany to 5–1 with a home run earlier in the inning. Mendonca had the chance to add even more runs to that tally. The Fresno State standout set himself. He stared at the expected release point, awaiting the next offering—one that he swung at and fouled back. A small number of scouts for Amer­ ican professional teams sat in the stands watching the duel, among them Los Angeles Angels international scout Deni Pacini, who hailed from just outside Fresno. Strikeouts had again dogged Mendonca. As in the regular season, an abundance of advice and high expectation had burdened the third baseman. Realizing this, an assistant coach urged Mendonca to ignore the suggestions and instructions and simply have fun playing base­ ball. Mendonca was in a hole. He concentrated, waiting for the next pitch. When it came, he thrust his bat into it, making mighty contact. As Mendonca jogged toward first base, the reaction from the crowd and the dugout told him it would travel far. It was jaw-droppingly high and carried well beyond the right-field wall for a grand-slam home run. The blast capped Team USA’s scoring in a 9–3 win. Back home, Mendonca’s parents, frustrated at being unable to get results from his games in Europe, were tackling a different problem. After weeks of anxious waiting, Tommy’s gorgeous College World Series MVP trophy had arrived. Enthusiastically, they tore open the box to see and touch the trophy all had marveled at on the field follow­ ing the championship game. To the shock of those watching, once the packing materials were pushed aside, they found the trophy broken and in several pieces.

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At the end of the game in Germany, Pacini wandered toward the field from his seat. He called for Mendonca to come over to the back­ stop screen and introduced himself. The player was surprised to both speak with a scout from an American team there in Germany and to learn he was from the Fresno area. The pair chatted for a short while. Pacini told him he was impressed with his play and promised to watch him next season at Fresno State. Pacini became the latest among many scouts to feel that Tommy Mendonca would be a prospect to watch for the 2009 draft.

WHILE SOME PLAYERS WERE being cheered on ball fields and

others were being applauded by politicians, Mike Mayne was enjoying serenity. Not long after a welcome-home rally was held for the team at Beiden Field, the coach cleaned out his desk and left the ballpark for the final time. Mayne and his wife, Pat, made their annual summer sojourn to the family ranch in Montana. His golf buddies had been waiting anxiously, looking forward to hearing stories of the historic triumph. Instead they were told a more sobering, emotional reflection. “It was part of a greater purpose. I really believe that,” Mayne told his friends. “Why would he call me out of the blue? I was ensconced in retirement. I hadn’t thought of coaching in a long time. When he called, it seemed like the right thing to do. There was no rhyme or reason. I don’t know why, but it’s like the Man upstairs said I was supposed to be there. It’s like the Man upstairs said, ‘All those years you spent working with kids, I’m going to reward you.’” As he savored the sanctity of his Montana ranch, Mike Mayne rev­ eled in the memory of the historic season. At the same time, he was glad he was done and not going back to Fresno State. • • •

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RESPONDING TO THE BOARDING call, Tanner Scheppers and

his father stepped onto the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport only to hear Tanner’s cell phone chirp. Answering the call, he heard the voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ general manager, Neal Huntington. The previous day the Pirates’ second-round draft choice had stood before Huntington and Pirates coaches and administrators, and had pitched in the team’s bull pen at PNC Park. He felt no pain in his shoulder. Once the session ended, all were complimentary of his per­ formance. Just days remained until the August 15 signing deadline. Listening for a moment, Scheppers turned away from his cell phone to tell his father of Huntington’s request: the Pirates wanted Scheppers to un­ dergo an MRI on his right shoulder; if he didn’t and left on the flight, negotiations were over. While Tanner resumed his conversation with Huntington, Dave Scheppers sought help from a flight attendant, who told him the plane had to close the door in three minutes. Faced with a difficult decision, Tanner Scheppers became angry. He asked Huntington why the test wasn’t conducted during a session with team doctors the previous day. Why, he wanted to know, wasn’t the MRI and report from Dr. Lewis Yocum sufficient? Faced with the toughest decision of his young life, Tanner Scheppers defiantly told Huntington he was leaving town— end of discussion. During the flight back to California, guilt, second thoughts, and anxiety grew. Scheppers wondered if he had just made the worst de­ cision of his life. On August 15, minutes before the midnight sign­ ing deadline, Huntington phoned the pitcher. Each asked the other if he had changed his negotiating position. Huntington’s answer of no moved Tanner to suggest there was nothing further to discuss. The passing of the signing deadline meant Tanner Scheppers was free to return to Fresno State for a senior season. Scheppers and his parents discussed the idea. Tanner was fond of his teammates, and

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part of him wanted to enjoy another season with them. Another part of him remembered the overuse that he believed led to his injury. He still wondered whether the leaks and rumors of the injury’s cause came from the coaching staff. No, Tanner Scheppers decided, he would never pitch for Fresno State again.

ON A NOVEMBER MORNING, gaze and gape were evidence of

the significance. Disbelief at where they were was a shared emotion among the Bulldogs. That was common among visitors to the White House. The team was being ushered into a room where they would meet privately with the president. From the exterior to the hallways, pictures and possessions commanded wonderment. A staff member instructed the players to line up in preparation. Several NCAA cham­ pions were being honored on this day, and the president was making his way from room to room, chatting with each team. Laughter fi lled the room in which the Bulldogs assembled, breaking the tension yet flustering the White House staff member. “Quiet! The president is next door. They can hear you. Quiet!” she admonished. Still the jokes and cackles continued. Readying the players for the impending au­ dience, the staff member ordered the team to “squeeze in tight,” to which Holden Sprague blurted, “That’s what she said!” Laughter from the players filled the room, only to become sober silence in an instant at the welcoming voice of President George W. Bush as he entered the room. Players were quickly at a complete loss for words as the president offered congratulations. He told the team that his father, former Presi­ dent George H. W. Bush, played in the very first College World Series game. He complimented them, telling the players he had watched a couple of their games from Omaha on television. The team leaders, Steve Susdorf and Clayton Allison, stepped for­ ward to make a presentation. Susdorf held up a red Bulldogs jersey,

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the back emblazoned with the number “1” and the name “Bush.” Teammates noticed when it came time to speak that Susdorf was over­ whelmed with nervousness and had difficulty emitting his words. Clayton Allison extended to the president a baseball signed by the team. Those in the room saw the president reach to accept the gift presented by a trembling hand. An avowed baseball enthusiast, President Bush pulled Susdorf, Allison, and Justin Wilson aside for a private chat. He talked base­ ball, asking the players about the difference they felt when hitting with wood bats in the pros after using aluminum in college. Susdorf later marveled to teammates at what a “regular guy” the president seemed— “someone who could be your buddy.” That night the entire team gathered and continued story swapping at a comedy club. There they watched Brandon Burke perform. Amid the night of laughter, it struck many that this was the first time the entire team had joined together for a relaxing night out. It was fun, and it was memorable. It was also sad. As Burke’s barbs and punch lines produced laughter from those around the table, a realization grew. New life chapters were about to be embarked upon that would take the players in different directions. Law enforcement beckoned Jake Hower; a college coaching job was awaiting Ryan Overland. Blake Amador had begun a job in retail sales. By night’s end, each would become aware it was unlikely they would ever be together again as a group. As the laughter waned and the night drew to a close, the players prepared to go their separate ways. Yet each would be forever bound, labeled by college baseball fans and celebrated by followers of Fresno State as winners of the most remarkable title in College World Series history.

AC K N OW L E D G M E N TS

My deepest thanks to: Keith Loring, for your life-bettering friendship Jonathan Harris, for your faith and direction Tom Watt, for being as valued a mentor as a friend Gideon Weil, for your confidence and direction Eve, you are a blessing Jason Oliveira, for your assistance, energy, and enthusiasm Joyce Van Ornum, for soldiering through surgery to do a gratefully appreciated job John Van Ornum, for your remarkable insight and invaluable friendship

About the Author As a television sportscaster in Fresno, California, DAN TAYLOR extensively covered the Fresno State Bulldogs. In addition to covering Super Bowls, All-Star games, the Indianapolis 500, and major professional golf championships, Taylor has handled venue announcing for a variety of major motor sports events. This is his first book.

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Copyright

The Untold Story of One of the Greatest Upsets of All Time. Copyright © 2009 by Dan Taylor. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books. THE RISE OF THE BULLDOGS:

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