Times have changed in college baseball, giving Fresno State coach Mike Batesole little choice but to change with them.
A little reluctantly, you get the feeling.
“Nobody loves to swing the bats more than we do, and last I looked we were leading the nation in sac bunts,” Batesole said, finishing the thought with a hearty laugh. Yes, the man does laugh.
“Who are these guys?” he continued in that vein. “Fresno State is leading the nation in sacrifice bunts? Out of 300 whatever schools? Wow. That just shows you how much it’s changed.”
Batesole and I had this conversation a couple of weeks ago, and since then the Bulldogs have slipped to fifth in sac bunts. No matter, his point remains. This is a different brand of ball, one the 14th-year coach hopes will bring his program its first Mountain West tournament championship and the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
Fresno State used to reach the NCAAs every year under Batesole, or at least it seemed that way. From 2006-12, the Bulldogs went six times.
Fresno State used to reach the NCAAs every year under Batesole, or at least it seemed that way. From 2006-12, the Bulldogs went six times in a seven-season span. (I don’t have to remind you what happened in 2008.)
Most of that success came before college baseball adopted new rules for metal bats (pre-2011), which dampened offense throughout the sport.
Programs that used to hit 73, 67, 84, 89 and 88 home runs per season (as Fresno State did from 2006-10) have seen those totals shrink to 36, 37, 34 and 34 (from 2013-16).
It’s literally a whole new ballgame. Instead of being built around power, college baseball teams have become more reliant on pitching, defense and doing the little things.
You can’t just recruit all those guys who jam it out of the ballpark anymore. Because you can’t jam it over the ballpark anymore.
Fresno State coach Mike Batesole
Which is why the Bulldogs have given themselves up via the bunt 68 times, 17 more than any team in the Mountain West. Junior Austin Guibor led the team (and conference) with 12 sac bunts, followed by junior Jake Stone with 10. Stone also has a team-high seven sac flies, making him sort of a sacrifice specialist.
“The fact is, if you look at the teams that end up in Omaha (for the College World Series), a lot of them are going to be up there in sac bunts,” Batesole said. “That’s what you have to do nowadays. Jesse Medrano was a high school shortstop and an outstanding second baseman now playing third.
“Why is he playing third base?” Batesole suddenly asked me.
Because of his defense?
“Because everybody’s going to bunt,” Batesole replied, nodding his head. “The days of putting a big banger over there at third base are over. Because if you do that, they’re going to doink you all day long.”
Instead, it’s Fresno State that does the doinking, using the bunt to manufacture runs instead of waiting for the three-run homer that probably isn’t coming.
68 Sacrifice bunts by Fresno State’s baseball team, which leads the Mountain West Conference and ranks fifth in the nation
It’s a strategy that goes hand in glove with a pitching staff that leads the Mountain West in 12 categories, and by a wide margin in team ERA (3.28), WHIP (1.31), opponent batting average (.252) and strikeouts (462).
The Bulldogs (36-20) rode that formula to the Mountain West regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in this week’s conference tournament. To convert those accolades into an NCAA berth, they’ll have to find a way to win games in an environment that couldn’t be less conducive to their style of play: Albuquerque’s Santa Ana Star Field.
New Mexico’s home park isn’t a bandbox by dimension. The left- and right-field fences measure 350 feet from home plate, straightaway center is 420 away and the power alleys are 408.
Rather, it’s the 5,300 feet of elevation, giving every fly ball extra carry, combined with a wind that constantly blows out, that makes the place so hitter-friendly.
There’s a jet stream out there.
Bulldogs right-hander Jimmy Lambert, on New Mexico’s Santa Ana Star Field
“Almost every day you’ve got the flag in right-center posted straight out to center,” Bulldogs right-hander Jimmy Lambert said. “There’s a jet stream out there.”
“Even the right-handers hit pop-ups that just keep carrying,” Batesole said, waving his hand to send an imaginary ball over an imaginary fence.
By contrast, Fresno State’s fortunes at Santa Ana Field never seem to take flight. After being swept in a three-game April road series, the Bulldogs are 1-14 all-time there.
Will that history play on their psyche? One half of the Mountain West’s best starting duo doesn’t believe so.
“We’ve got the 1 seed, so we should be the most confident team there,” Lambert said. “That’s not in the back of our minds at all.”
It’s definitely a tough place to play, a tough place to pitch. But with our preparation and our commitment, we’re going to be fine.
Bulldogs right-hander Tim Borst
It’s dim, but there is a bright side: Two of those April loses were by one run, including a 2-1 decision against left-hander Ricky Tyler Thomas, who threw a complete game. So it is possible to record outs.
“Luckily when I pitched, the wind wasn’t blowing out as much,” Thomas said. “You’ve just got to keep the ball down and keep attacking hitters with your best stuff.”
This is the season the Bulldogs successfully remade themselves into a pitching-and-small-ball outfit. But unless they can find a way to win in Albuquerque, the doink stops here.
MW Conference Tournament
- Thursday: No. 1 Fresno State vs. No. 5 Air Force, 2 p.m. at Santa Ana Star Field in Albuquerque, N.M.
- Records: Bulldogs 36-20; Falcons 29-25
- Other games: No. 4 UNLV vs. No. 6 San Diego State, 10 a.m.; No. 2 New Mexico vs. No. 3 Nevada, 6 p.m.
- Webcast/radio: themwc.com/KFIG (AM 940), Fresno State game only
- Of note: Double-elimination format includes three games Friday, two Saturday and an if-necessary game Sunday. … Bulldogs are seventh different team to earn top seed. Fresno State went 5-6 in its first three years of MW postseason competition. … Air Force entered the tournament with a 4-19 championship record over 10 appearances