Taylor Ward, the Fresno State catcher, said the Bulldogs over the past three weeks have become the typical coach Mike Batesole team — hot at the end of the end of the regular season, playing its best baseball when it mattered most.
They have entered into evidence some solid play this month to support that, much more so than last season when the Bulldogs clung to their history at tournament time even though they never did put all of the pieces together or in 2013 when a 6-4 finish only masked their flaws.
And headed into the Mountain West Conference Tournament on Wednesday as the No. 3 seed, set to play the winner of a game between UNLV and San Jose State, the Bulldogs have more than a pitcher’s chance at making a run.
That is the significant difference, now and then.
In 10 games in May, the Bulldogs have been more aggressive on the mound, throwing strikes and working in the zone rather than out of it.
The result is an ERA of 1.88, an opponent’s batting average of .213 and a more genuine confidence getting after a tournament championship and what would be their first NCAA regional berth since 2012.
Last season, when the Bulldogs went 3-5 in May, they had a team ERA of 4.17 and allowed opponents to hit .277. In 2013, they had a team ERA of 4.85 and allowed opponents to hit .287 in the final month of the regular season.
“It’s all clicking,” said Ward, who has had a front-row seat as the staff developed through some struggles. “They’re not afraid to throw strikes. Everything is clicking for them. They’ve learned from the first part of the year and they’re putting it to use.”
Those numbers are not produced by a top-heavy staff. There are 10 pitchers who have made at least two appearances in May, five have an ERA of less than 1.00 and the highest is 3.60. Five pitchers have an opponent’s batting average of less than .200, seven less than .225.
That is one reason this is the best Batesole has felt going into a conference tournament since Fresno State was in the Western Athletic Conference and winning championship rings was habit — seven in a row, at the end.
“It takes a while to feel your way through it,” Batesole said. “The key is finding that right chemistry before you get to the finish line and of all the years I coached, last year is probably the one where we never really found that.
“We made a concerted effort this year that that was not going to happen again, and this club certainly in the month of May, the last few weeks, is by far not even close playing their best baseball. They’re exactly where we want them going into the biggest baseball games of the year.”
The difference has been aggressively working the strike zone. The first 45 games of the season, the Bulldogs walked 178 batters and hit 50 more. That is a lot of free bases — add the batters the Bulldogs plunked into their WHIP, and it is 1.57.
“The big thing that we’ve turned the corner on this year is we’re throwing strikes now,” Batesole said. “Early in the year, we weren’t throwing strikes.
“You’ve heard the old cliché: The best pitch is strike one. And we were so poor at for so long and now all of a sudden that has turned. You saw both of the games that we won last weekend (against New Mexico), 72% first-pitch strikes, and that will get it done.”
That, actually, is to be determined. But the Bulldogs will open with ace Jake Shull on the mound against UNLV or San Jose State and go from there.
If they win that first game (Fresno State was 6-0 against the Rebels during the regular season and 5-1 against the Spartans) the Bulldogs advance to a Thursday game against No. 2 seed San Diego State. Nevada, the tournament host, is the top seed.
“Getting hot at the right time, getting hot at the end, and I’m sure it’s going to carry into the tournament,” Ward said. “It’s an exciting time. Anything can happen.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
THESE BULLDOGS HAVE SOME BITE
Through the end of April, Fresno State had a team ERA of 4.62, a WHIP of 1.44 and was three games under .500 at 21-24. But the Bulldogs go into the Mountain West Conference Tournament on a run, sparked by their work on the mound. A look at how the staff has fared in its 10 games in May:
Pitcher: IP, OBA, WHIP, K, ERA
▪ Brennan Williams: 5.0, .167, 0.60, 1, 0.00
▪ Casey Rodriguez: 5.0, .167, 0.80, 7, 0.00
▪ Will Munro: 2.0, .143, 1.00, 3, 0.00
▪ Jake Shull: 21.0, .162, 0.81, 9, 0.86
▪ Tim Borst: 9.2, .129, 0.93, 4, 0.93
▪ Jimmy Lambert: 8.2, .297, 1.62, 10, 1.04
▪ Dominic Topoozian: 7.2, .296, 1.43, 2, 2.35
▪ Garrett Mundell: 6.2, .214, 1.05, 9, 2.70
▪ Ricky Thomas: 14.1, .240, 1.39, 10, 3.14
▪ Anthony Arias: 15.0, .222, 1.13, 16, 3.60
▪ Mark Reece: 1.0, .500, 3.00, 0, 9.00
Totals: 96.0, .213, 1.11, 71, 1.88