Fresno State’s Underdogs to Wonderdogs 10-year anniversary
Fresno State played a baseball game a few years back in which it was up, down and out in a little more than two hours, shutout by UNLV.
The Bulldogs were up against Bryan Bonnell, who at the time, 2014, was one of the best pitchers in the Mountain West Conference. But they didn’t much help themselves going tentatively to the plate, chasing a good pitcher’s pitches out of the strike zone. Bonnell made it out of the first four innings throwing just nine, 10, six and eight pitches.
Fresno State in the game sent 31 batters to the plate and 13 saw just two pitches or less, another 11 batters three pitches or less.
That isn’t likely to happen to the Bulldogs at the NCAA Tournament Stanford Regional – they open on Friday against Big West champ UC Santa Barbara.
And that is high among the reasons why Fresno State can play through the weekend and advance to a Super Regional. There is Ryan Jensen, the Bulldogs’ ace, a winner in his past nine decisions. There is coach Mike Batesole, who has taken a team to Omaha and won. But in a regional loaded with live arms and low ERAs, start with the maturity of a Bulldogs lineup that over the past seven weeks has hit .325 with an on-base percentage of .410, a slugging percentage of .516 and has produced 8.3 runs per game.
They will be well prepared and they can put pressure on opposing pitchers, working counts and attacking mistakes.
“It’s something that ‘Bates’ has taught us from when you walk in here as a freshman,” center fielder Zach Ashford said. “He’s a tough coach and he really gets that mental toughness from you. We have guys like McCarthy Tatum, J.T. Arruda, Nolan Dempsey, they’re older guys and great leaders.
“They’re great mentors for the younger guys on the team. I feel like the younger guys watching them, it just really helps them know what it means to be a Bulldog and I feel like we just take pride in our at-bats and it has paid off. Everybody on this team has been putting together good at-bats.”
Ashford is a senior, closing in on 700 career at-bats. Tatum is a redshirt senior. Dempsey is a senior. J.T. Arruda is a redshirt sophomore.
They’ve banked some tough at-bats, and during the Bulldogs’ 23-3-1 run to Mountain West regular season and tournament championships Arruda and Ashford have reached base in more than half of their plate appearances – Arruda has hit .426 with an on-base percentage of .537, Ashford .411 and .513.
Dempsey has an on-base percentage of .414 and a slugging percentage of .685 over the past 27 games. Tatum’s on-base and slugging percentages are .389 and .605.
Emilio Nogales has an on-base percentage of .459, and is slugging .543.
“I feel like we have mature hitters up there,” Ashford said. “We have guys with a plan. We have guys with confidence. I feel like each day, all of our hitters are just going to do something good. You don’t know who is going to do it that day, but you know if one person is not doing it we’re going to have a hitter that’s going to pick them up.”
Jensen riding win streak
To get through a regional it helps to get through Game One. The past two seasons 14 of 16 teams to advance to a Super Regional won the first game of their regional, in 2016 it was 15 of 16 and in 2015 it was all 16.
The Bulldogs send their ace, Jensen, against a potent UC Santa Barbara offense.
The Gauchos led the Big West in most offensive categories, some by wide margins. Their .501 slugging percentage was considerably higher than Cal State Northridge, which was second at .404. They hit 18 more doubles than anyone in that conference, 14 more home runs, scored 49 more runs.
They also have averaged 6.6 runs in the opening game of their past 10 series, though they did just get shut out by Cal Poly with right-hander Bobby Ay allowing just two hits while striking out eight through seven innings.
But Fresno State has won the past 10 games Jensen has started, and the best three have been the past three.
“It has been amazing to watch him grow up right before our eyes,” Batesole said. “As a freshman he got a lot of innings that he probably wasn’t prepared for, wasn’t ready for. We probably shouldn’t have gave them to him. A lot like we did with Matt Garza, we had to, because it was a full freshman staff.
“Then last year he came a million miles but all of a sudden we’re playing five freshmen in the field every day and they couldn’t get there and finish some games for him that he should have won and now it has come together for him.”
The junior right-hander has allowed just 10 hits and two runs while racking up 25 strikeouts over 23.0 innings in victories over San Diego State, at UNLV and against Nevada on its home field in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
He is getting ahead in the count with a first-pitch strike 59.5 percent of the time and has faced a three-ball count just eight times facing 84 batters. He also has not been taxed down the stretch, his pitch counts in those three games 100, 99 and 110.
Batesole’s been there
UC Santa Barbara coach Andrew Checketts took the Gauchos to Omaha in 2016. Stanford coach David Esquer was there with Cal in 2011. Sacramento State coach Reggie Christiansen racked up the 400th victory of his career when the Hornets beat Grand Canyon to win the Western Athletic Conference Tournament.
The Bulldogs’ Batesole has a College World Series championship and while no team in the Stanford Regional has a decided advantage on the bench, Batesole has been making the most of his pieces in the lineup and out of the bullpen.
Fresno State pinch-hitters this season are hitting a solid .298 (31 for 104) – Bulldogs’ opponents are batting only .095 (6 for 63). The majority of those hits have come from Nogales, who most often pinch hits for the starting pitcher the first time through the lineup and remains in the game as a designated hitter.
Nogales is 13 for 35 as a pinch hitter, batting .357. But Ryan Higgins is 6 for 17 (.353), Dylan Johnson is 4 for 12 (.333) and Matt Ottino is 2 for 6 (.333).
With the Bulldogs winning 12 of the 14 games started by Jensen (7-0) or Davis Moore (5-2) in their run over the past seven weeks, there have not been a lot of high-anxiety matchups out of the bullpen. But a bullpen led by closer Jaime Arias, Kevin Larson, Oscar Carvajal and Ryan Sullivan have come into games with 19 inherited base runners in that stretch and only three have come around to score.
“It’s going to take everything,” Batesole said. “We’re going to have to pitch right. Our bullpen is going to have to keep doing what it has been doing. It has been outstanding all year. We’re going to have to keep making the routine plays on defense – we’re fielding over .970. There’s going to have to be some clutch hits, there’s going to have to be a little luck involved.
“It’s going to take a little bit of everything when you have those kinds of teams in the same tournament.”
Klein Field at Sunken Diamond (4,000), Stanford
Game 1: No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 4 Sacramento State, 1 p.m., ESPN3
Game 2: No. 2 UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 3 Fresno State, 7 p.m., 940ESPN/ESPN3
Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 1 p.m., TBA
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 1, 7 p.m., TBA
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, noon, TBA
Game 6: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 6 p.m., TBA
Game 7: if necessary, 7 p.m., TBA
All-sessions $60, single game $20 and $15 for seniors/youth available at gostanford.com