The Fresno State Bulldogs had gained control of the NCAA Tournament Stanford Regional, beating UC Santa Barbara and Stanford behind the big right arms of Ryan Jensen and Davis Moore. Both dominated very good lineups – 14 1/3 innings between them, just six hits and three runs allowed with 16 strikeouts.
But the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs had none of that on Sunday with a chance to clinch a spot in a Super Regional and after an 8-6 loss to Stanford at Klein Field they are down to one game.
It’s Monday night, 7 p.m., and, again, for a third time in this regional, it’s Stanford.
Win and they are off to Starkville, Miss., for a Super Regional.
Lose and they are done.
The dreaded if-necessary game became necessary because Bulldogs starter Nikoh Mitchell and Jamison Hill had a hard time throwing strikes or getting much help from home plate umpire Morris Hodges, who was wildly inconsistent calling balls and strikes.
Most of the damage, though, was self-inflicted.
“We’ve been using those two guys as one guy on Sunday, and the plan is for Nikoh to get through the order twice and then Jamison to get through the order twice and then finish it off with our bullpen, which has been excellent all year,” coach Mike Batesole said. “But that’s not exactly how it happened tonight.”
The Bulldogs defense kept them in the game while Mitchell was picking around the plate, starting with the first out of the game when left fielder Jeff Jamison went back to the wall and perfectly timed a leap to rob Kyle Stowers of a home run.
Right fielder Nate Thimjon made a nice sliding catch in foul territory to record the second out in that inning. Center fielder Zach Ashford made a play crashing against the wall to retire Maverick Handley to end the second. Catcher Carter Bins made a nice play on a foul pop by Brandon Wulff in the third, racing to the screen behind the plate, reaching out to snare the ball and prevent the Stanford No. 3 hitter from getting another swing.
They couldn’t do anything about walks, though, which is where Mitchell got into trouble.
The sophomore left-hander threw a first-pitch strike to just six of the 19 batters he faced, one when Stanford center fielder Christian Robinson flailed at a breaking pitch out of the zone after Mitchell had walked two batters in a row and four of five he had faced.
Robinson ended up with a walk, anyway.
Mitchell threw 84 pitches in three innings and only 40 were strikes. He walked seven batters, and three of the four Cardinal base runners to score against him reached on a walk.
“It was not always clean and pretty, but that’s sometimes how it gets to when you get to this point and you’re trying to make that breakthrough, as this team is trying to do,” Stanford coach David Esquer said.
Fresno State still was able to get even in the top of the fourth, which started with McCarthy Tatum blasting a home run off Cardinal starter Erik Miller.
The Stanford left-hander had been rolling along fairly well, but after the Tatum homer he walked Matt Ottino, allowed a single to Thimjon and with one swing Zach Presno tied the score at four with an opposite-field home run over the wall in right.
“It was definitely an exciting moment but we knew we had a lot of work to do and just kind of moved on,” Presno said.
Stanford came back with one run in the bottom of the inning, and three more in the fifth against Hill, who was ejected from the game after recording the final out.
Two of the four runners to score against Hill also reached on a walk.
Down by four again, the Bulldogs scored two unearned runs in the sixth and Nik Cardinal came out of the bullpen in the bottom of the inning throwing strikes to keep Fresno State within striking distance.
Cardinal struck out three around a single in the sixth, struck out two more in the seventh and one more in the eighth.
Fresno State (40-15-1) had runners at first and third with no out in the seventh and its leadoff man on base in the eighth and in the ninth, but couldn’t score.
“We were trying to win messy,” Batesole said. “I like the way we fought it out to the end through all that mess. It was still 8-6 and we still had a shot at the end with the tying run at the plate.”
Klein Field at Sunken Diamond (4,000), Stanford
Game 1: No. 1 Stanford 11, No. 4 Sacramento State 0
Game 2: No. 3 Fresno State 9, No. 2 UC Santa Barbara 2
Game 3: Sacramento State 6, UC Santa Barbara 4, UCSB eliminated
Game 4: Fresno State 7, Stanford 2
Game 5: Stanford 12, Sacramento State 3
Game 6: Stanford 8, Fresno State 6
Game 7: Fresno State (40-15-1) vs. Stanford (44-12), 7 p.m., 940ESPN