The ultimate Cinderella: Fresno State - Omaha.com
Published Friday, June 14, 2013 at 5:40 pm / Updated at 1:45 am
BASEBALL
The ultimate Cinderella: Fresno State

One question remains unanswered five years after a group of Fresno State baseball players went from underdogs to wonderdogs in Omaha.

Steve Detwiler sees it on the faces of his former teammates when they get together each February for the annual alumni game.

“It's like, 'How in the world did we pull that off?'” Detwiler said with a chuckle. “We had some good players on that '08 team, but we weren't the most talented team in Omaha that year.

“We had some guys do some good things at the right time. Still, when you think about it, what we did that year was a little jaw-dropping. Still is.”

What Detwiler and his teammates did in 2008 was put together a storybook run to a championship that would make Cinderella blush. The Bulldogs were barely .500 heading into their conference tournament.

Even with its best pitcher sidelined by a shoulder injury, Fresno State got hot. The Bulldogs won the Western Athletic Conference to earn a spot in the 64-team NCAA field. They eliminated a pair of top 10 teams in winning their regional, then won the final two games of their super regional to knock No. 3 national seed Arizona State out of the tournament.

The Bulldogs stayed red hot in Omaha, winning their bracket to advance to the championship series against Georgia. After losing the opening game, Fresno State fell behind 5-0 2 1/2 innings into the second game.

“A lot of teams might have panicked at that point,” said Ryan Overland, the Bulldogs' starting catcher. “We had been through a lot. We had faced so many elimination games.

“One of the big parts of our team is that we never felt like we were out of anything. We were able to overcome so much. Getting down in that game was just one more thing we had to overcome.”

Fresno State roared back to win 19-10. The next night, Detwiler, playing with a torn tendon in his left thumb that made swinging the bat incredibly painful, hit two homers and drove in all of the Bulldogs' runs in their 6-1 win.

He also caught the last out, a line drive to right field, to finish off the incredible run. He stuffed the ball in the back pocket of his uniform pants before disappearing into the middle of a dogpile for the ages.

The Bulldogs became the only No. 4 seed to win the national championship. They overcame the longest of odds to win the title. It left outsiders struggling to put their run into perspective.

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Augie Garrido, a Fresno State alumnus who owns more victories than any other Division I baseball coach, called it the greatest achievement in Division I sports. Others compared it to the monumental upsets scored in the NCAA basketball tournament by North Carolina State in 1983 or Villanova in 1985.

That's all subject to debate. What is certain is that Fresno State's sprint to its national championship provides inspiration for every underdog that will follow in its footsteps.

“I don't think there's any doubt about that,” said Mike Fox, whose North Carolina team was one of Fresno State's victims in bracket play in Omaha. “We all know that there are a lot of good coaches and programs out there that might not get the same recognition of others.

“Sometimes in this game, you are only one swing of the bat or one pitch away from doing something like Fresno did in 2008.”

Fresno State started the 2008 season with big expectations, then lost 12 of its first 20 games.

“We were talking about Omaha in March,” Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said in 2008. “We should have been talking about March in March. We got a little ahead of ourselves.”

The Bulldogs got things turned around but hit another bump, losing seven of nine in late April and early May. About that time, Fresno State took another giant hit when Tanner Scheppers, the team's ace pitcher and a sure-fire first-round draft pick, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

By mid-May, the Bulldogs were struggling just to keep their heads above water. Fresno State's record dropped to 31-27 after losing the first game of a doubleheader to Sacramento State on May 17.

“We knew going into the WAC tournament,” Detwiler said, “that we were going to have to win it all just to have a chance to make the field of 64.”

The Bulldogs did so, but that hardly impressed the 10 men on the NCAA baseball committee. They made Fresno State a No. 4 seed and sent the Bulldogs to a loaded regional at Long Beach, Calif.

What the committee didn't realize was Fresno State felt as if it were playing with house money. That attitude grew as it got deeper into the tournament.

“I know people look back on what we did and think it was way out of the ordinary,” third baseman Tommy Mendonca said. “But for the coaches and the guys on the team, we were just focused on playing another game.

“In a lot of ways, we were going to get credit win or lose. If we had lost, people would have expected that because we weren't supposed to be there anyway. When we won, people had to give us credit. That kept us from stressing or pressing. We were just going out to play and have some fun.”

The fun started for Fresno State in Long Beach, where the Bulldogs upset 11th-ranked Long Beach State in the opening game, then knocked off sixth-ranked San Diego twice to move on to a super-regional matchup at Arizona State.

The Sun Devils, loaded with veterans from a team that finished in the top four in Omaha in 2007, brought the nation's most potent offense into the best-of-three series. Arizona State was hitting .340 as a team and averaging nine runs a game.

The Sun Devils won the opening game 12-4, but Fresno State came back to even the series with an 8-6 victory. The next night, the Bulldogs claimed their first trip to Omaha in 17 years with a 12-9 win.

Arizona State had lost just three of 42 home games before Fresno State posted the back-to-back wins that ended the Sun Devils' season.

“After what we did at Arizona State,” Fresno State outfielder Steve Susdorf said, “we started thinking that we could win the whole thing.”

* * *

Susdorf was one of the Bulldogs' senior leaders that season. He was because he turned down the Detroit Tigers' bonus offer of $50,000 the previous summer to return to Fresno State.

He did so because he believed the Bulldogs had a chance to do special things in 2008.

“We had a team that wasn't filled with high draft picks,” said Susdorf, who now plays for Class AAA Lehigh Valley. “The one thing I remember about what we did in Omaha was that we had a bunch of guys that played the best they possibly could.

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“It wasn't about one or two guys getting hits to carry us. Each game, it was a new person stepping up for us. In a lot of ways, that's what college baseball is all about.”

Perhaps befitting the rocky road the Bulldogs took to get to the CWS, Fresno State encountered a few more bumps before it set foot in Omaha. Thunderstorms forced their flight to be diverted to Lincoln.

“There was a lot of turbulence,” Fresno State second baseman Erik Wetzel said the next day. “I had my laptop bounce up about two feet off the tray table. It was pretty exciting.”

The Bulldogs made it to Lincoln safely but then had to wait for a bus to be dispatched from Omaha. It was a tired group of players who hit town around 1 a.m., but they were still plenty awake to check out Rosenblatt Stadium before heading to the team hotel.

“Just seeing that Rosenblatt sign was pretty amazing,” Wetzel said at the time. “Everyone just kind of looked at it, and it was like, 'Oh, wow, we're here.' It was a pretty special feeling.”

Three of the other four teams in Fresno State's bracket were national seeds — No. 2 North Carolina, No. 6 Rice and No. 7 Louisiana State.

“When the tournament began, the thought of making it to the World Series seemed pretty far off,” Overland said. “By the time we made it to Omaha, I think we were a pretty confident group. We had a pretty tough group of guys.

“I think we got to a point where it didn't matter who we were facing. We knew we were going to be able to do whatever we had to do to win.”

Fresno State opened its stay in Omaha with a 17-5 mauling of Rice, then posted a 6-4 victory over North Carolina. The Tar Heels came back with a 4-3 win to force a third game between the teams, with a spot in the championship game at stake.

North Carolina had its second-best pitcher on the mound. Fresno State had to go with a guy who hadn't thrown in two weeks because of shoulder tendinitis. Clayton Allison threw six innings that night, limiting the Tar Heels to six hits and a run, as Fresno State posted a 6-1 win that put it two wins away from the national championship.

“We were a good baseball team, but we had so many guys come through at just the right time,” Detwiler said.

It even meant eating at the same Omaha restaurant night after night. As their CWS win total mounted, the Bulldogs became a bit superstitious.

“We went to Old Chicago every night but one in Omaha,” Detwiler said. “We were playing so well that we didn't want to do anything to jinx it. Guys would order the same pizza. Me? I went with the pepperoni calzone.

“That's the stuff you remember about things like that. We did everything together. We just had a lot of fun.”

* * *

The Bulldogs' opponent in the best-of-three championship series was a Georgia team that had ground through its bracket with three straight wins. The Bulldogs won the opening game 7-6, using a four-run eighth inning to deliver a gut punch that put Fresno State on the brink of elimination again.

Georgia came back the next night and raced to a 5-0 lead after its first three innings. It finally looked as if midnight was approaching for the Cinderella Bulldogs from Fresno.

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By the time the Bulldogs were finished in their half of the third, Fresno State led 6-5. Tommy Mendonca capped the big inning with his fourth CWS homer, tying the record for home runs in a CWS.

Fresno State poured it on. In a span of six outs, the Bulldogs scored 15 runs on 13 hits. They won 19-10, setting up a decisive third meeting that would be the fifth elimination games of the tournament for both teams.

Detwiler responded with the game of his life. He hit a two-run homer to give his team the lead. He doubled home another run in the fourth inning, then launched a three-run homer in the sixth that landed halfway up the bleachers in left field.

“That game by Detwiler was pretty much the way the year went for us,” Susdorf said. “Steve had a pretty good year, but he wasn't one of the top guys on the team. But when we needed him, he came through.”

In his first six CWS games, Detwiler had six hits in 26 at-bats. His 4-for-4 performance in the title game earned him a spot on the all-tournament team.

“Honestly, the only things I really remember about that game was being so nervous before it that I was throwing up and then the dogpile after it,” Detwiler said. “I guess I was in a zone that it kept me from taking it all in.

“I knew the guy they were throwing was a fastball pitcher. I was a fastball hitter. I just managed to put a few swings on some balls.”

In Detwiler's mind, he merely did what he was supposed to do. Same with Mendonca, whose brilliant fielding and timely hitting earned him the outstanding player award. Asked five years later what he remembers about his individual play in the CWS, he turns the conversation in a different direction.

“As far as the personal stuff, that's not something we dwelled on,” he said. “We were taught that baseball was a team game. Still is.”

Fresno State finished its season with 31 losses, the most ever by a championship team. After it was over, Batesole admitted that he coached other teams that were superior in terms of talent and skill. None, though, had the bite of this group of Bulldogs.

“Is this the most physically talented team I've ever been a part of? Not even close,” the coach said. “But the best team, the best teammates? This group is right up there.”

* * *

Two years after the championship run, Sports Illustrated selected Fresno State's drive to the 2008 title as the top CWS moment at Rosenblatt. That honor coincided with the last series played at Omaha's iconic stadium.

The CWS is now played downtown at TD Ameritrade Park. The Bulldogs of 2008 have scattered. Some are now former players, starting the next chapters of their lives.

Detwiler is playing for an independent league team in San Rafael, Calif., while doubling as a member of the team's front-office staff. Overland just completed his first season on Batesole's staff at Fresno State. Wetzel, too, is back at Fresno as a graduate assistant.

Mendonca is playing in Reading, Pa., at the Class AA level after several seasons at the Class AAA level. Susdorf finds himself an IronPig, one step away from the major leagues.

It will be thrilling if and when he makes it to the big leagues, but he also knows whatever happens from here on out will be difficult to top what he and his teammates did in Omaha.

“When you're in the minors, it's all about development,” he said. “People still want to win, but it's not like when you're in college, when you're playing for the pride of your school and your program. Maybe the big leagues will be like that, but I don't know.

“All I do know is I've never experienced anything in baseball like what I did in Omaha. I can still remember the fans jumping behind us and giving us so much support. It was a special time in a special place.”

Mendonca agrees. He got a chance to play for the 2008 United States national team that went 25-0. Two years ago, he was a member of the U.S. silver medal-winning team at the Pan Am Games. He's played for a handful of minor league teams and been a part of big-league training camp.

The most fun he's ever had playing baseball, Mendonca said, was in Omaha.

“I'll never forget what we did there and how everyone comes out and cheers for you,” he said. “I was watching some of the college games the other day, and I thought, 'Gosh, I miss college baseball.'

“You see a guy hit a home run and everyone comes out to huddle around him at home plate. Now, it looks a little silly, and I think I can't believe we did that. But it was so much fun.”

Part of the pride the Bulldogs now take in their accomplishment is that they are the only team to have pulled off such a feat. Other teams have overcome long odds to make a deep run in Omaha and even win the title.

But since the NCAA went to the present format in 1999, adding super-regional play to the mix, only one other fourth seed has ever made it to Omaha. That was Stony Brook in 2012, but the Sea Wolves exited quickly, losing their first two games.

“It's always neat to do something that's never been done before,” Overland said. “When you look back on it, maybe we underachieved most of that season, but we managed to put it all together when it counted.”

Contact the writer:

402-679-2298, steve.pivovar@owh.com, twitter.com/PivOWH

Contact the writer: Steven Pivovar

stevepivovar@hotmail.com    |   402-679-2298    |  

Steven Pivovar is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and primarily covers Creighton athletics and the College World Series.

CWS SCHEDULE »
Friday, June 14
Opening Celebration

Saturday, June 15
Game 1: Mississippi State 5, Oregon State 4
Game 2: Indiana 2, Louisville 0

Sunday, June 16
Game 3: N.C. State 8, North Carolina 1
Game 4: UCLA 2, Louisiana State 1

Monday, June 17
Game 5: Oregon State 11, Louisville 4
Game 6: Mississippi State 5, Indiana 4

Tuesday, June 18
Game 7: North Carolina 4, LSU 2
Game 8: UCLA 2, N.C. State 1

Wednesday, June 19
Game 9: Oregon State 1, Indiana 0

Thursday, June 20
Game 10: North Carolina 7, N.C. State 0

Friday, June 21
Game 11: Mississippi State 4, Oregon State 1
Game 12: UCLA 4, North Carolina 1

Championship Series

Monday, June 24
Finals Game 1: UCLA 3, Mississippi State 1

Tuesday, June 25
Finals Game 2: UCLA 8, Mississippi State 0
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