By TOM STAD
June 27, 2008
There might never be a greater story in college baseball than the 2008 Fresno State Bulldogs. The underdog of all underdogs captured the school’s first College World Series title with more losses than any previous champion and became the lowest seed to win an NCAA championship in any sport.
Sixty-three other teams had aspirations of ending up where the Bulldogs did as postseason play began. It all started four weeks ago with 16 regional tournaments, but strangely, without two-time defending champion Oregon State. It marked the first time a defending champ missed the postseason since 1991, when the Georgia Bulldogs - this year’s runner-up, ironically enough - failed to qualify after winning the title the previous year. We certainly didn’t know it at the time, but the first weekend was a harbinger of things to come as four of the No. 1 regional seeds were upset in the first round. Three of the top seeds (Georgia, Florida State and Stanford) rebounded to make it to Omaha. The fourth top-ranked team to lose that weekend was Long Beach State who lost to … ? You guessed it: Fresno State.
By the time the weekend was over, all but two of the favorites had advanced to their respective super regionals. The eight teams to survive that round included six of the eight teams seeded nationally, Stanford, and the eventual champions. Fresno State still didn’t get much credit and with the exception of the young men in the Bulldogs’ locker room, no one expected them to do anything more than play a couple games and enjoy the sights in and around Omaha. But as ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso is fond of saying, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Florida State and Stanford kicked things off on the opening Saturday of the 59th CWS at Rosenblatt Stadium. The Seminoles arrived in Omaha with the best offense in the nation, and head coach Mike Martin hoped that FSU would claim their first national title in 19 trips to the CWS. Unfortunately for them, Stanford broke open a tie game in the ninth with 11 runs to advance with a 16-5 victory. Two days later, Martin’s squad was the first team to pack their bags as a ninth-inning rally of their own against archrival Miami came up short as they lost 7-5. Georgia then provided the first major upset of the tournament, as the No. 8 seed knocked off the aforementioned top-seeded Hurricanes 7-4 with a four-run ninth-inning rally of their own. That catapulted the Bulldogs to a pair of victories over Stanford - with an 8-3 Stanford win over Miami that sent the Hurricanes packing sandwiched in between - that punched their ticket to the championship series.
On the other side of the bracket, another ACC team, No. 2 seeded North Carolina, was the only higher seeded team to win their opening round game as they topped LSU 8-4. Fresno State continued their improbable run, coming out with guns blazing and thrashing sixth-seeded Rice 17-5. The Owls became the second squad to depart Omaha as No. 7 seeded LSU sent them packing with yet another ninth inning comeback, winning 7-6. Fresno State then came from behind to upset North Carolina 5-3 and watched as the Tar Heels eliminated LSU 7-3. That set up a rematch in which UNC needed a win to stay alive, and that’s exactly what they got beating the Bulldogs 4-3 win. Head coach Mike Batesole’s club was used to the adversity, however, and bounced back to beat the Tar Heels soundly by a 6-1 score in a true elimination game. That would set the stage for a championship series for the ages.
As has been well chronicled here on National Pastime, Fresno State and Georgia battled for three straight nights. When the dust had settled in the battle of the Bulldogs, Cinderella was dancing well past midnight and the underdogs from Fresno were piling on each other in the middle of the Rosenblatt Stadium after the last Georgia batter was retired. I could write for days about the upsets, clutch hits, amazing plays and record crowds that got far more than their money’s worth, and if you’d like to read more about any individual games, you can check out the daily wraps I’ve been writing over the past couple weeks. Let’s hand out the hardware, shall we?
Most Outstanding Player
Who wouldn’t pick Tommy Mendonca? The sophomore third baseman, who finished the season hitting .281, hit four home runs and drove in 11 to propel Fresno State to the title. With eight first-rounders from the recent MLB draft playing in the CWS, you would have thought there was a good chance one of them would take this honor. Georgia All-American shortstop Gordon Beckham, chosen eighth overall by the Chicago White Sox, probably would been the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player had his Bulldogs won, but Mendonca played a huge role in the success Fresno State enjoyed and gets the nod.
Biggest Surprise (excluding Fresno State)
Obviously, the biggest surprise was the fact that Fresno State won the championship. Other than that, though, this year’s College World Series featured a lot of shocking moments. The biggest has to be Georgia’s Day 1 comeback in the ninth against the top-ranked Hurricanes. Miami had been a perfect 45-0 after entering the ninth with a lead during the regular season, but closer Carlos Gutierrez failed to shut the door on the Bulldogs. Four runs later, Miami was forced to the losers bracket on the first day.
Florida State is the pick here. The Seminoles came to Omaha with the best offense in the country and probably their best shot to date at putting an end to their notorious College World Series futility. They were so close to winning their opener against Stanford, but that vaunted offense failed them and they ended up going “two and barbeque” after they dropped a 7-5 decision to Miami. Maybe the twentieth time will prove to be the charm.
Best Pitching Performance
There were a few to choose from, but Justin Wilson’s eight-inning, one-run, four-hit performance on short rest in the final game wins out. Miller was only expected to pitch a few innings, but he was locked in all night and held a hot Georgia offense at bay to win his second game of the CWS. That’s the kind of toughness and grit than wins championships - and it did.
Best Hitting Performance
Once again, we turn to the final game. Fresno State sophomore Steve Detwiler belted two home runs and a double, driving in all six of the Bulldogs’ runs. He singlehandedly carried the Fresno State offense, which hit a total of 14 home runs in the CWS - and he did all that with a torn ligament in his left thumb. I’d have trouble typing, but this kid absolutely killed the ball in all four of his plate appearances. Simply amazing.
National Pastime’s 2008 Men’s College World Series All-Tournament Team
Catcher - Tim Federowicz, North Carolina
First Base - Rich Poythress, Georgia
Second Base - Jemile Weeks, Miami
Third Base - Tommy Mendonca, Fresno State
Shortstop - Gordon Beckham, Georgia
Outfield - Steve Susdorf, Fresno State
Outfield - Tim Fedroff, North Carolina
Outfield - Steve Detwiler, Fresno State
Designated Hitter - Ryan Peisel, Georgia
Starting Pitcher - Justin Wilson, Fresno State
Relief Pitcher - Josh Fields, Georgia
And with that, we put an end to the 2008 NCAA baseball season. This one will be remembered for a long time, but one thing is for sure: College baseball took a huge step towards becoming a more popular, mainstream sport as a result of all the suspense and heroics at Rosenblatt Stadium. Maybe this exposure will convince more of the top high school players to think twice before they sign a professional contract. It’s not a bad thing to stay a kid for a few more years and enjoy the college life before you have to go out there and make a living. If the excitement and emotion of the College World Series has taught us anything, I hope it’s that at the very least.
Tom Stad’s weekly NCAA Roundup column will debut next Friday here on National Pastime.
Photo by The Associated Press