Mike Batesole is cautiously optimistic that Fresno State might finally have some of its WonderDog-esque magic back.
The Bulldogs will play better competition the rest of the way, including on the upcoming seven-game road trip, which has a trip to No. 3 Texas A&M. But thus far, the Bulldogs have been very impressive, specifically on the mound, and are off to a terrific 9-0 start.
“We’ve got those grinders back, finally,” Batesole said. “I thought we kind of turned the corner last season by finishing 18-12 in the league. But we want to bring our program back, and these guys have made a concerted effort to go all out on every pitch. It’s much more about us than it is the “me” aspect.”
The idea of the “me” approach is a hot button topic with the always-honest Batesole. As the Bulldogs put together one of the more magical postseason runs in NCAA history in 2008, winning the College World Series and the program’s first national title as a No. 4 seed in a regional, Batesole’s team possessed all of those qualities you want in a team. They had a few stars, but for the most part, it was a team filled with hard-nosed players who were willing to go the extra step to help their team win. Steve Detwiler played through the CWS with broken bones in his hand/fingers, while other Bulldogs played through other ailments, all for the common goal.
But things changed. Instead of building the program with those same personality traits after winning the national title, the Bulldogs, admittedly, got a little greedy. Many elite prospects in California fell in love with the Bulldogs following their run, and Batesole and his coaching staff had a difficult choice to make: They could continue recruiting a vast majority of under the radar guys who could be developed into premier role players, or they could start courting more elite players.
Batesole chose the latter, and the program, he said, paid a dear price from an attitude standpoint.
“There were a few things that went wrong for us after winning the national title. We got hammered pretty good in the draft for a couple of years, losing five guys from a single class in one of those years since, all guys that would’ve probably made a huge difference here,” Batesole said. “But the biggest thing we got away from was us. All of a sudden after winning the national title, out recruiting, all these big-time showcase ponies wanted to be Bulldogs. We were getting guys that were 6-foot-4, and throwing 96. They looked great in a uniform, but that was about it.
“That’s the greatest mistake I’ve ever made as a coach,” he continued. “We really fell into a huge trap by recruiting those types of kids. I just made a huge recruiting mistake. What I learned from that is just how important toughness and character are in college baseball. We had to learn that again, and that’s really been the difference so far this season.”
Fresno State realizes it has some tough obstacles to overcome before it gets back into the national title discussion. But, this program appears to be in primed to bet back into the consistent postseason trips race. Following the national title in ’08, the Bulldogs made postseason appearances in 2009, 2011 and 2012, but have missed the postseason the last three seasons with lackluster 23-33 and 28-29 marks, respectively, in 2013 and 2014, while the program made strides last season with a 31-28 overall record, but an impressive 18-12 mark in league play.
That team, with an infusion of true “bulldog” type of players, set the bar at a higher level than previous clubs.
“So much of today’s baseball is about me and how I look in my uniform, or during practice, they’re worried about “my advisor says this and that”,” he said. “The last year or so, we had to get back to what we were, and we’ve really recruited some bulldog type of players. When we were winning, that was the type of player that we had. We needed more kids who knew how to compete, not the showcase kings.”
This year’s team, Batesole says, exudes some of those old school Fresno State-like qualities. For instance, junior righthander Jimmy Lambert wasn’t a showcase king out of high school, but has developed into a high quality arm this season, while sophomore lefthander Ricky Thomas, not even ranked in the top 100 of California prospects out of high school, is another fast-rising pitcher who also happens to be an elite 2017 draft prospect. The list goes on with this team.
Lambert, Thomas and the rise of physical 6-foot-2, 220-pound, lefty Anthony Arias as the keys to the team so far this spring. Lambert finished last season with an earned-run average well over four, but has allowed just one run in 15.1 innings this season. The talented veteran is pitching off his fastball much better, while the same can be said for Thomas, who gave observers a taste of what he was capable of last summer at the Cape Cod League. Thomas isn’t a big guy at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, but has a loose arm and sits in the upper-80s, low-90s with his fastball, with more juice in the arm when he comes out of the pen. Thomas also mixes in a changeup and breaking ball to further his repertoire. There’s also Arias, who can get into the low-90s with his fastball, and like the others, will primarily pitch off that offering. Thomas and Arias have ERAs of 0.75 and 0.00, respectively, with Thomas having struck out 19 and walked three in 12 innings.
“I think the big difference with those guys is that they’re growing up, and they’re able to pitch off their fastballs,” he said. “Lambert being able to settled in on Saturdays is big for us and him.
“Arias is fully healthy for the first time in his career, and a couple of years removed from Tommy John surgery, it’s now his time to really flourish,” he continued. “Ricky threw so many innings in the summer that we gave him the entire fall off, I wasn’t real sure what to expect given the hype. But I sat behind the screen behind the catcher in spring workouts and watched him pitch, and I could see what the buzz was about. His fastball location is very good, and he has that changeup and slider. So, having a Friday night guy who’s a difference maker, what a difference maker that is for us.”
Seniors Dylan Lee, a lefty, and Tim Borst, a righty, provide some real depth for this pitching staff with the ability to get up to 91-93 in one-inning stints out of the bullpen. Both have yet to allow a run in 13.2 innings. The Bulldogs also have a premier arm out of the pen in sophomore righty Rickey Ramirez, who can get up to 95-96 with his fastball out of the pen, while he also mixes in a quality slider. His presence, Batesole said, is where championships are won.
“We’ve got some old guys in the bullpen, and that’s huge,” he said. “Those are guys who were in the mid-to-upper 80s as starters, but who can get into the 90s out of the bullpen with devastating secondary stuff at times. We just need those guys to do their thing for one inning, and having two seniors back there is a luxury.”
While the pitching staff is in outstanding shape moving forward, Batesole does believe the offense needs to improve. The Bulldogs are hitting just .271 as a team through the first two weeks, and though that’s unimpressive, Batesole admits it’s early in the season and those numbers will likely change for the better in the near future. One guy not struggling so is leading hitter Brody Russell, an outfielder who hit .233 last season who is now off to a torrid start, hitting .409 with a pair of doubles and seven RBIs.
“It’s early and offensively those numbers will change,” he said. “Brody is the one I’m really excited about, though. He’s a guy who had knee surgery in the offseason and sat out the entire fall. He’s never been healthy, but is finally getting to the point where he’s about 85-90 percent,” he said. “I told him that if I see a limp at all, he’s coming out.
“Offensively, we haven’t hit our stride just yet,” he continued. “We’ve got to run the bases a little smarter and we’re going to hit our funks and we’re going to have some injuries. It’s at that point we’ll realize how deep, talented and good we really are going to be.”
Batesole and the Bulldogs have waited a few seasons to get back to relevancy on the national stage. And now that time has come. Fresno has the pitching to do some special things this season, but nothing can be taken for granted.
Who knows, maybe we have a WonderDogs sequel in the works.