GREATEST NCAA BASEBALL MOMENTS COUNTDOWN – #3: The Most Unlikely College World Series Winner Ever

Far and away the most unlikely College World Series champion ever, Fresno State’s miracle run in 2008 comes in at #3 on our countdown of the top postseason NCAA baseball moments. Fresno State was not an unknown in the college baseball world entering the season, as they were ranked #21 by Baseball America’s preseason poll, but the Bulldogs quickly fell off everyone’s radars with a wildly mediocre regular season. In a mediocre Western Athletic Conference, Fresno State put up just a 33-27 overall record. And they weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders heading into the postseason, having won just 7 of their past 17 games. A run through the conference tournament was the Bulldogs’ only route to the NCAA Tournament, a far cry from the beginning of the year, when they seemed to be a lock. 

However, the Bulldogs were far from done. The two-time defending WAC champions, Fresno State proved once more that when they turned it on, they were the class of the conference. The Bulldogs won four consecutive games, taking down Nevada in the title game and securing an auto-bid for a third straight season. The Bulldogs were ranked 51st out of 64 teams in the field, and as such, they were granted a 4-seed in the Long Beach Regional. 

Fresno State sent an immediate message in their opener, dismantling top-seeded and #14 overall Long Beach State, 7-3. But even low-seeded teams have a good game, or have an ace, so it wasn’t until the Bulldogs shut out second-seeded San Diego in the winners’ bracket contest that their chances seemed seriously improved. The Bulldogs drew San Diego in the championship, and they had two chances to win, which they needed. They looked horrible in dropping a 15-1 decision in the first game, but they rebounded with a 5-1 victory to push into the Super Regionals. 

However, the Bulldogs’ little mini-run was supposed to end brutally with their next obstacle. Fresno State encountered Arizona State, the third-ranked team in the country. Not only that, but they were battling history, as no four-seed had ever made it to the College World Series. The Sun Devils were a particularly fearsome opponent, having averaged 12 runs a game in their previous three NCAA Tournament games, giving up a total of ten. It looked to be a quick series when Arizona State took care of business in the opener, dominating Fresno State 12-4, putting the Bulldogs on the brink of elimination. The Sun Devils got off to another hot start in Game 2, opening up a 5-2 lead, but the underdogs weren’t done yet, striking back with a grand slam from Gavin Hedstrom that gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Fresno State won 8-6 and forced Game 3. 

The deciding contest was a slugfest, particularly in the final frames. Tied 5-5 in the seventh, Arizona State turned to their ace in Mike Leake, who had fired 118 pitches in their Game 1 victory, but Leake did not have anything in the tank. Two walks and a hit batter led to a run and a 6-5 Bulldogs’ lead, but it didn’t stop there. Second baseman Erik Wetzel drilled one into the gap for a bases-clearing double. Left fielder and WAC player of the year Steve Susdorf deposited Leake’s next offering over the fence, and suddenly the Bulldogs led 11-5. They added another run later and appeared in control, up 12-5 into the ninth. But nothing was going to come that easy, as the Sun Devils struck four times and loaded the bases, allowing Matt Newman, who had already slammed two home runs in the game, to come to the plate as the winning run. Newman blooped one into left field, where Susdor made a sliding catch, sending Fresno State to Omaha. 

Six of the top-8 ranked teams in the country made it to Omaha, and Fresno State took on one of those squads, matching up against #6 Rice in the first game. It was never a contest. Justin Wilson took the mound for the Bulldogs, and he danced in and out of trouble, allowing Fresno State to build a massive lead. Wilson left the game after seven frames and leading 11-1. The Bulldogs cruised to a 17-5 victory. Game two was a closer ordeal against #2 North Carolina, but Fresno State survived once more. On the strength of home runs from Susdorf and Ryan Overland and a sterling pitching performance from five Fresno State hurlers, punctuated by a four-out save from Brandon Burke, the Bulldogs dispatched the Tar Heels, 5-3. 

Fresno State had to take on the Tar Heels once more in the semifinals, and again they needed two chances to secure one victory. After a 4-3 loss, Fresno State turned to pitcher Clayton Allison, sidelined for two weeks with tendinitis, to deliver them from elimination. Allison gritted out a six-inning performance, surrendering a single run while striking out six. Burke later said it was “one of the gutsiest things he ever saw on a baseball diamond”. Fresno State extended a 2-1 lead to 6-1, and their bullpen sealed the deal, leading the Bulldogs into the national championship, a best-of-three series against Georgia, the #8 team in the country. Georgia was 5-0 in elimination games to that point, and they hadn’t lost in Omaha, going 3-0 en route to their title game appearance. 

Game 1 was a thriller, as Fresno State took a 6-3 lead in the top of the eighth, only to give it all back in the bottom half, as Georgia took the opener, 7-6. Much like the Arizona State series, this one looked all over early in Game 2, as Georgia went up 5-0 by the third inning, but once more, Fresno State responded. They mauled Georgia for fifteen runs in the next three innings and cruised to a 19-10 victory, fittingly bringing this one to Game 3. In a historical and miraculous run to the championship, Fresno State needed just a couple of legendary performances in their final contest to bring home the title. Offensively, it was Steve Detwiler getting the job done, as Detwiler brought home a whopping six runs with two home runs, a double, and a single. Meanwhile, on the mound it was Wilson doing it all. On three day’s rest, Wilson silenced Georgia’s bats for eight innings, giving up a mere one run over 129 pitches. In the meantime, Fresno State built a 6-1 lead, setting up for a ninth inning celebration. Burke did the honors, collecting the final three outs and inducing a massive dogpile. All in all, Fresno State went 6-0 in elimination games, and they set a record for losses by a College World Series champion with 31 on the season. 

The Aftermath

Fresno State saw five people named to the All-Tournament team, with Susdorf and Detwiler among those honored.The Bulldogs weren’t darlings in the MLB draft, as only five Fresno State players heard their names called. Wilson was the first off the board, 144th overall, and he was followed by Wetzel, Miller, Susdorf, and Allison. The Bulldogs have made four appearances in the NCAA Tournament since 2008, but they are yet to go back to Omaha.

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