Fresno no Cinderella to UNC; LSU keeps hope alive for SEC
By: By ERIC OLSON, AP Sports Writer
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Don’t tell Mike Fox that Fresno State is overachieving at the College World Series.
The North Carolina coach isn’t buying it.
“I wouldn’t describe them as playing with nothing to lose,” Fox said after the Bulldogs beat his Tar Heels 5-3 to move within a win of the championship series. “Everybody is equal once you get here.”
For Fresno State, the trick was getting here.
As a No. 4 regional seed, the Bulldogs were supposed to be packing up their equipment for the year a couple weeks ago. But they won a regional at Long Beach State and stunned No. 3 national seed Arizona State in the super regionals.
Now that the Bulldogs are here, they’re showing they belong. They’re batting .347 with six home runs, and they’ve gotten solid performances from starting pitchers Justin Miller and Justin Wilson and their bullpen.
The lowest regional seed to make it to the CWS now controls Bracket 2. Fresno State opened with a 17-5 win over No. 6 national seed Rice on Sunday and followed it with Tuesday night’s victory over No. 2 North Carolina.
The Bulldogs (44-29) are assured of playing at least until the weekend. If they win again Friday against the Tar Heels (52-12) or LSU (49-18-1), they’ll be playing for the national championship next week.
North Carolina, the national runner-up the past two years, will meet LSU in an elimination game Thursday, with the winner facing Fresno State on Friday. If the Bulldogs lose, they’ll play the same opponent Saturday in an elimination game.
LSU stayed alive Tuesday with a dramatic 6-5 win over Rice. The Tigers, down 5-0 in the seventh, won on Blake Dean’s three-run double in the ninth inning.
The CWS features a single game today, with Miami (53-10) and Stanford (40-23-2) playing a Bracket 1 elimination game.
Fresno State closer Brandon Burke doesn’t quite know what to make of his team’s sensational postseason.
“You kind of don’t have any expectations going into something like this. None of us have ever been here before,” he said. “We’re kind of taking it from pitch to pitch and game to game and see where we go from there.
“A lot of these teams — Rice, obviously, North Carolina — they’ve been here the last few years and they kind of know what to expect. And they may take us a little lightly.”
Alan Ahmady hit the go-ahead single in the fifth inning, and five Fresno pitchers combined to hold Carolina scoreless for all but one inning.
“We come out and play hard every game, and it’s really special,” Burke said. “Every pitch that every pitcher on our staff throws is the most important pitch they’ve ever thrown as we get deeper and deeper into this.”
The Bulldogs knocked out Tar Heels starter Adam Warren (9-2) in the fifth after opening the inning with three straight singles. Brian Moran came on and gave up Ahmady’s two-run single that gave Fresno State a 4-3 lead.
Ryan Overland homered leading off the second inning, marking the first time North Carolina had trailed in a game since the fifth inning of its regional opener against UNC Wilmington.
Steve Susdorf hit the Bulldogs’ second homer of the game — and sixth of the CWS — to pull Fresno to 3-2 in the fourth. Then, Ahmady delivered his bases-loaded hit against Moran in the fifth.
Fresno starter Justin Miller worked four innings, allowing all three runs on seven hits. Jason Breckley (3-2), the third pitcher, worked just a third of an inning to get the win.
The Tigers’ dramatic victory over Rice marked the second time in the NCAA tournament that they’ve come back from a three-run deficit in the ninth inning. LSU has come from behind in 30 of its wins this season.
“Believing isn’t the issue,” Dean said. “There’s no doubt in our mind that we were going to do it.”
Rice (47-15) led 5-0 in the seventh, but LSU chipped away to get within 5-2 in the eighth. After Louis Coleman (8-0) set down the Owls in order in the top of the ninth, the stage was set for Dean.
Derek Helenihi singled and Cole St. Clair hit Ochinko with an 0-2 pitch. Then, Michael Hollander hit an RBI single before Jared Mitchell reached to load the bases when Rice shortstop Rick Hague bobbled a grounder and couldn’t make a play.
Up came Dean to face St. Clair (10-3), one of the top relievers in the nation. St. Clair’s 0-1 pitch was a fastball away, and the left-handed-batting Dean sent it on a line over left fielder Aaron Luna’s head.
The ball bounced hard off the fence, allowing Mitchell to come around and score the winning run.
The Tigers’ five-game CWS losing streak was over — they went two games and out in 2003 and ’04 — and the celebration was on.
“We were given an opportunity,” Dean said, “and we seized it.”
On the same date six years ago, LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s Notre Dame club broke Rice’s heart in a similar fashion. In that game, Brian Stavisky hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Owls 5-3.
“Personally, it was a lot like deja vu,” Mainieri said. “I am a lucky person to be so blessed.”