For the first time in four years, Fresno State isn’t the defending Western Athletic Conference tournament champion.
Yet they still remain the team to beat.
The Bulldogs, who have ascended to a No. 9 ranking in the latest Baseball America Poll, have won 20 of their first 23 games to open the season. They hope to avenge their loss to Hawaii in the WAC tournament championship last May.
Seven of the nine position players who started in that game are back for the Bulldogs, who have swept series against Oregon State, Washington State, Pepperdine and San Diego.
“Fresno is the top team to me just seeing how well they are playing,” fourth-year senior Sean Montplaisir said. “That’s unbelievable what they’ve done to get into the top 10 and it’s motivation for us to come back and win another championship against a top-10 team.”
As loaded as Fresno State’s lineup is, the key to the Bulldogs’ success is a pitching staff that ranks 16th in the nation with a 2.50 team ERA.
Senior Greg Gonzalez, who tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against the Rainbows last year, is third in the nation with six wins, posting a 1.36 ERA.
Other than Hawaii and Fresno State, the one team that can boast a comparable pitching staff is San Jose State.
The Spartans (19-9), who rank in the top 10 nationally in fielding percentage, boast preseason WAC pitchers of the year Blake McFarland and junior college transfer Roberto Padilla, who are a combined 9-2.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso said. “(San Jose State) has two of the best starting pitchers in the league and as good of a closer as there is in Zach Jones.
“They’re very good and very well coached. They won’t beat themselves.”
Seemingly forgotten in this whole equation are the Rainbows, who posted a season-high 12 runs in consecutive games against Wichita State to even their record at 14-14 heading into league play.
Hawaii, which opens tomorrow against Sacramento State, has a team ERA of 3.34, almost a full run better than the Spartans.
Hawaii’s top three starters each have an ERA under 4.00, including freshman Jarrett Arakawa, who is 2-2 and leads the team with 32 strikeouts in 35 2⁄3 innings.
“Guys have stepped up, like Connor (Little) and Jarrett, who just goes out there and throws strikes and competes like heck for a freshman,” junior Matt Sisto said. “Guys have stepped into these new roles and are allowed to sink or swim in these new roles and they all have succeeded.”
Hawaii’s only loss against the Shockers was a 6-2 defeat on Thursday, which was the highest margin of victory a team has had against UH all year. Eight of its 14 losses have been by two runs or less.
“It’s a deeper staff and a much more consistent staff than last year, when there were too many ups and downs,” Trapasso said. “They’ve kept us in every game and allowed ourselves a chance to win and that’s something we need to continue.”