Fresno State wins 13th straight baseball Opening Day behind big bats

Fresno State outfielder Nate Thimjon sets up to bat in the team's 2021 season opener. (Fresno State Athletics)

The Diamond Dogs found out at 11 a.m. on Thursday that their Opening Day was coming much sooner than expected. 

The next day, to be exact.

“We were planning on practicing [Friday],” head coach Mike Batesole said. “And then we had to flip the switch and coaches got together real quick, tried to get on the same page and next thing we knew, we were out on the field.” 

Fresno State showed no sign of first-game jitters, jumping to a 5-0 lead in the first two innings. Starting pitcher Jamison Hill threw six strong innings as the Bulldogs defeated Cal State Bakersfield 13-2 for their 13th consecutive Opening Day win.

Fresno State returned plenty of offense from last year’s squad that finished the shortened 2020 season second in the Mountain West in runs scored. That includes the conference’s home run leader from a year ago, Zach Presno and Preseason All-MW selection Ryan Higgins.

Presno, Higgins and sophomore Andrew Kachel made up the top of the Bulldogs’ order and all three reached base in their first at-bats of the season. Kachel led off with a walk, Higgins lined a seeing-eye single up the middle and Presno took another free pass to first base, loading the bases with no outs.

CSUB starter Ethan Skuija settled down after a mound visit, striking out the Bulldogs’ cleanup hitter Emilio Nogales. Then he caught new Bulldog Vinny Bologna swinging at a strike three fastball.

Junior center fielder Dylan Johnson picked his team up with a two-out, bases-clearing triple to score the Diamond Dogs’ first runs of the 2021 season.

“That at-bat D.J. had in the first inning was the biggest at-bat of the game,” Batesole said. “[Skuija] is really good and if he gets D.J. out there… who’s to say he doesn’t run off three or four scoreless innings. All of a sudden, his chest comes out and it goes completely the other way.”

But instead, Johnson roped one down the right field line to give Fresno State a 3-0 lead after the first inning.

Jeff Jamison led the bottom of the second off with a single to right field, which was promptly wiped away by a double play.

Skuija almost escaped the second inning unscathed until he issued his fourth walk of the game to Higgins.

Presno followed up by hitting his first home run of the season – a two-run rocket over the center field wall to extend the Bulldogs’ lead, 5-0. With the homer, the Buchanan High product is tied for 14th place for career home runs in program history with 27.

“[Presno] has been swinging the bat pretty good the last couple of weeks,” Batesole said. “The one thing I’m not worried about is how Presno is going to swing the bat.”

Fresno State scratched another across in the bottom of the third on a balk from Roadrunners’ reliever Cody Tucker. The right-hander fell down mid-delivery, allowing Josh Lauck to score from third base. 

The Miami transfer reached on his first career Bulldog hit, a double into the left-center field gap, advanced to third on a passed ball and scored on the balk to push Fresno State’s lead to 6-0.

While the Diamond Dogs were off to a hot start at the plate, their Opening Day starter put up zeroes early against the Roadrunners.

Utilizing a fastball that touched 90 mph and a breaking ball in the 70s, Hill scattered three hits and struck out four through his first four innings on the mound. He also pitched out of two separate situations in the second and fourth innings where Bakersfield put two baserunners aboard, but did not score.

“For a first time out, [Hill] was very steady,” Batesole said. “He was under control. He was in control from the beginning.”

The Roadrunners got onto the scoreboard with Angel Saldivar’s fifth inning leadoff home run. The redshirt sophomore hit his first career home run into the left field bullpen of Pete Beiden Field.

Fresno State had a response in the bottom half of the frame. 

Bologna, who transferred to Fresno State from Oklahoma, lined his first Bulldog hit down the left field line for a double. The next batter Johnson legged out an infield single toward third base and Lauck was hit by a pitch, loading the bases again for the ‘Dogs with no outs.

Zach Morgan brought a run across on a sacrifice fly to center field and a batter later, Kachel drove in two more on a single to left field. Tucker was knocked out of the game as Fresno State pushed its lead to 9-1.

Hill pitched a scoreless sixth inning to end his night giving up only one earned run and striking out six.

“When we made it 9-1… he had every opportunity to go out there and lose focus a bit and walk a guy, and he was getting close to 80 pitches,” Batesole said. “He stayed steady and went right at them and that gives me a lot of hope because that’s a veteran move right there.”

Lauck hit his second double to drive in another in the bottom of the sixth, Morgan’s fly ball to deep left field dropped on the warning track for an RBI single and substitute shortstop Matt Ottino tacked on his own RBI single.

Fresno State took a 12-1 lead into the seventh inning when Visalia native Eric Charles tripled to left field and scored the Roadrunners’ second run on a sacrifice groundout.

Pinch-hitter Nate Thimjon blasted a home run over the left field scoreboard in the bottom of the seventh to cap the Diamond Dogs’ offensive day.

Fresno State collected 17 hits from 12 different batters on Friday, with the biggest bat being Johnson’s. He hit 3-for-5 with three RBIs.

Fresno State (1-0) continues its three-game series with Cal State Bakersfield (0-1) on Saturday with first pitch at 3:05 p.m.

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