Louisiana state's senior catcher Brad Cresse had gotten one measly hit and had struck out six times in 10 at bats during the 2000 College World Series when he drifted off to sleep at 1 a.m. on the morning of Saturday's championship game, yet he had enough chutzpah to dream of winning the title for the Tigers. "I know it sounds corny and maybe a little cocky, but I saw myself at bat in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning with the winning run on base," Cresse said last Saturday evening. "Obviously, I envisioned a mammoth home run into the leftfield bleachers. Nobody dreams about hitting a single, but I'll take it."
O.K., so it wasn't exactly a dream come true, but Cresse's base hit to leftfield in the bottom of the ninth inning of the championship game did score Ryan Theriot to give LSU a 6-5 come-from-behind victory over Stanford and its fifth national title in the past 10 seasons. After the Tigers completed their 13-0 blitz through 2000 postseason play, a sea of LSU fans clad in purple-and-gold beads danced around second base at Rosenblatt Stadium.
When Cresse was asked afterward if this was his most thrilling moment in baseball, the answer wasn't as obvious as one might expect. The son of Mark Cresse, the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen coach from 1974 to '98, Brad grew up in baseball's big leagues. During summer vacations he was a Dodgers batboy, and by age 14 he had hit batting practice homers in every National League ballpark. He once won $100 from Scott Radinsky, then a Dodgers reliever, by hitting a BP homer into the upper deck at Busch Stadium, and he fondly recalls the night after a Dodgers game in Philadelphia when he, his father and his godfather, Tommy Lasorda, climbed aboard a helicopter for a ride to Atlantic City to see Frank Sinatra perform.
LSU actually scouted Cresse during a batting practice at Dodger Stadium. He was primarily a backup catcher as a freshman when the Tigers won their last NCAA title in 1997. After hitting 29 homers as a sophomore, Cresse played with a fractured hand last season, hit only 10 homers and was bitterly disappointed when he wasn't drafted. He rebounded as a senior to pace the Tigers with a .388 average, while leading the nation in homers (30) and RBIs (106). "It was like batting behind Mark McGwire," says LSU first baseman Brad Hawpe. "When a guy puts up those kind of monster numbers, the rest of us basically become fans."
Cresse, the Arizona Diamondbacks' fifth-round draft pick, credits much of his resurgence to LSU's new hitting coach, Henry (Turtle) Thomas. Seventeen months ago Thomas was fired as an assistant coach at Miami, reportedly over differences he had with coach Jim Morris about recruiting policies, only to be reinstated two weeks later so he could finish the year. He endured an awkward season during which he barely spoke to the other Hurricanes coaches, even as Miami was winning the national title, with many of the players dedicating the season to him.
Last summer Thomas left Miami for LSU, and he quickly recognized that other than Cresse, the Tigers didn't possess the brawny sluggers to play LSU head coach Skip Bertman's beloved "Gorillaball," which had produced an NCAA record 188 homers on the way to the '97 title. Thus Gorillaball became Turtleball. Thomas informed the Tigers that nearly one of every two base runners in college baseball eventually scores, so he preached about the power of line drives adding up to runs. The team set a school record with 864 hits, and its .340 batting average shattered the previous LSU best by 15 points. The Tigers finished with a 52-17 record and entered the College World Series with every starter batting over .300 and the team scoring nearly 10 runs per game.
In Omaha, Bertman harped on the resiliency of his team, reminding anyone who would listen that the LSU dynasty had endured significant misery earlier this year, losing three straight to Houston (the first time the Tigers had ever been swept at home by a non-SEC team) and losing five in a row for the first time since 1985. After then dropping two of three at home against Mississippi State in April while allowing 40 runs and 47 hits in the series, Bertman phoned his friend Roger Mellot, a stress therapist who works with NASA astronauts, and told him this was an emergency. Mellot spoke to the team and dazzled the Tigers with some right brain-left brain psychobabble and, more important, reinforced Bertman's pet theory about visualizing success. "We were all overthinking the game because we were losing," LSU captain Blair Barbier says. "Finally we told ourselves, We can't change what's already happened, but if we relax, maybe we can still win the national championship."
That resiliency came in handy on Saturday, with the Tigers trailing Stanford 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning and facing Cardinal ace Justin Wayne. The fifth pick in the June draft, Wayne hadn't allowed a hit, while striking out seven Tigers in three innings after relieving Jason Young, the Cardinal's other top starter and a second-round pick in the draft. With one out, Barbier fouled off several nasty pitches before driving a solo homer down the leftfield line. Then, after Wayne walked Wally Pontiff and Cedrick Harris came to the plate, Jeremy Witten stood in the on-deck circle thinking back to 1996 when, as a redshirt freshman he had lurked in the tunnel of the dugout and watched LSU's Warren Morris win the national title with a breathtaking two-run, two-out ninth-inning homer against Miami. Witten visualized himself hitting a similarly clutch home run, and then he lined Wayne's 1-and-2 pitch into the leftfield stands to tie the game.
"My arm was feeling a little sore," said Tigers reliever Trey Hodges, who finished the game with four shutout innings for the win. "But when Jeremy hit that bomb, it felt like I got a cortisone shot."
An inning later, when Cresse walked to the plate to face Wayne with runners on first and second and no outs, he recalled his dream as well as a phone conversation with his father earlier that night about staying patient. Cresse had already struck out twice against Wayne on just six pitches. Then he fell behind 0 and 1. "We threw him seven sliders in a row, and he didn't seem to have a good idea what to do with them," Wayne said. "Then all of a sudden, he did."