Fresno State pitcher Salles key to NCAA run
A pitcher’s mound is 10 inches high. But it had to feel larger on Sunday to J.D. Salles, as the Fresno State right-hander recorded out after out in extra innings in the title game of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament — bigger or taller or something, if only because the road there was so much steeper than the smooth slope to the front of his stage.
Entering the game against Sacramento State with one out in the 11th inning, Salles, the Clovis West grad and 2008 Bee Player of the Year, continued to put a fitful start to the season behind him. The first batter that he faced was Derrick Chung, who ranked fifth in the WAC this season with a .340 batting average. Salles struck him out. He then retired the next hitter on a flyball to right, giving the Bulldogs a chance to manufacture a winning run.
Salles gave them another opportunity after that and another after that.
In 2-2/3 innings, the sophomore allowed one hit and one walk, neither runner advancing into scoring position. And in the 13th, the Bulldogs won the title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, where on Friday they will open play against Stanford in the Palo Alto Regional.
“He had a rough first outing and then he just got better and better,” catcher Austin Wynns said. “When we needed him the most, he stepped up. He stepped up and shut the door and gave us that victory.”
Salles actually had several rough outings, his season broken up into four phases. He started the season in the bullpen mix, but was hit hard in a Feb. 18 loss to Butler, allowing two hits, three walks and four runs while recording just one out; his ERA: 81.00. He pitched sporadically through the middle of March, but did not pitch in a game between March 13 and April 3.
When he got another opportunity, he gave up three hits, two walks and two runs in 2-1/3 innings of a loss at Santa Clara, and did not pitch the rest of the month.
Salles’ third shot came at the start of May, when coach Mike Batesole and pitching coach Steve Rousey gave him chances against UC Davis and Sacramento State. In three innings, he gave up seven hits and six runs, failing to capitalize once again, and again went weeks without pitching.
But on the final day of the regular season, Salles went out and allowed just three hits and one run in six strong innings against Louisiana Tech to put himself back in the bullpen mix.
In his past three outings, including the WAC Tournament, Salles has pitched 9-1/3 innings and allowed six hits and one run while striking out eight batters. His ERA: 0.96.
In his first 10 appearances, his ERA was 9.00. Salles, whose father, John Salles, was an All-American pitcher for the Bulldogs in 1988, said he was just riding the wave.
“You just have to stay with it and stay as positive as you can,” he said. “The beginning-of-the-year struggles, our team as a whole was just struggling, and from the middle of April on, we kind of just took off as a whole, and I think that was the biggest thing. It’s more of a team thing.
“The team thing really kept me going personally, because there was a time where, I mean, we all were down. … The individual numbers go up when your team starts playing good, and that’s what coach Batesole told us [Tuesday], and it’s true, if you look at it. Everybody is getting better as the team is getting better as a whole.”
There was a lot of work in there, too, though. When he was not pitching in games, Salles got work in simulated games and scrimmage situations in the middle of the week, focusing on staying on top of the ball through his delivery and pitching, as Rousey preaches, downhill.
“That isn’t normal for your top guys, but that’s how the guys that aren’t at the top earn their way into the top,” Batesole said. “Generally, you’ve got six guys that log all the innings for the year, and two or three others guys that are developing and get 30 innings or so, and then you’ve got a couple other guys that are working and working to get into that group. He’s been in all three levels of that this year.
“He continues to get his work done, as the others guys have, and as long as you’re getting your work done and you stay aggressive, you’re going to keep getting chances. We don’t sign guys to bring them in here to sit the bench, we bring them in to pitch and to hit, and he pitched really well against Louisiana Tech and he pitched as good as he has in a Bulldogs uniform in the WAC Tournament.”
Wynns had a front-row seat for all of those games — and will be there again in the NCAA Tournament: “More good outings are to come from him. I can see that,” he said.
If the Bulldogs can extend their late-season run, Salles could find himself right back on top of that mound with the game on the line, everything riding on the next pitch.
“That was just a great feeling all together,” Salles said. “Playing all your life, that’s what baseball is all about — a time like that. It’s all or nothing right there. Either you win or you’re going home.
“Our whole team knew that and everyone did their piece and we ended up winning that game, so that was huge, and I think that’s going to carry us into the weekend.”
By Robert Kuwada