November brought an almost tangible sense of nervousness to supporters of the Arizona State baseball program. With 15-year head coach Pat Murphy suddenly gone, forced to resign in the wake of an ongoing NCAA investigation, murmurs about whether the team would crumble in the adversity it faced hung in the desert air like a slow-moving dust storm.
Such tension didn’t exist, though, inside the team’s clubhouse, where players said from the start of winter training, without reservation, that the goal had not been altered: The Sun Devils were aiming to bring national title No. 6 back to Tempe.
Under the steady hand of first-year, and initially interim, coach Tim Esmay — a longtime assistant and former player at ASU who knows, as well as anyone, the expectations that come with the territory — the Sun Devils answered any doubts about their focus by rattling off a school-record 24 straight wins to begin the season.
The strong play continued during the Pac-10 schedule, as ASU never lost back-to-back games on its way to a fourth consecutive conference title, a Pac-10 record.
As ASU was announced as the No. 1 national seed earlier this month, Esmay was rewarded with an offer to become the school’s next head coach. Needless to say, Esmay, a Sun Devil lifer, accepted.
It was all business in the Regional for the Sun Devils, winning three-straight games in convincing fashion (Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Hawaii twice) to earn a date in the Super Regionals against Arkansas.
And what a series it was.
Twenty-four innings. Nearly nine hours. Two rallies with a team down to its last strike. Two 12th-inning, game-winning hits. It all added up to one of the most exciting Super Regionals in recent memory, ending with the Sun Devils punching their ticket for the penultimate College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Now one question remains: Will November’s chills be replaced by a summer of infinite memories?
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn probably said it best following his team’s second straight heart-breaking loss to ASU in the Super Regionals.
“Every player in their lineup can hit,” the coach said simply.
ASU’s strength offensively — which can also be said about its pitching staff — is its depth.
Seven of the nine regular starters are hitting .327 or better, and opposing pitchers have commented throughout the postseason about the consistent pressure the lineup unleashes.
Kole Calhoun is beginning to find the power stroke that earned him the moniker “Mayor of Omaha,” during ASU’s third-place run in last year’s CWS, and fans are hoping the kid they call Corky is up for re-election.
The difference in Calhoun this season, who has a team-high 17 dingers, is that he has made himself a difficult out. The left-handed slugger is fourth nationally in walks (62), aware of how valuable he is as a baserunner with the hot-hitting Torrez slated behind him in the order.
The key for the Sun Devils will be recapturing the production it had during the middle of the season from the top of the order. Leadoff hitter Drew Maggi is just 5-for-25 so far this postseason, though he is responsible for the team’s biggest hit of the season, a two-run homer in the top of the12th to knock off Arkansas in Game 2 of the Super Regional.
No. 2 hitter Zack MacPhee, the Pac-10 Player of the Year and a First-Team All-American, has also seen his average dip of slightly during the latter stretches of the postseason.
If these two players, with their ability to cause terror on the base paths, find their stroke in Omaha, the Sun Devil offense should keep scoreboard operators busy.
It seems crazy to say a pitching staff now without Mike Leake and Josh Spence could be better this season, but the depth of the 2010 staff gives it an edge over last years’s rotation.
It starts at the top with Seth Blair, the 46th overall pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, who is 12-0 with a 3.35 ERA in 17 starts this season. Blair has worked incredibly hard to improve his changeup, which has in turn made his electric fastball – which usually peaks around 93-94 miles per hour — even more difficult to handle.
Merrill Kelly, the team’s No. 2 starter, has gotten better as the season has progressed. Though he tends to get himself into jams, he is impressively adept at squirming out of them. Kelly (10-2, 3.57) does a good job of keeping a fast pace and attacking hitters inside. When that’s working he is difficult to hit, though it has led to some control problems this season.
No. 3 starter Jake Borup (11-1, 4.08) has performed well in the role of the Sunday arm, and though he wasn’t used in the Super Regional, Esmay will trust Borup to take the ball in Omaha.
Fans will be unlikely to see Blair throwing on just three days rest like Leake did a season ago. That’s because Esmay has great faith in his bullpen, and why shouldn’t he? Mitchell Lambson is among the best relievers in the country, striking out 90 in 68 innings on his way to a 2.10 ERA. Brady Rodgers had been used as both a starter and long reliever and the freshman has thrived in both roles, sporting a 2.03 ERA in 71 innings of work.
Closer Jordan Swagerty (75th overall pick by the Cardinals) set the school record with 14 saves this season, showing great poise in a number of tough spots.
The intangible in all of this is ASU’s experience. This is the third CWS appearance for Raoul Torrez, and the senior captain wants to turn out the lights on The ‘Blatt with his team’s name etched on the trophy. The Sun Devils have been able to win with their backs against the wall at seemingly every turn this season, losing just one series (Washington State) and never dropping back-to-back contests.
With the improved depth of the pitching staff, both in the rotation and in the ‘pen, and the dexterity of a talented lineup, ASU should be considered a favorite to advance out of a bracket that includes Clemson, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
And once it gets to the championship series, a team is gritty and determined as this one will be hard to count out.