May 3, 2001
TEMPE, Ariz. - It's fairly easy to understand how a quick glance at the won-loss record would lead one to conclude that the 2001 season has been one of disappointment for Arizona State's nationally--ranked Sun Devil baseball team. However, it says here that a closer examination "inside the numbers" offers a more forgiving and optimistic assessment of this season, and where and how it may end.
With a record of 31--16--1 heading into the regular season's final seven games, the Sun Devils have already endured more losses than last year's 44-15 team, whose record reflected a pair of post-season defeats to Texas in the NCAA regional. The Devils' 9--9 Pac--10 record to this point assures them of losing at least two more conference games than they did in all of 2000, when a 17--7 league record earned ASU a share of the Pac--10 championship. Last year's Sun Devils were pegged in pre-season to finish no better than sixth in the nine-team Pac-10, yet ended up the regular season ranked #3 in the nation. This year, Arizona State was a popular top five national pick in pre-season, only to currently find themselves stuck in the middle of the Pac as they battle for a post-season berth.
Still, this appears to be one of those instances in which the numbers don't tell the entire story
Consider, first of all, the youth of this year's ASU squad. Of the 25 players who traveled to Cal in mid-March for the Sun Devils' first Pac-10 series of the season, more than half (13) were players participating in their first--ever conference series. Of the 12 position players most frequently used by head coach Pat Murphy in 2001, nearly half of them (five, to be exact) are newcomers to the program. Three (outfielder Rod Allen, first baseman Jeremy West and utility man Steve Garrabrants) are true freshmen. A fourth, outfielder/DH Nick Walsh, is a redshirt freshman, while centerfielder Chris Duffy is a junior college transfer. All have made significant contributions this season. Duffy currently has a nine-game hitting streak in progress, and earlier this season hit in 19 consecutive games. Judged by "Baseball America" magazine to have the best speed in the Pac--10, Duffy is a force on the base paths (14 stolen bases in 18 attempts) and defensively in the outfield. Allen has been ASU's most consistent hitter in Pac--10 play, and just a week ago was ranked among the national leaders in batting average. West is tied for the team lead in home runs (6), while Garrabrants is ranked among the Pac-10 leaders in triples. The 5'8" Walsh has been perhaps the most surprising of all, showing an uncanny ability to jump-start the Sun Devils' attack from his lead-off spot. Over his last three games, Walsh has gone 8-for-15 with 3 RBI and 5 runs scored. Perhaps most telling of all the numbers are these: 8-2-1.
That is the Sun Devils' record in games Walsh has started. Furthermore, three times this season (at Cal State-Fullerton Feb. 23, at Cal March 17 and at home against Washington State April 13), Walsh delivered late-inning hits that won ball games.
A similar scenario has unfolded on the mound, where three first-year Sun Devils have emerged as major pitching factors. One of them, redshirt freshman righthander Mike Esposito, is technically not a newcomer, having been the Devils' Opening Day hurler in 2000. However, after just two appearances, Espo developed elbow trouble which ultimately required the now-famous "Tommy John" ligament replacement surgery, sidelining the Las Vegas native for the rest of the season. The normal recovery time from such a procedure is 12-to-18 months, yet less than a year after the operation Esposito was back on the mound, and now he is without question the ace of the Devils' starting rotation. ASU has won in each of Espo's last five starts, with Mike himself getting the victory on three of those occasions. With a low-90s fastball, an improving slider, good control and poise beyond his years, Esposito oozes of the talent that led the Cincinnati Reds to make him their fifth-round pick in the June 1999 Major League draft.
Besides Esposito, righthanders Andy Torres (a junior college transfer who ranks among the national leaders with 11 pitching victories) and Aaron Klusman (a redshirt freshman reliever with an amazing strikeouts-to-innings-pitched ratio: 45 Ks in just 30.2 innings) have made an impact on the hill in their first season at Arizona State.
The contributions of all the newcomers have been vital, because some of the Sun Devil veterans have not produced at the same level they did in 2000. Lefthanded pitching ace Jon Switzer, an 11-game winner last season, has failed to win in his last six starts, losing four. The Devils' bullpen ace in 2000, righty Eric Doble, missed most of March and April with a torn tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand, while southpaw setup man Franco Pezely has struggled to regain his form of a year ago. Offensively, second baseman Brooks Conrad hit .336 last year, with 10 home runs and 67 RBI, stats that earned him a spot on the All-Pac-10 team. This year, Conrad's power numbers are off (3 HR and 34 RBI), as are those of one of the true "gamers" and fine clutch players in recent ASU history, first baseman Jeff Phelps, who has struggled through a challenging senior season in which he's been hobbled off-and-on by a nagging hamstring injury. Phelps has belted 19 home runs and driven in 151 runs in his career, but only one HR and 22 of the "ribbies" have come this season. Actually, ASU's "power outage" has been a team-wide malady. In 2000, the Sun Devils crashed 86 home runs, including a school-single-season-record 27 by Mitch Jones, who is currently in the New York Yankees' farm system. Jones alone hit more homers last year, than the entire Sun Devil squad has hit this season. ASU's 25 dingers in 2001 rank the Devils dead last in the Pac--10.
And yet, despite the slumps and struggles, despite the injuries and misfortune, Arizona State is still ranked 15th in the nation, has topped the 30-victory plateau for the 39th consecutive season, and has won nine of its last 12 games, even though ASU has played one of the nation's most difficult schedules, one that has matched the Devils against four of the nation's top 10 teams (Stanford, USC, LSU and Cal State-Fullerton). Furthermore, the Sun Devils will likely receive an NCAA regional bid for the fourth time in the last five years, and could be primed to do some damage once in the post-season.
Why such optimism?
Go back to some of the previously-mentioned veterans stuck in slumps. Though ASU has lost in five of his last six starting assignments, Jon Switzer has pitched reasonably well in most of his outings, and has pitched in more than his share of tough luck. He's talented, experienced, and due for a reversal of fortune. So, too, is Jeff Phelps, whose intensity and quiet leadership have made him one of this team's most respected players. Though Brooks Conrad's figures are down from a year ago, he belted a pair of solo homers in a 7-4 win over Arizona last Friday night, showing signs of a late-season surge. Speaking of late-season surges, after some up-and-down moments this spring, senior third baseman Mike Lopez is hitting .480 (12-for-25) over his last seven games, driving in 8 runs in that span and earning a Pac--10 Player of the Week award in the process.
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is the potential renaissance of Eric Doble, a bullpen closer last year who will be used in the final days of this season as ASU's #3 starter! Making his first starting assignment since 1999, Doble was brilliant on April 24, pitching five shutout innings against Gonzaga with no walks and nine strikeouts. Five days later, Doble started again in the Arizona series, with OK results (3 innings, 6 hits, 3 runs, 2 walks, 3 strikeouts, no decision) before returning to the bullpen May 2, hurling a hitless, scoreless ninth inning in nailing down the Devils' impressive 15--1 victory at #19 Tennessee.. Eric is a veteran three-pitch guy (fastball, cutter and slider) with strikeout capability, whose right arm has not endured a lot of wear-and-tear this year as a result of his time missed due to injury. Combined with the talented Esposito and a luckier Switzer, Doble could give the Devils a formidable starting rotation down the stretch.
Doble. Conrad. Lopez. Phelps. Switzer. All good players who've "been there, done that" before, and who can reasonably be expected to be there and do that again. Mix in the fine play of all the newcomers, and the steady brilliance of catcher Casey Myers (easily the Devils' offensive MVP in 2001, as well as the #2 RBI man in Pac-10 history) and southpaw reliever Drew Friedberg (my choice as ASU's top pitcher this season for his consistently superb and occasionally overpowering work out of the bullpen), and there would appear to be ample reason for optimism heading down the stretch.
By taking two out of three in their remaining Pac-10 series at Washington and against UCLA in Tempe (the Devils also have a non-conference date at Nevada May 16), ASU would assure itself of an above-500 finish in the league and 35 wins overall. That, along with its strong non-conference schedule, should earn Murph's crew a bid to an NCAA regional. Once there, the Sun Devils would love nothing better than to author a sequel to the 1998 ASU story. You remember the plot, don't you? Talented young team struggles at mid-season, battles back to earn a regional bid, and then comes of age in post-season, ending up in Omaha, playing for the national championship at the College World Series.
Sounds good, doesn't it?