Jan. 6, 2003
There is plenty to be excited about for the upcoming Arizona State baseball season as the Sun Devils prepare for another campaign at Packard Stadium. Just like every beginning to a new college baseball season, expectations and demands of a 19th trip to Omaha and a sixth College World Series Championship are placed on the ASU program. ASU opens the 92nd year of Sun Devil Baseball ranked No. 8 in the country by Baseball America and No. 12 by Collegiate Baseball.
Six months after losing to Houston in the Regional final at Hohokam Park in Mesa, a team with several veteran players and mixed with exciting young talent will take the field in 2003 with Omaha on their minds. Head Coach Pat Murphy enters his ninth year at the helm of the Sun Devils having guided ASU to the NCAA Tournament in five of the last six years and will once again look for his team to be a contender for the national championship in June.
"You go into every season with the expectation of going to Omaha and ending at the top," said Murphy, who carries a 306-164-1 record as the Sun Devil skipper. "This season is no exception. We smelled that success in 1998 with a team that wasn't supposed to go that far and ended up playing for the national championship. We have a team with a nice mix of young talent and veteran players and don't want to just get there (Omaha), but want to win it all. It is a mentality that our players are starting to pick up on."
The 2003 Sun Devils will feature a nice mix of veterans and newcomers, with 21 returning letterwinners and a team equally divided by 18 upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) and 18 underclassmen (freshman and sophomores). The Devils return 10 of their top position players from 2002 and six top pitchers. Highlighted by a top 10 recruiting class and two key junior college transfers, ASU has 13 total newcomers that will be making their Sun Devil debuts this spring. The 2003 Sun Devils are sure to be another squad reflective of Murphy's typical teams of the past that will put runs on the board by playing playoff-type baseball, with a 'never quit' attitude and an up-tempo style of offense to win games at any cost.
"This is another typical Sun Devil baseball team with both talent and heart," said the 1998 Baseball America Coach of the Year and 2000 Pac-10 Coach of the Year. "Our focus is to be the very best program in the country and when we take the field that will be our motivation."
"This is another typical Sun Devil baseball team with both talent and heart."
"With college baseball the way it is with the draft and a limited number of scholarships, you are always forced to make adjustments," said Murphy. "This year is no exception. While it isn't a rebuilding phase, there is a big transition to make from year to year. You always have an infusion of younger players that you are going to ask to play a lot."
The 2003 schedule will again be challenging with a 62-game slate against some of the nation's premier college programs. The Sun Devils will play 25 games against nine teams that advanced to the 2002 NCAA Tournament. Making a return to Packard Stadium after playing in Mesa last year, ASU is scheduled to play 37 games at home and a total of 40 games in the state of Arizona. The Devils will also play 11 teams listed in Baseball America's preseason top 50 poll. Opening the season with six games at Hawaii-Hilo starting Jan. 16, the Devils will be making their second earliest start in the program's 92-year history.
"To be as good as you can be you have to be challenged every weekend," said Murphy. "Every team in our conference will be improved this year and there is no question the Pac-10 will once again be one of the nation's elite. We play the best schedule in order to be our best as a program. This team has guts and wouldn't want it any other way."
In addition to the rigorous Pac-10 schedule, ASU's trek to Omaha will have to go through the heart of the perennial college baseball powerhouses. A tough non-conference slate includes games against Oklahoma, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge and Wichita State.
Who Returns in 2003:
The Sun Devils feature what could potentially be a prominent veteran starting lineup heading into the season. With an infield full of returning starters and two of the best outfielders in the Pac-10, fans in Tempe have plenty to be excited about. All-Pac-10 First-Team selections Andre Ethier (Jr., OF), Jeremy West (Jr., C/DH) and Dustin Pedroia (So., SS) are back for another year while junior outfielder Rodney Allen is looking to duplicate his impressive freshman season after statistically having a down year in 2002. Key pitchers to watch for are junior preseason All-American Ryan Schroyer and senior transfer Ben Thurmond. Thurmond was an All-American and member of Team USA while at Winthrop University. Schroyer, who was the Pac-10's top closer in 2002 and led the league with a 2.37 ERA, is expected to move into the starting rotation.
"There is no doubt that we have some leadership on this team with players like position players Andre (Ethier), Dustin (Pedroia) and Rodney (Allen), and pitchers Ryan (Schroyer) and Bryce (Kartler), but leadership develops throughout the season," said Murphy. "We have a lot of players that have played in some big-game situations and that is what winning championships comes down to."
The backbone to any team's success lies in the strength and depth of its pitching staff. The Devils are hoping to build off a solid pitching performance in 2002 that turned in the best team ERA (4.40) since 1994. Although Esposito departed early for the professional ranks, six of ASU's seven top pitchers all return from a year ago. In addition, pitching coach Chris Sinacori returned to the program after spending four years as minor league pitching coordinator with the Chicago White Sox and should give the Sun Devil hurlers an added advantage on the mound.
Hard-throwing junior right-hander Ryan Schroyer will anchor what is shaping up to be a very deep pitching staff. One of the nation's premier closers a year ago, Schroyer is penciled in to be ASU's Friday-night starting pitcher and will be looked upon as the Devils' team leader on the mound.
"Ryan has really come of age on the mound and has become one of our team leaders," said Murphy. "He was dominant in the closer role last year and we really expect big things out of him this year. He is a guy that wants the ball in big games and that is what you want out of your No. 1 starter."
Schroyer led the Pac-10 last year with a 2.37 ERA, 4-1 record and eight saves while dominating late in games. He posted a 1.54 ERA as a relief pitcher and gave up only five earned runs in the eighth inning or later.
Behind Schroyer in the rotation will be senior transfer Ben Thurmond from Winthrop. One of the most high profile transfers during the offseason, Thurmond brings a wealth of experience and All-American credentials to the Sun Devils. Although he was limited to only 64.0 innings pitched and was 4-3 in 2002 due to an arm injury, Thurmond has shown he can dominate at the college level as was evident by him going 14-3 with a 2.88 ERA and recording 148 strikeouts in 150.0 innings for Winthrop in 2001.
"There is no doubt that Ben has shown that he can compete at this level and if all goes well, he will be a nice addition to our program," said Murphy. "He is another hard-nosed kid that just loves to pitch in big games and asks to be put in those situations."
The third spot in the staring rotation is up for grabs with a trio of seniors and several freshmen in the mix. Senior right-hander Robbie McClellan started hot last year with a 7-2 record, but stumbled late in the season and ended at 7-6. With a year under his belt, McClellan, who ranked fourth in the Pac-10 last year with 91 strikeouts, should be a mainstay in the rotation, but can also be used out of the bullpen in long relief or as a closer. Four-year letterwinner Jered Liebeck was ASU's best pitcher down the stretch last year and was named Pac-10 honorable mention going 2-1 with one save and a 5.20 ERA. Highlighting the rookies in the pitching staff that are expected to make a difference are true freshman left-handers Brett Bordes, Erik Averill and Chris Beatty. Murphy expects Bordes and Averill to both contribute a great deal right away in 2003.
"We don't have nearly the overall talent on the mound when it comes to true prospects, but I am very confident in our staff in terms of guys that love the ball and want to be in the big game," said Murphy. "We have a great pitching coach with a lot of experience who relates well to the kids and that is very important. We have a lot of guys that are going make a big contribution to the program."
With a nice mix of experience and raw talent, the bullpen corps will be led by senior lefty Carlos Arguello and sophomore right-hander Mark Sopko. Arguello was 5-1 with a 2.01 ERA last year including a complete-game win in the NCAA Regional over San Diego. The crafty lefty will be looked upon as a mid-week starter and as a long-reliever. Sopko is one of ASU's hardest throwers and is expected to nail down the closer role. He was 2-2 with one save and a 5.56 ERA during his rookie campaign last year. Senior Bryce Kartler is ASU's most experienced pitcher with 118.0 career innings and can be used as a reliever or starter. Nasty against left-handers, Kartler limited opposing batters to a .240 batting average in 2002, with lefties hitting only .171 against him.
Right-handed freshman Eric Van Slyke is also expected to make an impact in his first year with the Devils. Recovering from Tommy John surgery last fall, redshirt freshman Matt Leaf is ASU's wildcard, who according to Murphy has the potential to be a weekend starter. Also expect New Orleans senior transfer Beau Vaughan (RHP) to see action as a spot starter or in middle relief and junior college transfer Javy Lopez (RHP) from El Paso CC step in and pitch a lot of innings.
A year ago the Devils were forced to replace three-time All-American Casey Myers. The answer came in fourth-string catcher Cesar Castillo. While freshman Joel Bocchi and Tuffy Gosewisch took their lumps at the plate, the catching position eventually evolved into one of ASU's stronger positions near the end of the season. With Castillo departed to pro baseball after an excellent senior season, Murphy is confident in his sophomore duo of Bocchi and Gosewisch.
"We have two catchers that are really going to compete hard for that starting spot and both are the two best players from our fall workouts," said Murphy. "They are both tremendous workers and both can handle our pitching staff and will go to battle for us every day. "
In addition to Bocchi and Gosewisch, Murphy has raved about the transition made by junior Jeremy West from first base. While he is most likely to see steady time as the starting designated hitter, West has adapted to the position that he will be most suited for in professional baseball.
"Jeremy really looks good behind the plate and he will see some time back there," commented Murphy. "He is a natural back there and will develop into a great catcher."
"We have two catchers that are really going to compete hard for that starting spot and both are the two best players from our fall workouts."
Not to be overshadowed at the catching position is sophomore Garrett Schoenberger. Although only appearing in four games last year, Schoenberger is a team leader with his work ethic and positive attitude.
With every projected starter having at least one full year under their belt, the Sun Devil infield will be the cornerstone of the team in 2003. The Devils not only have a solid front line of starters, but also have a strong supporting cast with what Murphy describes as a five-player starting infield.
With two-year starting first baseman Jeremy West moving full-time to catcher and designated hitter, sophomore Jeff Larish will get the chance to move from third base to first base. A .328 hitter as a freshman and selected as an honorable mention Freshman All-American, Larish and his sweet left-handed swing will most likely fill up the No. 3 or No. 5 hole in the batting order. Expected redshirt last year, Larish jumped into the lineup in mid-March and never looked back. He finished the year with three home runs and 24 RBI and, after an intensive offseason workout program, has added power and strength to his 6-2 frame. Junior Mike Guerrero has made the switch from outfield to first base after redshirting last year. A power hitter who played at South Mountain CC before transferring to ASU, Guerrero had a strong fall and will also be used as a pinch-hitter and fill in at designated hitter.
Incumbent starter Steve Garrabrants returns for his third year and will be looked upon to once again be the sparkplug in ASU's lineup. A solid fielder, Garrabrants provides his biggest impact at the plate and on the base paths where he is a career .325 hitter with 32 stolen bases, with 16 each in his first two years.
"Garrabrants is a speed guy who has also learned to take a solid and focused approach at the plate," said Murphy. "The sky is the limit for him with his talent and great instincts."
Also expected to see a lot of time at second base and at any of the other infield positions will be sophomore Frank Mesa. A transfer from Arizona Western and the latest in a long line of Sun Devils to hail from Yuma, Mesa is ASU's utility man who will be in the starting mix as much as anybody.
"Frank Mesa is a real talented player who will be just as much as a starter as anyone else," says Murphy about the talented sophomore. "The thing with Frank though is that he can fill in at any position and has a great bat at the plate."
Three-year letterwinner Dennis Wyrick has had some ups and downs in his career, but appears to have found his home at third base. ASU's starter at shortstop as a freshman and sophomore, Wyrick is a legitimate All-Pac-10 performer who adds stability and leadership to the team. A natural team leader with the most experience on the roster, Wyrick looked comfortable at the hot corner in fall drills and will be the quarterback of the defense. Mesa and Larish can also fill in at third base.
"Dennis has had some ups and downs, but he is such a quality kid who means the world to this program," said Murphy.
The one position with absolutely no question heading into the season will be at shortstop. Described by Murphy as the glue of the team, sophomore Dustin Pedroia will be ASU's starting shortstop and remain there throughout the season. After a record-breaking freshman season in which he was selected as a first-team All-Pac-10 and freshman All-American, Pedroia spent the summer playing for the USA Baseball National Team.
"Dustin is the backbone of this team and one of the hardest working players in all of college baseball," said Murphy. "He will lead by example and he plays the game with incredible intensity. He never leaves anything on the field."
Pedroia broke the ASU freshman record with 82 hits and finished fourth on the team in hitting at .347. He was the only player to start all 58 games last year and made only four errors in 223 total chances for a .982 fielding percentage.
While the infield will be the cornerstone of the team in 2003, the outfield will be the driving force in what could be one of the best offensive teams in the nation. Led by juniors Rodney Allen and Andre Ethier, and a supporting cast of two talented freshmen, Murphy expects his outfielders to carry the team at the plate.
Allen will make the move from left field to center field where he excelled this past summer with the Orleans Cardinals in the Cape Cod League. A .389 hitter as a freshman, Allen's batting average dropped to .278 last year, but his production stayed nearly the same with six home runs and 50 RBI. Allen will enter his junior season listed as a preseason third-team All-American by Baseball America.
"Rodney is a guy that just keeps playing hard and never gave up last year," said Murphy. "He struggled at times and pressed too hard trying to live up to his freshman year, but when the lights went on in the big games, Rodney was there for the team. He is a big-time player who loves to play in big-time games."
Ethier had a great rookie season with the Devils and will once again patrol right field. Described as one of the Pac-10's best defensive outfielders with a strong arm and great range, Ethier will also make his biggest impact at the plate. He finished second on the team with a .363 batting average and added 14 doubles and 50 RBI despite missing a month with a broken thumb last year. He was named a third-team preseason All-American by the NCBWA.
"Bosch and Buck are going to be two of the premier freshmen players in the nation and will see a lot of playing time."
"Bosch and Buck are going to be two of the premier freshmen players in the nation and will see a lot of playing time," said Murphy. "They are the Sun Devils of the future, but we will get to see right away how talented they are."
Sophomore slugger Nick Cadena is coming off a solid freshman season in which he had a pair of multi-home run games and had six total round-trippers. He will contend for time as a backup outfielder and also see action at designated hitter. Utility player Nick Walsh has been one of ASU's best on-base percentage guys in his previous two years and can also fill in around the outfield and at second base. Junior Ryan McKenna has been a solid role player over the last two years, but a late-season illness in 2002 will most likely have him redshirt this year.