May 30, 2000
TEMPE, Ariz. - Just like that, it's over!
An Arizona State baseball season of seemingly Omaha-esque proportions reached a swift, stunning and premature conclusion Sunday night in Tempe. A team of College World Series caliber was stymied in an opening-round NCAA regional on its own home field. While the three other Pac-10 teams in the NCAA tournament field advanced to "super regionals" this coming weekend, the true conference champion of 2000 was sent packing for the summer.
Sad, but true.
In assessing the surprising turn of events this past weekend at Packard Stadium, the best way to start is by offering a tip of the cap to the Texas Longhorns, who beat ASU twice on Sunday, 6-4 in the afternoon and 9-7 in the evening, to win the championship of the Tempe regional. It was Texas' 26th all-time regional title, and first since 1993. For the Devils, it marked just the third time (and first since 1990) they've lost a regional on their home turf.
In this day and age of the aluminum bats, when college baseball games frequently last three-and-a-half to four hours, with football-type final scores, Texas is a throwback to supposedly bygone days, when pitching and defense ruled the diamond. ASU's Mitch Jones by himself hit almost as many home runs this year as the entire Longhorn team (total count: Texas 29 Mitch 27). However, coach Augie Garrido's 'Horns are hooked on small ball (actually, microscopic ball would be a more appropriate term) in the year 2000.
Simply put, Texas has turned bunting into an art form, setting an all-time NCAA single-season record for sacrifice bunts in a season. By my count, the Longhorns laid down no fewer than 10 bunts in the three games against ASU this weekend, including three straight in the first inning of the regional championship game Sunday night. Granted, it's easy to poke fun at that type of "teensy weensy" baseball, but Texas made it work. Their bunting game created enough havoc within the Sun Devils' normally solid defense to force costly ASU errors, enabling the Longhorns to grab early leads in each of the Sunday games.
Once they got the lead, the Steers turned the games over to their talented pitching staff, and a defense that routinely made all the plays, and made virtually all plays look routine. In particular, the second base-shortstop combo of 2B Tommy Nicholson and SS Todd West (a product of Yavapai Junior College in Prescott, AZ,) was superb this weekend, gobbling up everything hit anywhere near them. On the mound, Texas featured a stud fireballing right-hander who likely will be a first-round pick in next Monday's Major League Baseball draft (Beau Hale), and a quality closer, Charlie Thames, who in one season tied the school's career saves record with 19. The Longhorns have good arms, and had a good plan in pitching to ASU's hard-hitting lineup. Case in point: the Devils totaled 28 base hits in the three regional matchups against the Texas pitching staff. Only two were for extra bases.
And yet, though they were in a catch-up mode throughout both Sunday games, the Sun Devils battled till the final pitch of their storybook season. Trailing by as many as four runs in the afternoon game (played in 110-degree heat), ASU had the winning run at bat in the bottom of the ninth, in the person of Pac-10 Player of the Year Casey Myers, who grounded out on a 3-2 pitch to end it.
The Sunday night finish was even more dramatic. Down by 5 runs with one out in the top of the ninth (in an ironic twist, ASU was designated the "road" team in the title game), the Sun Devils rallied for three runs and had the bases loaded against Hale, who was called upon to nail down the championship for Texas just one day after throwing over 130 pitches in a complete-game loss against the Devils. But alas, Hale got back-to-back strikeouts to extinguish ASU's 2000 season.
What a season it was, though.
Keep in mind: this was a team picked by Pac-10 coaches to finish sixth in the conference. They ended up in a three-way tie for the league championship (and held tiebreaker advantages over the teams with which they were deadlocked, Stanford and UCLA), and ranked among the top five in the nation. ASU led the USA in scoring, averaging 11 runs a game. Their team batting average hovered around the .350 mark, ranking among the top five in the country. Senior Mitch Jones belted 27 home runs to set a new Arizona State single-season record, and on the regular season's final day (at Arizona, no less), Mitch became the first Sun Devil in three years to hit for the cycle. Catcher Casey Myers batted over .400, and drove in a team-best 97 runs (the fourth-highest single-season total in ASU history). The pitching duo of lefty Jon Switzer and right-hander Eric Doble gave the Devils one of the best starters and closers in the pitching-rich Pac-10.
Thanks to these young men, and their teammates, ASU provided its oh-so-rabid, oh-so-loyal fans with many moments to remember. A 9-7 victory over UA March 3, in which the Devils rallied from a seven-run deficit. A 32-3 slaughter of Arizona the following day. A conference-opening 6-4 win at Cal March 24, in which ASU trailed by a run with two out and nobody on in the top of the ninth before winning. A 10-6 victory over then-second-ranked Stanford on April Fool's Day, made possible by Jeff Phelps' game-turning, two-run, seventh-inning home run. A 10-8 win over UCLA April 20, in which Arizona State rallied for seven runs in the last of the eighth, including Brooks Conrad's game-winning two-run homer. A 3-1 Friday night victory at USC April 28, as Switzer went the distance, striking out his career-high-equaling 10th batter of the night for the final out on a 3-2 pitch with the tying runs on base. Leave us not forget the 24-10 season-ending victory over the Wildcats in Tucson May 21, or the 3-1 regional win over Texas May 27, cemented on Doble's strikeout of Texas' Matt Rosenberg with two outs and the bases loaded in the last of the ninth.
Make no mistake about it: the disappointing way in which ASU's 2000 baseball season ended, cannot and should not diminish the scope of what this gritty band of Sun Devils accomplished as this special year unfolded. For the Devils and their fans, the memories of 2000 will burn brightly, until the 2001 season starts seven-and-a-half months hence.
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU baseball for the Sun Devil Sports Network. For more of Tim's columns, visit "Healey's Highlights".