Jan. 23, 2005
If college baseball was a jigsaw puzzle, Arizona State would be crawling on the floor looking for that final piece that has been elusive in recent years.
That piece is a return trip to Omaha for the College World Series that has been missing since the Sun Devils played for the National Championship in 1998.
With 98 consecutive weeks in the national rankings, five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, seven straight top 10 recruiting classes, one of the toughest schedules in the nation and All-Americans on the field, the Sun Devils are a mainstay among the elite programs in the nation. But with some tough luck and misfortune at the end of the season, 11th-year head coach Pat Murphy and his team have their sights set on returning to the College World Series and winning ASU's sixth national championship.
"The bottom line is that we need to overcome some of the tough cards we've been dealt in recent years and find that one missing piece of the puzzle," said Murphy. "Our program has a lot of pressure to exceed at the highest level each year and I think we've done a good job of staying at that level. This program is about changing and adjusting to remain among the top programs and we won't rest until we are back at the top."
With the toughest rated non-conference schedule in the nation, ASU earned one of the eight national No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament last season. They suffered a disappointing end to the 2004 season at the regional hosted by eventual national champion Cal State Fullerton. The Devils finished the season 41-18 overall and were fourth in the Pac-10 with a 13-11 record.
With a handful of returning letterwinners and starters, Arizona State is hungry to make its 19th trip to Omaha and is poised for its sixth national championship.
"The returning players definitely have a chip on their shoulder and don't want to experience that feeling when the season ends too early," said Pat Murphy. "They have some business to take care of and that is a great motivating factor. The young guys will also learn from that and hopefully develop a sense of urgency how important it is for this program to be the very best."
The Devils will begin 2005 like every other year, ranked high in the polls and as one of the marked programs among the college baseball elite. ASU checked into the national polls at No. 9 by Baseball America and No. 11 by Collegiate Baseball.
"We are approaching this season with the expectations of winning every game," said Murphy. "Our goals are to always go out and represent Arizona State in the best way possible. We go into every season looking to be the top team in the Pac-10, consistently beating our in-state rival and winning the national championship."
Like every season in a major college baseball program, there is some rebuilding to do. The Sun Devils lost eight letterwinners and nine regular starters from last season. Although six players were selected in the annual Major League draft, ASU was part of a college baseball rarity when infielder Jeff Larish (13th round) and Jason Urquidez (11th round) decided to return for their senior seasons.
"We are very fortunate to get Jeff and Jason back," added Murphy. "It is very crucial for this program and show the character of these young men. Each worked really hard during the offseason and will bring great talent and leadership to our team this season."
In addition to returning 15 letterwinners and 12 regular starters, Murphy and his coaching staff landed one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. A solid corps of returning starters in the outfield and infield, and team leaders from last year's squad will be a key to ASU's Road to Omaha. Murphy begins his 11th year at the helm of the program, having guided the Devils to the NCAA Tournament in seven of the last eight years and has seen his Devils become a mainstay in the national rankings with 98 consecutive weeks in the polls dating to 2000.
"If you look at our roster, you see a good mix of young guys and some veteran players that have been in the program for two or three years and are potential leaders for this ball club," commented Murphy. "We will have to play some of our freshmen or junior college transfers at some key positions, but overall I like this team and I like the leadership of our veteran players bring to the field every day. I think leadership has been one of those missing pieces of the puzzle in years past."
While a host of star players return, the program loses one of the best players in recent history in three-time All-Pac-10 shortstop Dustin Pedroia. Drafted in the second-round by the Boston Red Sox, Pedroia was a career .384 hitter with 71 doubles, 146 RBI and 14 home runs. Pedroia was also a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year selection.
"There is no way you replace a player like Dustin," said Murphy. "He will go down as one of the best players in ASU history and he was just a great team player for us in his three seasons. You just hope you get a chance to see another player like that come through the doors in the Maroon and Gold."
The 2005 Sun Devils feature a 32-man roster broken down with six seniors, five juniors, six sophomores and 15 freshmen. A year after featuring only two players with pitching experience in the program, ASU is much deeper on the mound in 2005 with 69% (359 of 524) of total innings returning. ASU also features a trio of preseason All-Americans in junior outfielder Travis Buck, senior 3B/1B Jeff Larish and senior starting pitcher Jason Urquidez. In addition to the preseason All-Americans, senior catcher Tuffy Gosewisch, junior left-handed pitcher Erik Averill, sophomore two-way player Zechry Zinicola and sophomore outfielder Colin Curtis form a solid nucleus of veteran players. Highlighted as the No. 2 recruiting class in the country (Baseball America), the group of 14 newcomers includes 11 high school players, two junior college transfers and one Division I transfer.
The 2005 squad is sure to be another team reflective of Murphy's teams from the past that will be offensive minded and play solid defense while approaching every game with a playoff-type mentality. The Sun Devils are also sure to be a threat on the basepaths with 34 of 56 (61%) stolen bases returning.
"Our focus is to be the very best program in the nation and when we take the field that will be our motivation," said Murphy, the 1998 Baseball America Coach of the Year and 2000 Pac-10 Coach of the Year. "We are always known to be an offensive team, but we also have some really good arms this year in the pitching staff and have a chance to be a running team. We are a lot more well-rounded, but going into the season I think our depth is a little bit untested and we will have some growing pains with some of the younger players."
A Look Back:
The 2004 squad finished with a 41-18 season and earned a final ranking of 20th in the nation by Sports Weekly/ESPN. The Sun Devils also led the Pac-10 hitting for the fifth time in the last six seasons with a .325 batting average.
The Devils enter 2005 without two of their top three hitters from a year ago. ASU will have to replace the offensive production of shortstop Dustin Pedroia (.393-9 HR-49 RBI) and infielder Josh Asanovich (.367-5 HR-41 RBI. Pedroia (2nd round) and Asanovich (11th round) both signed professional contracts after their junior seasons. The offense returns five players who hit over .300 last season, including All-Pac-10 selection Travis Buck who finished behind Pedroia hitting .373 with nine home runs and a team-leading 58 RBI. Jeff Larish returns for his senior season with a career .337 batting average with 28 home runs and 168 RBI.
The pitching staff was led by junior right-hander Jason Urquidez and freshman closer Zechry Zinicola. Urquidez earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors while leading the league in wins with a 12-3 record. He struck out 94 batters in 97.2 innings and was among the league leaders with a 3.41 ERA. Zinicola earned freshman All-America honors while going 4-2 with a 3.36 ERA and tied the ASU Freshman record with nine saves. ASU's 20 saves were tied for the third most in school history and the most by a Sun Devil squad since posting 22 in 1990. Freshman pitchers recorded 17 of the 20 saves last season.
The defense again had another solid season, posting the second straight year with a fielding percentage of .973, ranking second in the ASU record books.
"With the nature of college baseball and the draft, you always have to be prepared to make adjustments and to rebuild your team," said Murphy, who has had over 75 players get drafted since taking over the program in 1995. "This year is no exception as we lost two of our starting infielders and those are two key players that will be tough to replace."
A year after playing the top-rated non-conference schedule in the nation, the Devils will once again take on one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
ASU's 56-game regular-season schedule includes 28 games against teams that played in the 2004 NCAA Tournament and 35 games against teams that have competed in the Field of 64 in the last two seasons. The schedule also includes schools that have combined for 27 national championships and seven games against teams that played in the 2004 College World Series.
ASU is also scheduled to play 21 games against eight teams listed in Baseball America's preseason top 25. Along with playing Pac-10 ranked opponents Stanford (#6), Washington (#8) and Arizona (#12), the Sun Devils will also play No. 1 Tulane (Feb. 18-20), No. 2 LSU (Mar. 11, 13), No. 11 Baylor (Feb. 25-27) and No. 14 North Carolina (Mar. 4). Fourteen (14) of ASU's first 25 games come against ranked opponents, including a stretch of nine straight games against Arizona, Tulane, Baylor and North Carolina in late February and early March. Pac-10 foe USC also ranked No. 30 in the extended top 50 preseason poll.
"We play a tough schedule and it all starts with that first weekend against a very good Long Beach State team," commented Murphy. "It is a pretty unique schedule with so many road games, but it is a great chance to challenge some of the great programs on the road and make a name for ourselves. I am confident we can rise to the challenge."
Who Returns in 2004:
The Sun Devils will feature a lot of familiar faces and a few unknowns when they take the field in 2005. All-Pac-10 selections Jason Urquidez (2004), Travis Buck (2004) and Jeff Larish (2003) headline an impressive list of 15 returning letterwinners from last season. Buck hit .373 (84-for-225) with nine home runs and 58 RBI last season and had an impressive season with the USA Baseball National Team last summer. Buck hit .412 for Team USA while helping lead the Red, White and Blue to a gold medal performance in the FISU World University Baseball Championships.
Larish battled through wrist injury and constant pressure from the draft to hit .308 (73-for-237) with 17 doubles, seven home runs and 49 RBI. Moving from the outfield back to the infield where he is expected to start at third base, Larish is looking to return to his sophomore form of 2003 when he earned first-team All-America honors after hitting .372 with 18 home runs and 95 RBI. Larish was drafted in the 13th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers and returned for his senior season after turning down a reported six-figure signing bonus.
"Travis (Buck) and Jeff (Larish) are two great offensive players that can really change the game with one swing of the bat," said Murphy. "I think the they also bring great leadership and really feed off each other in terms of competitiveness. When you add in Tuffy (Gosewisch), Colin (Curtis) and the rest of our offense, we have a lot to be excited about."
Urquidez led the Pac-10 last season with 12 wins and ranked third with a 3.41 ERA. The Clemens Award (National Pitcher of the Year) candidate struck out a team-leading 94 batters in 97.2 innings and held opponents to a .251 batting average.
"Jason had a great season last year and it isn't often you get a guy coming back that had 12 wins last season," added Murphy. "We expect Jason to be a little stronger this season and go deeper in the game. He is a competitor and will be one of the aces of our staff this season."
In addition to Buck, Larish and Urquidez, there are several other returning players that will form the nucleus of the 2005 squad. Senior catcher Tuffy Gosewisch has started nearly every game the last two seasons and is ready for what Murphy calls a "breakthrough season." The senior backstop hit .342 (68-for-199) last season with 14 doubles, two home runs and 49 RBI. He started 58 of 59 games and was one of 15 semifinalists for the Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year Award.
"Tuffy is just a solid player and really got stronger during the offseason," said Murphy. "I think he has a really good chance to be one of our best offensive performers and having a three-year starter take command of the pitching staff is invaluable."
With Larish moving back to the infield after spending last season in left field, sophomore Colin Curtis will join with Buck to form one of the best offensive outfields. Curtis hit .300 (57-for-190) with five home runs and 36 RBI as a freshman while starting 57 of 59 games.
Sophomore two-way player Zechry Zinicola will get a chance to play every day at first base and also maintain his spot as the team's closer. Zinicola hit .280 (28-for-100) last season with eight doubles, three home runs and 26 RBI and went 4-2 with eight saves and a 3.36 ERA as a freshman.
With Urquidez anchoring the pitching staff, first-year pitching coach Jack Krawczyk has a deep pitching staff to work with in 2005. Junior left-hander Erik Averill will return to the starting rotation after going 4-4 with a 5.19 ERA last season. With a career 12-6 record, Averill had a solid summer in the Cape Cod League and is ASU's most experienced pitcher after logging 162.1 innings in his first two years with the Sun Devils.
"Erik is going to get a chance to start every weekend and we are very excited about the changes he has made," said Murphy. "He is a very confident young man and has all the talent in the world. He is going to be a big part of our success this season."
With Zinicola returning to the bullpen as the closer, junior lefty Brett Bordes will get another chance to hold down a spot in the weekend rotation. Described as having the rawest potential on the pitching staff, Bordes endured control problems last season while going 3-1 with an 8.55 ERA.
Senior RHP Ty Marotz (0-0, 6.14 ERA, 22.0 IP), sophomore Quentin Andes (5-1, 2 SV, 4.55 ERA, 31.2 IP) and sophomore RHP Pat Bresnehan (3-2, 5 SV, 4.79 ERA, 41.1 IP) also return from last season to build what is shaping up to be a solid bullpen.
The 2005 Sun Devils will feature a lot of new faces... 14 to be exact. While the obstacle of fielding a relatively young team that is expected to compete for the national championship proves to be tough, Murphy and the coaching staff couldn't be more excited about the talent that has arrived in Tempe.
"We are extremely excited about the players that joined our program this year," said Murphy. "They are great young players and great young men. They are true Sun Devils and that is what is going to push this program towards excellence."
Romine, the son of former Sun Devil and Boston Red Sox Kevin Romine, is expected to start at shortstop. Sferra, the son of ASU assistant coach Jay J. Sferra, will most likely get the opening-day nod in center field.
Four-year transfer Joey Hooft had three successful seasons with the University of Miami (Fla.) that included two trips to the College World Series. The Reno, Nev., native will start at second base and is a potential leadoff hitter for the Sun Devils. He hit .307 with 30 stolen bases for the Hurricanes.
In addition to 14 newcomers, ASU also features four redshirt freshmen that will make their debuts on the diamond in 2005. Catcher/utility player Taylor Holiday, infielder Jeff Landry and outfielders Rocky Laguna and Eric Williams all sat out last season while adding strength in the weight room and learning the ins and outs of the program.
The Coaching Staff:
Head coach Pat Murphy returns for his 11th season in Tempe and has led the Sun Devils to the NCAA Tournament in seven of the last eight seasons. Murphy has a 401-196-1 record at ASU and an all-time 774-367-4 record in 20 seasons as a college baseball head coach. He was the 1998 Baseball America Coach of the Year and the 2000 Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
Jay J. Sferra is in his 10th season with the Sun Devil baseball program. Sferra coaches the outfields and is ASU's first base coach during games. He is also the recruiting coordinator, having landed top-10 recruiting classes in each of the last seven years.
A pair of coaches enters their first season with the Sun Devils in 2005. Tim Esmay is a name that is familiar with Sun Devil fans as the former player and assistant coach returns to his alma mater. After spending the last eight seasons as the head coach at the University of Utah, Esmay will coach the infielders and also be the third base coach. He played two years for the Sun Devils from 1986-87 and was also an assistant coach under Jim Brock from 1988-90 and in 1994.
Jack Krawczyk enters his first year as ASU's pitching coach and comes to the program with impressive credentials. Krawczyk was an All-American and All-Pac-10 pitcher at the USC and played professionally for six years in the minor leagues. Krawczyk is widely considered the top relief pitcher in college baseball history after he set the NCAA record with 49 saves during his college career at USC from 1995-98. He also holds the USC, Pac-10 and NCAA single-season saves record with 23 saves during the Trojans' 1998 national championship season.
"I am very excited about the two additions to our coaching staff and the great personalities they bring to the program," said Murphy on his two new hires. "They have a passion for baseball and this program and that carries into the coaching of our kids."
The Starting Rotation:
Heading into the season, Murphy and Krawczyk have a good idea on what they have planned for the starting rotation. Senior right-hander Jason Urquidez is the ace of the staff after going 12-3 last season, but may pitch on Saturday's as he is always better after seeing a team from the bench. That leaves the Friday night starting spot for junior lefty Erik Averill to grab. Averill was a freshman All-American in 2003 and is 12-6 with a 4.38 ERA in 46 career games. Junior left-hander Brett Bordes will likely fill the third starting spot.
"It is nice to know that your starting pitchers all have experience in big game situations," said Murphy. "We haven't had the luxury of having veterans on the mound in past years."
The Sun Devils also have some flexibility with midweek games, as senior Ty Marotz had an excellent fall and is throwing in the low 90's. Sophomore Zechry Zinicola has the potential to be a weekend starter, but the two-way player is also a weapon on offense and will get a chance to start at first base and be the closer. Sophomores Pat Bresnehan and Quentin Andes, along with freshmen Drew Bowman and Josh Satow could also become starting pitchers.
With any good team you have a strong bullpen. The Sun Devils will look to a corps of rookie pitchers to man the late innings of games. Murphy expects Zinicola to lock down the closer role and pitch the eighth and ninth innings of a lot of games. Zinicola tied ASU's freshman record with eight saves last season.
Sophomore RHP Pat Bresnehan was effective early in the season building up five saves before the start of Pac-10 play, but struggled down the stretch. With a 90 mph fastball and a wicked slider, Bresnehan is best suited for the setup role. Garrison, Satow and Bowman will also be used out of the bullpen.
The Sun Devils have the luxury of having a three-year starter behind the plate in senior Tuffy Gosewisch. The Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year candidate has started 115 games behind the dish in his career and has turned into one of the best all-around catchers in the nation. Having posted back-to-back seasons of hitting over .340, Gosewisch is one of ASU's best clutch hitters after hitting .359 with runners in scoring position last season.
"Tuffy is one of our team leaders and really takes command of the pitching staff," said Murphy on his senior backstop. "He has an unbelievable work ethic and has worked really hard in the weight room over the last two seasons. I think before it is all said and done, Tuffy will be one of our best offensive performers."
Expected to play nearly every inning, Gosewisch will be backed up by freshman Austin Stockfisch. Stockfisch is a switch-hitting catcher from Scottsdale's Desert Mountain High School and has impressed the coaching staff with his development during fall practices. Redshirt freshman Taylor Holiday can also fill in behind the plate. Senior Joel Bocchi. Bocchi, who is a career .288 hitter while playing in 92 career games, is likely to redshirt in order to fill in the catching void next season.
Sophomore two-way player Zechry Zinicola is the projected starter at first base. A prep third baseman, Zinicola started two games at first base last season and looked natural at the position. Zinicola is also slated as ASU's closer.
Pushing Zinicola for the starting job will be sophomore Joe Persichina. Persichina can play all four infield positions and started 37 games at first base last season while hitting .320. Redshirt freshman Seth Dhaenens is mainly a third baseman, but has also worked out at first base and is a likely late-inning defensive replacement when Zinicola takes to the mound. Larish can also fill in at first base after starting 60 games at the position in 2003. Freshman Willy Fox is a talented newcomer who may also figure into ASU's plans at first base in the future.
Senior transfer Joey Hooft is slated to start at second base after playing his previous three seasons at the University of Miami.
"Joey is a steady player who has played in a lot of big games," commented Murphy. "He brings a lot of leadership and is a veteran guy that is going to come right in and get a chance to start and be a leader on this team."
Freshman Vinny Biancamano will push Hooft at second base and can also provide depth at third base and shortstop. Biancamano was an all-state shortstop at Glendale's Cactus High School 35th round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 2005.
"Vinny is a really exciting player with tons of potential," says Murphy. "He kind of fits the mold of a Steve Garrabrants type player with good speed and is an excellent hitter. He is going to get a chance to play right away."
"Joe (Persichina) who can be listed at four or five positions and no matter what, you will see him in the lineup," says Murphy. "He had a good freshman season and has really matured. He is a guy that will do anything to help the club win games."
ASU's toughest position to fill will be shortstop as three-year starter and two-time All-American Dustin Pedroia was a second-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox. Freshman Andrew Romine will have some big shoes to fill, but has all the tools to take over right where Pedroia left off.
Romine is the son of former Sun Devil All-American and Boston Red Sox Kevin Romine. Rated as the No. 4 freshman by Baseball America, Romine is switch-hitter at the plate and features an aggressive style in the field.
"Andrew is a very exciting player and fans will really enjoy what he brings to the field," said Murphy. "He has some tough shoes to fill, but overall he is a player that is really going to turn some heads and has a chance to become the next in a long line of great Sun Devil shortstops."
Biancamano and Dhaenens could also see time in backup duty to Romine. Freshman Greg Bordes, the brother of starting pitcher Brett Bordes, could also see time, but is a likely redshirt candidate. Bordes is also a possibility to sit out the season as a redshirt.
Senior Jeff Larish will man the hot corner. Returning to the position he played as a freshman, Larish also started at first base in 2003 and in left field last season. Possessing a strong arm and good footwork, Larish will feel right at home moving back to third base.
"Jeff is natural at third base and really loves playing that position," said Murphy. "He has been very versatile in his career playing three different positions, but he is comfortable at third base and really give our team a powerful bat at that position."
Dhaenens started 27 games at third base last season and will contend for time behind Larish. Biancamano worked out at the hot corner in fall practices before making the switch to second base, so he will also create depth at the position.
Despite losing Larish back to the infield, the Sun Devils will again feature one of the best outfields in the NCAA. Junior preseason All-American Travis Buck is a projected first-round draft pick in the MLB June Amateur Draft and is coming off a strong sophomore season in which he hit .373 with nine home runs and 58 RBI.
"Travis had a great sophomore season and is coming off an outstanding summer with Team USA," said Murphy. "He will start in right field and will be one of the keys to our offense. He has added a lot of strength and has learned a lot from being around Jeff Larish. He is a guy that can get on base in any number of ways and when he gets on base he finds ways to score."
In addition to Buck starting in right field, freshman J.J. Sferra is slated to start in center field. The speedy freshman, who spent several seasons as ASU's batboy while growing up, is also a top candidate to hit in the leadoff spot.
"J.J. is the real deal and has grown up around this program," said Murphy. "He is a great bunter and can really fly on the basepaths. I think he will be one of the best defensive center fielders this program has ever seen when it is all said and done."
With Sferra starting in center, sophomore Colin Curtis will move to left field after starting 57 games in center field last season. The former High School All-American hit .300 (57-for-190) with five home runs last season and with added strength and a year of experience under his belt should be ready for a big season.
"The sky is the limit in terms of potential for Colin," said Murphy. "It won't be easy for him to adjust to left field, but that is his future position in pro baseball. He has a lot of power at the plate and I also expect him to steal 15 or 20 bases."
The solid outfield will be bolstered by freshman DJ Butler, redshirt freshman Eric Williams and redshirt freshman Rocky Laguna. Laguna and Butler are also prime candidates for the designated hitter position.
Murphy expects the nucleus of his team to man the No. 2 through No. 6 positions in the batting order. Travis Buck, Tuffy Gosewisch, Jeff Larish, Colin Curtis and Zechry Zinicola all have good power and are pretty interchangeable in the middle of the order. He expects Larish or Gosewisch to hit cleanup, with Buck probably batting in the third spot.
Freshman shortstop Andrew Romine will bat near the bottom of the order and give the Devils some versatility with his switch-hitting bat.
Murphy has a handful of options at the designated hitter position depending on the defensive lineup. He expects redshirt freshman Rocky Laguna and freshmen Vinny Biancamano, Willy Fox and DJ Butler to contend for at-bats in the lower part of the lineup.
"We have four or five guys that are great hitters and will really be able to fill that DH spot in the lineup," said Murphy. "It also gives us some flexibility with the depth of our team and will get a lot of our guys some at-bats early in the season."
With the rigors of a 56-game regular season schedule, Murphy expects his club to have some the usual ups and downs that comes with playing such a tough schedule. But, when it is all said and done, ASU's skipper expects the Devils to be contending for the national championship.
"Our goal is to win the national championship and we are disappointed that we haven't been back to Omaha since 1998," said Murphy. "It is almost a case of wanting that national title so bad, that sometimes those things just elude you.
"As a coaching staff and as a program we work every day to make those dreams a reality. We are continuing to make adjustments as the landscape of college baseball changes."
Murphy describes the team's leadership from the veteran players as the strength of the squad and expects a deeper finish in the postseason.
"There are a lot of unknowns going into any season, but I do know that this team will not quit," added Murphy. "Don't underestimate these guys as there may be some tough times early in the season, but I think they will rise to the top and play the best baseball of the season when it counts.
"In the end I think this team will be remembered for winning the national championship and finding that missing piece of the puzzle. They are already a group of student-athletes that represent Arizona State University with class and I think they will carry that all the way to Rosenblatt Stadium this season."