May 2, 2000
TEMPE, Ariz. - The schedule says they only have six more games left to play, yet it's comforting and satisfying to know that the fifth-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils will play more than six games (hopefully many more) before their 2000 baseball season concludes. .
It's almost become a rite of spring in Tempe, watching coach Pat Murphy's Sun Devils get "shemped" by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. (Before I continue, some background on the verb "shemped," though, if you're a "Three Stooges" fan like me, you probably have an idea of my meaning. As any true Stooges' buff will tell you, the best episodes were ones featuring Curly. Consequently, if you tuned in to find that you'd be watching an episode in which Shemp replaced Curly as the third Stooge, you felt like you were getting the proverbial short end of the stick. In essence, you had been "shemped." All credit, or, depending upon your interpretation, the blame for the term "shemped" goes to my boss, Sun Devil Sports Network G.M. Norwood Teague! He owns the phrase...I'm merely subletting!! So much for today's vocabulary class!)
Now back to our regularly-scheduled column...
In 1995, '96 and '99, seemingly worthy ASU baseball teams were questionably denied berths in post-season play. Last year was a particularly galling snub for Murph's Devils, who were 39-21, played .500 ball in the nation's best conference, yet weren't judged to be one of the top 64 teams in the country.
Murph and the fellas needn't worry about getting "shemped" this year. There's absolutely no way college baseball's powers-that-be can ignore the accomplishments of the 2000 Sun Devils, who have authored one of the sport's best (and, in my mind, under-publicized) stories of the year.
Picked in pre-season to finish sixth in the Pac-10 Conference, Arizona State has been ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation virtually the entire season. As of this writing, the Devils are rated #5, and just last week were ranked third in the U.S. Their record is a spectacular 37-12, and has been achieved despite the loss of two eminently talented pitching prospects due to elbow injuries. Freshman right-hander Mike Esposito, a fifth-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 1999 who was slated to be the Devils' #1 starter this season, pitched in only two games, winning one, before incurring elbow problems which ultimately required "Tommy John" surgery in March. Another righty, 1999 recruit Paul French, a one-time third-round selection of the Anaheim Angels, had the same Tommy John surgery last year, and has missed this entire season. In addition, southpaw Will Waldrip, ASU's top winner a year ago, has been limited the last month-and-a-half because of bone spurs in his pitching elbow. And yet, the Devils have prospered.
ASU has played one of the nation's toughest schedules in 2000, with nearly half of their games (22 out of 49 so far) coming against teams ranked in the Top 25 at the time of their matchup with the Sun Devils. Nine of those contests have been against top five opponents. And yet, the Devils have prospered, with 12 victories against ranked foes.
Offensively, the Devils headed into 2000 seeking replacements for a pair of .400 hitters (Mark Ernster and all-time ASU RBI leader Andrew Beinbrink), as well as infielder Willie Bloomquist, the 1999 Pac-10 Player of the Year and the league's fifth-best all-time hitter. And yet, ASU has prospered, thanks to the individual brilliance of players like catcher Casey Myers (the Pac-10's top hitter and RBI man, and a legitimate candidate for national player of the year) and outfielder Mitch Jones, whose 25 home runs lead the U.S., and equal Bob Horner's ASU single-season record set in 1978.
It's not a flashy team. Not one Sun Devil was listed on any pre-season All-American teams. Yet, ASU leads the nation in scoring, leads the Pac-10 in batting, and is one of the best fielding teams in the country. I don't think this squad has to worry about getting "shemped" in 2000!
Rather, now that they know they'll be in a regional, the Sun Devils' main objective is to host a regional. With six games remaining against two of the Pac-10's second-division teams (3 at home against Washington, and 3 on the road at Arizona), ASU would seem to have an excellent chance to host post-season baseball for the first time since 1993. How significant would that be? Since 1983, the Sun Devils have hosted six regionals, advancing to the College World Series in five of those six years.
From this vantage point, pitching (particularly starting pitching) will determine how far the '00 Sun Devils advance in post-season play. Lefty Jon Switzer has emerged as the ace of the ASU staff, and one of the Pac-10's premier starters. After Switzer, however, ASU's starting pitching is questionable. Righty Chad Pennington, a significant contributor on the 1998 ASU team that finished second at the College World Series, has struggled over the last month. In fact, the Devils' Saturday and Sunday starters in last weekend's crucial Pac-10 series at USC were true freshmen. Lefty Bryce Kartler failed to survive the second inning of either of his two starts last week (at USC and at Oklahoma), but impressed Murphy with his approach and demeanor on the mound. Perhaps the most tantalizing prospect is freshman right-hander Jered Liebeck, who was superb in his starting debut April 22, beating UCLA with 5.1 innings of five-hit baseball. At USC, Liebeck labored in bad luck in a 4-3 loss to the Trojans. His stuff is as good as any pitcher on the team, and he seems fearless on the mound. Jered could be the "X" factor in post-season play.
If the rotation becomes settled in the next two weeks, the Sun Devils could be a dangerous team in the tournament. Their bullpen is quickly emerging as one of the conference's best. Closer Eric Doble has seven saves this season (as many as the entire staff registered in 1999) and has finished all but two of ASU's Pac-10 victories in 2000. Junior Jason Fingers has been superb over the past month, including a brilliant stint last Sunday at USC in which he shut out the Trojans on just one hit over the game's last five innings. Sophomore Franco Pezely gives Murphy a solid southpaw setup man to get to Fingers and/or Doble.
It will be fascinating to find out what the next month has in store for Arizona State's first baseball team of the new millennium. At the very least, it's nice to be able to speculate on how the Sun Devils will do in the regional, without having to worry if they'll be in a regional.
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU baseball for the Sun Devil Sports Network. Tim can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.