Jan. 7, 2004
Only a few days after the record-breaking 2003 season, All-Americans Dustin Pedroia and Jeff Larish were back in the batting cage at Packard Stadium, anticipating the beginning of the 2004 season. Why? There is unfinished business to take care of.
After an emotional three-game super regional series with Cal State Fullerton that left Arizona State one game short of its 19th trip to Omaha, the Sun Devils begin the 93rd year of ASU Baseball with ambitions of a sixth national championship.
"The returning players definitely have a huge chip on their shoulders and are ready to prove themselves and not let last years ending happen again," said 10th year head coach Pat Murphy. "They have some unfinished business to take care of and that is a great motivating factor."
The Devils will begin 2004 like every other year, ranked high in the polls and as one of the marked programs among the college baseball elite. While looking to build off an impressive 54-14 season in 2003, one that featured several record-breaking performances, the Devils have little resemblance to that team. The annual major league draft saw a record 12 Sun Devils selected (most among all college programs) and only one of ASU's top seven pitchers returns.
"We are approaching this season with the expectations of winning and playing every game to win," said Murphy. "There is no question that we have a lot of talent to replace, but if you are a good program, that is a problem you face every year. We go into every season with the goal of winning a national championship and this group of players has the right attitude and desire to make that a reality."
While the Devils lost 16 letterman and 12 consistent starters from the 2003 squad, Murphy and his talented staff landed one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. In addition, a solid corps of starters and team leaders from last year's squad also return and will be a key to ASU's Road to Omaha. Murphy begins his 10th year at the helm of the program, having guided the Devils to the NCAA Tournament in six of the last seven years and has seen his Devils become a mainstay in the national rankings with 79 consecutive weeks in the polls dating to 2000.
"If you look at our roster, you see a lot of freshmen and juniors," commented Murphy. "This is a young team that will have to learn on the field and has to live up to some pretty high expectations. We have one of the toughest schedules in the nation and they will be tested right out of the gates. The difference between this team and some from past years is that the younger guys expect to win and are ready to play right away. There will be some growing pains, but they have a unique mentality that just wants to play for a national championship and will accept nothing less."
"The returning players definitely have a huge chip on their shoulders and are ready to prove themselves and not let last years ending happen again."
Head Coach Pat Murphy
"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.
A Look Back:
The 2003 squad recorded one of the best seasons in recent ASU Baseball history, posting a 54-14 record and a No. 8 national ranking. The Devils opened the season with a 28-1 record, the best start in school history, and finished second in the Pac-10 with a 16-8 record. ASU was the only team to rank in the top 10 in the four major NCAA statistical categories (ERA, batting, scoring and defense).
The Devils enter 2004 without two of their top three hitters and six of their top seven pitchers from a year ago. ASU will have to replace the offensive production of outfielder Andre Ethier (.377-10 HR-68 RBI) and designated hitter Jeremy West (.381-17-71). Ethier was ASU's highest draft pick of the 12 that were selected last June, going in the second round to the Oakland A's. The 2003 Sun Devils finished second in the nation with a .347 team batting average (second best in school history) and second in scoring, averaging 10 runs per game.
The pitching staff had a record breaking year in 2003, posting a 3.32 ERA to lead the Pac-10 and rank eighth nationally. Starters Beau Vaughan (10-6, 4.68 ERA, 105 SO), Ben Thurmond (8-0, 2.73) and Jered Liebeck (8-0, 2.88) formed a solid starting rotation that will have to be replaced entirely in 2004. ASU also lost relievers Robbie McClellan (7-0, 3.70), Mark Sopko (3-2, 2.30 ERA) and senior lefty relievers Bryce Kartler and Carlos Arguello.
"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 70 players get drafted since taking over the program in 1995. "This year is no exception. It is a rebuilding phase in which we still expect to compete for the national championship."
The Devils will once again take on one of the toughest schedules in the nation. ASU is scheduled to play 30 games against NCAA Tournament teams from last year, including a season-opening three-game series against Florida State in Tempe (Feb. 6-8).
"We play a tough schedule and it all starts with that first weekend," commented Murphy. "It is a great challenge to play a tough schedule, because win or lose you really build confidence knowing that you can play with those teams."
Other schedule highlights include traveling to Houston, Texas for a tournament hosted by defending national champion Rice and non-conference meetings with Tulane, East Carolina, Oklahoma State and Wichita State. In addition to the rigorous 24-game Pac-10 slate, ASU will also meet rival Arizona for a pair of non-conference games in Tempe.
"From top to bottom, it is a really packed schedule," added Murphy. "We feel like our team isn't going to back down and a tough schedule is going to bring out the best in our players."
Who Returns in 2004:
The Sun Devils will feature a relatively young team in 2004, but also return some of the premier players in the Pac-10. Shortstop Dustin Pedroia, the 2003 Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year, and All-American Jeff Larish headline the list of returning players. Pedroia is coming off a record-breaking season last year in which he set the ASU and Pac-10 single-season record with 34 doubles and became only the 11th Sun Devil to hit over .400 and record over 100 hits in the same season. Larish is looking to make the move from first base to the outfield after also having a solid sophomore season. He hit .372 while leading the team with 18 home runs and 95 RBI. The dynamic duo were teammates last summer on the USA Baseball National Team, helping the Red, White and Blue to a silver medal in the Pan Am Games.
"There are not many players in the nation that are more special than Dustin and Jeff," said Murphy. "They bring a lot more to this team than just their baseball skills. They are the leaders of this team and great role models."
In addition to Larish and Pedroia, ASU returns only 10 letterwinners from 2003, including nine starters. Junior infielder Frank Mesa will find a starting spot in the infield at either third, second or first base. The Yuma native hit .364 last year and proved to be one of ASU's best clutch hitters. Junior catcher Tuffy Gosewisch has locked down the catcher position after a fine sophomore campaign, hitting .340 with two home runs and 41 RBI. He has emerged as a candidate for the Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year Award and will be a key to the progression of ASU's relatively young pitching staff.
With Larish moving to the outfield, he will pair with sophomore Travis Buck to form a deadly combination. Buck is coming off a freshman All-American season last year in which he hit .326 with four home runs, 46 RBI and 12 stolen bases.
ASU's player with the most experience is senior utility player Nick Walsh. The fifth-year senior out of Alamo, Calif., has proven he can play the infield and outfield and has been a clutch hitter throughout his career. He hit .353 last year with seven doubles and 23 RBI.
"Nick Walsh is just one of those guys that finds a way to get it done," said Murphy. "He knows his role on this team and really does a great job making sure he is the best he can possibly be in that role."
Catcher Joel Bocchi also returns after having an excellent fall practice and will compete for the starting spot at designated hitter. Back in the mix after redshirting last year are outfielders Nick Cadena and Ryan McKenna. Cadena will add power to the lineup after hitting six homers as a freshman in 2002 and can also play in the infield. McKenna adds a solid glove in the outfield and has two years experience playing in the Pac-10.
While the Devils will have to replace most of their pitching staff from last year, the large task at hand for pitching coach Chris Sinacori is made a bit easier with the return of two solid sophomores. Left-handers Erik Averill and Brett Bordes are both locks for the starting rotation heading into the season.
Averill earned freshman All-America honors last year while going 8-2 with a 3.66 ERA in 86.0 innings. Bordes was used exclusively as a reliever, posting a 1-1 record with a 3.21 ERA in 27 appearances.
"Nick Walsh is just one of those guys that finds a way to get it done."
Head Coach Pat Murphy
"Averill and Bordes are the lone veteran pitchers and will have to really step up this year," added Murphy. "Averill has gotten a lot stronger and has the poise to be our Friday night starter. Bordes is really coming into his own and is still learning how to pitch. He is extremely aggressive and really attacks the strike zone."
The 2004 Sun Devils will feature a lot of new faces... 22 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."
The class of rookies is one that is going to have a relatively small learning curve. Several players will be expected to make immediate impacts while also gaining their first experience in major college baseball.
"I think the younger players have already grasped what it takes to be a Sun Devil," added Murphy. "They all had a meeting and sat down and expressed what it means to be a part of this program. They express that being a Sun Devil means that you play hard every time you step on that field and you take your game to a new level of excellence."
Freshman outfielder Colin Curtis and infielder Joe Persichina are expected to earn starting spots in the field, while junior college transfers Josh Asanovich and Chris Cook are contenders to open the season as the starting second baseman and first baseman, respectively. Freshman utility player Taylor Holiday and outfielder Eric Williams will also provide a spark for the Sun Devils.
The pitching staff will rely heavily on the rookie class. Senior transfer Jeff Mousser returns to his hometown after playing three years at BYU. The Marcos de Niza product is a workhorse on the mound and is expected to compete for a spot in the starting rotation. Freshman Zechry Zinocola, Pat Bresnehan and Pat Cassa all contribute innings as well. Junior college transfers Jason Urquidez, Ty Marotz and Ladd Hall also bring experience to the pitching corps from the highly competitive Arizona junior college system. Urquidez, who went 9-4 with three saves and a 1.89 ERA at Central Arizona College last year, is slated to be ASU's go-to guy in the late innings.
The Starting Rotation:
Different from years past, pitching coach Chris Sinacori heads into the 2004 season with three names scribbled on a blackboard in his office: Erik Averill, Jeff Mousser and Brett Bordes.
"Those are my guys right now and I really like our odds with those guys on the front end of things," said Sinacori, who last year tutored the ASU pitchers to its best team ERA (3.32) since 1976. "Behind them we have a lot of talent with our newcomers, but also a lot of inexperience."
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. Sinacori expects junior Jason Urquidez to lock down the closer role and pitch the eighth and ninth innings of a lot of games. Zinicola and Bresnehan each had outstanding fall practices and each have experience playing for the USA Baseball Junior National Team that will be key in making the transition to college baseball. Ty Marotz and Ladd Hall will also fill in the long relief role.
"Guys like Urquidez, Zinicola and Bresnehan have the potential to dominate," added Sinacori. "We also have some younger guys that can really help us as situational pitchers."
The catching position will be one of the most experienced spots on the Sun Devil roster. Juniors Tuffy Gosewisch and Joel Bocchi have combined for 87 starts behind the dish and each offer different strengths.
"Tuffy has emerged as a team leader and has really grown within the program. He will be our starter on opening day," said Assistant Head Coach Mike Rooney. "Joel is a great offensive player and I don't know if there is a better backup catcher in the nation. He will be one of the guys that will always be in the lineup at designated hitter or some other position."
With Larish departed to the outfield, the Devils will have to replace one of the most productive positions from last year. Larish, Mike Guerrero and Jeremy West combined to hit .398 (104-for-261) with 20 home runs and 106 RBI in 2003. Junior college transfer Chris Cook really emerged from fall practices as a leading candidate for the starting spot, but has also been pushed by Frank Mesa and redshirt sophomore Nick Cadena.
"We have a lot to work with at first base and that is a good thing," said Rooney, who oversees the infielders. "Cadena and Cook offer tremendous power at the plate and are solid defenders. Mesa has shown he can play every infield position and will be in the lineup every day."
Junior Josh Asanovich appears to be the heir-apparent at second base after a solid junior college career at Central Arizona. He hit .346 with five home runs as a sophomore at CAC while earning all-region honors.
"Guys like Urquidez, Zinicola and Bresnehan have the potential to dominate."
Pitching Coach Chris Sinacori
The infield will be built around junior shortstop Dustin Pedroia. Generally regarded as one of the top players in college baseball, Pedroia enters his junior year as a career .379 hitter with 202 hits and 47 doubles. The 2003 Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year is coming off a record-breaking season after hitting .404 with 34 doubles and 52 RBI. The sure-handed shortstop was named the Collegiate Baseball National Defensive Player of the Year and has made only 12 errors in 542 chances during his career (.978 FLD%).
"He is the complete ballplayer," added Rooney. "He is just one of those kids that is the best player on the field at all times. He has tremendous confidence and every player on the field likes their chances of winning when they are around him. He is one of those players that won't be denied."
The hot corner could be an evolving position as the year moves on. Freshman Joe Persichina had a solid fall and looks to contend for the starting spot when the season opens against Florida State. Mesa started 29 games at third base last year and if he is not playing first or second, will start at third. Zinicola also has shown promise to be a great two-way player, with third base and designated hitter his best options when not pitching.
"Third base will be the position that we will greatly benefit from having such versatile players," said Rooney. "We have a number of options that really give our team the best shot at winning games."
Preseason All-American Jeff Larish will make his debut in the outfield in 2004. A starter at third base in 2002 and at first base in 2003, he will be making his third position change in as many years. Regarded as one of the top prospects for the June Amateur Draft, Larish is coming off a breakthrough season in which he hit .372 with 95 RBI and 18 home runs. He led the NCAA with 78 walks and broke the ASU single-season record with four grand slams. He added 10 pounds of muscle with an intense strength and conditioning program during the fall.
"Jeff is just a true baseball player who is a student of the game," said ASU assistant coach Jay J. Sferra, who coaches the outfielders. "The transition has gone great so far and with Jeff in the outfield it really gives us a lot of offense at one of the corner outfield positions."
A pair of Washington natives will man the center and right field positions to give the Devils a very dynamic and speedy outfield.
Freshman sensation Colin Curtis is penciled in as the opening day center fielder with the departure of Ryan Bosch and Andre Ethier. Curtis is one of the most decorated high school players to join the Sun Devil program in recent years and possesses a style of play most link to St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Jim Edmonds.
Sophomore Travis Buck will start in right field after splitting time between the corner outfield positions during his freshman season. Buck made the transition from a high school shortstop to one of the best defensive outfielders in the Pac-10 last year. A solid defensive season was backed up by a .326 batting average the plate, ranking eighth in the ASU freshman record books.
"Curtis and Buck really give us a lot of speed and athleticism in the outfield and will really cut down balls in the gaps," commented Sferra. "They are also speed guys at the plate from the left side who can really lay down a bunt and beat out an infield hit."
Also vying for playing time in the outfield will be redshirt junior Ryan McKenna, freshman Eric Williams and utility player Taylor Holiday. McKenna sat out last year to add strength in the weight room and adds experience to the outfield with 69 career games under his belt.
"It will be an exciting year with a lot of talented players at every position and some fresh faces for the Sun Devil faithful to watch," added Murphy. "We will be tested with a tough schedule, but it will be an exciting year that we expect to end in Omaha!"