ASU baseball packs the house as it sets best-start record

There’s nothing like winning to put fannies in the stadium seats.  Throw in the drama of a drive to break a 49-year-old record, and you have a full house.

Arizona State drew a sell-out crowd for each of the three baseball games against California this weekend.  There hasn’t been a sell-out at the 4,371-seat Packard Stadium since last year’s rivalry showdown with University of Arizona.

And no one left disappointed.

The Sun Devils did, indeed, break the school record for best start in a season, held until now by a Bobby Winkles team in 1961.  That squad started 21-0, but now this year’s edition is 23-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally.

There was plenty for Sun Devil fans to enjoy in the three-game series, besides the beautiful spring weather, including great hitting and some strong performances on the mound.

In the first game, the Devils tied the best-start record by putting on a hitting display, scoring 12 runs scattered throughout the game.  The first five runs came from nine singles, and Matt Newman, a junior outfielder, put on his own exhibition, racking up five RBIs in the 12-5 win.

In the second game, Deven Marrero parked a three-run homer, the first of his career, and the Devils collected a 6-1 win.  Marrero was just one of four Devils collecting two hits apiece, including Zach Wilson, Johnny Ruettiger, and Riccio Torrez.

And the third contest offered a pitching gem by Jake Borup, who worked 7.2 innings and posted 21 consecutive outs that included 13 strike-outs, a career high for the sophomore right-hander and a season high for ASU.  During one stretch, Borup fanned eight of nine hitters.  He’s 5-0 on the season with a 2.14 ERA and 36 strike-outs.

The effort earned the Mountain View HS grad Pac-10 Pitcher of the Week honors and selection by Collegiate Baseball as the Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week.

And to mix in a little more drama in that third game, the Devils kept their fans on the edge of their seats until the very end, when sophomore Drew Maggi poked a game-winning RBI single to score Raoul Torrez, who stole second to get into scoring position, for the 3-2 win.

And here’s a stat to reinforce just how solid this squad has been so far.  Their last game was the first time this season that the Devils have been forced to take their final at-bats in the ninth inning.

There are a number of reasons this team has been able to stabilize itself after losing its head coach, Pat Murphy, in the off-season and still get off to a record start.

ASU is getting solid performances from its pitching staff, a big contributor to the 23-0 start.  Seth Blair, the winning pitcher in the opener with Cal, is 4-0 on the season, and Merrill Kelly pitched 6.1 innings in the second game, striking out five for the win and a 6-0 mark in six starts.

The Devils miss their All-American pitcher, Josh Spence, who is still out with an arm injury, but have compensated for it.  The pitching staff  boasted a collective 2.97 ERA going into the Cal series, which is eighth-best in the nation.

And, if they run short of good pitchers, Jordan Swagerty can put down his catcher’s mitt and come out from behind the plate to take over on the mound – as he did in the ninth inning of Sunday’s game.

Mix in success at the plate, and you have a team poised to win its fourth consecutive conference title.  The line-up was hitting .362 going into the Cal series, with two players, Wilson and Zack MacPhee, sporting batting averages well over .400.

And then there are the intangibles.

Senior leadership has been important this year because the team does have a lot of young players.  But Torrez, Spence, and pitcher Kole Calhoun have stepped up this year and provided good direction.

And turning the team over to Tim Esmay in November, who was part of Murphy’s staff, was a good move by the administration.  He was a coach that the players liked and respected, and they are responding well to his more relaxed style and more communicative way of dealing with them.

It’s only natural at this point for the players to begin thinking not only Pac-10 title, but maybe even a national championship.  They’ve got the roster depth to make a run at it.  And ASU has won five national championships – but the last was way back in 1981.  Other really good ASU teams have set their sights on the big prize, but weren’t able to accomplish it.  Last year’s squad went to the World Series again, but finished tied for third.

The litmus test will be its play against other Pac-10 teams.  As they start conference play, they are staring down a tough road.  They have 15 road games against Pac-10 foes.  Only one team in the conference is playing under .500 ball.

In fact, UCLA is the only other team in the nation right now that is also undefeated, sporting a school-record 20-0 start and No. 6 national ranking.  The Bruins have the second-best batting percentage in the conference, behind University of Arizona and one notch ahead of ASU.

A three-game series at UCLA at the end of next month will be a real test.

But right now, the Devils are getting ready for a series against Oregon that begins Thursday.  They will face a trio of pitchers with the lowest ERAs in the conference.

And the game is in Eugene.

If the Devils need a reality check, this might be it.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)