Pitching gives ASU the edge vs. Clemson at CWS

Arizona State is coming off back-to-back games against Arkansas that went 12 innings each before the Sun Devils were able to move on to the College World Series.

That was no picnic, but the road gets a little steeper yet as the No. 1 Sun Devils get ready to take on Clemson in their CWS opener tomorrow.

ASU is one of just two teams returning from last year’s CWS and are generally considered the favorites to make it all the way this year.  The oddsmakers have them as a +160 favorite, while Clemson is one of three teams that sport the longest odds to win.  The Tigers join South Carolina and Texas Christian at +1000 odds.

Actually, this first game will be one of those movie script match-ups, with ASU playing the role of the favorite and Clemson already dubbed the underdog of this year’s series.  They’ve even been called the “Cinderella” of the CWS.

But the Devils can’t let that distract them mentally.  Clemson has been playing well during the post-season and has the power at the plate to get the job done.

The Tigers won the ACC Atlantic Division title, but is the only regional No. 2 seed to make it to the field of eight in Omaha.

It took the Tigers three games to dispose of Alabama in the Super Regionals, losing the first game and having to come back to win the next two.  But they crushed the Tide in the second game, 19-5, and held off a ninth-inning rally in the deciding game to win, 8-6.  They scored 31 runs over the three-game series.

ASU swept its Super Regional series against Arkansas to earn its date with Clemson.  But it took 24 innings and almost nine hours to get the job done, as the Devils rallied twice when they were down to their last strike.

In the opening game, the Sun Devils had to come from behind to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth and eventually win in the 12th on an RBI single by Deven Marrero for a 7-6 victory.  The second game also went 12 innings, but ended a little more dramatically when Drew Maggi parked a two-run homer for the 7-5 win.

ASU (52-8) is the No. 1 national seed for the first time since the tournament began seeding teams a decade ago when the NCAA Baseball Tournament expanded the field to 64 teams.  They are also the only returning team from last year’s CWS.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that a top-seeded team hasn’t picked up the trophy since 2001 when Miami pulled it off.

But the plain and simple truth is that ASU is a team that earned the No. 1 seed.  They have more depth offensively, a team that has no weak spots in the line-up; they can all hit the ball.  Seven of the nine starters are batting .327 or better, which keeps the pressure on opposing pitchers .

ASU is hitting .338 as a team, averages more than eight runs a game, and has hit 68 home runs.

Combine that with one of the best pitching staffs in the country and you have a national title contender.

The pitching staff actually has greater depth than last year’s when they finished third at the CWS after getting beat by Texas.  That 2009 pitching staff was ranked No. 1 in the nation with a 2.90 ERA.

This year, the Sun Devils pitchers combine for a 3.14 ERA, third best in the nation, and among the top 10 in strike-outs.  But they go so deep, with relievers Brady Rodgers (2.03 ERA) and Mitchell Lambson (2.10 ERA), and closer Jordan Swagerty (school-record 14 saves) taking over from a talented group of starters.

They send two high-round draft picks to the mound.  Seth Blair, 12-0 with a 3.35 ERA, was a first-round pick and probably will get the start tomorrow.  Jordan Swagerty, 8-2 with a 2.06 ERA, went in the second round.  The No. 3 starter, sophomore Jake Borup, has 11 wins, and Merrill Kelly has 10.

ASU is not a power team, but has the ability to bring the long ball when it’s needed.  Kole Calhoun, who was selected to the All-College World Series Team last year, has 17 home runs this year.  And Zack MacPhee became ASU’s single-season record-holder for triples, with 14 this season.

But the Devils get on base often, and do as much damage as possible once there.  Five players have double-digit steals, lead by Maggi’s 35 thefts.

Clemson (43-23) can hit the ball, too. The Tigers are coming into the CWS with a team batting average of .310, but they have been doing better than that stat indicates so far in the post-season.

Kyle Parker leads the Tigers with 20 home runs this season, but teammates John Hinson and Jeff Schaus have 17 and 15, respectively.  The Tigers are capable of scoring against good pitching.  They hit Auburn’s staff well in the Regionals and had little trouble with Alabama’s pitchers in the Super Regionals.

The Tiger pitching staff is not as strong as ASU’s, or most any other team in Omaha, but they’ve been able to do a good enough job to get them to the CWS.  They have four solid starting pitchers and a bullpen that has been very effective of late.

Casey Harman leads the pitching corps with a 3.73 ERA in 108 2/3 innings, and will likely get the call for tomorrow’s game.

But the Tigers are a poor fielding team.  Which means they will have a long night if the Sun Devils are their usual nasty selves at the plate.

The College World Series is like a second home to ASU teams.  They’ve been to Omaha four times since 2005.  This will be the Sun Devils’ 22nd trip to the event.  They’ve won five national titles, but the last one was in 1981.

This may be the year they break the No. 1 seed ‘curse’ and bring home another trophy.

They have Clemson, Oklahoma, and South Carolina in their bracket to deal with first.  And, if they navigate those waters successfully, they could find themselves face-to-face with UCLA, coming out of the other bracket, in the championship game.

It’s more than just possible.  The Bruins have the best odds (+200) to win it all, right behind the Devils.  And their pitching is on a par; they actually have a better team ERA at 2.97.

The two teams have been on a collision course all year long, since starting out white-hot with school-record winning streaks to start the season (see 6-12 article: ASU, UCLA seem fated to meet in College World Series).

A Pac-10 title game.  Couldn’t get any better.

But first up is Clemson, and a rough road ahead.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)