The Arizona State softball team took care of their end of the business on Tuesday night, winning the NCAA Championship for the second time in four years.
Now, it’s the guys’ turn.
ASU’s baseball squad swept through the regional tournament, going 3-0 to advance to this week’s Super Regional in Austin, TX, the fifth straight time they’ve made it this far. They will take on the No. 7 national seed, University of Texas, hoping to earn a berth in the College World Series.
(*Update: ASU took a 2-0 lead in the top of the third and held on for a 3-1 win in tonight’s first game. Texas outhit ASU, 8-5. Brady Rodgers was the winning pitcher, Mitchell Lambson got the save.)
Just the fact that the team is still playing is a huge win for the program. In December, the players were told they wouldn’t have the chance this year to play in the post-season, due to NCAA sanctions imposed for violations during the Pat Murphy era. But the administration appealed the ruling, and the team found out in the last week of the regular season that they would be eligible to play.
Which seems only fitting since this year’s squad put together a 39-16 regular-season record and earned a No. 11 national ranking. They went into the regional, which was played in Tempe at Packard Stadium, as the No. 1 seed.
The Sun Devils (42-16) lost three of their last four games of the season, but finished on a high note, beating UCLA in the final game, 10-5. After learning they had been given a new life, they rolled through the regional games, beating New Mexico, Charlotte, and finally Arkansas.
Texas (47-16) won a share of the Big 12 title, but struggled in its regional as the Longhorns lost the second game and had to work their way back up through the loser’s bracket, forced to win three in a row to move on to the Super Regional.
But Texas coach Augie Garrido felt that being forced to play elimination games might have been good for his team. “It’s had an effect,” he admitted. “Fortunately, it has been a positive effect… I think they are motivated by the sense of urgency connected to the season coming to an end.”
Since the top eight national seeds are rewarded by being able to host the Super Regional, should they advance that far, Texas will host the Sun Devils.
So tonight’s game will be played in UFCU Disch-Falk Field – which is not hitter-friendly. It’s one of college’s bigger ball parks, so there are wider gaps in the outfield, which spreads the outfielders and makes speed a necessity.
ASU coach Tim Esmay said playing at Texas brings back memories, some good and some bad. “This is a tough place to play,” he said, “and playing a team like Texas this time of year is college baseball at its finest.”
And the ball doesn’t carry well inside Disch-Falk field, due in part to the Texas humidity during the summer.
That will likely work in the Longhorns’ favor, since they don’t have the kind of power in the lineup that ASU enjoys. Texas has one of the most talented and deepest pitching staffs in the country, but carries just a .272 team batting average.
A good example of their depth in the bullpen can be seen in their final regional game, when they blanked Kent State, 5-0. The ‘Horns used six pitchers to get the job done.
Their pitching staff has a combined 2.33 ERA, which is the second-best in the country.
The Sun Devils, who bring a .305 batting average to the party, count more on their offense, but have a deep pitching staff as well. They are scheduled to start a sophomore in the opener of the best-of-three series, as Brady Rodgers takes an 8-4 record and 2.85 ERA to the mound, and then pitch junior Kramer Champlin, a 33rd round selection in the MLB draft, in the second game.
Texas will lead off with its ace, Taylor Jungmann, who is 13-1 on the year and sports a 1.39 ERA. The imposing right-hander was the 12th overall pick in the draft.
And the Longhorn staff also includes the Collegiate Baseball Freshman of the Year, Corey Knebel. The righty set the school’s freshman record this year with 17 saves and carries a 1.23 ERA.
This series may well come down to a pitchers’ duel, but it should be a good one. These two teams are among the elite in college baseball; between them, they own 11 national titles.
Texas owns the edge in head-to-head meetings, 6-5. But that won’t mean much when they take the field tonight.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)