NCAA sanctions done, ASU baseball aiming for CWS berth

Could Arizona State baseball have won a national title last year?  We’ll never know the answer to that question because NCAA sanctions kept the Sun Devils from post-season play.

They recorded their 50th straight 30-win season last year, which has become the longest current streak in Division I baseball, and finished the season 36-20 overall and 18-12 in conference play.

Two Pac-12 teams did get to travel to Omaha to play in the College World Series last year, UCLA and Arizona, which won the 2012 title.  ASU beat them both during the regular season.

The Devils won one of three in their series with the Bruins, but the two games they dropped were by one run and two runs.  Against Arizona, they won two of the five meetings – and two of those they lost were again by one and two runs.  In the two wins over the national champions, the ASU hitters pounded out a combined 21 runs.

But that’s water under the bridge, as they say.  The better question now is whether they can win it this year, with a team that has changed its composition considerably since last year.  The Devils must blend 15 newcomers with 19 returning players.

The Collegiate Baseball pre-season Top 40 poll ranks them at No. 16 nationally.  And that’s a couple notches up from No. 18 Arizona, which is the team that won it all last year.

A class of freshmen that is ranked third-best in the country by Collegiate Baseball no doubt helped boost early projections.  But ASU will be without its No. 1 starting pitcher, Brady Rodgers, and closer, Jake Barrett, from last year – and must also find replacements for several key positions.

But those returning include Trevor Williams, the First Team All-America pitcher; catcher Max Rossiter; infielders James McDonald, Michael Benjamin, and Drew Stankiewicz; and outfielders Trever Allen and Kasey Coffman.  Rossiter and McDonald were All-Conference picks last season.

Incredibly, all but Williams are local products.  Rossiter is a senior from Highland High School in Gilbert who played at Central Arizona College before coming to Tempe; McDonald is a junior from Chaparral High School in Scottsdale; Benjamin is a junior from Basha High School in Chandler; Allen is a redshirt sophomore who played at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe; Stankiewicz is a sophomore from Gilbert High School; and Coffman comes from Brophy Prep in Phoenix.

The incoming help on the mound includes a few who will likely see action in their first year, including Ryan Kellogg, Ryan Burr, Brett Lilek, and David Graybill from Brophy Prep.  All four were selected in the MLB Draft; Kellogg and Lilek are lefties who will provide some depth to the staff from that side of the rubber.

“We have one of the deepest pitching staffs in the history of  Sun Devil baseball,” noted head coach Tim Esmay, “and our hitters are going to be very good.”

Fans will begin to get an early idea of just how good this team will be Saturday afternoon when they play in the annual Alumni Game.

But the actual schedule of 56 games begins with the season opener against Bethune-Cookman on Feb. 15 at Packard Stadium.  That game will be the first of 28 home games this season, in a challenging schedule that includes 22 games against teams that advanced to the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

That game against Bethune will be the first of six ‘tune-up’ games to prepare for their meeting with the pre-season No. 1 team, Arkansas, whom they are scheduled to play twice in the Coca Cola Classic tournament that is played in Surprise from Feb. 28 – March 3.

After those games are in the books, we will have a much better idea of just how steep ASU’s road to Omaha will be this year.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)