OK, so it wasn’t the perfect start to a season for Arizona State baseball and its new head coach, Tracy Smith.
That would have looked more like the 3-0 start that University of Arizona and Grand Canyon University baseball are enjoying. Or even better, the 9-0 beginning to the UofA softball season.
The Sun Devils may be a half-step behind everyone else right now, with a 2-1 start. But, hey, there are still 52 games left to play in the regular season. Plenty of time to get back on track.
Actually, ASU beat Oklahoma State in back-to-back games before dropping the final contest in the opening series of the season. However, it was no easy task. It took the Devils 10 innings to post the 4-3 opening-day victory and then had to escape the eighth inning of the second game when the Cowboys loaded the bases and threatened to blow the game wide open.
And they came back from a 6-0 deficit in the Sunday finale before falling one run short of a sweep, dropping that game 9-8.
It’s also important to point out here that the Sun Devils didn’t open Smith’s inaugural season with the program against just any ol’ opponent. Oklahoma State came into the weekend as the No. 5-ranked team in the country.
No doubt, the Devils impressed the Cowboys with their play. And, hopefully, the visitors from the Sooner State were equally impressed with the team’s new digs. This is the year that ASU begins using Phoenix Municipal Stadium after relocating from the aging Packard Stadium on campus. The Muni, located in Papago Park just a few miles from campus, is being used by ASU on a 25-year arrangement that gives the school priority on the stadium’s use.
Along with the new home, the team will also be breaking in a new head coach as Smith takes on the responsibility of being just the fifth head coach in ASU program history. He arrived on campus early last summer after nine years as the Indiana Hoosiers’ head coach, replacing Tim Esmay who was forced to resign after failing to make the kind of progress that had been expected, failing in his four years to get the tradition-rich program back to the College World Series. (See 6/10/14 phxfan article on Esmay’s resignation)
Smith will be able to take advantage of Esmay’s recruiting successes until he can build his own roster. And that includes a pitching staff that includes three pre-season All-America selections, the only school in Division I with that many All-America pitchers on board to start the season.
That trio includes junior lefties Ryan Kellogg and Brett Lilek in the starting rotation, and right-handed closer Ryan Burr. Kellogg is a two-time First Team All-Conference selection with an impressive 14-1 record against Pac-12 teams, Lilek was one of just three pitchers in the conference last season to finish the regular season in the top eight in ERA, and Burr has posted 12 saves in his two years on the mound at ASU and has held opponents to under a .150 batting average both years.
Lilek pitched 4.2 innings in the opener and Burr was the winning pitcher in that game, while Kellogg got the “W” in Game 2 and Burr was also credited with the save in that game.
The Sun Devils were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 pre-season coaches’ poll, and their performance in taking the first series of the season – against a top-ranked opponent – appears to justify that placement, if not warrant an even higher projection.
ASU piled up 32 hits over the weekend, collecting a dozen in both the series opener and the Sunday finale. And they used power at the plate to clinch the opening win, thanks to a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th by sophomore shortstop Colby Woodmansee.
This is an offense that finished last season with the best team batting average (.284) in the Pac-12, and more hits (580) than any other team in the conference. This year’s roster includes 22 letterwinners from that 2014 squad that finished a 33-24 season ranked third in the conference.
It looks like the new coach can expect continued fan support. The three-day attendance against OSU was 10,360 and Sunday’s turnout of 3,229 fans is the largest Sunday crowd since March of 2011.
Now, all it takes to keep those turnstyles spinning is more winning. That will keep the fans happy.
But an appearance in the World Series is what it will take to keep Smith’s bosses happy.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)