Arizona State Baseball: 5 Keys to a Trip to the NCAA Super Regionals
The 18th-ranked Arizona State baseball team (33-22, 19-11) enters the 2014 NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed in the Cal Poly region. The Sun Devils closed the season by winning nine of their last 10 games, but they face a challenging group of teams, including nationally ranked Cal Poly and Pepperdine and WAC champion Sacramento State.
ASU has had a roller-coaster season that has featured polarizing early-season position battles, a starting pitcher reassume the closing duties and the closing of its iconic home ballpark, Packard Stadium.
Yet after all the distractions, peaks and troughs, the Sun Devils find themselves in a familiar place. Making their 14th consecutive postseason appearance and 37th in program history, the Sun Devils are one of the most storied and most dangerous teams in the postseason picture.
If they accomplish these five keys, they will be in a position to make their first appearance in Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series since 2010.
Ryan "Big Game" Kellogg Plays Up to His Nickname
Even though Ryan Kellogg is not ASU’s Friday starter and does not sport the lowest ERA among starting pitchers, few would argue that he is not the Sun Devils ace.
The sophomore southpaw set a freshman school record last year with 11 wins (which earned him a trip to Cape Cod last summer) and then was equally as brilliant this year, leading the team with eight wins and 96 innings pitched. Even more impressive is his stellar 64-18 ratio of strikeouts to walks. To put such a stat into perspective, Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price is currently on pace to shatter the Major League record with a ratio of 84-8.
Kellogg was also selected as ASU’s most valuable player for the second straight season, according to Jeff Metcalfe of AZCentral.com. The biggest reasons for Kellogg defending his MVP recognition were his performances against ranked teams. He has four wins over top-15 teams this year—most notably 12 strikeouts against Oregon, 10 strikeouts in five innings against Oklahoma State and a complete game against Oregon State.
Kellogg underwhelmed in his latest outing against unranked Washington State, lasting only 3.1 innings (his shortest outing of the season) and allowing 10 hits and eight earned runs. But luckily for Kellogg, Cal Poly is ranked fifth in the country and Pepperdine is 25th. Given his track record of bringing his best stuff to dominate ranked teams, there is no reason to expect anything other than vintage Ryan “Big Game” Kellogg.
Which Ryan Burr Will Show Up?
The biggest narrative at the beginning of the season for Arizona State was the addition of Ryan Burr to the starting rotation. Confining him to the bullpen after his school record 12 saves as a freshman and his domination for Team USA over the summer made little sense. Thus, he joined the likes of sophomores Ryan Kellogg and Brett Lilek to round out ASU's star-studded rotation.
But after only three toiling starts, Burr announced his decision to return to the bullpen and assume the closing duties.
He has looked light-years more comfortable anchoring the bullpen, but he has still been uncharacteristically sporadic. At times his electric fastball is untouchable, and stats like his 12 saves, 55 strikeouts in 43.1 innings and team-leading .151 opponent’s batting average shine brightly. Yet the sophomore closer has also gone through stretches where he could not find the strike zone, and stats like his 37 walks and 1.37 WHIP will rear their ugly heads.
The low point in his season was his performance against Cal on April 4. He entered the game with a 4-1 lead and proceeded to throw 10 straight balls that included two walks and a hit batter.
But he has been better as of late. Since imploding for four earned runs and a blown save against Oregon on May 11, Burr has thrown 4.2 scoreless innings, struck out nine batters, allowed only three walks and secured two saves.
Coach Tim Esmay has been unwavering in his loyalty to his star closer, so expect that to continue during postseason play. Burr has proved that his stuff is elite, but half the battle of closing games is having the proper mindset. If he has a winner's mentality, the Sun Devils will be better for it.
Keep the Offense Rolling
They say that pitching wins championships, and solid pitching is indeed imperative for the Sun Devils in postseason play. Yet, timely hitting and disciplined at-bats are equally as essential.
After Arizona State lost two of three games to Washington in the Pac-12 opening series, coach Tim Esmay called out his team’s lack of maturity at the plate. The Sun Devils had not been stringing hits together, and a runner in scoring position with less than two outs was hardly a guaranteed run.
The Sun Devils took the coach's criticism to heart and finished the season atop the Pac-12 in nearly every offensive category: .286 batting average, .389 slugging percentage, 741 total bases and 546 hits.
The team boasts four everyday players in Drew Stankiewicz, Nate Causey, Johnny Sewald and Dalton Dinatale with batting averages of .300 or better, and four players with an on-base percentage above .400. Left fielder Jake Peevyhouse has reached base in a team-high 21 straight games, right fielder Trever Allen is currently riding a 13-game hitting streak, and shortstop Stankiewicz is hitting .500 (11-for-22) in his past five games.
This offense will need to continue to click, as the Sun Devils will face some of the nation’s most elite arms.
Cal Poly right-hander Casey Bloomquist has a sparkling 1.60 ERA and is second in the country with 12 wins. ASU will likely face Pepperdine ace Corey Miller, who leads the team with a 1.70 ERA and 105.2 innings pitched. Aaron Brown, however, has been just as productive for the Waves, sporting an 11-1 record. Fourth-seeded Sacramento State does not lack from the pitching department either. Junior Brennan Leitao is the definition of a workhouse. The 6’2”, 205-pound righty has made 17 starts, tied for the most in the country, and has logged a team-high 110 innings.
Perhaps this young Sun Devils offense has overperformed this year and will go back to looking overmatched like it was at the start of conference play. But Arizona State’s scorching hot offense has proved to be sustainable. Even high-caliber pitching staffs will have trouble quieting an Arizona State team that has averaged just more than 12 hits in its last 10 games.
Make the Routine Plays on Defense
It goes without saying that making the routine plays will be a critical factor if the Sun Devils wish to advance to the Super Regionals. After all, an abysmal 2013 season on defense caused coach Tim Esmay to make fielding one of his biggest priorities coming into this year.
The numbers certainly tell the entire story. This season, when the Sun Devils play a full nine innings without committing an error, they are 15-3. Furthermore, in the first four wins of ASU’s season-high eight-game winning streak, the team did not commit an error. The success dwindles to 8-4 when the team commits one error. Lastly, when ASU commits two errors or more, its record is a measly 10-15.
Among the nine starters for the Sun Devils, not one of them has a fielding percentage below a respectable .920. However, this statistic partially masks an unsightly reality. The issue has not been one player making a bulk of errors, but rather an error from one player leading to a self-destructing series of errors from the surrounding defense.
The fact that the Sun Devils have played 25 games (45 percent of the season) where they have committed two or more errors is unacceptable. The recipe is simple: The better the Sun Devils are on defense, the more likely they are to make a run at Omaha.
Continue to Make Adjustments
Coach Tim Esmay has not shied away from shuffling the cards. The fifth-year head coach at Arizona State entered the 2014 campaign with one focal point: In-house competition maximizes talent. The Sun Devils began the season with the starter at first base, second base and third base yet to be determined.
David Graybill began the season at first base, but his early struggles resulted in Esmay awarding the starting job to Nate Causey. He now leads the team in hits (64), doubles (14) and walks (31) and is tied for the team lead in home runs with four.
The middle infield has been a fluid situation all year for the Sun Devils. Senior Drew Stankiewicz began the season at shortstop with redshirt junior Tucker Esmay manning second base. The emergence of 6’3” freshman Colby Woodmansee and his fielding prowess at shortstop prompted Esmay to shift Stankiewicz to second base. A cold spell for Woodmansee at the plate, however, has resulted in Stankiewicz reoccupying shortstop and Esmay getting the nod at second base.
Maximizing talent is the name of the game, and it certainly holds true for the middle infield. Stankiewicz was given first-team all-conference honors as he leads the team in batting average (.337) and slugging percentage (.479). Also, amongst everyday starters, he leads the team with a 27-25 ratio of strikeouts to walks—a positive sign that he will sustain this production while facing the elite arms in the postseason.
In a recent Sun Devil All-Access video, Coach Esmay reflected on these adjustments:
It hasn't been easy. We’ve been knocked down; we’ve been put on the canvas. Every team in the country goes through that and you can either cower in the corner or you can get off the canvas and fight through it. We all had to be real with each other and make some adjustments as the year went on.
The start of postseason play is unlikely to stop Esmay from making even more adjustments, and for obvious reasons. With the margin for error so small in double-elimination play (especially with a fiercely competitive regional group), the Sun Devils cannot afford any slip in production. Whether it be pinch-hitting a bench player to set up a favorable matchup or sacrificing a power bat for a more sure-handed glove in the field, for the Sun Devils to advance to the Super Regionals, the adjustments that Esmay makes will need to continue to be flawless.