By Jeff Munn
Times change, years come and go, but for longtime ASU fans, one thing has remained the same– their affection for the history and tradition of Sun Devil Baseball.
Going into the 2016 season, expectations were not high. Second-year Head Coach Tracy Smith had an alarmingly young roster on his hands, and while his incoming recruiting class for 2017 is reported to be one of the nation’s best, 2016 was expected to be a year of growing pains.
Now, with one month left in the season, the inexperience is slowly giving way to strong performance on the mound, at the plate and in the field. As a result, momentum is building for these Sun Devils.
When ASU lost at home to Utah 16-7 the day before Easter, their conference mark stood at 1-5.
Their bullpen didn’t create much confidence, and their hitters had way too much swing and miss.
Nothing felt right with a program used to winning, and winning a lot.
It all started to change three weeks later, and in keeping with the theme of youth, a freshman was the catalyst.
In the deciding game of their home series with then-15th rated California, Smith, who had used most of his bullpen in an 11-inning loss the day before, turned to freshman left-hander Zach Dixon as his Sunday starter. Dixon’s stat line entering the start: one inning pitched on the season, in two appearances. All Smith could realistically hope for was to get the Las Vegas native through Cal’s order once, then see who was available to follow.
What Dixon did was the stuff seasons turn on: the kid tossed a three-hit shutout, as ASU won the game and the series by a 4-0 score. It started a run that has seen the Devils win seven of their last nine, including the program’s first sweep at Stanford since 1997. Equally as impressive was last weekend’s non conference sweep of New Mexico – a team that is at or near the top nationally in most offensive categories. In the three games against the Lobos, UNM never led in any game, and an explosive offense was reduced to a pop gun in the series finale, scratching out just three hits in a 1-0 ASU walk-off victory.
The night before, lefthander Eli Lingos allowed six hits in six innings, but none were for extra bases. In the series opener, junior Seth Martinez of Peoria Sunrise Mountain High School limited the Lobos to two runs over six-plus, allowing him to maintain a 1.73 ERA.
The at-bats have improved. A more disciplined approach, in which hitters are using the whole field, has cut down on strikeouts while testing the numerical limits of the hits column on the scoreboard at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
There are still signs of youth. The defense can extend innings a little too often, but the enthusiasm, energy and hustle of the guys in Maroon and Gold is more than making up for it. Without a consistent power threat, baserunners are ultra-aggressive, which can lead to painful results at times, but given the effort, no one is complaining.
Smith has also distinguished himself for knowing how to handle his players. Chiding them when it’s deserved, encouraging when it’s needed, Smith has mixed and matched with his pitchers effectively.
In Dixon’s breakout performance, Cal put the first two men on in the ninth. With a reliever ready to go, Smith went to the mound, just to encourage Dixon to relax and have fun. Dixon closed it out from there.
There are examples of young ASU teams stumbling early only to rally late in the year. In 1983, a baby-faced roster under the late Dr. Jim Brock caused the coach a lot of sleepless nights until a mid- season game at UCLA. In the 11th inning, the Devils got a two-run homer from freshman left fielder Barry Bonds to beat the Bruins. The young Devils used the win to spark a late-season run that took them all the way to semifinals of that year’s College World Series.
It’s not fair to compare this team with the 1983 squad, but the fact remains that, at 11-10 in the Pac-12, the Devils find themselves in a race where the top nine teams are separated by three games.
After taking two of three over the weekend from the Oregon Duck these young, energetic Sun Devils have their fate still very much in their own hands. That includes next weekend at Arizona – a late season series with the Cats that will, for the first time in a long, long time, have a post season feel. UofA sits just one-half game behind front-running Washington atop the Pac-12 standings.
The post-season trek will likely hit some potholes with the Devils on the road for their next games.
Long time ASU fans have always professed their love for their baseball heritage. It’s time to demonstrate that love. This team has earned it.