Griffin Fabits • College Times
Postseason could be in the books for flawless Sun Devils baseball
Bundled up fans spilled into Phoenix Municipal Stadium to watch the Arizona State baseball team win its 16th consecutive game, improving to 16-0 with a 7-3 win over New Mexico State on March 13.
The 6:30 p.m. first pitch was paired with a mid-60s degree chill, and the temperature crudely fell as the night progressed. But these days – rain or shine or cold or warm – there’s an urgency to watch Sun Devils baseball.
An urgency that was lost the previous two seasons.
The Sun Devils’ flawless start to the regular season is good and one of the best starts in program history. They are the No. 25-ranked team in Division I, according to the NCAA, the first time ASU has cracked the rankings since 2016. They also find themselves atop the Pac-12 Conference standings.
After consecutive losing seasons with 23-32 records – which checked out as the worst two-year stretch in program history – Tempe appears to be host to a baseball school once more.
“I’m proud of our guys,” manager Tracy Smith says following ASU’s win over New Mexico State. “I thought they battled tonight on the mound.”
In Smith’s fifth season at the helm of the program, he likely possesses the most stacked roster he’s had in his Tempe tenure.
Through 16 games, the Sun Devils are averaging 10.5 runs per game. They are powered at the top of the lineup courtesy of sluggers Trevor Hauver, Spencer Torkelson and Hunter Bishop.
The sophomore Torkelson is coming off a historic freshmen campaign in which he swatted 25 home runs, breaking Barry Bonds’ ASU single-season record for most home runs by a freshman.
Torkelson is batting .379 this spring with two home runs and 20 RBI.
Paired with Torkelson in the meat of the Sun Devils order is the junior Bishop, who has hit practically everything that has been thrown his way.
He’s batting .452 with a team-leading 10 home runs, 25 RBI and a double-take-worthy slugging percentage of 1.048. To put his dominance into perspective, he’s homered as many times as he’s struck out this season.
Bishop homered twice versus New Mexico State, while also robbing a three-run home run from straightaway center field.
“That was a four-run swing,” Smith says, reasoning that Bishop singlehandedly kept three runs off the board with the catch while adding his solo home run.
When you have a formidable one-two punch in the middle of the order, it’s important you have table setters in front of them, guys who can reach base and set the table for the big boys.
Hauver has excelled in doing just that this season, owning a .391 batting average and a .500 on-base percentage. He leads the team with 16 walks, and trails Bishop for the home run lead. Hauver, a sophomore hailing from Chandler, hit his sixth home run of the season versus the Aggies.
The Sun Devils have been a nightmare for opposing pitching staffs. They boast the nation’s second-best offense, with a .354 team batting average, a .567 slugging percentage and 161 runs scored.
March 13 was just the sixth time the Sun Devils have been held to single-digits this season, a snapshot of the night-in, night-out power display.
“I don’t think you win championships by your offense, I think you win championships by your pitching and your defense,” Smith says.
To counter Smith’s point, what’s been equally as impressive as the offensive corps has been ASU’s pitching staff.
And it just so happens they hushed the nation’s best offense – the New Mexico State Aggies – in win No. 16.
The Aggies bat .403 and score an average of 13.3 runs per game. But against the Sun Devils, they managed a mere three runs on seven hits.
The revival of the Sun Devils’ pitching staff has been instrumental in bringing competitive baseball back to Tempe. Two summers ago, ASU hired former Major League pitcher Mike Cather as the team’s pitching coach.
Since Cather’s arrival, ASU pitching has been stingy to opposing hitters. This spring, they’ve masterfully thrown to the tune of a 2.16 ERA, striking out 148 hitters while walking just 58 in 146 innings. They’ve held hitters to an average residing just above the Mendoza Line at .213.
What might be most encouraging to Cather is that the Sun Devils are getting contributions from nearly everyone in the bullpen. Of the nine relievers who have logged at least seven innings this season, eight have ERAs under 4.00.
Junior starting pitcher Alec Marsh has been arguably the Sun Devils’ best arm, throwing a team-high 28.2 IP with a squeaky-clean 0.94 ERA, 30 punchouts and eight walks.
The Sun Devils are vying for their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2016, led by Smith and Cather and an impressive supporting cast.
Another crack at the first NCAA Tournament championship title since 1981 won’t be decided until June.
And expectations and the excitement surrounding the chances of capturing a College World Series title will surely be tempered until then, but for now, the Sun Devils couldn’t be more pleased with their flawless start to this season.