Relaxed attitude helping ASU succeed
Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.
With an offense lacking big-time offensive power and All-American pitcher Josh Spence injured, Arizona State seemed destined to get off to a slow start this season.
The Sun Devils have done the opposite.
The Devils have been unbeatable the first few weeks of the season, and sit 20-0 and No. 2 in the nation.
“I just think we’re taking things one game at a time,” pitcher Seth Blair said. “We want to win every single game. I know people talk about how baseball is a sport where you’re going to lose some games. But really, we don’t want to lose any games.”
Though everyone outside of Tempe, Ariz., is surprised at how dominant the Sun Devils have been, the feeling inside the clubhouse is much different. They expected to be this good.
Even without Spence, the Devils knew they had great arms in Blair and Mitchell Lambson. A few unknowns, like Jake Borup and Merrill Kelly, have risen to the occasion and made the staff one of the nation’s stronger units.
At the plate, the Sun Devils expected to rely heavily on Kole Calhoun – but he is hitting just .288 with two homers and 20 RBIs. That hasn’t mattered as Zack MacPhee and Zach Wilson lead the lineup with batting averages well over .400.
The lineup as a whole is hitting an amazing .362.
There are plenty of reasons the Sun Devils have had so much success, but the players point to one person: Tim Esmay – the interim head coach. Esmay took over in November after longtime coach Pat Murphy was forced out.
Esmay, the players say, has instituted a relaxed environment this season, and it is paying dividends.
“I just think there’s a different feel with Coach Esmay,” Blair said. “He lets the pitchers get through jams a little longer and he doesn’t seem to make many changes as far as the offensive lineup. Once you’re in the lineup, you’re staying in the lineup. That seems to give guys a lot of confidence.”
Sophomore Zack MacPhee, who finished last season with a .270 batting average and is now hitting .484 with three homers and 28 RBIs, agrees with Blair.
“There is definitely a little more freedom this season,” he said. “It’s not as much technical in terms of swing motions and things like that. Esmay and the guys on this staff just seem to let me do my thing, and it has been working so far this season. It’s nice that they’re letting me and other hitters do what we’re comfortable with.”
The changes have worked, and the Sun Devils are experiencing this much success without Spence. That makes the current 20-game winning streak more impressive, and bodes well for how good they will be when Spence is back in the rotation.
The Sun Devils know they are already expected to reach the College World Series.
For now, they’re focused on one thing: Friday’s game against California to start Pac-10 play.
And the team will take the field relaxed and well aware of where they will be in the pitching rotation and at the plate.
It’s the Esmay way in full effect.
“I’m not sure I’m too surprised with how good this team has been so far this season,” Esmay said. “These guys stay really focused, but sometimes we all forget that this is a sport and we’re supposed to enjoy the competition. You’re supposed to have fun. I always tell the guys not to get so wrapped up in what may happen at the end of the season.
“I think it’s important to enjoy each opportunity you have to play the game of baseball.”
Arizona State – The Sun Devils have won 20 straight games to start the 2010 season. They welcome Pac-10 play this weekend with a home series against a decent California club.
UCLA – As with ASU, the Bruins have been red-hot since the start of the season. They have a series against struggling Cal Poly this weekend before beginning conference play.
Virginia – The Cavaliers are ranked No. 1 and have won six straight games with a huge ACC series against Clemson looming this weekend.
Michigan State – The Spartans very well could win the Big Ten regular season crown this season. The surprising Spartans have won seven straight and have an impressive 12-4 overall record.
Pittsburgh – There aren’t many observers talking about the Panthers, but this team deserves recognition. Pitt is 15-4 so far this season and has won eight straight games. It will face St. John’s in a huge Big East series this weekend.
UC Irvine – It didn’t take too long for the Anteaters to get things going. They are 13-6 and have won six straight games. UCI should experience more success against Nevada this weekend.
Tulane – The Green Wave dropped a tough midweek game to New Orleans, but this team is still red hot entering this weekend’s series against Marshall. The Green Wave is 9-1 in the last ten games.
Arizona – The Wildcats have been a pleasant surprise so far this season. They have an 18-4 overall record and have won 13 straight games with a Pac-10 series against Oregon coming up this weekend.
Massachusetts – The Minutemen have played some tough teams so far this season. But until a midweek win over Hartford, the Minutemen were 0-9. They are now 1-9.
South Carolina-Upstate – It’s safe to say the Spartans have found the transition to Division I to be a tough one. The Spartans have lost 14 straight games and have a 7-16 record.
Georgia – Trouble doesn’t begin to describe the Bulldogs. What seemed like a promising season has been a disaster. The Bulldogs have lost six straight games and have a dismal 8-13 overall record.
Troy – The Trojans hoped to have a solid campaign, but that now seems in doubt. The Trojans are 8-11 and have dropped two straight series in conference to Florida Atlantic and Florida International.
Pepperdine – The Waves just can’t seem to get things going. They have lost five straight games and have a 6-13 record. Fortunately the Waves welcome Stony Brook to Malibu, Calif., this weekend.
Gonzaga – The Bulldogs lost several key players from last year’s NCAA regional club, and it has shown so far this season. The Bulldogs have lost five straight games and have a 8-12 record.
Quinnipiac – The Bobcats certainly weren’t expected to do too much this season, but we’re still a little surprised they haven’t won a game so far this season. Quinnipiac has a 0-12 record.
Ohio – The Bobcats are going to have a tough time competing for the MAC title this spring. They are off to a horrid start with a 2-15 record. The Bobcats also have lost seven straight games.
Pac-10 play begins this weekend – There are plenty of Pac-10 teams that once again will be in non-conference action this weekend. There also are a few teams playing conference series. Arizona State plays host to California in an important series for the Golden Bears, Stanford hosts USC and Arizona hosts Oregon in what should be a fantastic series between a pair of surprising teams.
Virginia gets another stiff test – The Cavaliers just can’t stay away from the tough weekend series. The Cavaliers already have earned road series wins over East Carolina and Florida State. But this weekend, they change things up a bit with a home series against a very solid Clemson club, which will enter the series with a 17-4 record. The Cavaliers are favored in the series and would be in fantastic shape with another series win.
LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo returns to the mound – The series between LSU and Tennessee isn’t exactly one of the best. But plenty of eyes will be on the Sunday matchup between the Tigers and Volunteers. The Tigers are expected to start outstanding right-handed pitcher Anthony Ranaudo. Ranaudo, of course, has yet to throw since the Centenary series to start the season. But the righty is slated to start Sunday and will throw a couple of innings. It will be interesting to see if there is any rustiness.
Another huge weekend in the SEC – We thought last weekend was a huge weekend in the SEC. But this weekend is even more important with several big-time series on the national stage. Florida will travel to Mississippi, surprising Alabama heads to Arkansas, Auburn could use a huge home series win over South Carolina and Kentucky hopes to rebound from a tough series loss on the road against Vanderbilt.
Southeastern Louisiana coach Jay Artigues isn’t real worried with the stiff competition his program faces in southern Louisiana.
If anything, he welcomes the challenge.
Artigues has worked wonders in his five seasons with the Lions. But this season, the program is primed to take its biggest step forward.
The Lions have their sights set on an NCAA regional appearance.
The Lions are 20-2 so far this season and have an RPI that would assure them a postseason bid if the season ended today, regardless of winning the Southland Conference title.
There’s nothing too magical about Artigues’ way of turning around the program. But it’s safe to say their play so far this season is magical.
The Lions continue to dominate opponents, and Artigues took time out to talk about his club and some surprising players.
Rogers: Your team is off to a phenomenal start this season. Can you talk about the hot start?
Artigues: It certainly has been a good start for our team. It’s hard to believe we’ve already played this many games. But the guys have done a great job, but they also realize there is still much season to be played. This team, though, really does a great job of keepings things in perspective. We really like the publicity we’ve received, but the guys realize that doesn’t help us one bit when we take the field each day.
Rogers: Did you have any major concerns heading into the season? If so, have those questions been answered?
Artigues: We entered the season with the majority of our club back. We lost just two position starters and returned the majority of our pitching staff. I thought we needed to get a little deeper on the mound and have a bit better mentality. So far this season, our mound mentality has been better and the starting pitching has done a great job of going more innings. That has enabled us to use fewer relievers.
Rogers: The offense has gotten off to a nice start this season, but talk about the job the starting rotation has done this season?
Artigues: Tyler Watkins starts on Friday and is just a very consistent strike thrower for our club. There’s really nothing overpowering about him, but stays down in the zone and has lots of movement on his pitches. Therefore, he tends to induce a lot of groundballs. Brandon Efferson has a really strong arm and has learned to pitch this season. He locates his fastball and pitches to contact. He goes very deep in games. Tanner Lorenz has done a solid job this season, but really is being pushed by young pitcher Jordan Hymel. We’ve had a lot of guys step up this season.
Rogers: Which players have been the biggest surprises so far this season?
Artigues: I would have to say Justin Boudreaux has been the biggest surprise. He was fantastic defensively as a true freshman last season. However, we talked to him before the season about stepping up at the plate. He took that advice and has run with it this spring. He also is a premier shortstop in the field.
Rogers: You have made some serious strides since taking over the program. What can you attribute the quick turnaround to?
Artigues: We have a very strong recruiting base around us and that really helped out from the start. But I also have to give a lot of credit to our coaching staff. They have given guys reasons to want to be here. Our assistants also know what type of kids I want in this program, too.
Rogers: As you look ahead to the rest of this season and the future, do you believe you have the resources to be a consistent NCAA regional contender?
Artigues: I believe we do. We have a very supportive administration here that knows what it takes facilities wise. Our facilities right now are pretty strong and only will get stronger. There’s no reason why we can’t be a regional contender on a consistent basis.
Rogers: Out of all the players on your club, observers know the most about reliever Chris Franklin. What makes him so good?
Artigues: Chris is just a guy that we were very fortunate slipped through the MLB draft. He competes extremely well and hits 95 mph with his fastball. He also has a great slider and does a great job of locating his pitches. It helps when you have a pitcher that can throw his slider for strikes at a high percentage. His makeup is great, too. He is a tough kid that you just want to have on the team.
Which team has been the biggest surprise this season?
There’s no question in my mind, the surprise of the season so far is UCLA. The Bruins entered the season on the cusp of the top-25 rankings, so we at least expected something out of these guys. However, they have taken their game to another level this season. The Bruins are hitting at an amazing .363 clip and the pitching staff has a 1.94 ERA. The Bruins have a very favorable schedule coming up, too, with a 17-0 record. UCLA is just in the first act of what could be a magical story.
Which team has been the biggest disappointment this season?
Just as surprising at UCLA is in the positive side of things, Cal State Fullerton is equally surprising in the negative department. The Titans entered the season as one of the nation’s top five teams. However, they have had a disastrous campaign thus far. The Titans are .500 through 20 games and haven’t impressed too much at the plate with a .297 batting average. The pitching staff, meanwhile, is sporting a 4.12 ERA. The Titans will have an opportunity to rack up a lot of wins in conference play as the Big West is surprisingly down this season. However, this team has a ton of ground to make up to be a national player at the end of the season.
Which team would be the top national seed if the season ended today?
Though we strongly believe Virginia is the nation’s premier team, Arizona State would be the choice from an overall resume standpoint. The Cavaliers are 7-2 against top 50 RPI teams, while the Sun Devils are 10-0 against top 50 RPI teams. What the Devils have accomplished so far this season simply is amazing.
Everyone has been on the edge of their seats the past few weeks waiting for LSU junior right-handed pitcher Anthony Ranaudo to pitch. Ranaudo has yet to pitch since the Centenary series because of a minor elbow issue. However, Ranaudo had a successful stint in the bullpen over the weekend and LSU coach Paul Mainieri confirmed via text on Wednesday that Ranaudo still is slated to start Sunday’s game at Tennessee. However, he only is expected to throw two innings. Either way, getting Ranaudo back in the mix is huge for the Tigers … Arizona State left-handed pitcher Josh Spence is another All-American that has yet to throw so far this season. Spence won’t throw against California this weekend, either. We spoke with Arizona State coach Tim Esmay on Wednesday and he stated that Spence would not pitch this weekend. However, he did say that Spence is throwing off the mound, but not yet against live action. Once Spence is cleared to pitch after throwing against live hitters in practice, he likely will be inserted into the rotation. Amazingly, the Sun Devils have been just fine without the Aussie southpaw … Another talented left-handed pitcher that has been held out of action so far this season is Texas A&M sophomore Ross Hales. Hales had shoulder surgery in the offseason and finally appears to be close to making a mound appearance. Hales is on the roster for this weekend’s Big 12 series against Missouri. Look for Hales to be on the mound sooner rather than later. That is huge news for the Aggies, which already are loaded on the mound … In some good news, Rice veteran right-handed pitcher Mike Ojala finally returned to the mound last weekend at San Diego. Ojala had a UCL issue at the end of last season and missed every game this season leading up to the USD series. Ojala threw well against the Toreros, but didn’t look good in Tuesday’s outing against rival Texas. Even so, having Ojala back in the mix is huge for a Rice pitching staff that isn’t loaded with great arms this season … Mississippi infielder Matt Snyder just can’t catch a break. Snyder was recovering from a dislocated shoulder and played last night’s game against Southern Mississippi. However, he fell down around first base trying to beat out a ball. He fell on the same shoulder he previously dislocated and once again suffered the same injury. The Rebels aren’t sure when Snyder will return to the lineup. It was another tough break for Snyder and the Rebels.
Rice – Unless the Owls find a way to make a miraculous recovery the final couple months of the season, there’s no question they will be hitting the road for an NCAA regional. The Owls have been a huge disappointment at the plate so far this season. But even more surprising is the lack of premier talent when it comes to the pitching staff. Still, we’ve learned not to doubt Coach Wayne Graham at the end of a season.
Duke – It’s obvious the Blue Devils aren’t ready to put themselves in great shape. The Devils made some noise two weekends ago with a series win over rival North Carolina. However, they took a step back last weekend by failing to win a game in a three-game set against Miami. Now the Blue Devils have a huge series at Boston College coming up this weekend. The loser of the series is in trouble the rest of ACC play.
Auburn – This finally could be the year the Tigers finally breakthrough and make the SEC tournament and an NCAA regional. Though Georgia is struggling big time, that road series sweep over the Bulldogs last weekend was huge. The Tigers are 15-5 overall and have an RPI of 21. This weekend’s home series against South Carolina couldn’t be bigger.
Pacific – Here is a team in a potentially tough situation from a postseason standpoint. Though there is plenty of baseball to be played the rest of the season, the Tigers are in a strange situation. They have taken care of business each weekend, most recently taking two of three from USC. They also defeated Stanford midweek action. But a quick look at the RPI and the Tigers are sitting at 112. It’s evident the Tigers are going to have to do more than expected in Big West play to make a regional.
Alabama – The Crimson Tide isn’t the first team you think of when it comes to projecting national seeds at this point in the season. But if the season ended today, there’s a great chance they would be one of the eight seeds. The Crimson Tide is 16-2 so far this season and has an RPI of 2 with a series against Arkansas coming up this weekend. Coach Mitch Gaspard definitely has done a great job with this program so far this season.
After several weeks of traveling, we finally went to the culinary utopia of Baton Rouge, La., last weekend. For anyone not familiar with southern Louisiana, the area boasts of some of the most amazing food you will find anywhere. Just be sure to do a few workouts before embarking on the journey.
Roberto’s River Road Restaurant – Easily my favorite place on the road trip to Baton Rouge. Roberto’s is nestled off the beaten path a few miles south of the LSU campus. The owner, Roberto, greets you with a smile and great hospitality. The food, meanwhile, is fantastic. Highly recommend are the crab cakes drenched in remoulade sauce and the “Catfish Billy”, which is a hearty filet of catfish smothered with crawfish etouffee.
Mike Anderson’s – I had been to this seafood establishment before, but it was in New Orleans and it was several years ago. I decided to try out the Baton Rouge location. I didn’t go home disappointed. The food at this place once again was phenomenal. For this meal, we enjoyed blackened black drum smothered in a Cajun onion and etouffee sauce. It was fantastic to say the least.
The Chimes – Strategically placed near the LSU campus, this is place to go if you want a nice lunch with a campus ambiance. The smothered shrimp is very solid.
Walk-Ons – If you’re looking for top grade Cajun cuisine, this probably isn’t the place for you. But if you’re looking for decent food, a great beer selection and a fantastic atmosphere that is close to Alex Box Stadium, this is your place. This is a very cool bar and restaurant.