Arizona State, Miami Look The Part Of 2020 National Championship Contenders
The histories of Arizona State and Miami read something like a history of modern college baseball. With a nearly unparalleled level of success and list of draft picks, the programs have spent the majority of the last 50 years setting the bar for sustained excellence in the sport.
The Sun Devils made at least three trips to the College World Series in each decade between the 1960s and 2000s, winning five national titles along the way. The Hurricanes made it to Omaha an astonishing 15 times in the 1980s and ’90s alone and have four national titles to their name.
All the while, both programs churned out pro talent, highlighted by Barry Bonds at Arizona State and Ryan Braun at Miami. And until recently, they were still humming along as elite programs. Then, they faltered at exactly the same time.
ASU had back-to-back 23-32 seasons in 2017 and 2018, going a combined 21-39 in Pacific-12 Conference play. The first of those seasons ended the program’s 54-year streak of winning 30 or more games.
Miami’s 32-27 season in 2017 also heralded the end of the program’s 44-year run of reaching the NCAA tournament. The following season, the Hurricanes finished 28-26 and once again were absent from the postseason picture.
For Miami coach Gino DiMare, who was an assistant under Jim Morris for those two seasons, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
“Those two years were just tough years for us,” DiMare said. “We had a record in all of college sports, men’s or women’s, 44 years in a row making it to an NCAA tournament. So for us not to make it, just imagine how difficult that was for us, and then we did it two years in a row.”
Both programs dusted themselves off and got things headed back in the right direction in 2019.
Arizona State was a No. 2 seed in the Baton Rouge Regional, while Miami was the No. 2 seed in Starkville. Late into the season, both teams even had realistic shots at hosting regionals.
Miami got off to a slow start, but after a sweep at the hands of North Carolina State put them at 15-9 overall and 3-6 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, the Hurricanes hit the accelerator, losing just three more ACC games the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, the Sun Devils came flying out of the gate, starting 21-0 behind a prolific offense led by first baseman Spencer Torkelson, shortstop Alika Williams, third baseman Gage Workman and outfielders Hunter Bishop and Trevor Hauver. On 11 different occasions during that winning streak, ASU scored at least 10 runs.
When you consider that last season’s offensive core was all on campus for one or both of those trying 2017 and 2018 seasons, it says a lot about both the ASU coaching staff’s ability to recruit and about the players’ willingness to be part of a turnaround project.
“(Assistant coach) Ben Greenspan, [with] his efforts on the recruiting side, has done a fantastic job of putting together some quality pieces in the midst of a lot of external negativity,” ASU coach Tracy Smith said. “You look around our diamond now, (and) all of those kids were saying yes to Arizona State when there was a lot of—I’ll be very blunt—negativity circling around our program through people’s outside perceptions. To me, what that said is you have a lot of kids who followed their heart, wanted to be where they wanted to be, but also the belief in, ‘Hey, man, I’m going there to be part of the solution and not the problem.’ ”
There’s no mistaking that both Arizona State and Miami were good teams in 2019, and perhaps each flirted with being great at various points during the season. In the postseason, though, it was clear that neither was quite ready for prime time.
Though Alec Marsh gave ASU a solid Friday starter, the Devils ultimately came up a little short on the mound, leading to the pitching staff giving up 28 runs in a pair of losses to Southern Mississippi in their regional.
Miami’s struggle was often at the end of games, including in the postseason, when they surrendered a 4-0 lead in an eventual 6-5 loss to Central Michigan to open the Starkville Regional. In the regional final, the Hurricanes led Mississippi State 1-0 going into the middle innings before dropping the game 5-2.
“Our biggest thing last year is we didn’t finish games, and if we did, we would have hosted a regional. No doubt in my mind,” DiMare said. “You can even go into the regionals. Game 1 we lost, which we came back out of to get to Mississippi State (in the regional final), but we were up big in that game and lost it. We’ve just got to learn to finish it.”
Arizona State returns four of its top five hitters, missing just Bishop. Torkelson returns as a favorite to win College Player of the Year honors, to say nothing of his chances to be the top overall pick in the draft; and Hauver, Williams and Workman are just about the best lineup protection imaginable.
When you consider the returning offensive production, plus the high level of defense provided by Williams, Workman, catcher Sam Ferri and second baseman Drew Swift, there is plenty of reason for Smith to be optimistic about his position player group.
“Clearly, we’ve got a lot of older guys coming back, so I think we feel really good certainly from the position player side of how things line up,” Smith said.
This time around, the Sun Devils’ pitching looks like it will be one of the team’s strengths. Frankly, it looks like it could be the difference between the team being a solid regional team and a true national title hopeful.
“This has probably, in all of my years, been one of my deepest pitching staffs, from just a personnel and ability standpoint, that I’ve had the good fortune of coaching,” Smith said.
With what Arizona State has on its roster, it’s hard to disagree with Smith. Lefthander Justin Fall was a top prospect out of the junior college ranks last season. Righthanders R.J. Dabovich and Boyd Vander Kooi are players to watch for the 2020 draft. Righthander Tyler Thornton was a Freshman All-American at St. Mary’s last season before transferring to Arizona State, and precocious freshmen, such as lefthander Cooper Benson, have already made good impressions on the club.
The task of turning that potential into production falls to new pitching coach Jason Kelly, and that should give the ASU faithful reason for optimism. One of the best pitching minds in college baseball, Kelly previously served at Washington, where he helped lead the Huskies to their first College World Series appearance in 2018.
“I think what makes him unique in my mind, and this is just me (because) I look for different things outside of just what’s going on on the field, but I love the way that he’s able to communicate with his pitchers,” Smith said. “I’ve sat in on meetings that he’s had with them, and to me, he’s got that unique blend of, ‘Hey, I’m going to be tough on you,’ but there’s that mutual respect that they want to please him.
“So, I think when you’ve got a coach who can certainly have a knowledge base the kids can learn from, but yet a motivational ability to where the athlete wants to not let that coach down or wants to compete for them, that’s a pretty special combination.”
A pitching staff bursting with talent, combined with Kelly’s proven ability to get the most out of his pitchers seems like a ready-made remedy for the shortcomings that kept ASU from competing at a higher level last season.
A remedy for what ailed the Hurricanes at times last season might not require much intervention at all. As a young team, they were clearly learning how to win as a group on the fly. They got hot as the season wore on, but still struggled with putting games away against the best teams on the schedule and in the biggest moments.
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Getting that taste of success but dealing with the feeling of falling short bodes well for their success in 2020, because they bring back three of their four top starting pitchers—righthanders Slade Cecconi, Chris McMahon and Brian Van Belle, a top relief arm in righthander Daniel Federman and all but one starting position player.
“Our team is such a unique team because just about everybody is back,” DiMare said. “From an offensive standpoint, you lost really one guy, and it was (Michael) Amditis. That’s an important guy because he’s our catcher, but we’ve got everybody back and that doesn’t happen often.
“It’s nice to have a few seniors, because we don’t get many here at Miami, and we had none last year. If you’re going to be ready, (you) certainly like to have a veteran team that’s been tested, they’ve got a lot of experience, you feel good about that.”
That’s not to say that a hands-off approach has been taken to making sure that this group does a better job of finishing games. There’s no assumption being made that players a year older will simply learn how to win by virtue of being a year older. It’s something that DiMare and his staff are teaching and hammering home, and they have the shirts to prove it.
“We got the shirts made. They wear them all the time. The main word is ‘finish’ on the back of the shirt and it says something on the front,” DiMare said. “They’ve got that embedded in their minds.”
In many ways, it feels like the good old days in Tempe and Coral Gables. Expectations are sky high and there is no shortage of talent at either school, much of which will be in pro baseball after the season. But for these two giants of college baseball to fully exorcise the demons from the tough 2017 and 2018 seasons and return to glory, they have to—here’s that word again—finish.
“This year, the expectations are certainly going to be different—I think everyone would agree with that,” DiMare said. “We don’t want to think it’s just going to happen, just because we have a lot of guys back that all of a sudden, we’re going to go to Omaha. It doesn’t work that way. So, I want our guys to know that.”
Smith emphasizes to Sun Devils players that the program’s stated goals are to be in the conversation for a national title, to respect the heritage of Arizona State and to develop future stars in the sport.
When it comes to 2020, as long as it stays on course, his team will be in the conversation for the national title. With all of these preseason expectations and the immense talent on the roster, the team is on its way to honoring ASU’s history. And with five players ranked among the top 100 prospects for the draft, they have the future stars part covered. The same, of course, can be said of Miami.
Suffice it to say that both teams have the potential to be crowned champions this season.