Three Strikes: Arizona State Battles Through Injury, Campbell Lands First Punch in Big South

Image credit: Arizona State RHP Tyler Thornton (Photo courtesy of Arizona State)

Despite Injuries, Arizona State Powers On

It has not been a good couple of weeks for Arizona State on the health front. 

On March 4, coach Tracy Smith announced that two key pieces of the pitching staff, righthander Boyd Vander Kooi and lefthander Cooper Benson, would both miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. 

Then, less than a week later, it was reported that another important arm, lefthander Erik Tolman, would miss at least a couple of weeks with an arm strain. But as it turns out, further evaluation found that he, too, will need season-ending Tommy John surgery. 

At the same time, as bad as it has been on that front, it has been a pretty successful couple of weeks on the field for the Sun Devils. 

The weekend after getting the news about Benson and Vander Kooi, the Sun Devils swept Utah, holding the Utes to four runs over three games. Last weekend, they swept Cal State Fullerton, and only a loss to Nevada Las Vegas on Tuesday slowed their momentum, ending a nine-game winning streak and bringing their record to 11-3.

“Honestly, I like what I’m seeing,” Smith said. “I like (that) our guys are playing hard. For the most part, we’re throwing strikes. We’re competing.”

Despite the injuries, the team has continued to pitch well, as Smith alluded to. The Tuesday 10-9 loss to UNLV was the first time since the original injury news broke that ASU had given up more than four runs in a game and the team ERA sits at 2.93. 

Righthander Tyler Thornton (1-0, 3.98), the lone healthy member of this season’s original weekend rotation now that Benson and Tolman are injured, gives the Sun Devils a durable, dependable guy to build a pitching plan around each weekend. 

Beyond that, Smith and pitching coach Jason Kelly have been forced to piece things together a little bit. In five of the six games against Utah and Cal State Fullerton, they used five or more pitchers, and in a 5-0 win over Utah on March 7, they used eight. All told this season, 20 different players have taken the mound for the Sun Devils. 

Second-year freshman righthander Seth Tomczak (0.00, 5 IP) has pitched well in short starts each of the last two weekends, serving as something like an opener in those outings. Third-year sophomore righthander Will Levine (2.57, 7 IP) hadn’t pitched at all until the Utah series, but has been a reliable reliever since then. 

True freshman righthander Ethan Long (0.00, 6.2 IP) has made an immediate impact, with four saves. Second-year freshman lefthander Graham Osman (1.74, 10.1 IP) has been excellent. Second-year freshman righthander Cam Dennie (7.36, 7.1) has given up one earned run in his last 6.2 innings after a tough outing on Opening Day. 

But fourth-year junior lefthander Justin Fall (2-0, 2.03) was as big a difference-maker as any in the Fullerton series. He came on in the Saturday game to protect what was then a 5-4 ASU lead in the 8th and got a key strikeout with runners on second and third and one out. 

The next day he took the mound as a starter, with the expectation that he might just be an opener in that situation. Instead, he was outstanding and gave the Sun Devils 5.2 innings, giving up four hits and one run. 

That performance sets Fall up to continue to have a prominent role on this rebuilt pitching staff moving forward. 

“When guys do their job, you earn the opportunity to get the ball again,” Smith said. “He’ll probably get the ball again in a start.”

Throwing the kitchen sink at teams on the mound has worked to this point, and while Smith would ultimately like to be able to use a more traditional rotation, he’s willing to ride it out as long as it’s what the situation calls for. 

“Ideally, yeah, I would love to get to a point where we knew we had some sort of semblance of a rotation, but if the circumstances don’t dictate that, then I think we’re fine with where we are right now,” Smith said. 

The Arizona State defense has also been quite good, which has helped the pitching staff play up as well. 

Speedy second-year freshman center fielder Joe Lampe covers a lot of ground in what his teammates refer to as his “no-fly zone” in center field. And the left side of the infield, with fourth-year junior shortstop Drew Swift and true freshman third baseman Hunter Haas replacing elite defenders in Alika Williams and Gage Workman, respectively, hasn’t experienced the kind of drop off you would have expected when replacing defensive players of that caliber. 

“All eight of us on defense, we don’t think anyone can get it past us,” Haas said. “I know me and Swift think no one can hit it by us on the left side, so that’s just kind of our mindset. Lampe’s thing is ‘no-fly zone,’ so he’s just covering everything in the outfield.”

The lineup has also been plenty productive, hitting .302/.357/.466 collectively, led by second-year freshman second baseman Sean McLain (.396/.441/.771), Lampe (.385/.378/.641), Swift (.333/.403/.537) and Haas (.315/.373/.444). 

That group is never going to hit with the power of the 2020 lineup, with the departures of Spencer Torkelson, Trevor Hauver, Workman and Williams, but they can still beat you that way. 

“We feel like we don’t have the maybe 15 to 20 (home run) guy, but we do feel like we’ve got a bunch of guys that are probably going to pop six to eight,” Smith said. 

Admittedly, Utah and Cal State Fullerton, both of which have struggled out of the gate, don’t represent the toughest competition ASU will face this season. But given the unexpected adversity the team dealt with before playing those teams, it would have been easy for the level of play to drop. 

Instead, the Sun Devils came together to play some of the best baseball they’ve played this season, a roll they will want to stay on as they hit the road this weekend to play Oregon, the hottest team in the conference. 

Campbell Makes Statement Early in Big South Play

Early in conference play, it can be hard to know if what you’re watching is going to end up being the series of the season in a league. 

With that said, it was fairly easy to earmark last weekend’s Big South series between host Campbell and USC Upstate, at a bare minimum, as one of a handful of the best series to be had in the conference this season. 

On one side, you had Campbell, the preseason favorite for the conference title. On the other side, you had a USC Upstate team that came into the weekend 10-0 and loaded with a rotation full of hard-throwers destined for a future in pro baseball. 

It’s a big deal, then, that Campbell landed arguably the first big blow of the Big South season by winning the series and doing it the hard way by dropping the Friday night game before taking two close games in a Saturday doubleheader by 4-3 and 4-2 scores. 

After dropping the Friday game, faced with the tough task of sweeping a doubleheader to win the series, Campbell coach Justin Haire challenged his team and the group responded. 

“I just think we were in the fight a little bit more on Saturday and our guys kind of enjoyed that piece,” he said. 

Although the USC Upstate pitchers, led by righthanders Jordan Marks and Alex Garbrick, both of whom boast fastballs that touch the mid 90s and sit in the low 90s, drew more attention coming into the weekend, Campbell matched up well on the mound, especially on Saturday. 

In game one of the twinbill, after starter Thomas Harrington was chased after 4.1 innings, the true freshman duo of Ty Cummings and Cade Kuehler combined to throw 4.2 scoreless frames with just one hit allowed. 

In the nightcap, in a game started by righthander Jonathan Beymer, Campbell’s top pitching prospect, four pitchers danced around 11 hits and five walks to hold the Spartans to just two runs. That group was led by 3.1 scoreless innings of relief from second-year freshman righthander Zach Neto, who doubles as the team’s starting first baseman. 

These were no soft-tossers, either. Kuehler’s average fastball this season is 93 mph. Cummings was mostly 90-91 mph with this fastball, but it plays up due to the nasty two-seam action he gets on the offering. Beymer’s fastball has been up to 94 mph in the past, and Neto’s reaches the low 90s. And it’s worth noting that the Camels did all of that without the services of projected ace Cam Cowan, who has pitched just once this season due to injury. 

The strength of the staff is in its depth and that frees up the coaching staff to lean on that unit, as it’s done the last two weekends in series wins over Gardner-Webb and USC Upstate. 

“The last two weekends, we’ve done a better job on Saturdays managing our bullpen and not waiting,” Haire said. “Just go to the bullpen, let’s go right to Ty Cummings, go right to Cade Kuehler.”

While it wasn’t a high-scoring weekend, the middle of the Camels’ order also has some physicality that is going to be a real problem for opponents as the Big South campaign rolls on. 

Fifth-year senior outfielder Spencer Packard (.385/.534/.744), fifth-year senior DH Matthew Christian (.347/.414/.694) and fourth-year junior center fielder Connor Denning (.340/.453/.792) are all hitting for power right out of the gate to lead an offense that also includes an exciting table-setter in third-year sophomore third baseman Waldy Arias (.298/.469/.362) and a steady defender in fifth-year senior shortstop Collin Wolf (.220/.375/.300), who also has more offensive ability than his early numbers show. 

Denning’s breakthrough season has come in part because he’s been able to narrow his focus defensively. He’s versatile, can also play second base and first base, and he grew up catching, but Haire felt it was important to find him a home. 

“I think for some guys, trying to figure out how to play a high-pressure position like second base or third base and being on the dirt when that’s not 100% your comfort level can detract from what you’re trying to do from a concentration level,” Haire said. “So I think being able to tell him ‘Connor, if you’re going to play everyday, man, it’s going to be in the outfield, you need to take the summer (to play there),’ and he went up to the Northwoods (League), to this credit, and played outfield all summer, played all three spots in the outfield all summer, came back a way better outfielder and just a lot more confident and able to be mature with his at-bats and just mentally consistent every day in terms of what he can do in the box.”

Due to the limitations in crowd size, the noise level wasn’t through the roof, but the Saturday doubleheader otherwise had a distinct postseason feel to it. 

Campbell and USC Upstate will meet up again in Spartanburg in mid May, and if these two teams continue to play up to their potential until then, there will be little doubt about that being the series to watch in the Big South this season. 

What’s Up with the Darlings of 2020?

Over the course of the last four weeks, a somewhat confounding trend has emerged in college baseball. A good number of the darlings of the 2020 season that were off to notably hot starts have stumbled out of the gate in 2021. 

Given that we’re now at the exact point at which the 2020 season was canceled, there’s no better time to draw comparisons between where teams were last season and where they are now. 

Here are the teams, in alphabetical order, that stand out most in this way.

Team  2020 Record 2021 Record
Belmont 14-3 4-8
Cal State Northridge 10-5 0-0
Central Florida 15-3 7-9
College of Charleston 12-2 5-9
Louisiana-Monroe 12-5 7-6
Long Beach State 10-5 0-0
Mercer 13-3 6-9
Missouri 11-5 7-10
Nebraska-Omaha 10-4 5-8
New Mexico  14-4 5-8
New Mexico State 12-4 4-7
Northwestern State 12-4 7-7
Pepperdine 12-3 5-9
Portland 12-4 7-7
Santa Clara 12-5 6-9
Southern California 10-5 6-6
Texas-Arlington 12-4 6-9
Texas State 14-4 7-10
Tulane 15-2 9-7
West Virginia 11-5 6-5
Wichita State 13-2 7-5

Some of the explanations for why teams are in this predicament are fairly obvious. Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State, for example, will play their first games this weekend, and even then, it’s impossible to know what to expect from two teams that didn’t have a traditional fall practice period and are getting started four weeks later than much of their competition. 

Outside of those extreme cases, though, there are generally two buckets of teams that appear here. 

One bucket is teams that lost a lot of talent from last season. New Mexico State, which lost the best player in program history in Nick Gonzales to the draft, plus slugger Tristan Peterson and top starting pitcher Chance Hroch to transfer, clearly fits the bill. Tulane and Missouri also fit into this category. 

There are also examples of teams just simply playing more difficult schedules this season. Take Wichita State. This season, three of its five losses have come against Oklahoma State and Arizona, both ranked teams. Last season, its best opponent at the time the season ended was either Northwestern State or Louisiana Tech, both solid teams but not teams that were anywhere close to being ranked.

Texas State, with about as experienced a team as you could possibly have, is also in this boat. Its toughest games last season were a three-game series against Houston and a midweek game with Baylor. This season, it played a series against Houston again, but has also played Texas, Texas Tech and has twice played Texas Christian, plus a series against Sacramento State, one of the better mid-major teams on the West Coast. Maybe the Bobcats are disappointed not to have pulled off more wins in those games, but it has indisputably been a tough road. 

That still leaves teams, though, for which the explanation is likely little more than a combination of bad luck, injuries and slow starts from players who got off to hot starts last season. 

UCF and Pepperdine stand out above the rest. 

The Knights and Waves ended last season ranked and brought back promising rosters. But after slow starts, they are both just working to get seasons back on track instead of building the types of resumes that could put them in position to be at-large teams or even hosts if things break right. 

Pepperdine’s numbers are simply way down across the board. A pitching staff that had a sub-3.00 ERA last season has a 6.91 mark this season. The drop-off offensively isn’t quite so stark, but it’s still a unit hitting 35 points lower than it was last season with five home runs in 14 games compared to 13 in 15 games a year ago. 

UCF’s struggles are harder to figure out, especially when you consider that along the way, it won a series on the road against No. 1 Mississippi. The offense hasn’t been that far off of the 2020 pace. A .262 team average is only 16 points lower than the 2020 average and this team is actually hitting for more power. But any gains there have been mitigated by the struggles of the pitching staff. A team that had a 2.17 ERA last season is pitching at a 5.02 clip this time around. 

No one on this list has dug such a deep hole that it can’t ultimately be as good as it looked like it was back in 2020 and achieve all of its big-picture goals. But the degree of difficulty has quickly become steep. 

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