Eagerness defines ASU baseball team

When asked to describe the team this season in one word, Arizona State Head Coach Tim Esmay said with a smile, "relentless". With the team now eligible for the post-season, seeing their in-state rivals capture the World Series, there is no shortage of motivation among the Sun Devil players and coaches.

With a roster full of returning players from last year, as well as a freshman class ranked third in the nation, expectations in Tempe are sky high.

Among those returning are nine starters, including Team USA member and First Team All-American, Trevor Williams. Last season, Williams was the only pitcher in the Pac-12 with 12 wins. Other key players returning are infielder James McDonald, catcher Max Rossiter, and outfielder Trever Allen.

With the loss of pitcher Brady Rodgers, look for freshmen pitchers Ryan Kellogg and Brett Lilek to compete for the open spot in the starting rotation.

"We can talk a lot about our incoming class because yes, on paper they are a very strong group," Esmay reflected. "But also the strength for us here is the development of kids from one year to the next. It is the freshman that doesn't play very much to before you know it all Pac-12, like Joey DeMichele two seasons ago. We have to really understand that each of these players is a year older and a year stronger.

"This is where I feel there is not that big of separation. We aren't going to ask these freshmen to be these phenoms right away because I don't need them to be. We have got some guys that have been through this program and growing into this thing and they are ready. They are ready to be those guys and show the freshmen what they need to do. The competition level here has been huge, not only because of our young kids, but because of those that have grown in this program."

PITCHERS:

The most notable returning pitcher is junior Trevor Williams. Esmay has already declared Williams as the Friday starter, filling the void that Brady Rodgers left. Williams is coming off an impressive sophomore season. He was a First Team Pac-12 All-Conference selection, and finished the season with a 2.05 ERA, which was the third-best in the conference and lowest on the team among pitchers who made more than one start.

Williams struck out 59, second best on the team. Among pitchers who pitched more than thirty-five innings, he walked the fewest batters, with 13. Williams' 1.07 walks allowed per nine innings was 10th in Division I.

Senior Alex Blackford is ready to step up and provide some strength to the bullpen, as well as possibly getting a few starts. In 2012, Blackford made 19 appearances, including nine starts. He struck out a team, season, and career-high ten batters in seven innings against Northern Illinois. For the last month of the season, he was pegged as the Sunday starter. He allowed one run on three hits against Utah and allowed one hit and no runs while striking out five to give the Sun Devils the win on the road at Gonzaga.

One of the strongest arms in the bullpen, Matt Dunbar, is returning for his senior season. In 2012, Dunbar led the team with a 1.54 ERA. He was third on the team with 23 appearances and fifth in innings pitched with 35.

In his first career start vs. Texas Tech, Dunbar lasted three hits with one hit and no runs. He gave up one run on five hits in five innings across two games at Washington State and one hit and no runs in 4.1 innings across two appearances at Oregon State. When asked about Dunbar's role this season, Esmay said he plans to keep using him in the eighth inning, but Dunbar may also see time as a closer.

Other pitchers expected to have a strong impact this season are sophomores Darin Gillies and Adam McCreery, as well as freshmen Ryan Kellogg and Brett Lilek.

Gillies made 13 appearances last season, including ten starts. He earned his first collegiate victory after giving up no earned runs on five hits in five innings in an 8-1 victory over USC.

It's hard to overlook the 6'9" McCreery. He is a strong competitor in the battle for the role of Saturday or Sunday starter. McCreery was named the Sunday started last season and went 2-0 in five appearances before dealing with an injury. He came back as a reliever in the final game of the 2012 season and pitched 3.2 scoreless innings to help the Sun Devils rally and tie the game.

Lefties Lilek and Kellogg will also be looking to make a strong impact in their freshman years. Lilek was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 2012 MLB Draft, while Kellogg was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays.

CATCHERS:

Max Rossiter turned down going to the pros after the 2012 season and decided to return for his senior year. When asked why he decided to come back, Rossiter cited one reason. "I came back because I wanted to win a national championship" he said, "and I feel like this team can do it. I had an opportunity to play pro ball but I grew up a Sun Devil fan and I want a taste of playoff baseball and to go to Omaha. Especially with a pitching staff like this, I was really excited to come back because we have some big arms.

"We also have some strong freshmen that came in too. With a mix of the new guys and old guys, we have a very deep and strong pitching staff. I have a really good feeling about the pitching staff and have no regrets. I am glad I came back."

In 2012, Rossiter was second on the team with a .326 batting average and fourth in slugging percentage at .449. He put together a team-best hitting streak with twelve games. Look for Rossiter to provide veteran presence on the team, especially to young catchers Nathaniel Causey and R.J. Ybarra.

INFIELDERS:

Redshirt Tucker Esmay, yes there is a relationship, appeared in 23 games in 2012, including two starts at second base. He was also used as a pinch runner and reserve second baseman.

Junior James McDonald is coming off a strong 2012 campaign. McDonald earned Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention recognition. He started 55 games, including 32 in left field, 21 as a designated hitter, and two at third base. He was second in the Pac-12 in walks with 35. He was also third on the team with a .401 on base percentage. McDonald ranked in the top five on the team in runs scored, had eleven multi-hit games, and five multiple-RBI games. He ended the season on a 13-game reached base streak.

Another junior returning is Michael Benjamin, the son of current third base coach, Mike Benjamin. In 2012, Benjamin was third on the team with a .322 batting average and second on the team in on base percentage at .408. He saw action starting in 35 games at third base. He collected a team and season-high five hits against Winthrop. He recorded nine multi-hit games. Benjamin came alive in the final 16 games of the season, hitting .382 with twenty-one hits, 11 runs batted in, two home runs, and 11 runs scored.

Sophomore Drew Stankiewicz is looking to fill the role of Joey DeMichele in the infield. As a freshman, Stankiewicz, better known as "Stankie" by his teammates, appeared in 31 games and started in 20, including sixteen at third base, two at shortstop, one at second base, and one as a designated hitter. He had three multi-hit games.

Players competing for more play time include sophomore Rouric Bridgewater, and freshmen Emilio Torrez, Dalton DiNatale, Jordan Aboites, and Tony DiMartino.

OUTFIELDERS:

Kasey Coffman had a successful sophomore season in 2012. He started 39 games, including 22 in left field and 17 in right. Coffman ranked second on the team with 11 stolen bases. He had a season-high three hits and scored a season-high three runs against UC Riverside. He was also led the team in hit-by-pitches with 13. Coffman also earned Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention honors.

The outspoken, redshirt Trever Allen will be looked at as a strong presence on the field. In 2012, he started 37 games in right field. Allen put together a team-best 12-game hitting streak. He had eleven multi-hit games and eight multi-RBI games. Allen started the season with at least one RBI in nine of the first fifteen games.

Redshirt junior Kyle Bilbrey, sophomore Jake Peevyhouse, and freshmen Johnny Sewald, Cullen O'Dwyer, David Graybill, and Christopher Beall are also all expected to see time in the outfield during the 2013 season.

***

Arizona State was ranked 16th in the nation according to the College Baseball Preseason Top 40 Poll. Looking at the stacked roster, one may argue they weren't ranked high enough. Twelve players on the roster have been drafted by MLB teams at some point in their career, including six freshmen.

The defending College World Series champions are 90 miles away in Tucson, a fact that Sun Devil players are anything but downplaying as they use it for motivation.

"We (the Sun Devils) are playing with a chip on our shoulder," Williams admitted. "We're ready to play them."

"I feel like there is unsolved business there," Rossiter stated. "The big thing for us is that the Wildcats know that the last team to beat them was the Sun Devils, so they know it's coming."

The Sun Devils have never shied away from compiling a challenging schedule, and aside from a Pac-12 slate that is likely to be grueling on its own with six of its members ranked in the preseason Top 25, ASU will also travel to Tennessee before playing Arkansas in the Coca-Cola Classic in Surprise.

"Our strong schedule is our commitment to get our guys exposed to as much as we possibly can before the postseason," Esmay explained. "We are going to know pretty quickly where we are sitting and how well these young kids are getting out of their diapers. They get used to going to Tennessee and understanding that not everybody loves the Sun Devils. You have to go on the road and hear that not everyone is that excited that you are there.

"This year's schedule is not backing down. It is a process of the season. The preseason is a process to get to the Pac-12 schedule. Then we get into the Pac-12 and it's a new season, and we try and get ready and make adjustments, and then hopefully the postseason is at the end. I think our non-conference schedule is going to give us an opportunity to get beat up, get back up and respond to some things that might not be as comfortable."

The Sun Devil skipper stressed that the strong chemistry of his team will help them get through the tough schedule, and that the veterans must take the younger guys "under their wings" starting right now.

"At the end of the day, they realize it," Esmay stated. "We are going to need everybody at some point and everybody is working just as hard as everybody else and has the same responsibilities, so at the end of the day they have to feel like we are all in it together.

"It's not necessarily always the can't-miss product team, but the teams that really grind it out and enjoy being around each other, that find success at the end of the season."

Arizona State's 2013 season kicks off with the annual alumni game taking place on February 9th at Winkles Field-Packard Stadium. Gates open at 11 a.m. and the event is free.

The team plays their first regular season game on February 15th at home against Bethune Cookman. First pitch is scheduled at 6:30 p.m.

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