It was torture enough for the Arizona State baseball team that it could not play in the postseason last year, but having to watch arch-rival Arizona win the national championship made the playoff ban all the more painful.
“When they won the national championship, we couldn’t help but think ‘What if we were in the playoffs? What if we were there to stop them?'” junior ASU pitcher Trevor Williams said Tuesday. “Now we have the chance to prove to ourselves that we should have been there last year and we should have stopped them.”
With the dark cloud of NCAA sanctions now lifted, ASU has again set its sights on the College World Series in Omaha.
As a few players and fourth-year coach Tim Esmay met with local media Tuesday, the tone was much different than a year earlier when they could only aim as high as a Pac-12 championship.
“Having grown up in this program, last year was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Esmay said. “To sit and tell guys in November that ‘Oh, by the way, no matter what you do, you’re not going to get an opportunity to go to the postseason.'”
Added senior catcher Max Rossiter: “It’s like a monkey off our back. We can finally say we’re going to go to Omaha this year, and we will. So it’s just a big relief to get that off our shoulders.”
Rossiter is not alone in his confidence. Williams, an All-American last season, when he went 12-2 with a 2.05 ERA, and fellow pitcher Alex Blackford also expressed belief that this group is built for a College World Series run.
Esmay was more unassuming in his outlook for the season, perhaps because he has more to figure out than each individual player. Still, it was clear Esmay believes his team has the necessary ingredients despite losing 10 players to the MLB Draft, including stars Deven Marrero, Brady Rodgers and Joey DeMichele.
“This year’s team doesn’t really have that can’t-miss first-round draft pick, in my opinion, other than maybe Trevor Williams,” Esmay said. “But in my experiences here at Arizona State, when we’ve had really good years we’ve had a really good team.”
ASU welcomes 15 freshmen, some of whom appear likely to play key roles on the pitching staff, but Esmay expects returning players to take another step in development to help replace those who have moved on.
Rossiter could be one of those players, having decided to return for his senior season rather than entering the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system after last year’s draft. He’s the team’s top returning hitter with a .326 average. Other mainstays are junior infielders Michael Benjamin (.322) and James McDonald (.284).
“I came back because I wanted to win a national championship, and I feel like this team can do it,” Rossiter said. “I wanted to taste playoff baseball. I wanted to go to Omaha.”
Rossiter will provide stability for the pitching staff and leadership for a young team, but the Sun Devils could use increased offensive production as well. No returning player had more than McDonald’s 28 RBI last season.
“I see the potential for us to not just be an all running team and a contact team,” Esmay said. “If we can (hit for power), I think it will make a little more well-rounded team.”
There are also questions to be answered on the pitching staff, such as what starters will take on Saturday and Sunday games after Williams handles Friday, and who will replace closer Jake Barrett.
ASU’s schedule might force the Sun Devils to figure a few things out on the fly. After a three-game opening series against Bethune-Cookman, ASU travels to play Tennessee and then returns to play Arkansas twice in the Coca-Cola Classic in Surprise before hosting Long Beach State.
If they can come through that start strong, the Sun Devils will be well positioned for competition in the typically deep and talented Pac-12. In addition to defending national champion Arizona, four other schools are ranked highly in the preseason polls: Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Oregon. Though ASU ranked preseason No. 16 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 20 by USA Today, it did not rank in the Baseball America’s preseason poll for the first time in 27 seasons.
That may be partially because of ASU’s absence from the postseason last year, but voters probably also considered ASU’s departures and large freshman class. While players said the rankings can provide motivation, they don’t worry much about preseason polls.
“The only thing that matters to us is being ranked No. 1 at the end of the season,” Blackford said. “We know we have a chance to win a championship every single year here.”
Except last year, of course. But with the return of postseason eligibility comes additional pressure to deliver on lofty goals.
“There’s no excuses,” Esmay said. “That’s the great thing about this. It’s up to us whether we get in or out. We want to talk about this, well we’ve got to walk the walk, and we get that opportunity this year.”