June 16, 2010

CWS Previews

Arizona St. | Clemson | Florida | Florida St. | Oklahoma | South Carolina | TCU | UCLA

By Tom Kessler
Special to NCAA.com

TEMPE, Ariz. –
While the road that is the 2010 Arizona State University baseball season has taken a few unexpected detours, the destination has remained constant – a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Throughout a journey that began with the upheaval of a preseason coaching change and was made more arduous with a season-ending injury to their projected top pitcher, the Sun Devils have stayed the course.

Under the guidance of new coach Tim Esmay and the clubhouse leadership of a cohesive group of upperclassmen, Arizona State (52-8) captured a fourth consecutive Pac-10 championship and then swept through their tournament brackets in the NCAA Division I Tempe Regional and Super Regional.

The reward for the top-ranked Sun Devils is a berth in the eight-team field of the College World Series, which begins Saturday at Omaha’s historic Rosenblatt Stadium. ASU will play Clemson (43-23) in the opening round.

“It’s been a great ride,” Esmay said Sunday night after the Sun Devils won a 7-5 thriller in 12 innings over Arkansas to wrap up a 2-0 series victory in the best-of-three Super Regional at ASU’s Packard Stadium. “But I will tell you this, from Day One that’s been the focus of this club. In fact, we had to kind of back off the reins from them early because that’s all they were thinking about. There’s a lot of guys on this club that still remember the University of Texas last year in the College World Series.”

The Longhorns beat ASU, 4-3, in an elimination game at the 2009 CWS and the Sun Devils finished tied for third.

Esmay was named Arizona State’s interim head coach for the 2010 season on Dec. 3, 2009, after the university dismissed long-time coach Pat Murphy. Esmay, who played for coach Jim Brock at ASU in 1986-87 and served as an assistant coach on the staffs of Brock (1988-1990, and 1994) and Murphy (2005-2009), stressed to his players throughout this season that they needed to focus on the means, in order to get to the desired end.

“The toughest thing for us was to make sure that they didn’t look past the season and not look past the process, and enjoy the ride,” said Esmay, who was honored as the Pac-10 Coach of the Year on June 3, two days after being named ASU’s permanent head coach. “Enjoy this thing a little bit, because it’s not easy to do, as you can tell.

“I’m just so proud of this group of young men because what you saw this weekend is just the epitome of what they’ve been like all year long. They have never backed down, and I don’t expect them to back down now.”

The 2010 season has been a campaign of perseverance for the Sun Devils. Through the coaching change, the season-ending elbow injury to senior ace pitcher Josh Spence, and the rigors of competition in the rugged Pac-10, the Sun Devils ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the USA Today Coaches Poll and earned the top national seed in the NCAA Division I Championship bracket.

The Sun Devils exhibited their never-say-die mind-set in the Super Regional, when they rallied to send Game 1 into extra innings by scoring on an infield single by Zack MacPhee with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, and when they bounced back to win Game 2 after watching the Razorbacks make a similar ninth-inning comeback on a last-strike home run by Brett Eibner.

“For them to get that big home run in the ninth with two outs, two strikes, that’s the stuff you think about when you’re playing wiffleball,” Esmay said after Game 2. “And that was a heck of a job. But then you’ve got our guys, you don’t get too many second chances in this game.”

ASU sophomore closer Jordan Swagerty, who threw the hanging slider that Eibner crushed over the left-field fence, rebounded to hold the Razorbacks scoreless in the 10th, 11th and 12th innings.

“I was still throwing. We hadn’t lost yet,” Swagerty said. “So my mentality was just, ‘Let’s win this game.’”

Arizona State sophomore Drew Maggi hit a two-run homer to left-center field in the 12th inning, and the Sun Devils were on their way to Omaha.

“I think it comes from just the whole mentality of this ballclub,” senior co-captain Kole Calhoun said last week about the Sun Devils’ ability to fight through adversity. “These guys are all tough. They’re all strong-willed. … We’re going to play relentless for all nine innings and for all three games in a weekend set and just hope for the best. Hopefully our best versus someone else’s best, we’ll always come out on top.”

Arizona State will be making its 22nd trip to the CWS.

“I’m excited, but I think as a team we know the main plan once we get there is to win,” said Swagerty. “So it’s nice to be going, but we’ve still got to be locked in from the get-go of Game 1 there. It’s a great place to be and a very fun place to play.”