PHOENIX – Arizona State’s 2020 baseball season ended amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the start of the 2021 season was no sure thing, either.
On Jan. 29, ASU coach Tracy Smith and the Pac-12 Conference announced the team’s 2021 schedule, a routine event at any other time. But there is nothing routine during a global pandemic.
And sure enough, before the Sun Devils even played a game, the schedule was altered. ASU was supposed to begin the season with four games against San Jose State, but the Spartans encountered coronavirus issues.
Instead, the Sun Devils will open against Sacramento State Friday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. But after a 13-4 start to a promising 2020 season that abruptly came to an end, a scheduling change is a minor inconvenience by comparison.
“We’re just happy at this point that we have a schedule,” said Smith, who recently signed a two-year contract extension. “I think if you follow the landscape of college athletics in general, I would anticipate (our) schedule changing even more as we go through the season because of cases of COVID, COVID protocols, contact tracing and things like that.”
And Smith believes that the teams that roll with the reality of unforeseen challenges will have an advantage as the season plays out.
“You just got to be able to stay mentally strong and try to work through that. We’ve talked about it as a group,” Smith said. “The team that handles that stuff the best, the team that understands things are going to happen; don’t make excuses, just be ready for everything. The team that does that best is going to be playing the longest this year.”
A unique twist created by COVID-19 is the NCAA’s decision to grant an additional year of eligibility to student-athletes. It has put some teams in peculiar situations, with incoming freshmen looking to seize opportunities from returning players who are motivated to finish what was lost a season ago.
However, it fuels competition, and despite losing four offensive stars from last year’s team to the MLB Draft, including slugger Spencer Torkelson, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Detroit Tigers, the Sun Devils have a plethora of names in contention for limited spots.
“The competition everyday for every position is real,” said associate head coach Ben Greenspan.
That is especially true of the ASU pitching staff, and outfielder Hunter Jump has noticed the uptick in competition among the pitchers.
“Everybody’s fighting for a spot on the pitching side, and you can tell everybody wants it,” Jump said. “It’s nice to see guys come out there, get after it and really make a statement for themselves.”
Pitching coach Jason Kelly, who is entering his second season with the Sun Devils, said having some experienced arms returning allows him to work more with some of the younger members of the staff.
“In year two, they know how to do it. They do it the way you want it done,” Kelly said. “And now you can focus on specific pitches and specific skills and some other things that are finer details of pitching. It allows me some freedom to work with the younger guys.”
Cooper Benson is one of those young pitchers who has caught Kelly’s eye.
“Coop’s got some things you can’t teach,” Kelly said. “There’s a confidence within him that never goes away, and there’s a competitiveness within him that a lot of guys don’t have.”
Kelly said there is an intangible quality to Benson’s personality that rubs off on his teammates.
“He brings energy to our team and that’s one of those things that you can’t put your finger on why that happens,” he said. “But for some reason when he’s out there, our team is energetic. They want to play behind him.”
While the Sun Devils saw a lot of offensive firepower go in the MLB Draft, the team doesn’t lack for talent at the plate.
“We got a lot of good players on the offensive side,” said hitting coach Michael Earley. “It’s just a lot of unproven guys, so who’s going to be that guy that steps up and has that year?”
Practicing the routine aspects of hitting can become tedious, but Earley preaches getting the little things right.
“I tell them everyday, ‘You have got to embrace the monotony of being a good hitter,’” Earley said. “It’s tough to come in and do the same stuff every single day, but they’ve done a really good job of doing that.”
The offensive identity of the team is also changing, going from a power oriented approach to a small ball style of speed and contact.
Junior Drew Swift, who ended last season on a hot streak, batting .517 with 13 RBI in the team’s final five games, leads the way. And after playing four different positions in 2020, he moves into the regular shortstop job, replacing one of those major league picks, Alika Williams.
Benson, the left-handed redshirt freshman, doesn’t believe retooling will be a problem.
“I think we are definitely underrated,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a lot different this year. We might have to scrap across some runs. I think we have a lot of speed, which is different from the last couple of years, and a lot of guys that can put the ball in play and force the defense to make plays.”
The Sun Devils will have to figure out how to blend the new faces with the familiar ones and develop chemistry despite the challenges of COVID-19 safety protocols, which make bonding a little challenging.
“It’s just that quality time you get to spend with your team collectively that I think is a little bit missing, “ Smith said. “It’s been more of the meeting times, more of the individual off-field times in trying to get the team together”
The team has found support in bonding through sessions with mental coach Scott Pelton.
“We just talk about stuff that goes on, the struggles as a freshman, learning how to deal with failure, stuff like that, ” Swift said. “For the most part, every single person is on the Zoom.”
With a revamped approach at the plate, a pitching staff that is expected to make a big jump and a positive mental outlook, the Sun Devils are positioned to hit the diamond running and finish what they started last season – right on schedule.