PHOENIX – When Arizona State kicks off the Texas Regional round of the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship, it will field the youngest roster in the tournament.
The Sun Devils will take on Fairfield today at 4 p.m. Arizona time as the first game in a double-elimination regional tournament that also includes overall No. 2 seed University of Texas and Southern University.
Coach Tracy Smith isn’t worried that Friday’s bright lights will overwhelm the Sun Devils because he believes the young players have the right mindset.
“I don’t feel like guys are giddy or just happy to be there,” he said. “I know that’s not the case. Our mindset is, ‘Hey, we’re expecting to go win.’ And we’re expecting to play well.”
Smith attributes that mindset partially to the coaches but also to the leadership of upperclassmen who’ve taught their younger teammates to compete every day, work hard, and, “do whatever is necessary.”
He singled out redshirt juniors Justin Fall on the pitching side and Drew Swift for position players as particular leaders. Smith described Swift leading the infield as, “one of the most important reasons for our success.”
Swift, who plays shortstop, is the only regular infielder who isn’t a freshman. Alongside Hunter Haas at third, Sean McLain at second and a mix of players at first, Swift has anchored an infield that led the country with 57 double plays this season.
Their efforts led to Swift receiving Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. He and Haas also made the Pac-12 All Defense Team.
“It’s like having a coach on the field,” Smith said.
Smith notices the other fielders looking to Swift during games when they’re unsure. He also trusts Swift’s judgment to call mound visits and refocus the team.
“He knows and senses exactly how the game is going,” Smith said. “To have somebody like that out there is valuable beyond words.”
To Swift, the confidence his young teammates gained throughout the season on defense will help the team advance in the tournament.
“Just keep playing good defense and I think we’re gonna go a long ways,” he said.
Swift, along with fellow upperclassmen like senior Conor Davis, who hasn’t played this season because of injury but competed during ASU’s 2019 tournament appearance, has helped his teammates understand what it’s like to play in the NCAA tournament to prepare for Friday.
“Those guys have done a really good job of talking about how special this time is,” Smith said. “This is what you work so hard for, and we’ve got everything in front of us.”
One lesson Swift learned last time he played in the tournament is not to overlook the first game. In 2019, the team looked ahead to Louisiana State, who was the big name in their regional, but couldn’t get past Southern Mississippi. Still, he’s happy the Sun Devils are in a regional with a program as esteemed as Texas.
“In my opinion, the bigger the school I thought it’d be better just so if we were going to make a run we’d have to beat someone good to get some momentum going,” Swift said.
Pitching coach Jason Kelly agreed that they’re trying to keep a one-game-at-a-time mindset while still getting the team excited by telling stories of what it’s like to go to Omaha for the College World Series.
“When you can explain those things to those guys and they get a little smile on their face and start to think, ‘Man, I want to be a part of that,’ then you start to get that ball rolling,” he said.
The team will try to get the ball rolling in Austin against Fairfield. Though they’ve reviewed film and statistics, they aren’t familiar with Fairfield. The two schools have never played each other and don’t have any common opponents this season.
Fairfield is a Jesuit school located in Connecticut. It has an enrollment of just under 5,000 compared to ASU’s nearly 75,000. The baseball team plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Smith described Fairfield as impressive. They boast a 37-3 record, a team batting average of .305. and a team ERA of 2.75, which is the best mark in the nation.
Despite his respect for Fairfield’s skill, Smith isn’t worried.
“The beauty of the NCAA Tournament are the matchups and being able to bring people together from different geographical locations to compete on the field,” he said.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Thornton will be ASU’s starting pitcher Friday. Thornton gave up five runs in 2.1 innings in his last outing against UCLA. ]Kelly believes that stumble will only encourage him.
“When he has a bad outing he takes it personal and there’s a little different kind of chip on his shoulder during the week,” Kelly said. “I expect him to come out this week and have a really good outing. I have that confidence in him.”
Thornton wasn’t the only Sun Devil who struggled against UCLA. The team dropped all three games of the series.
Freshman Ethan Long, who was just named All Pac-12, said the rest of the team will follow Thornton’s pattern to bounce back from the loss.
“We got to flush it totally,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about now. At the same time we can use that as momentum, give us a little fire in our butt to get out there and come out Friday.”
This team is accustomed to leaving bad news in the past as its season was shaped early on by injuries to key players. Along with Davis, ASU lost three starting pitchers to Tommy John surgery.
Kelly said from the outside it seems like those big injuries made them scramble but their young pitchers don’t know anything different. Kelly named freshmen Jared Glenn and Brock Peery as examples of young pitchers who weren’t daunted by taking on big innings.
Smith agreed with Kelly, saying the team never lowered their expectations, even with injury after injury.
“I like the fact that we’ve been battling adversity all year in one form or another,” he said. “I think that bodes well when we get into the tournament.”
Though Smith likes the winning mindset his players have, he wants to be sure they’re measuring success in more than one way. It’s hard to win, and the team has battled through so much to get to this point, including the cancellation of last year’s tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Embrace this and don’t underestimate just how unique of an experience this is,” he said. “Yes, we want to win and we’re gonna do everything we can to win, but enjoy the experience.”
Swift doesn’t think enjoyment will be a problem for the team.
“It’s been fun with these guys,” he said. “They’re just resilient. They keep coming at it no matter what’s thrown at them.”
Two other Arizona schools are also in the tournament. The University of Arizona earned the No. 5 seed in the tournament overall. They will play Grand Canyon University in the Tucson Regional at 7 p.m. today. This is Grand Canyon’s first appearance in the NCAA Baseball Championship.