PHOENIX – In any other year, Arizona State’s baseball season would be over.
The final memory of the 2022 Sun Devils would be of a team that limped – literally and figuratively – to the finish line, going 1-5 over their last six games while missing several key players. Willie Bloomquist’s rollercoaster first season as Sun Devils coach would have ended with his team’s record at just 25-30 overall and 13-17 in Pac-12 play.
But the inaugural Pac-12 Baseball Tournament, which begins Wednesday, gives ASU one last chance to make a run into the NCAA postseason. For Bloomquist, that means a shot to end an often frustrating first year at the helm for the former star Sun Devils shortstop on a high note.
“It’s the most enjoyable point of the season,” said Bloomquist, who played for ASU from 1997-99. “Everything that’s happened in the past is in the rearview, nothing you can do about it. But the opportunity that we want to have happen is right in front of us.”
Despite ASU’s rough finish, it did just enough in conference play to secure the tournament’s eighth and final seed. But the Sun Devils’ only path to the 64-team NCAA tournament is to win the Pac-12 tournament and secure the conference’s automatic bid, an extremely tall task in a conference that already has five at-large teams good enough to reach the regional round of the NCAAs.
ASU will play arguably the best of those teams, Pac-12 regular season champion and No. 1 seed Stanford, in the first round Wednesday. The Sun Devils will be looking for revenge after a three-game sweep by the Cardinal when the two teams faced off in Stanford, California, in April.
“All of those games were very competitive and down to where a big pitch or a big play here or there could have gone in the other direction,” Bloomquist said. “That’s really the parity of our conference. From top to bottom, anybody can beat anybody on any given day, and you got to show up ready to play.”
The rematch against Stanford provides a shot at redemption for starting pitcher Kyle Luckham, a junior transfer from Cal State Fullerton. Luckham and Bloomquist were both ejected in the second inning of ASU’s series opener at Stanford April 8, forcing the Sun Devils to adjust and lean upon their bullpen much more than they anticipated. The Cardinal bats tagged ASU pitching for 34 runs over that three-game span.
But Luckham separated himself as the Sun Devils’ best pitcher down the stretch of the season, finishing with a 4.46 ERA on 80.2 innings pitched, leading the team in both categories. Since that start at Stanford, Luckham has recorded solid outings against other top Pac-12 offenses including UCLA, Arizona and Oregon, helping him earn the nod from Bloomquist to start Wednesday’s game.
“I’m pumped,” Luckham said. “We’ve kind of been talking about it a little bit and know what’s at stake. …The history’s in the past, whatever it is. We had an incident last time, but we’re out to win a game.”
One major factor working in the Sun Devils’ favor is the location of the tournament – Scottsdale Stadium, the San Francisco Giants’ spring training complex, which sits about a 10-minute drive from the Sun Devils’ home field at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Not only do the Sun Devils get to play close to their fanbase, but some ASU players believe that their comfort with the Arizona heat could also provide an extra advantage. Triple-digit temperatures are forecasted for all five days of the tournament, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday.
“We’re used to the heat and the teams that are traveling in that aren’t used to the heat,” said redshirt sophomore outfielder Joe Lampe. “And then it’s always nice to sleep in your own bed and be able to go to the same (batting) cage that you’ve always hit in this whole year. So just keeping that same routine and knowing what to expect is going to help us for sure.”
ASU thrived at home all year long, finishing 11-4 in Pac-12 play there compared to 2-13 on the road.
“It’s no secret that we played pretty well at home,” Luckham said. “Having our families there, having our fans there and to be able work out at our facility will definitely be an advantage.”
However, the Sun Devils are still limping. Bloomquist confirmed Monday that sophomore third baseman and right-handed pitcher Ethan Long, widely regarded as one of the Sun Devils’ most talented hitters, will likely remain sidelined from the lineup due to back and wrist injuries that have limited him to just three plate appearances since April 22.
Long has been able to pitch out of the bullpen as his injuries do not affect his throwing motion, and Bloomquist said that Long would likely see time on the mound as the possibility of four games in five days during the tournament could have ASU’s bullpen stretched thin.
Conor Davis, the graduate transfer first baseman out of Auburn who is in his sixth and final year of eligibility, will also return after missing the past four games. Davis has been dealing with a right hamstring strain since pulling the muscle on April 23 at Arizona, but has attempted to play through it with Bloomquist’s blessing. The 24-year-old clubhouse leader expects to be back at first base and in his usual spot in the middle of the Sun Devils’ batting order Wednesday.
“I’ll be full go,” Davis said. “I’m not gonna miss this. This is the last ride for me. … The biggest thing for me is just being out there at least for mentality and presence, just being out there helping the guys and helping our pitchers just have someone out there to talk to them as much as I can.”
Both Bloomquist and Davis candidly acknowledged that while Davis is far from healthy, he will be in the Sun Devils’ lineup and play in the infield as long as he is physically able to do so.
“Conor is (physically) not great,” Bloomquist said, “But he’s at the point of his career where you’re not gonna stay out of the lineup, and he’s earned that right to be in there.”
Davis has also drawn on his past conference tournament experience in the SEC to help prepare his team for what they will face.
“The biggest thing is just to take it one game at a time,” Davis said. “Try and punch first. Regardless of good or bad innings, you just got to have someone step up the whole tournament. It’s just gonna be who can who can get hot at the right time… so that’s going to be us, I hope.”
Bloomquist has preached a similar message to his team.
“Whatever has happened in the past, regular season wise, good, bad, indifferent, doesn’t really matter,” Bloomquist said. “The season starts on Wednesday against Stanford.”
The Pac-12 Baseball Tournament kicks off at 9 a.m. Wednesday when the University of Arizona takes on the University of Oregon. Both Arizona and Oregon are projected to make the NCAA baseball tournament despite a down year for the Wildcats. If Arizona and ASU both win or lose their games on Wednesday, they will face off in either the winner’s or loser’s bracket on Thursday. The Sun Devils and Wildcats split their four-game Territorial Cup regular season series, winning two games each.
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