PHOENIX – The Arizona State baseball program is one of the more storied collegiate programs in the country, with more than 20 College World Series (CWS) appearances and over 100 major league players produced. But despite the Sun Devils’ five national titles, the last 12 years have been rough, even unlucky, in some aspects.
ASU baseball has not earned a Men’s College World Series berth since 2010. In the 12 years since, the program had three losing seasons (2017, 2018 and 2022), marking the Sun Devils’ worst run in the past 65 years.
A dream season in 2020, when ASU was favored to win the Pac-12, was shattered after the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short. The Sun Devils’ 13-4 start was highlighted by Spencer Torkelson, selected first overall by the Detroit Tigers in the 2020 MLB draft, who had six home runs and a remarkable .780 slugging percentage in his junior campaign.
After the Sun Devils were eliminated from the 2021 CWS regionals, athletic director Ray Anderson fired coach Tracy Smith following seven “mediocre” seasons with the team. Willie Bloomquist, former major leaguer and Sun Devil alumnus, was then hired as the sixth head coach in the team’s history.
The hiring was praised by fans statewide. Bringing in a former Sun Devils player brought a sense of hope and motivation to not just the fanbase, but the clubhouse as well.
“The first step last year was the coaching change,” junior reliever Brock Peery said. “I think everyone believes in Willie, and he believes in himself and we know we can get to that level (with him).”
The Sun Devils finished 26-32 in Bloomquist’s first year at the helm. A slew of pitching issues were the primary cause last season, with a team ERA (earned run average) of 6.76 and a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.75.
The pitchers looked tired, with position players such as Will Rogers and Ethan Long eating up innings on the mound. However, ASU coaches believe this year’s pitching staff can fix the struggling department.
“This year we have more options,” pitching coach Sam Peraza said. “Last year we had the same guys running out there as much as we could … we can keep guys well-rested and you’ll see fresher arms out of the pen.”
Hitting was not the problem last season, as the team finished with a batting average of .297, good for 41st of the 299 Division I schools. Batters Joe Lampe (Cleveland Guardians), Sean McLain (Los Angeles Dodgers), Nate Baez (Minnesota Twins) and Ethan Long (San Francisco Giants) were picked in the 2022 MLB Draft.
Long, donned “Mr. Irrelevant” after being selected with the final overall pick (616th overall), opted to return to the Sun Devils for his junior season.
“I’m still looking to shed it a little bit … (San Francisco quarterback) Brock Purdy is making me look better now,” Long said in response to his new nickname. “After I graduated high school, I set all these goals I wanted to achieve while I was at ASU, and there’s some boxes I didn’t get to check off. It wouldn’t sit well with me if I decided to go pro.”
Sun Devil baseball had more than 50 players playing professionally in 2022. In addition to Torkelson, eight Sun Devil alumni played on major league teams.
ASU has produced more MLB talent than any other collegiate baseball program with 465 draft picks in its history, 87 ahead of next-in-line USC. ASU’s success for producing big league talent is one of the main factors in its recruiting success this past offseason.
“We brought in one of the best transfer classes in the country, I think we have one of the best freshman classes too,” Peery said. “I came back and I didn’t know 30 guys in the locker room, after knowing everyone for two years … I didn’t know anyone.”
The Sun Devils look to improve and build off last season for the upcoming 2023 season, which opens Friday at home with a three-day series against the San Diego State Aztecs.
Bloomquist hopes to lead his team to the program’s 23rd Men’s College World Series appearance in his second year at the helm.
“Every day was new last year… now I have a really good idea of what a good college team looks like and where we got to get to,” Bloomquist said. “I’m sleeping better this time than I was last year at this time.”