TEMPE – In May, the Arizona State University baseball team anxiously awaited to hear its name called in the selection show for the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils finished fifth in the Pac-12 with a 32-23 overall record (16-13 Pac-12) and suffered key losses to USC, UCLA, and Arizona to hurt their resume.
On the outside looking in, the Sun Devils lost eight of their last 11 games, and ultimately, the selection show ended with ASU among the first four teams out.
“Well, obviously, last year didn’t end the way we wanted it to. We struggled a little bit down the stretch” coach Willie Bloomquist said. “But on the same token, you use that as motivation. We’ve got plenty of motivation, there’s not going to be a shortage of that around here.”
That motivation has spilled into offseason workouts for the Sun Devils, with first pitch just 114 days away as ASU opens the season at home against Santa Clara on Feb. 16, with the full schedule released last Thursday. The Sun Devils welcome 32 newcomers, adding a new level of depth for the team on the offensive and defensive fronts and a fresh outlook for 2024.
“The guys are buying into the work ethic that it takes, and the daily grind of doing what it takes to be good,” Bloomquist said. “So from that standpoint, I couldn’t be happier.”
The boys are back
With a relatively young team, Bloomquist is looking to his returners to set the tone.
Juniors Ryan Campos and Jacob Tobias, alongside sophomore Nu’u Contrades, are stepping into bigger leadership roles for the upcoming season.
“It’s time for them to step up and be a little more vocal than they have in the past,” Bloomquist said. “They understand that and they’re doing a great job so far this fall.”
Becoming a veteran player in his second season on the team has been a “tougher transition,” Contrades said, but he is ready to step into the new role. As a freshman, Contrades finished with a .309 batting average, eight home runs and a .934 fielding percentage. Entering year two, he wants to make sure the freshmen know that their time will come.
“I was fortunately given a lot of opportunities last year to succeed,” Contrades said. “I’m just trying to tell (the freshmen) that you have an opportunity to go and play as a freshman, so go take it.”
Tobias, who batted .317 and hit 10 homers in 2023, takes a lot of pride in getting to know his new teammates and welcoming them into the Sun Devil family. As a first baseman, Tobias knows that those relationships off the field translate to what happens on the field.
“I would say just getting together with them and seeing what they really like,” Tobias said. “Being the first baseman, you have to know what people are comfortable with.”
Bloomquist and his infielders place importance on their defense knowing that even if the pitching staff is having an off day, the players behind the bump can change everything. Tobias serves as the perfect example with his .997 fielding percentage last year, while committing only one error.
New kids on the block
ASU welcomed four more new players to the total (28) from a year ago, including 18 freshmen and 14 transfers. One reason for the large turnover, in part, is due to ASU sending eight picks to the MLB Draft this year – tied for the fourth-most in the first 20 rounds of an MLB Draft in program history, and the most since 2008.
ASU coined the term MLBU for the exposure that Tempe offers the athletes who want to make that jump to the next level. The numbers speak for itself with 473 Sun Devils selected to the major leagues, including Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Merrill Kelly who is in the World Series starting rotation against the Texas Rangers.
“I guess we’re doing something right from that standpoint,” Bloomquist said. “I’m happy for them to get the opportunity to go on and play.”
Now the current Sun Devils look to continue the program’s legacy – and all quickly catch on to what’s required to fit, whether it’s a transfer or returning player.
“You get a feel very early on when you get somewhere, like what’s the work ethic like, what’s the culture, these dudes just want to get after it,” transfer Kevin Karstetter said. “That kind of makes you just up the ante a little bit. I think we all are a little hungry to get out there.”
Karstetter joins the Devils after spending his first three seasons at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota. In three years at SCF, Karstetter was a .358 hitter with 20 home runs. He spent most of his time on the field at third base, with scattered appearances at second base.
Where will he fit in the Sun Devil lineup?
“I’m here with an open mind,” Karstetter said. “I’ll play wherever they want me to play. I have to go earn it, so it’s kind of on me.”
Year three of the Bloomquist era marks the first season where the freshmen coming in were recruited by him. In his first two seasons, Bloomquist and his staff had players recruited by the former staff and additions from the portal.
Six of this year’s freshman class are local players from across the Valley. Corona Del Sol’s Cole Carlon, Basha’s Bradyn Barnes, Pinnacle’s Grant Smith, Sandra Day O’Connor’s Josh Butler, Chaparral’s Wyatt Halvorson and Hamilton’s Rohan Lettow join ASU’s pitching staff this year, something Bloomquist and pitching coach Sam Peraza are excited about.
“That’s the exciting part about it, it’s our guys,” Peraza said. “They’ve been our guys since the new regime stepped on campus here with coach Bloomquist.”
No easy outs
The combination of newcomers and veterans gives Sun Devil baseball a level of depth not seen in recent years. With such a large group, Bloomquist is looking forward to seeing the team compete with one another with spots being on the line.
“I feel like we got 13 or 14 strong solid bats right now to where there’s going to be a fight at the bat rack a little bit,” Bloomquist said.
Baseball season is a long one, with 56 games to be played, so the more options managers have, the better. Having different options allows Bloomquist to look at matchups against certain pitchers and gives the team some breathing room for inevitable injuries.
Wallace says the depth in this year’s lineup gives the team a bigger margin for error.
“It’s an amazing thing for a team,” Wallace said. “It’s a problem that Willie I’m sure would love to have, and loves having.”
This fall in offseason workouts, the team is anticipating the competition that comes with so many people fighting for a spot in the starting lineup. Hitters get to take live at-bats against a new pitching staff that not only benefits the offense, but also gives the young Sun Devil staff an introduction to facing tough hitters.
“We’re competing against one of the best offenses, in my opinion, in the country,” said Arkansas transfer Sean Fitzpatrick. “As a pitcher that’s all you can ask for, especially in the fall.”
Come opening day, only nine Sun Devils can step onto the field at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. That doesn’t mean that the opportunities won’t come.
“There’s no easy outs one through nine,” Bloomquist said. “We’re going to have a handful of guys on the bench that, situationally, can come in and do some damage.”
ASU lost all of its draft-eligible arms to the draft but added 21 new arms, including 13 freshmen.
Some of the standouts who the coaches have noticed include Carlon and Thomas Burns. Carlon is already up to the mid-90s on his fastball. Burns is a freshman from Wisconsin who has been a pleasant surprise for the coaching staff.
Peraza is eager to test him as much as possible during the fall.
“We’ve got to throw him in the mix as much as possible,” Peraza said of Burns. “We’re going to try to get him the experienced hitters, so he could really realize what it’s like and get out there as much as possible.”
Since taking over at ASU, Bloomquist and Peraza haven’t had a young pitching staff that they can develop in-house.
“This year excites me for (Peraza) and that we do have a lot of freshmen that we can actually start building with,” Bloomquist said. “The scary part is a lot of freshmen, but we’ll adjust and I think we’ll be just fine.”
Along with the new arms coming in this year, the Sun Devils are cautiously optimistic about the return of Tyler Meyer. In his first season with the Sun Devils in 2022, Meyer pitched 56 innings and posted a 3-1 record with 54 strikeouts.
Meyer missed the 2023 campaign with a shoulder injury, and has spent the offseason rehabbing after surgery.
“It’s been really smooth,” Meyer said of his recovery. “A couple small bumps along the way, but overall it’s been really good.”
Bloomquist says his pitching staff will be in good shape if they can get Meyer healthy and back to form. Getting Meyer back into the rotation adds a strong veteran arm into the young Sun Devil mix.
The recovery process has been more mentally taxing on Meyer, but it is something that he believes will help him as one of the players leading the pitching staff.
“I think that’ll serve me really well going further into the season when things get tough and you just got to keep going,” Meyer said. “Hopefully I’ve set a good example for guys too with how I work, and (I’m) hoping that we can all just build on that and be better as a team.”