Freak hand injury (again) means ASU baseball starts season without Nick McLain

Nick McLain, right, celebrates with Luke Hill after hitting a home run. McLain will miss the start of the Arizona State baseball season after suffering a hand injury. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

TEMPE – One thing Arizona State baseball fans have long awaited for 2024 was contributions from redshirt sophomore Nick McLain. The third brother of the ultra-talented McLain family – one that already has sent two brothers to professional baseball – was on the cusp of his first full season with ASU after a pitch broke his right hamate bone before the start of last year.

However, in some sort of twisted form of deja vu, ASU manager Willie Bloomquist announced recently that the outfielder sustained the same injury, this time on his left hand.

“We’re hoping to get him back by conference play (beginning May 21) if all goes well, or maybe a week prior if things go really well,” Bloomquist said. “I’d say it’s one of those freak accidents, but in this case, it’s twice.”

This is hardly the way ASU hoped to start its season, which begins Friday when the Sun Devils host Santa Clara for a three-game series at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Beginning his third consecutive season injured, McLain missed half of last season due to his broken right hand, and a back injury sidelined him his entire freshman campaign at UCLA, resulting in him redshirting and transferring to ASU.

McLain made a statement when he returned from his injury last season to make his college debut against Grand Canyon University. In a wild game that saw ASU overcome a seven-run deficit against its crosstown rival and escape with a victory, McLain made a strong first impression, going 3 for 6 with his first career home run and contributing an outfield assist.

From that point, the California native was an integral part of the ASU lineup, often leading off down the stretch of the season. At the end of his first taste of college baseball, McLain slashed .298/.391/.649 with 15 extra-base hits in just 23 games, crushing eight home runs. He was only in the position to break his other hand because of his talent as a switch hitter.

“(McLain) has done a tremendous job from last year to this year at just the overall work ethic and dedication to getting better and better as a player. … So when you do all that, and then you have another setback in an important year for him and us as a team, he feels that a little bit and is dejected, a little bit bummed,” Bloomquist said.

“On the other hand, it’s like, ‘Look, you’ve been through this last year; let’s not make the same mistakes you did last year with it. Let’s continue to keep our legs in shape, our arm in shape, so when you are ready to play, you’re ready to go.’”

Removing McLain leaves a significant hole in right field and in the lineup and replacing the production expected from him will be difficult. However, Bloomquist and his staff have done a successful job of stocking the outfield with depth heading into 2024.

Harris Williams, a redshirt senior who transferred from the University of San Francisco, is expected to take over in right field. Williams’ transfer from San Francisco to Tempe follows in the footsteps of Luke Keaschall and Owen Stevenson, who transferred to ASU from USF before him in 2023, both of whom were drafted after their lone season as Sun Devils.

Williams is coming off of a career year with the Dons, slashing .346/.421/.571 with nine home runs across 45 games. The performance earned him WCC All-Conference Second Team, and after graduating, Williams decided to test his ability at the Power 5 level.

“The expected level of play here is a lot higher,” Williams said when asked about the difference between ASU and San Francisco. “Coming from a mid-major school, we always had dreams of going to a regional, dreams of winning the conference tournament, and here, it feels more real for sure.”

Williams is replacing McLain in right field, but he was always expected to have a spot in the starting lineup. The responsibility of replacing McLain in the lineup likely falls on sophomore outfielder Kien Vu.

Last season, Vu was part of a quartet of freshmen position players who took over 100 at-bats. However, while Vu’s contributions were often overlooked for the flashy defense of center fielder Isaiah Jackson or the power of third baseman Nu’u Contrades, Vu was a consistent threat to get on base with a .379 on-base percentage and great defense in the corner outfield spots.

“I think I was just getting more comfortable up there, and that’s all I needed,” Vu said. “I think going into last year as a freshman, you’re a little nervous just to see how the season pans out and everything, but being able to dial that in and get more comfortable up there, it was finding my swing.”

McLain is no doubt one of the Sun Devils’ strongest hitters, but Bloomquist and his staff have talked for most of the offseason about how they love the depth they have in their position player group. Unfortunately for ASU, it is going to be tested a lot earlier than they ever would have liked.

“It opens things up, but not having that bat in the lineup and lengthening that lineup out, that’s going to leave a little bit of a mark, to be honest,” Bloomquist said. “Those are big shoes to fill, but like I said, the good news is we have depth to where we can withstand. And, not that I enjoy having a guy get injured, but at least we have the depth to be able to account for it and not lose much ground.”

Sammy Nute(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sammy Nute expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism before pursuing a master’s. Nute has interned as a reporter for Devils Digest in Tempe and the California Collegiate League.