Road to Omaha: ASU baseball team begins 2024 season with renewed confidence

Arizona State baseball coach Willie Bloomquist has high expectations after the Sun Devils struggled late in the 2023 season. (File photo by Nikash Nash/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – With just a month to go in the 2023 season, the Arizona State baseball team was ranked in the Top 20 and controlled its destiny to return to the NCAA Tournament. The possibility even existed to host postseason baseball at Phoenix Municipal Stadium for the first time since the team’s move from Packard Stadium nine years earlier.

However, a late season skid that saw the Sun Devils win just three of their final 12 Pac-12 conference games and fall short in the Pac-12 tournament, ultimately led to the team missing out on a regional. During the NCAA tournament selection show, ASU was announced as a “First Four Out” and rival Arizona as a “Last Four In” after the Wildcats won seven of their last nine games, including a 12-3 victory over ASU in pool play of the Pac-12 tournament.

With Friday’s opener here, the Sun Devils are ready to embrace the peaks and valleys that the 2024 campaign is sure to bring. The Santa Clara Broncos will visit Phoenix Municipal Stadium to kick off the festivities, fresh off a West Coast Conference Tournament championship and a regional appearance in the 2023 NCAA tournament, their first in 26 years.

Junior infielder Efrain Manzo, a Chandler native, will look to build on a monstrous sophomore campaign that saw him lead the Broncos with 18 home runs and 51 RBIs, the former ranking second in the WCC and second-most in program history. In addition, his five multi-home run games and .661 slugging percentage make him a dangerous threat in Santa Clara’s lineup.

“They got a lot of those guys (from last year’s regional team) returning,” Boomquist said, “so that makes for a much more difficult team than the mid-week team we saw a couple years ago. The kid throwing (Friday) is a very capable arm, and we have to come ready to swing it off of him because he’s got some pretty good movement on his pitches, good velo and he’s going to be tough for us. Kudos to their coaching staff for developing their program the way they have.”

Another successful draft season in 2023 saw seven former Sun Devils continue on their path to the big leagues: second-round infielder Luke Keaschall; starting pitchers Ross Dunn, Khristian Curtis and Timmy Manning; relievers Josh Hansell and Blake Pivaroff; and closer Owen Stevenson. The 2024 season will provide a chance for new arms to shine on the mound with only three pitchers returning.

During the offseason, Bloomquist and pitching coach Sam Peraza emphasized the importance of young arms building a foundation that will carry over into 2025 and beyond. This season marks the first time Bloomquist and his staff have a roster with talent they recruited out of high school rather than transfers and those from the previous regime.

“Moving forward, hopefully, this is a program that we build with our freshmen year after year and build them on top of each other,” Bloomquist said in January. “That’s the goal here now, that we’ve got through the growing pains of the (transfer) portal the first couple years where it was a necessity. I think we’ll still use it on occasion, but to live and die by it every year from here on out, I trust our recruiting process.”

On Thursday, Bloomquist announced freshman right-hander Thomas Burns, senior left-hander Connor Markl and redshirt sophomore Tyler Meyer as the starters, respectively, for opening weekend against Santa Clara. Burns was the ranked the No. 7 prospect out of Wisconsin by Perfect Game and Prep Baseball Report and was named a top-5 right-handed pitcher in the state by both outlets. It marks the first time since 2006 that a true freshman was named ASU’s opening night starter.

With the decision to go with Arizona State pitcher Thomas Burns Friday night against Santa Clara, it marks the first time since 2006 that a true freshman was named ASU’s opening night starter. (Photo by Anthony Remidios/Cronkite News)

“Maybe it’s a little aggressive having some other guys around, but he pitched really well in the fall,” Peraza said. “We’ve been building the last three years for this and our future and for all the freshmen that are here. They’re going to have to get out there at some point. There will be some times where they struggle, but this is really going to set us up for our future.”

Bloomquist believes Burns has “the stuff to pitch on Friday night, the mound presence, mindset and mentality. If he does give up a run or two, he’s not going to get overly rattled and too excited over it. He’s just going to keep doing his job and that’s what I like about it.”

Markl, a Valley native from Notre Dame Prep, transferred to ASU this offseason after spending the last three seasons at GCU. In 25 starts and 45 appearances, he compiled an 11-5 record and a 5.90 ERA, while recording 156 strikeouts to just 54 walks.

Meyer headlines the returners of this year’s pitching staff after missing the entire 2023 season due to a shoulder surgery. Meyer started in 10 of 14 appearances in 2022 and compiled a 5.46 ERA and 54 strikeouts through 56 innings.

“I’m just grateful to be competing and feeling good doing it,” Meyer said. “Through the rehab process, I realized how much we take for granted being on the field every day. So that gave me a new perspective on things. Grateful for the opportunity to be back out there with the guys and that Bloomquist, Peraza and the staff trust me enough to put me out there on Sunday.”

Bloomquist believes that “Tyler doesn’t show a lot of emotions. He’s more of an even keel type guy, but you could tell he’s happy and excited. Really, this has come in the past 3 to 3 ½ weeks, where he’s starting to throw the ball the way we’ve all seen Tyler throw in the past.”

Peraza later named local freshman two-way player Cole Carlon to serve the closer role to start the 2024 campaign. In his senior year at Corona del Sol, Carlon posted a 1.95 ERA with 90 strikeouts through 61 innings, which eventually earned recognition as the No. 12 player by Perfect Game and No. 11 by Prep Baseball Report.

Although there will be many new faces on the mound, fans can expect to see familiar faces at the plate in what is arguably the most powerful lineup of the Pac-12, but without the hot hand of redshirt sophomore outfielder Nick McLain due to a broken hamate bone. Notable returners include junior first baseman Jacob Tobias, junior utility Ryan Campos, sophomore third baseman Nu’u Contrades and sophomore outfielder Isaiah Jackson.

Leading the team with 59 RBIs in 2023, Tobias also returns as the Sun Devils’ home run leader, finishing second with 10 home runs behind eventual second-round pick Luke Keaschall (18). Campos, Contrades and Jackson ranked next among the returners with eight home runs each, proving a critical piece to the offensive success.

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Named All-American in 2022 alongside Tobias, Campos led the Sun Devils in batting average last season at .388 and ranked highest among the returners in OPS at 1.097. He earned All-Pac-12 First Team honors for the first time in his career and was named as a semifinalist for the Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year.

Jackson will be ASU’s centerpiece in the outfield after being named to the 2023 All-Pac-12 Defensive Team for his speed and athleticism shown during his freshman campaign. Of his eight home runs, one was a walk-off grand slam vs. Oregon State, the program’s first since at least 2000.

At other positions, Bloomquist confirmed senior transfers Steven Ondina and Kevin Karstetter will start at shortstop and second base, respectively, while also expecting others such as freshmen Ethan Mendoza and Jax Ryan, and senior transfer Mario Demera to see playing time throughout the year as well. Sophomore Kien Vu will start in left field Friday night, but several options are on the table for the right side of the outfield, including San Francisco fifth-year transfer Harris Williams, Oregon senior transfer Josiah Cromwick and even Campos.

Entering his third season at the helm, Bloomquist was not afraid to schedule stronger non-conference opponents, which includes recent NCAA tournament teams Santa Clara (2023), Texas A&M (2023), TCU (2023), Grand Canyon (2022), Cal State Fullerton (2023) and Texas Tech (2023).

“There are no cupcakes or layups,” Bloomquist said recently of the non-conference schedule. “I’m not going to get burned by RPI and chance. Once was enough for me. I didn’t want strength of schedule to be a factor.”

ASU’s 2024 campaign will officially begin at Phoenix Municipal Stadium Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.

“We’re ready,” Bloomquist said. “We’re getting tired of the same old, same old scrimmaging and drill work, stuff like that. We’re excited to go up against somebody else and see where we stand. … There’s only so much an intrasquad (scrimmage) can tell you.”

Anthony Remedios AN-thuh-nee reh-MEE-dee-os (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

Anthony Remedios expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in community sports management. Remedios also works with Varsity Sports Show, Walter Cronkite Sports Network and Blaze Radio.