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ASU Baseball: Non-conference schedule preview

(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)

One year ago the Sun Devils opened Phoenix Muni in grand fashion with a set of series against Oklahoma State, TCU and Long Beach State. They even added a midweek game against the Oklahoma Sooners to make their non-conference schedule even more robust.

This season, ASU will only face one team that made it to college baseball’s postseason in 2015–Cal State Fullerton, a team that also made it to Omaha. Teams like Nevada and San Diego were close, but the committee left them out by the slimmest of margins.

The weaker non-conference schedule this season coincides with the thin pitching staff. You can’t blame head coach Tracy Smith and his staff for arranging the first month of the season this way, as the Pac-12 boasts five teams in preseason rankings (No. 5 OSU, No. 9 Cal, No. 11 UCLA, No. 12 USC, No. 14 Oregon). The Sun Devils will face all five of those teams at some point in the season, but for now we are focusing on all of the outsiders coming to Phoenix Muni.

Xavier 15-38 (3-15 Big East)
Key returners: C Nate Soria, SS Andre Jernigan, LHP Trent Astie
Last season: Last in Big East, missed regional round
History: First ever meeting between the schools
Only two years removed from a Big East title and a tournament birth, Xavier took a big step back last season with a youthful roster. The Musketeers were also dealt a blow when their starting catcher Dan Rizzie injured his hand and missed a large majority of the 2015 season.

True freshman Nate Soria stepped up in his absence and was awarded with Big East Freshman of the Year thanks to an astounding slash line (.335/.471/.420). He was Xavier’s lone All-American but absent from preseason lists for the conference, whereas Rizzie is on the preseason first team.

Andre Jernigan enters his junior year having played in all 110 games of his collegiate career, starting 109 of them. He has led the team in stolen bases in each of the last two years to complement his .250 average.

A young rotation turns over two of its weekend starters including lefties Trent Astie and Brad Kirschner. Astie was a member of the All-Big East second team leading Xavier in innings pitched (79), strikeouts (55) and ERA (3.42) among starters.

Xavier is a complete 180 turn from ASU’s opening weekend against Oklahoma State a year ago. Despite the appealing youth, it is by no means a lock to improve. For a four game series, pitching is at a premium and that’s the biggest question mark of the season for the Sun Devils. Fans will expect a 3-1 or 4-0 weekend, but baseball is weird and 2-2 is not out of the realm of possibility—albeit unlikely.

Nevada 41-15 (22-7 Mountain West)
Key returners: OF Trenton Brooks, LHP Christian Stolo, INF Bryce Greager
Last season: MW regular season champs; eliminated by New Mexico in MW Tournament; missed regional round
History: ASU is 0-2 all-time against the Wolf Pack. Meetings: Feb. 12, 2006– 12-8 loss in Coca-Cola Classic; May 16, 2001– 6-4 loss in Reno.

Things were looking fantastic for Nevada at the beginning of May last season. It had a chance to eclipse the 40-win mark and was ranked in every major college baseball poll.

Then the Mountain West Tournament came. The target on its back was large, and Air Force and New Mexico hit the bullseye to knock the Wolf Pack out of the conference tournament and put their postseason fate in the hands of the committee. In turn, the committee decided their ranking in the final week of the season and 41 wins weren’t enough, and left them out of the tournament. Ouch.

To make matters worse for Nevada, head coach Jay Johnson took the same position down in Tucson with the Arizona Wildcats after Andy Lopez announced his retirement. Former UCLA assistant T.J. Bruce comes to fill the big shoes Johnson left, but he’s aided by returning the conference’s Player and Pitcher of the Year.

Trent Brooks is a super utility player with a rubber left arm. His astounding slash line of .365/.484/.515 complemented by a 3.65 ERA in 37 innings a season ago make him a threat at the plate and on the mound. He could potentially join the rotation with Christian Solo, who a remarkable 8-2 record in 17 appearances and 13 starts. The lefty also had a 2.83 ERA in 76 innings.

ASU will only face Nevada once at home to close out five games in five days for both teams. Nevada has a four-game series with Northwestern in Mesa on Opening Weekend. Considering the offseason both these teams have had, this is a toss up.

Long Beach State 28-26 (11-13 Big West)
Key returners: SS Garrett Hampson, RHP Chris Mathewson
Last season: 6th in Big West, missed regional round
History: ASU is 38-10 all-time against the Dirtbags. Last meeting: March 8-10, 2015 in Phoenix – ASU series win (6-4 win, 4-2 loss, 9-3 win).

With a rich tradition and the best mascot in college baseball (the Dirtbags), Long Beach State has a hefty challenge ahead of it in 2016. A disappointing season by its standards resulted in missing out on the postseason tournament.

However, the stage is set in 2016 for a young roster that has matured and gets to enjoy southern California for 24 of its first 27 games, only traveling to Norman, Oklahoma for a weekend with the Sooners.

ASU and LBSU possess many similarities, among the most important are success stories as MLB training grounds (both in the top five for alums on Opening Day rosters), Omaha mainstays and a reputation as among the West’s elite.

LBSU’s nucleus of Garrett Hampson at shortstop and Luke Rasmussen at first base will always keep its offense alive. Hampson’s accolades are impressive, as they include a freshman All-American award in 2014, invited to the Collegiate National Team in the summer of 2015, and now a preseason All-American by Louisville Slugger and Perfect Game in 2016. It helps the talented junior keep pace with a remarkable pedigree at the shortstop position at Long Beach State (Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, Danny Espinosa etc.). Rasmussen led the team in batting average (.315) and homers (six) but only accumulated 108 at-bats, exactly half of Hampson’s. Expect his production to increase this year.

On the mound, Chris Mathewson returns as a freshman All-American from 2015 with a 1.94 ERA, opponents’ batting average of .187, and the starter of the first seven innings in a combined no-hitter against Wichita State. All of this should outshine a 6-6 record that was due to a lack of offensive production during his starts. In fact, he only allowed more than four runs once. That one time happened to be against ASU.

This will be a marquee matchup in a lackluster non-conference slate for ASU this season. One team is fighting to return to the regionals (LBSU), and the other (ASU) has to learn a lot about its roster and is trying to continue the streak of winning at least 30 games a season, which currently sits at 53—the longest in the nation.

Another toss-up, but the advantage on paper is for the Dirtbags with the slimmest of margins.

Eastern Michigan 20-35 (9-18 MAC)
Key returners: INF Mitchell McGeein, RHP Sam Delapane
Last season: Last in MAC West Division, missed regional round
History: ASU is 6-2 all-time against the Eagles. Last meeting: Doubleheader in Tempe on March 2, 1997 – ASU won both games 14-5 and 28-4.

Not exactly a baseball powerhouse, Eastern Michigan will be spending the 2016 campaign trying to compete in their own conference after its last-place finish in the West division of the MAC. The task will be tough considering the talent-rich conference will be led by Kent State, Toledo, Central Michigan and last year’s tournament champion Ohio.

The program is one year under the helm of new head coach Mark Van Ameyde, a lifetime Michigander with an impressive pedigree as an assistant with Michigan State.

Van Ameyde returns his best power bat and his closer among others for the 2016 campaign. Both will be relied upon heavily to repeat their performances from a year ago.

Mitchell McGeein claimed a .277 average while starting every game for the Eagles, and led the team in doubles (15), homers (10), RBIs (36) and slugging (.515). The Canadian’s production continued through the tough conference season, and he was named to the MAC All-Academic team. The senior also reached base in 22 consecutive games with a 12-game hitting streak on separate occasions during the season. McGeein also had a very strong summer in the tough Northwoods League, playing for the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters and leading them with nine more taters in 58 games.

Sam Delapane served as the go-to reliever in the Eagles’ bullpen, and thrived with a 2.93 ERA with 48 strikeouts in only 40 innings of work. He also converted seven saves, and collected five wins in relief to lead the team. His summer was also very successful playing for the Vermont Mountaineers in the New England Collegiate Baseball League where he was named the top relief pitcher of the league. He threw the final pitch of the season when he saved the title game for the Mountaineers. All told, he finished with 41 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings. If Eastern Michigan can manufacture a lead late in a game, it can turn it over to the Californian to close things out with his swing-and-miss action.

This is a series that fans will be expecting a sweep just based on the names on the jerseys, and that’s a warranted presumption. But recall a year ago when ASU failed to sweep Tennessee Tech. Baseball tends to work in weird ways from time to time. If ASU wants to silence all doubt, it needs a sweep over a weaker non-conference opponent, and Eastern Michigan is a prime example.

Cal State Fullerton 39-25 (19-5 Big West)
Key returners: OF Josh Vargas, LHP John Gavin, RHP Connor Seabold
Last season: Big West Conference Champions; won Fullerton Regional ( over ASU, Pepperdine and Clemson); won Louisville Super Regional (2-1); losses to No.5 Vanderbilt and No. 1 LSU in College World Series.
History: ASU is 31-30 all-time against the Titans. Last Meeting: 2015 Fullerton Regional on May 30 – CSF won 3-2 in 14 innings.
The Sun Devils will return to Goodwin Field during spring break for the most-anticipated series of the non-conference schedule. The sour taste of defeat in 14 innings on a bases loaded walk from Eder Erives still lingers on the returners to the program. That loss sent ASU to the loser’s bracket of the regional, where Pepperdine eliminated it for the second consecutive season.

ASU ran into the two-headed monster of Thomas Eshelman (9 IP, 2 ER, 14 SO, 0 BB, 143 pitches) and Tyler Peitzmeier (5 IP, 0 R, 6 SO), and despite scoring two runs through two innings, it went the rest of the night scoreless. But the titans of the Titans’ pitching staff are gone after the MLB Draft and graduation. Who’s next?

Pitching has been Fullerton’s key to success lately and while it loses the prized horse in the stable (Eshelman), it allows the opportunity for its bevy of talent to take the track. One of those contenders is sophomore John Gavin. As a freshman he assumed the role of Sunday starter a gained valuable experience. Then when Justin Garza went down due to injury, Gavin filled the Saturday role admirably. A freshman All-American, he was 7-3 with a 3.66 ERA in 86 innings. Gavin will likely slide ahead one more day to Friday nights to fill the impossible void Eshelman leaves.

Another vital piece of the staff is righty Connor Seabold. The ripple effect from Garza’s injury allowed him to pitch on Sundays. He posted very respectable numbers in ERA (3.26) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.3:1). Another pitcher sharpie’d on the weekend rotation, his development with Gavin will take center stage in 2016 as CSUF reloads its offense. By 2017, their dominance on the mound will return.

The timing of the series will be an interesting quirk for both teams. This Tuesday-Wednesday series will be sandwiched between non-conference weekends for both teams. The Titans will be returning from Lubbock, Texas after a weekend with the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

The Sun Devils will be driving down I-10 after their home weekend series against Eastern Michigan. Both teams will remain at home the following weekend with Wichita State heading to Fullerton and UC Davis to Phoenix. So while we don’t know who will get the ball for the Titans, we have a feeling of the offense and returner Josh Vargas.

The senior returns as the leadoff man and utility outfielder. ASU knows him well as he was named to the Fullerton All-Regional team in 2015, but Vargas’s production was not limited to the postseason.

A junior college transfer, he led the Titans in the categories a leadoff hitter should: batting average (.332), on-base percentage (.437), runs scored (42) and stolen bases (13, which netted him second on the team). His game reflects much of what the Titans do on offense, and it becomes even more pronounced when factoring in the loss of David Olmedo-Barrerra, who blasted 10 of the team’s 20 home runs.

All eyes will be on Fullerton for this series for two reasons:
1. The Titans want to prove they have reloaded their arms from last season.
2. ASU needs an inspiring result that can set the tone leading into conference play.

I’m predicting a split of games decided by two runs or less, and I think the Devils would take that.

UC Davis 30-26-1 (9-15 Big West)
Key returners: OF Tanner Bily, LHP Orlando Razo*
Last season: 7th in Big West, missed regional round
History: First meeting all-time against the Aggies.

If ASU fans are worried about depth and fear what could be when the young guns really take over this team next season, they should look at UC Davis. The Aggies lose their entire weekend rotation and their top-five batting averages from a season ago. A member of the competitive Big West, their non-conference start last year raised some eyebrows and winning seven of their first eight conference games really made people take notice.

Then an injury to Saturday night starter Orlando Razo ended his season and pushed the envelope of the thin roster. Razo is back but it is unclear when he’ll be available to pitch for the Aggies this season.

Before Razo went down, he was having a solid year in his nine appearances (seven starts). With a 3.27 ERA and 4-2 record, his numbers could have been even better had he not gone down with the injury.

Offensively, outfielder Trevor Bily played in the most games (55) among juniors for UC Davis in 2015 and sported a .255 batting average—middle of the pack for the Aggies. His eight stolen bases from a season ago is a humble mark, but considering the Aggies stole 103 bases last season and return only 26 of them, he’ll be relied upon heavily in the speed department this year. We’ll have to wait and see if the aggressive-on-the-basepaths trend continues for the Aggies and what kind of matchup this creates for starting catcher Brian Serven. Despite finishing second in the Pac-12 in runners caught stealing (17), he had the fourth-highest stolen base allowed percentage at 71.2.

There isn’t much to predict because we simply don’t know what the Aggies will be bringing to Tempe. It’s a battle of thin rosters, but the Devils have the edge in this one.

San Diego 33-22 (19-8 WCC)
Key returners: INF Bryson Brigman, RHP C.J. Burdick
Last season: WCC regular season champions; eliminated by Pepperdine in WCC Tournament; missed regional round
History: ASU is 18-2 all-time against the Toreros. Last meeting: Two-game series on April 5-6, 2010 – ASU won both games by finals of 15-0 and 11-6.

The Toreros have been put back in the college baseball landscape thanks to a certain alumnus tearing up the National League. His name is Kris Bryant. If your name can be mentioned in the same sentence as Bryant in regards to baseball at USD, you’re in good company. That’s the case with sophomore infielder Bryson Brigman, who was the WCC’s Freshman of the Year in 2015. It was the first of the award for a Torero since Bryant’s in 2011. Brigman’s game backed the praise with a .339/.436/.395 slash line. Perfect Game named him a preseason first-team All-American at second base. It’s the same first team in which Colby Woodmansee is a preseason All-American at shortstop.

As for the rest of the team, they find themselves in a similar scenario the Devils are in: roster turnover. The Toreros lose two weekend starters and five weekend starters from graduation/MLB Draft. That’s in line with the 38 total players that have been drafted from San Diego since 2010.

The biggest blows on the mound are ace David Hill (fourth round, COL) and Saturday night lefty P.J. Conlon (13th round, NYM) leaving to professional baseball. C.J. Burdick has been a hybrid righty (a-la Darin Gillies last season) and has performed admirably. Burdick also had a fantastic close to his summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League, as he didn’t allow a run over his last nine appearances that spanned over 13 innings. There’s a good chance he could fill a spot start if need be against the Devils in one of the two midweek games these teams see each other in (one in Phoenix, the other in San Diego).

San Diego’s non-conference schedule is a gauntlet: Vanderbilt, Arizona, Nebraska, Oregon State, Baylor, Cal St. Fullerton and Oregon to name a few. This is not a team to be underestimated. When it comes to midweek games, pitching depth is always the deciding factor, and such, this is a coin flip. Only time will tell if the gaps will be filled before March 22.

UNLV 25-31 (10-20 Mountain West)
Key returners: INF Justin Jones, RHP Kenny Oakley, RHP D.J. Meyers
Last season: Sixth in MW, missed regional round
History:  ASU is 60-14-1 all-time against the Rebels. Last meeting: April 8, 2015 in Las Vegas – ASU lost 7-6.

Sense a theme yet in the non-conference preview? Roster. Turnover. There’s yet another case with the Rebels from Sin City. Their turnover doesn’t just stop at the roster, however. Head coach Tim Chambers resigned from the position stemming from an alleged DUI arrest, but he was on an indefinite leave already since July due to multiple back surgeries.

The team returns some experience in the infield with Justin Jones, whose career has been plagued by injuries. He only played in 17 games a season ago before he went down, and he also broke his wrist at the end of the regular season in 2014, and it forced him to miss a large majority of his summer. His stock remains high though as a lefty swinging, sure-handed second baseman that will be a team captain in 2016 for a roster that needs stability.

Regarding the weekend rotation (which ASU will not see with two midweek games), it’s an area that remains strong for the Rebels. They return Kenny Oakley, D.J. Meyers and Blaze Bohall to lead their staff in the Mountain West. They combined for a 3.78 ERA in 34 appearances that spanned for nearly 220 innings last season. Despite all being right-handed, their intangibles will keep the team competitive on the weekends.

Last season, the game in Phoenix was a tight contest. A two-out walk to RJ Ybarra was the difference in the fiftth inning because it led to four runs in the frame and an eventual 5-4 win.

The trip to Vegas was a different story.

The lights at Earl E. Wilson Stadium malfunctioned and forced the game to be suspended in the third inning with the Devils up 5-2. UNLV would come from behind the next morning and win 7-6 in upset fashion.

One could point to this game as to when the wheels started to come off for ASU. It came in 21-8 and ranked No. 5 in the country, and finished the rest of the season 14-15. Obviously Pac-12 play is a bit tougher when you’re still waiting on all four California schools, but the opportunity was there to make a successful first season for Tracy Smith even better.

New Mexico 32-27 (17-13 Mountain West)
Key returners: INF Carl Stajduhar, INF Jack Zoellner, RHP Tyler Stevens
Last season: Fourth in MW; runner-up in MW Tournament to San Diego State; missed regional round
History: ASU is 123-31 all-time against the Lobos. Last meeting: May 12, 2015 in Albuquerque – ASU lost 9-6.

To say the Devils caught the Lobos on the road at the absolute wrong time is an understatement. New Mexico was coming off a weekend sweep in which it put up 52 runs and 57 hits against San Jose State. Eder Erives found out about its offense in the worst way possible, taking a liner off the face from Scottie Graham in the fifth inning. Prior to that, in the fourth inning, there was a 45-minute lightning delay.

ASU was still ranked at the time (No. 12), but would continue its second half slide with the loss and an ultimate split in the series with the Lobos. Now a full weekend against UNM in the middle of conference play presents a new challenge. The Lobos are the favorite to win the Mountain West after their runner-up performance last season.

Their offense should remain potent with a team average of .310 and 416 runs scored a year ago. In nearly every major offensive category, the Lobos were second in the conference to Nevada. Carl Stajduhar and Jack Zoellner were huge pieces to the middle of their lineup with Stajduhar’s 32 extra-base hits (21 doubles, 2 triples and 9 home runs) and Zoellner’s .992 OPS.

Pitching is a department that is lacking but not hurting the Lobos. Tyler Stevens returns as the lone regular starter with a 5-4 record as a freshman. Arizona-native Colton Thompson (Gilbert HS, Scottsdale CC) made six starts last season, but injury cut the rest of the year for the lefty. He is expected to return to the weekend rotation this season.

The timing of the series is huge, with six Pac-12 series already passed for ASU before the Oregon Ducks come to Muni. The Lobos will have seven series under their belts (the Mountain West has a conference tournament at the end of the year) and will be coming off a six-game homestead against Texas Tech, San Diego State and New Mexico State.

The weekend is a massive resumé builder for New Mexico if it finds itself without the MW Tournament crown and an auto-bid into the regional round. For the Devils, the later date means they could know their identity and could need a non-conference victory. Many will expect a series win handily, but it simply won’t be that easy.

Dominic Cotroneo is one of the voices of ASU Baseball on Pac-12 Digital. You can follow him on Twitter @Dom_Cotroneo

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Dominic Cotroneo
Dominic Cotroneo has served as a broadcaster for ASU Hockey and ASU Baseball for each of the last three years. You can follow him on Twitter @Dom_Cotroneo

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