(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/ WCSN)
Coming into the 2016 season, most of the questions about ASU baseball surrounded the pitching staff. With a proven offense and multiple key pitchers leaving, Tracy Smith was going to be forced to mix and match to find the right pitchers both in his rotation and bullpen.
After the conclusion of non-conference play and a 13-3 record to its name, it appears that he has found the right guys to lead ASU into their matchups against some of the heavyweights of the Pac-12.
“Just winning games has given us confidence,” junior shortstop Colby Woodmansee said following the Sun Devils’ third consecutive series sweep at home. “The rest of the country didn’t think we would be where we are at this point, so we will have a lot of confidence going into Oregon State.”
Despite an injury to Hever Bueno that tested its depth early on, it doesn’t appear that starting pitching is going to be a big issue for ASU moving forward. Seth Martinez, who rotated between midweek and weekend starter his first two seasons, has found a role as the unofficial ace of the team.
His 1.61 ERA and 30:5 K:BB ratio has given Smith someone he can rely on every week, whether it is on Friday or Saturday. In fact, Smith has started saying “Seth was Seth” during press conferences, referring to the right hander’s consistency in his starts. It’s the same phrase he used to describe Ryan Kellogg, a fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft, last season.
While Martinez has been fantastic, it has been two young left handers that have really made the rotation a strength. Reagan Todd, a redshirt freshman, anchored another ASU win on Sunday, and his spot in the rotation seems to be locked in.
“We need someone to step up,” Smith said. “He clearly has done it. He is putting himself in position to get more chances pitching on the weekend for us.”
Todd has not made many hitters look foolish, with 20 strikeouts and 23 hits allowed in 23 and 1/3 innings, but has gotten key outs when needed and gone deep enough into ball games, all while getting his first real taste of collegiate baseball.
He allowed only one run in six innings on just 69 pitches Sunday, keeping his team in the game despite having an offense that could not string hits or runs together.
His evolution from a battle with Grant Schneider in the preseason for the third rotation spot to a go-to left-hander in the rotation has been a welcomed surprise for the Sun Devils.
Someone whose rotation spot will be in question for next weekend is Eli Lingos, a sophomore who started off the 2016 season on the wrong foot, but has gotten back on track.
Ever since a game against Long Beach State in which he did not make it out of the second inning, Lingos has allowed just one run in two starts and his ERA sits at 2.21. Much like Todd, he has not necessarily overpowered anyone, but continues to be productive when called upon.
His place in the rotation will largely depend on the health of Bueno next weekend. If there is no room for him, he will most likely get appearances out of the bullpen or serve in a midweek role.
While the rotation has mostly been solidified, the bullpen has been more of a patchwork thus far.
Not many roles have been set, other than Eder Erives as the super reliever, but some players are starting to see the mound more than others. Two guys who have made frequent appearances and have had varying degrees of success are Eric Melbostad and Tucker Baca. Melbostad, the veteran, has allowed only one run in 7 and 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Baca has struggled with his control. He has walked four hitters and allowed three earned runs in only 3 and 2/3 innings of work as more of a lefty specialist.
Their roles as late inning relievers are up for debate going forward, as Baca has surely benefited from being one of the few left-handers in the bullpen.
One reliever who is definitely on the uptick is Ryan Hingst. An occasional starter last season, he has worked his way back from injury problems in the spring to become a weapon for Smith.
In the last two games alone, he has thrown 3 and 1/3 scoreless innings, all during key points of the game.
“We are seeing Hingst grow up in front of us right now,” Smith said. “I don’t think he comes in last year with the same type of command and confidence like he has now. He is definitely a reliable, dependable guy. We know what we are going to get out of him. He has really established himself as a go-to arm out of the ‘pen, no matter what the situation is.”
While Andrew Shaps’ health improves to a point in which he can be counted on to close games, Hingst has emerged as another piece of the puzzle. However, the bullpen still has to add a few more reliable arms, whether it is Melbostad or a younger pitcher, before it can be considered a strength.
A non-conference slate that saw the Sun Devils finish at 10 games over .500 has given them confidence for Pac-12 play, and while timely hits have been a common occurrence, the once-questioned pitching staff is also a big reason why.
“This non-conference slate is teaching some inexperienced arms how to win,” Smith said. “Where that translates down the road we will have to see, but we are going to take any win we can get this year.”