(Photo: Allyson Cummings/WCSN)
Much has been made about Tim Esmay’s approach to the 2014 Sun Devil baseball team, as the veteran coach has not stuck with one set lineup. Rather, he has chosen to play matchups, the hot bat, and has consistently kept the lineup evolving to avoid stagnancy and complacency. Players who received significant playing time last year, such as Dalton DiNatale, Jake Peevyhouse, Johnny Sewald, Drew Stankiewicz, and David Graybill have all seen their fair share of time on the bench.
Sophomore catcher RJ Ybarra, however, is a different story. Ybarra has started in all but one of Arizona State’s seven games, and was the only player last weekend to record a hit in all three games.
Ybarra leads the team with a .400 batting average (8-for-20) and is second on the team, behind only right fielder Trever Allen, with nine total bases. As inconsistent as the Sun Devil’s starting pitching has been, Ybarra has been a calming force behind the plate, brilliantly managing this sophomore-studded rotation.
A week ago, Ybarra sent a shockwave of scare throughout the Sun Devils clubhouse, as he appeared to injure his leg on the base paths in ASU’s 7-1 loss to New Mexico. Ybarra was taken out of the game, and later revealed that he had sustained a spike to his knee in a collision at home plate and began to feel a discomfort while running the bases.
Losing a catcher would have had a ripple effect: not only would the Sun Devils have lost Ybarra’s ever-lethal bat, but their defensive leader as well. His 7-for-14, two RBI showing in Southern California last weekend silenced any questions as to how his knee is feeling.
“I wouldn’t say it was a nonfactor,” Ybarra said. “Just the willingness to play through it was greater than the pain itself. I still felt a little in that knee. But just going out there and playing—I just got used to it.”
While Ybarra has not seen much of his time in the starting lineup diminished due to Esmay’s approach this year, he has forfeited some time behind the plate to freshman Brian Serven. Ybarra, however, believes Esmay is maximizing the talent of his team and does not consider the tinkering with the lineup to have any ill effects on the squad’s performance or cohesion.
“We do as our plan says to do,” Ybarra said, “Not as we feel. Whatever he feels is going to help us win ball games this year or whatever he feels is the best lineup that day is what we’re going to follow. I’m behind Esmay, whatever he wants to do.”
Yet the Sun Devils are 3-4—a mediocre start to a season that had loads of hype. The pitching duo of Ryan Burr and Ryan Kellogg has been underwhelming, situational and timely hitting has ceased to exist and defensive discipline, though certainly improved from last year, has been sporadic. But coming off a solid offensive performance and a gem from pitcher Brett Lilek, Ybarra still thinks it is too early to make any rash judgments about this Sun Devils team.
“I don’t think we’re playing bad,” Ybarra said. “It’s one of those things where we’ve had a couple of bad days. I think if you really look deep into it and how we’re playing, we’re hitting the ball hard, we’re hitting balls right at people. We just have to execute a little more in situations. Yeah 3-4, we’re too talented to be there, but that’s why you play a 56-game season. We’re seven games into it and I think we’re going to get hotter. Rough start, but it’s not about how you start; it’s how you finish.”
The Sun Devils will host four games in four days in Surprise at the Spring Training facilities of the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. The action begins on Thursday for Arizona State, as they take on a Santa Clara that has won four in a row and five of six.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” Ybarra said. “It’s not four games this weekend, it’s one game each day. I think that we’ll be ready to go this weekend.”
You can reach Jacob Garcia on Twitter @jake3garcia or via email at Jacob.M.Garcia@asu.edu