(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
The commencement of the 56th season for the Arizona State baseball team is just over two weeks away, so naturally, the time has come to begin discussing what has changed, what is the same and what to expect from this 2015 Sun Devil squad.
Last season ended in disappointment for ASU, as two unimpressive showings against No. 3 Pepperdine and No. 4 Sacramento State in the Cal Poly Regional ended its NCAA Tournament run prematurely.
But fast-forward eight months, and what transpired in 2013 has been flushed and National Title aspirations have been restored.
Former Indiana head coach Tracy Smith has been ushered in as the new head honcho in Tempe following Tim Esmay’s resignation after five seasons. Accompanying him were a plethora of assistant coaches—hitting coach Ben Greenspan, pitching coach Brandon Higelin and assistant coach Fred Nori—to complete the coaching staff overhaul.
This out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new theme for Sun Devil baseball also rears itself in the form of a new stadium. Packard Stadium was ceremoniously closed down in 2014 with ASU’s 52nd straight 30-win season, and now Phoenix Municipal Stadium (the former Spring Training home of the Oakland A’s) will be where the 2015 team calls home.
From this point until Opening Day, cronkitesports.com will be tackling some of the biggest preseason storylines with this baseball team, ranging from who will be the team’s Sunday starter, to who could be a dark horse candidate to receive playing time in a star-studded outfield.
What follows is a three-part series of baseline information, trending stories and early-season impressions in the eyes of four of the team’s most significant figures—ace Brett Lilek, left-hander Ryan Kellogg, outfielder Jake Peevyhouse and Tracy Smith.
Today’s article features takeaways from ASU’s first practices and how the team has responded to a myriad of distractions; Thursday will feature hitting and pitching outlooks, and Friday’s piece will consist of position battles and thoughts on the team’s rigorous out-of-conference schedule.
Consider the following series of articles a surface-level glimpse of deeper analysis to come throughout the season.
Coaches’ and players’ takeaways from first few practices
As is the case with most stats in baseball, a large enough sample size is necessary before making any judgments on how the first practices of the season have transpired. Allowing this sample size to materialize gives both parties ample time for pensive reflection.
ASU started its preseason workouts on Friday, January 23 with intrasquad scrimmages taking place throughout the remainder of the weekend. Monday and Tuesday featured a more traditional style of practice, with the team hitting at Packard Stadium and then moving to Phoenix Muni to go over first-and-third situations and bunt coverages.
With five practices now in the books, it’s safe to say that the above-mentioned sample size is big enough for analysis.
“It felt good,” said junior pitcher Brett Lilek. “Had a few things that we were working on. Honestly, just felt good to face some hitters.”
Lilek faced live hitting on Friday, and looked a bit shaky to begin (he allowed a homerun to outfielder Coltin Gerhart) but then settled down for the remainder of his outing.
Ryan Kellogg, Lilek’s pitching-mate and likely Saturday-starter, offered similar insight, despite having yet to face live hitting.
“It’s all about working hard,” Kellogg said, “Doing things the right way. It’s a whole new process for all of us. We’re still sort of feeling them out; they’re still sort of feeling us out—seeing where we stand at this point in the season. First few practices have gone well. They seem to be pretty happen with it, so we’re just going to keep rolling.”
Head coach Tracy Smith also seemed pleased with how his team has looked in the early stages of preseason practices.
“I think there’s definitely some talent on the team,” Smith said. “I’m pleased with the way the guys are buying in. But we won’t know until we strap it on with somebody in another uniform to see how it’s all come together. From a coaching perspective, you can’t ask more than your guys believing in what you’re doing and working hard every day. We had a little snag there in the middle of the day but other than that it’s been pretty solid.”
New coaching staff, new stadium. How have the players responded to the non-baseball related distractions, and what’s been the message from Tracy Smith?
The “little snag” that Smith referenced above went as follows:
As part of the bunt coverage progressions on Tuesday, Smith introduced a suicide-squeeze drill. Disastrous results ensued with only one of ten hitters successfully getting the bunt down. Smith, frustrated but collected, responded with, “Get on the line.”
For as many returners as ASU has this season, a sense of unity is definitely in place. A new figure at the forefront of this team in Smith could easily be viewed as an attack on this nexus, especially when punishment is handed down so early in the year.
But according to Peevyhouse, Kellogg and Lilek, this is exactly what the program needs.
“Just holding more people accountable for everything,” Peevyhouse said in regards to how Smith differs from his predecessor. “People are taking a lot more responsibility with everything they’re doing. It’s showing. People are working harder because you have to be accountable for everything. That’s the biggest difference.”
“I think they bring a positive energy to the game, and that’s something that we all are looking for,” said Lilek. “He’s going to lead us and we’re going to be there to follow. He just wants us to come together as a team. The team’s he’s had in the past have come together and you’ve seen what they’ve done. They’ve been great teams.”
Kellogg added his two cents as well:
“We even noticed it in the fall. Guys were starting to buy into it a lot more. There’s a lot less animosity on the team,” the two-time first-team all-conference performer said.
So if the new coaching staff hasn’t been a distraction, the new stadium ought to be, right?
After all, 2015 marks the second straight year in which the stadium has been the prevailing topic of conversation. The talk hasn’t really been about what high on-the-field hopes the team has, and for that, one would assume it to be an annoyance by now.
“I think it’s cool being a part of history,” Peevyhouse countered. “How many people can say that they played on a team that got to close out a historic stadium and move into a new one? It’s a lot of fun.”
“It’s starting to feel like home now,” he continued. “They’re finally all the little touches on, especially once we finally get the banners and all that—the retired numbers and everything—it’ll feel complete.”
“I love it. Definitely a big park, so hitters have been saying that they see the ball easier,” he said. “The adjustment has been nice—the locker room is pretty sweet. Everything else that comes with is pretty cool. Hopefully it draws some fans in. You always have to play for the fans to get a little energy around here. Especially with our first 20 games here at home, we’ll be able to settle in and get used to it.”
Kellogg’s view was concurring—reaching the same conclusion in his like for the new ballpark, but for different reasons than Lilek and Peevyhouse.
“It’s kind of cool to be a part of, especially since we know that great teams have played here in the past, as well,” Kellogg said. “We know we’re not breaking in the stadium, fresh ground or whatever. A lot of great history and tradition here at Arizona State, as well as at this field, so we’re just looking to continue that.”
Kellogg is of course referencing the 11 seasons from 1964-1974 in which ASU dominated at Phoenix Muni to the tune of a 111-26 record.
But while Kellogg may be the team’s history buff, Smith has already implemented himself as the team’s voice of reason and level-headedness.
“We can’t worry about and let those things bother us. There’s successful baseball teams (and) players that are dealing with a lot less conveniences than we have right now. The transition—it’s not perfect yet, nor will it ever be—but we just got to be willing to focus and not worry about that stuff. We’re excited to be here, this is a great venue.”