(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
The Sun Devils were prepared to take a step back from their ascension in the Pac-12 during the 2016 season. The question now is whether or not they are prepared to pull off a remarkable run that could see the team skyrocket back into conversations as a western power.
With its conference record standing at an abysmal 4-8, ASU is just one game free from the bottom spot in the Pac. The 17-12 overall record stays afloat thanks to an nonthreatening out of conference schedule to this point (Xavier, Eastern Michigan and UC Davis all were sweeps for ASU). With an RPI rank of 120, there is serious ground to make up with seven series (six in conference) to go.
To say the Sun Devils need to win a majority is an understatement; they need to win a large majority maybe with a few convincing victories along the way. With tough series still lurking, arms still missing and bodies still hurting, ASU’s pride has taken a hit.
Not all is lost, though, because the run that is needed for Tracy Smith’s ball club happened just one year ago by conference foe, Oregon.
Let’s look back at the 2015 season for the Ducks and their improbable run from the danger zone at the bottom of the standings to the regional round.
With seven series to go, Oregon’s record stood at 18-15. It was absent from every poll, still looking for its first conference series win, and coming off an emotional sweep of losses at home against Michigan State. Only two batters had an average of at least .300 – and it was just over the threshhold (Phil Craig-St. Louis at .302 and Mitchell Tolman at .300).
With seven series to go, ASU’s record stands slightly sturdier than Oregon’s did. It is absent from every poll, only has one conference series win (against bottom-dweller Washington State), and is coming off an emotional series against Washington in which it lost two of three and left its head coach wondering where the passion went from his team. Only three batters have a clip over .300 (Colby Woodmansee at .354, David Greer at .345 and Andrew Shaps at .302).
Starting that week with seven series to go, the Ducks were tasked with a midweek game against Portland and a Civil War weekend with Oregon State. The Beavers were ranked in the top 30 at the time in multiple publications. The Ducks didn’t care and took the game from the Pilots, as well as the series from the Beavers.
The Sun Devils get to enjoy a midweek rivalry game with the Arizona Wildcats, then host three games with top 30-ranked Cal. The stage is set.
As far as the rest of that 2015 spring for Oregon, it would only suffer one setback in an overall series, which was to No. 10 USC.
In comparison to ASU’s conference schedule, Oregon’s was more front-loaded and got to enjoy the depleted Stanford, Washington State and Utah teams during the latter stretch of the conference schedule. ASU still has to prepare for reloaded Stanford and Arizona teams, as well as both Southern California schools.
However baseball is a game determined on the field and not by the names on the jerseys, and anything can happen can truly happen. The Ducks can certainly attest to this when they finished their season against No. 2 UCLA in Eugene.
On Friday night of the series, the Ducks walked in the go-ahead run for the Bruins in the top of the ninth to give them a 4-3 lead. Oregon would leave the tying run on second in the bottom of the ninth against deadly UCLA closer David Berg.
On Saturday, Oregon was robbed in a 4-4 game in the 10th inning because it was deemed Mitchell Tolman left third base early on what it thought was a walk-off sacrifice fly. In the 11th, Phil Craig-St. Louis would provide a walk-off single for the Ducks after all.
And on Sunday, with the series and their postseason life hanging in the air, the Ducks walked off again thanks to Tim Susnara’s single and surviving David Berg’s rubber-am this time. A Pac-12 series win, three one-run games against the No. 2 team in the country and 37 total wins on the season was a strong enough statement to send the Ducks to the postseason, surprising many considering their weak non-conference schedule and slow start in Pac-12 play.
In the end, Oregon’s 18-15 start led to a 19-8 finish and a 37-23 record. It went from 2-7 in conference to 16-14 – a remarkable turnaround.
This is one of the paths presented before ASU as it embarks on the remainder of its journey. While the road is off the beaten path, it is there and it’s up to the Sun Devils to find it.
Dominic Cotroneo reports on the ASU baseball team for Cronkite Sports and serves as a Pac-12 Digital broadcaster for Sun Devil baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @Dom_Cotroneo.