June 9, 2008

(baseball super regional)
(UA 6, at Miami 3 – 11 inn.)
(at Miami 14, UA 10)
(at Miami 4, UA 2)

Such a cruel mistress, this pastime.

In basketball, a team built around a plodding center doesn’t turn into a fast-breaking machine overnight. A football team that relies on the run-and-shoot doesn’t suddenly break out the wishbone and pound it up the middle. But baseball is different. If one thing changes – like the pitcher, or the wind, or the home plate umpire – the entire texture of the game can change. And if you don’t change along with it, your season can come to an abrupt end.

You score ten runs one night and you lose. You allow just four runs the next night, and you lose again.

Sometimes the style of a baseball game can change midstream. After three hitters Sunday night Miami had three runs and it looked like it would take 22 runs to win the game. But then you look up and Eric Berger is still pitching in the 8th inning having only given up six total hits. I kept calling for the guy to get pulled but he ignored my worrying and did a tremendous job.

With the Hurricane offense held in check we were just a couple big hits away from the Promised Land, but the hits never came. The Cats put a runner on second with one out in each of the 6th, 7th and 8th innings but not one crossed the plate.

That 8th inning was the killer. Runners on 1st and 2nd with one out. Bases loaded with two outs. A single ties the game. An extra base hit probably wins it. We had Rafael Valenzuela, the Sun Devil killer, up there with the count in his favor, but he hit a weak grounder and that was that.

To be fair we were asking a lot from a guy with just 13 starts to his credit. But the fact that Rafael was the best option at that point shows that this team was a couple hitters short of being championship caliber. In Games 1 and 3 our pitchers held the all-world Miami lineup to 7 runs in 20 innings. But needing a big hit in the 6th inning of Game 3 we had a .193 hitter up there, and with the season on the line in the 8th we had to leave it up to a guy with a .259 average.

As Coach Lopez looks to rebuild again we want him to do the exact same thing he did to build this pitching staff, and then get a couple steps higher up the ladder on the offensive side.

So how do you view this year? When you look at the season from beginning to end you have to be disappointed. No, there's no shame in losing a closely-contested series in Miami, especially with NC State giving up 17 runs, and Wichita State surrendering 11 in similar Game 3 situations. But finishing 4th in the Pac-10 was a significant disappointment, and the two go hand-in-hand.

If you beat USC, Washington and Oregon State – three teams that didn't make the postseason – then you don't have to play at Miami. Three more league wins puts us ahead of Stanford in the standings and, wouldn't you know it, the Cardinal followed their easier road all the way to Omaha.

Yes, the same Stanford team we beat just three weeks ago. That’s what’s going to add to the disappointment. Stanford and Georgia are already at the College World Series and, assuming ASU doesn’t blow a second straight game to a team with an RPI of 89, that’ll make three teams in the field of eight that our pitching rotation beat head-to-head.

It hurts a lot when you’re good…if you’re not quite good enough.

(This spring we didn’t even have a softball championship to cheer us up. And, to pour a whole Morton cylinder in the wound, it was the Sun Devil women bringing home the title. This was ASU’s first national championship in a team sport since 1981. Maybe they're finally learning to share.)

The worst part about the baseball team falling one win short is we knew all season this was a peak year. The MLB draft has had its way with our roster and, barring a bunch of guys taking vows of poverty, we’ll be looking at a brand new team next year.

You’d like to hope somebody will return to school to carry the offense. Last year it was Dollar Bill Rhinehart, this year it was C.J. Ziegler, and both guys ended up winning the team’s Triple Crown. One guy that jumps out as having the potential for an explosive senior season is Brad Glenn. If he could play all of next year the way he played the second half of this year he could easily put up CJZ-like numbers. But then you notice that Ziegler was drafted exactly one round earlier than Glenn this year and it reminds you that the financial incentive to come back just isn’t there.

As for the pitching staff, our #4 starter was drafted higher than our top two starters, so the odds of keeping Mike Colla went way down. But Preston Guilmet can’t be happy with being a 22nd round pick, so there's a real chance he returns to prove a lot of people wrong. Could he refuel this summer and regain his 2007 form in 2009? Guilmet at the start and junior-to-be Jason Stoffel at the end would be a big boost in a rebuilding year.

On offense you have Weldon, Ortega and Baird somewhere in next year’s infield, with Childs and Butler back behind the plate. Coyle will be somewhere in the outfield. Can any of them make the leap to all-star status with the bat?

Your best bet has to be Dillon Baird. The sophomore’s final numbers weren’t bad (.318 average, .400 on-base percentage, .490 slugging percentage) but after peaking with the three-homer game at USC he tailed off until he was barely getting off the bench. You would hope now with a full year of Pac-10 action under his belt that Debo will be comfortable and consistent enough to let his full potential power through.

One thing we gotta get for next year is a bona fide leadoff man. We just couldn’t get that spot nailed down at any point this entire season. It’s so much easier to put an offensive machine in motion if you have a .425-ish on-base guy with decent speed setting the table. One option for next year would be to make a third of the lineup leadoff-types and put Pace, Abel and Fon all out there. Get back to AndyBall and run, run, run.

Either way the expectations drop for next year and the need for patience goes up. But the odds of this being Andy Lopez’s last trip to the super regionals are about as good as the odds of the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness finishing last at Belmont. OK, bad example.

But I don’t expect to be stranded without a horse in the College World Series race for long.

[I will be taking next week off to go shopping for sackcloth and ashes.]

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