Ahead of Thursday’s media availability, questions regarding the health of the pitching staff loomed large. Unfortunately for ASU, the short answer to those questions spells trouble for a staff that has posted a 3.14 ERA through the season’s first seven games.
A Huge Loss to the Pitching Staff
Head coach Tracy Smith kicked off his media availability on a somber note, announcing that redshirt freshman Cooper Benson and redshirt junior Boyd Vander Kooi will be undergoing season ending Tommy John surgery. Both had been briefly shelved, with Benson exiting last Friday night’s game after just one inning.
Tracy Smith announces both Cooper Benson and Boyd Vander Kooi will be undergoing season ending surgery. Huge blow for ASU. @HouseOfSparky
— Jack Loder (@JackLoder_) March 4, 2021
“I really feel for both of those guys and their families,” Smith said. “They both work extremely hard and the expectation is that they’ll be back and ready to go for us next year, but it is a blow. I’m not going to sit here and sugar coat it and tell you that things are going to look the same.”
Justin Fall and Erik Tolman will see an increase in workload. Fall likely will assume a more consistent role as a starter going forward. In order to fill the void left by Vander Kooi and Benson, Smith plans on using an all hands on deck approach.
“Ideally you want to get at least five innings from your starter and go from there” he said. “That being said if we need to go matchups and roll out a bunch of different guys we are also prepared to do that.”
Runs are Good
After starting the season with four low scoring games, two of which were losses, the ASU bats came to life in their next three contests against Hawaii and Nevada. Following a season-high 13 runs in Tuesday afternoon’s game, hitting coach Michael Earley is encouraged by what he’s seen from the offense.
“I’m loving how guys are grinding out at bats and doing the little things right,” Earley said. “We know that everyone is capable of hitting for power, but the consistency of that isn’t there. We’ve run the bases well and have done a good job creating runs.”
A large part of the recent success has come from ASU’s youth, with multiple freshmen being featured in the starting lineup of each game thus far. Hunter Haas, Jack Moss, Kade Higgins and Ethan Long have made contributions so far in their inaugural campaigns in Tempe.
“Those guys just have no fear,” Earley said. They act like they’ve been here before. It doesn’t surprise me, but I am always impressed.”
Non-conference games against Pac-12 foe
ASU welcomes Utah on Friday night in the first game of a weekend series. While the Utes are a PAC-12 foe, these games are not conference games.
“It’s a little weird to play a conference opponent in a non conference game but in the end it’s just baseball,” Smith said. “I don’t subscribe to the theory of withholding anything in order to have an advantage when we play them down the line. Baseball games come down to three or four plays, and in the end we just want to win.”
Later this season, these same two teams will face off in Salt Lake City.
Optimism Regarding Attendance
Although MLB teams are able to have games with limited attendance across the valley, ASU baseball games at the moment are still limited to essential personnel and player families. Smith spoke on this and offered an optimistic outlook on the prospect of seeing fans at Phoenix Muni at some point this season.
“Let’s just be a little more patient with it,” Smith said with a smile. “I think good things are going to happen soon. I’m very optimistic that what you are asking for and wanting is going to happen at some point.”
After hosting Utah and Cal State Fullerton this week, a midweek tilt with UNLV will end the long season opening homestand. The team will head to Eugene to open Pac-12 play at Oregon before coming home for a series with Washington State.