Baseball heads west for top-10 showdown with UCLA

CLASH OF THE TITANS: Sophomore shortstop Drew Maggi gets back to first base safely in ASU’s 10-4 win over Washington on Sunday. The Sun Devils will face UCLA in a conference matchup of top-10 teams in Los Angeles this weekend. (Photo by Scott Stuk)

Driving on a bus from Tempe to Los Angeles on Thursday, the ASU baseball team had plenty of opportunity to ponder its crucial Pac-10 clash with No. 9 UCLA, which starts Friday at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Westwood, Calif.

But for all the strategy that can be discussed and the numbers that can be scrutinized, the No. 2 Sun Devils (35-5, 11-4 Pac-10) said it will be the immeasurable intangibles that will decide the outcome of a series with big conference implications.

“I think just bringing the energy, everyone fighting together and picking each other up if someone is having a bad day [will be key],” sophomore infielder Riccio Torrez said. “We just need to play like we did these last couple days and just [bring] energy.”

ASU currently sits atop the Pac-10 standings with UCLA (30-7, 7-5) 2 1/2 games back in third place, giving the Sun Devils the opportunity to distance themselves from the Bruins in the conference race with a series victory.

With a conference record three straight Pac-10 Championships to the Sun Devils’ credit, coach Tim Esmay is confident his team has the leadership to recognize the level of play required to win a “swing series” on the road.

“A guy like [senior infielder] Raoul [Torrez] has been in this situation for four years now,” Esmay said. “The last three years, we’ve been at some point in this season like this where it’s a swing weekend. … It’s not anything new that [sophomore infielders Drew] Maggi and [Zack] MacPhee or anybody that was involved in it last year [haven’t been through]. It’s common knowledge and something they have already been exposed to, so it shouldn’t be anything new to them.”

The ASU offense will face its toughest test of the season to date in UCLA’s pitching staff. All three weekend starters — sophomore Gerrit Cole (2.89), sophomore Trevor Bauer (2.57) and junior Rob Rasmussen (2.85) — sport an ERA under three.

Cole was drafted in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft out of high school by the New York Yankees (28th overall), becoming the first player drafted that high to attend college since John Mayberry, Jr. (28th overall selection by the Seattle Mariners) decided to attend Stanford in 2002.

With that pitching staff matched up against the Pac-10’s top hitting team in ASU (.350), something has to give.

“We are going to have to be very disciplined,” Esmay said. “We are going to have to be mature in handling at-bats. We have to be able to take what they can give us.”

Both teams caught national buzz when they began their season with lengthy win streaks — 24 straight for ASU and 22 in a row for UCLA. Both teams have been ranked No. 1 in the nation at some point during the season as well.

Now they will be on a grand stage again, and with tough series on the road against UA and Stanford still to come for ASU, the Sun Devils are aware of the magnitude of the three games this weekend.

Said Esmay: “I think the team that goes out and plays great defense and doesn’t let the other team take advantage of some things is the team that is going to have the opportunity to have a good weekend.”

Reach the reporter at nkosmide@asu.edu