Despite departures, starting rotation excelling for ASU

Back in February, Josh Spence sat in front of a small group of reporters and talked about his excitement to begin the 2010 season.

“I guess I want to go out with a bit of a bang,” the Australian southpaw said at the time.

Unfortunately for Spence, who passed up a third-round offer from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to return for his senior season at ASU, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. He has yet to pitch this season due to lingering soreness in his elbow, and it’s seemingly unlikely that he will make his return during the postseason.

COOL-HAND KELLY: Junior Merrill Kelly has been part of a starting rotation that has been among the nation's most consistent this season. (Photo by Scott Stuk)

But in addition to explaining his reasons for returning to school, Spence spent several moments discussing the improvement of junior teammate Seth Blair, an unassuming right-hander who went 7-3 with a 3.37 ERA as the No. 3 starter in 2009.

That improvement has a produced a pitcher who has not been phased by the pressures that come with being tabbed the No. 1 starter in the rotation.

The Rock Falls, Ill., native finished the regular season 11-0 with a 3.20 ERA as the team’s ace, a role that requires being the first pitcher to run through the opposition’s lineup in a three-game series.

For his efforts, Blair was named Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year last week, following in the footsteps of former ASU pitcher Mike Leake, who is now having a stellar season as a rookie for the Cincinnati Reds.

Blair’s seamless transition has turned some heads, but coach Tim Esamy, named Pac-10 Coach of the Year last week, said Blair’s performance has come as no surprise.

“He’s really performed [in line] with the progression of his talents and the progression of his career,” Esmay said of Blair. “So I’m not shocked by it, and I don’t think he’s over-exceeded what we [expected] going into this season with him.”

The No. 1 Sun Devils were 15-1 in games Blair started in the regular season, and he struck out a team-high 90 batters while surrendering 22 walks in 90 innings.

Blair is projected by some analysts to go in the first round of Monday’s MLB draft, and he gave credence to those projections Saturday with a masterful performance in ASU’s regional win over Hawaii, allowing just three hits and one run over seven innings while striking out eight.

With Leake excelling at the Major League level and Spence shelved with an injury, the starting rotation may have been thought by some to be a point of concern for a team also dealing with arrival of a new coach and the departure of its two leading hitters from the 2009 season.

But led by the Friday-night performances of Blair, the starting rotation has been one of the biggest factors for the success of ASU and its record fourth-straight Pac-10 title.

Entering the postseason, the Sun Devils were third in the nation in ERA (3.16), sixth in hits allowed (8.12 per nine innings) and seventh in strikeouts (8.9 per nine).

Junior Merrill Kelly (10-2, 3.52 ERA), a junior-college transfer and product of Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, has been a welcomed addition to the rotation, and Esmay lauded the right-hander’s ability to battle through starts this season, even when he didn’t have his best stuff.

“The kid is about as competitive as any kid I’ve been around,” Esmay said. “He’s done a great job figuring out [the Division I] level. By this time of the year, those guys are past that point [of adjustment] and are into pitching for Arizona State … and I think that’s why he’s had the year he’s had.”

Kelly was razor sharp in ASU’s NCAA Tournament opener against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, allowing just three hits and one earned run in eight innings.

Though he struggled in his final two starts of the season, sophomore Jake Borup (10-1, 3.93) has done a more than serviceable job in the role of Sunday starter to round out the weekend starting rotation.

An X-factor in the mix has been freshman Brady Rodgers, who, in addition to starting weekday games, has been called upon as a long reliever on the rare occurrences this season that the starters have run into early trouble, recording a team-low 1.96 ERA in 69 innings of work. His talents could be a key factor as ASU advances in the postseason.

“He’s so composed for a freshman,” Blair said of Rodgers. “He’s out there and he knows how to pitch. A lot of guys come from high school and they want to see how hard they can throw and see how much they can make their pitches break. But he’s a guy who just knows how to pitch. He understands that hitting the glove is the most important thing.”

Reach the reporter at nkosmide@asu.edu