ASU baseball is stacked with talented sophomores.
Brett Lilek, Ryan Burr, Ryan Kellogg, RJ Ybarra, Dalton DiNatale, Johnny Sewald and others have formed one of the best recruiting classes that ASU has had in a long time.
But they’re not the only ones making headlines. Two freshmen have burst onto the scene and forced coach Tim Esmay’s hand into putting them into the starting lineup.
Shortstop Colby Woodmansee and catcher Brian Serven both said they didn’t expect to play much. Freshmen don’t start often at a program like ASU, they said. But instead, they both lead the team in games started at their respective positions.
“I think it’s surreal,” Woodmansee said. “Watching the Sun Devils play last year, coming to the games, now thinking that I’m in the lineup 20 games into the season is kind of crazy to me.”
Woodmansee got a chance to show his stuff with an injury to incumbent shortstop, junior Drew Stankiewicz. When Stankiewicz went down, Woodmansee took over and his slick glove has been too good to keep off the field.
Defensive prowess is hard to quantify, but Woodmansee’s glove has been impressive enough that when Stankiewicz came back, he took over at second base in favor of Woodmansee at short. Esmay compared him to former Sun Devil shortstops Deven Marrero, Drew Maggi and Andrew Romine.
Woodmansee said Stankiewicz has been nothing but supportive.
“(Stankiewicz) has helped me a lot,” Woodmansee said. “He was the shortstop the last couple of years, and he’s taught me a lot, just small things that have helped me from the time I’ve gotten playing time.”
The knock on Woodmansee though is his bat. In 38 plate appearances he has only a .275 on-base percentage, the lowest among players with that many trips to the plate.
“Coach Esmay told me a few weeks back my hitting will come, just through experience, I’m out there to play defense,” Woodmansee said. “I’m just out there to try my best, backing up my family and my pitchers because I know their job is 10 times harder than mine.”
But it’s still tough on any baseball player when the bat isn’t making solid contact.
“It frustrates me that I don’t get hits,” Woodmansee said. “If I have a bad at-bat, (the coaches) are just like, play defense. Play your defense, that’s why you’re out there. Separate it from your hitting. They’ve helped me get a mindset of just working on playing defense if I have a bad game hitting.”
Esmay said that’s one of the biggest challenges of playing college baseball. A player has to be able to not take a bad at-bat out to the field with him.
“The maturity of playing at this level is being able to separate it,” Esmay said. “No matter what their at-bat is, they need to go out and play defense.”
Serven is another player who got a chance because of injury. Esmay said at the beginning of the year he’d like to use a two-catcher system with Ybarra and junior Nate Causey, with Serven and fellow freshman backstop Zach Cerbo getting called upon as needed.
Causey was recovering from an injury and Serven got a few starts here and there and played like he didn’t want to sit on the bench. Twenty-two games into the season, it’s clear as of late that Serven is the starting catcher, Ybarra the designated hitter and Causey the first baseman. Ybarra catches on Serven’s off days.
“I imagine Serven got a bit of a quicker opportunity than if Causey was healthy,” Esmay said. “Players are the ones that force your hand. So if you give them opportunities, it’s now up to them to show you if they’re going to get more opportunities and he’s done that.”
Serven said he enjoys competing with Ybarra for playing time.
“We’re a family, it doesn’t make any difference if I’m starting or he’s starting, we’re all just in it together,” Serven said. “It’s a cool opportunity to be able to play.”
Catching is arguably the toughest position to play in part because of everything that goes along with it. A catcher not only needs to receive the ball, but be the field general for the infield and command the pitching staff.
A staff as good as ASU’s — with players like Lilek, Kellogg and Burr — makes it easier on Serven.
“It’s a pretty good experience to catch guys with that good of stuff,” Serven said. “It hasn’t been too much of a tough transition, but I’m enjoying it.”
Although it hasn’t hurt Serven’s chance at playing time that he’s been hitting so well. He’s batting .311 with 10 RBIs and nine runs scored. The RBIs are good for third on the team and the runs scored are fourth.
But Serven said his objective is still to be as good as he can when his team is in the field.
“A position such as catcher, you really need to be locked in defensively all the time,” Serven said. “If you’re not excellent back there, defensively, as a catcher, the bat’s not that important.”
Esmay also credited Stankiewicz and Ybarra with the selflessness they have shown in helping the development of Woodmansee and Serven.
“To be selfless, it’s more about the ‘W’ than the personal glory, and that’s not easy to do,” Esmay said. “For them to do that shows the character of who they are.”
ASU has some young talent at the freshman and sophomore levels. Esmay knew Woodmansee and Serven would contribute, just maybe not this quickly.
“They’ve definitely been a big factor in where we’re trying to go,” Esmay said.
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