The term “underdog” has never made less sense.
Usually reserved to describe the underappreciated and the unproven, underdog scarcely, if ever, is associated with high rankings and conference title predictions.
But in so many ways it remains the appropriate description for the ASU baseball team.
“It’s either a bad joke or somebody just giving us way too much respect,” ASU coach Pat Murphy said of his squad’s selection by conference coaches to win the Pac-10 title.
So what nerve I (we?) must have to declare this team — ranked as high as sixth in one college baseball poll — an underdog.
Perhaps instead, I should use the term inexperienced, because that’s certainly what they are.
Led by only three returning starters, ASU baseball sports about as much youth as an ASU freshman orientation.
Half of the team’s 28 roster spots are filled by freshmen. Add to that the five sophomores expected to hit the diamond this season, and you’ve got a preseason top-10 team that can’t even watch themselves at a local pub.
It’s time to get orientated.
This is where Murphy and his duo of captains make my awkwardly used term a little less credible.
“I think we’re going be able to beat you in more ways,” said junior captain Raoul Torrez. “Last year, guys came in and it was like, ‘Hey, we can’t let these three guys beat you.’ But this year, defensively we’re going to be able to hold you; and offensively we’ve still got guys that have a lot of power. I think we’re pretty well-balanced.”
That balance will stem from the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation. Despite losing four incoming recruits to the first round of the 2008 MLB draft, ASU might be young, but it’s far from amateur.
“I don’t really feel that much pressure,” junior captain Mike Leake said. “You never know who’s going to be No. 1 at the end of the year. You can have nine guys at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year the nine guys that are on the bench are starters. You never know.”
Still, that doesn’t change the fact that ASU is by far the youngest team in the Pac-10. And it doesn’t change the road, either.
One of the toughest conferences in Division-I baseball, the Pac-10, will serve as a final act to one of the toughest schedules in the collegiate ranks.
They’ll have to be aggressive. Not just in their style, but in their demeanor.
And make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what Murphy plans on doing.
“Gamble,” he said. “I think you have to live with some things, live with some mistakes, [but] not be afraid to stir the pot up a little bit. I don’t think it’s going to be a smooth road. This is the Pac-10 conference. A conference of talent, expectations and no mercy.”
It’s not as if the expectations for these highly ranked underdogs were ever any different from the onset.
“The expectations were here when you sign the dotted line that you’re going to play for the Sun Devils,” Murphy said.
So they’ve always been there. And now, expectation meets reality. Underdog, overrated or anything in between, the only talking that matters now is what’s done with the bats and the gloves.
Now, the only expectation on the board is the one to compete and the one to fight.
“The expectations we set for ourselves are clearly higher than others have for us,” Murphy said. “We’ll probably end up being there at the end. I don’t know how, but I got a feeling.”
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