Baseball set to embark on tough stretch

As ASU students begin heading off to various spring break destinations Friday, members of the school’s baseball team are settling in for a challenging test.

The No. 2 Sun Devils have started the season 12-0, but with the exception of a couple games at the Coca-Cola Classic in Surprise last weekend, the competition ASU has faced so far is not up to par with what it will see when the Pac-10 season begins March 26.

Friday, though, marks the start of an eight-game stretch — a three-game set this weekend with Auburn (9-2), two games next week at perennial powerhouse Cal State Fullerton (4-6) and a three-game home series against Houston (5-5, including a win over No. 6 Texas) — that could provide an adequate evaluation of where the Sun Devils stand as the conference docket approaches.

“This will be a great tune-up for us,” coach Tim Esmay said. “These next eight games will be kind of like Pac-10 weekends. This weekend will be a Pac-10 weekend, with [games] Friday, Saturday and Sunday with full guns blazing. Playing somebody like Auburn and then going to Fullerton and then having someone like Houston come, I couldn’t ask for a better schedule to get our guys ready for the battles and the wars of the Pac-10.”

Auburn, winner of seven of its last eight games, is led by junior outfielder Brian Fletcher, whose .467 batting average is good enough for third in the SEC.

Like ASU, the Tigers lead their conference in team batting average, hitting at a .373 clip, which should provide a solid test for a starting pitching rotation that is yet to be finalized.

Junior Seth Blair (2-0, 3.38 ERA) will likely take the mound for Friday’s series opener, with juniors Merrill Kelly (3-0, 4.20) and Jimmy Patterson (1-0, 7.00) and sophomore Jake Borup (3-0, 1.12) candidates to pitch the other two contests.

Spence progressing

Senior Josh Spence, a pre-season All-American who has yet to pitch this season due to arm soreness, threw a bullpen session on Tuesday, and while a specific timetable has not been set for his return, Esmay is pleased with the progress the lefty is making.

“He was pushed back, and now he’s back on track to get himself ready to pitch again and get his legs underneath him,” Esmay said. “It’s like spring training for him right now. It’s like Monday was his first day back from Christmas break, and that’s how we’re treating it. We’ll get him going, throwing a little bit. He’ll have to face some live hitting, so we’ll just treat it like the first day of spring ball happened to him on Monday.”

Closing up

Freshman pitcher Jake Barrett has been as good as advertised in the first month of the season. The hard-throwing right-hander, a third-round draft choice of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009, has used an overpowering fastball, which has reached 97 miles per hour, to dominate hitters.

In six innings of work this season, Barrett has recorded 13 strikeouts, including three straight in his inning of work against Grand Canyon on Tuesday.

“Jake’s in a good spot because we can use him more than once in a weekend,” Esmay said. “He bounces back … and he’s not throwing 70 or 80 pitches, but [maximum] on a weekend he is throwing 40 to 45, and I think that’s a good spot for him right now. The good thing about Jake is that he is resilient.”

Esmay said Barrett could rotate in a closer role this season with sophomore Jordan Swagerty, who has been efficient in his own right.

With three saves to his credit, Swagerty has given up just one earned run in his seven innings of work out of the bullpen — the same number yielded by Barrett.

“Both those guys are what we consider our closers,” Esmay said. “We can flip-flop them. If we haven’t used Swags, we can use him in the seventh and then we always have Jake.”

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