The ASU baseball team lives by the mantra that games are won and lost in the last three innings.
If the No. 19 Sun Devils (24-13, 9-6 Pac-12) believe that, it’s also safe to say they realize the fate of most games lies in the hands of the bullpen — which is working out just dandy. ASU’s pitching staff has a conference-leading 2.54 ERA and its relievers have been nothing short of dependable.
“In the bullpen, that’s where games are won,” junior right-hander Alex Blackford said. “Technically, the first inning’s the same as the ninth inning, but it always comes down to a couple big pitches in the seventh, eighth and ninth. Whoever wins those pitches usually wins the game.”
The bullpen has been winning all of those pitches lately and it has been a key component in the Sun Devils’ recent surge. ASU has won eight out of its last nine contests, partly thanks to the consistency of the veteran relievers.
“We have a lot of leadership by (junior closer) Jake Barrett and (senior reliever) Joseph Lopez on making sure things run real smoothly,” junior southpaw Matt Dunbar said. “Those two are an extra voice from (pitching) coach (Ken) Knutson on what we need to do and how we need to go about our business coming out of the bullpen.”
Another importance factor in the success of the ASU bullpen is their camaraderie. The most-called upon arms — Blackford, Barrett, Lopez, Dunbar and junior right-hander Robert Ravago — have all come up in the program together and their relationships with each other extend far beyond the diamond.
“We’re all in the bullpen together throughout the whole game, and it does get a little boring out there sometimes, so we have crazy conversations and stories,” Blackford said. “People in the bullpen know stuff about me that my own parents and best friends don’t know.”
As Ravago explains, the tight-knit nature of the group fosters a competitive climate.
“It’s like a family,” he said. “If you don’t do your job, you always know that the guy behind you will come in and do your job. It’s always a constant competition to better oneself when you have some guys behind you trying to do your job as well as you are.”
With starters junior Brady Rodgers (6-1, 1.12 ERA) and sophomore Trevor Williams (7-2, 1.41 ERA) dominating the way they have so far this year — the pair is ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in Pac-12 ERA — innings have been scarce for the relief pitchers.
In addition to the phenomenal efforts of Rodgers and Williams, the depth of the Sun Devils’ pitching staff has also made innings hard to come by. After using 11 hurlers all of last season, ASU has already trotted out 15 different players to the mound in 2012.
“There won’t be many innings to hand out to everybody with Brady Rodgers and Trevor Williams pitching awesome games every week,” Dunbar said. “We have an endless depth.”
While the Sun Devils’ relievers know the going is only sure to get tougher down the stretch of the season as the team chases a first-place finish in the Pac-12, they’re primed to handle the additional challenges ahead.
“There’s going to be a time where someone else other than (Rodgers and Williams) is going to have to step up,” Blackford said. “We know it’s coming and we’re all prepared.”
Blackford also explained that everyone in the ASU bullpen knows his particular role and that in a simple game that’s often overcomplicated, no one’s trying to do too much.
“We all have a good plan coming into the game,” Blackford said. “We’re not trying to strike everybody out. We’re just trying to execute each pitch, and that’s the way that you have to do it.”
Part of that “good plan” involves a fierce, cutthroat mentality that’s necessary to have when being handed the baseball with the game on the line night in and night out.
“We all have that demeanor where when coach gives us the ball, not many runs are going to come in,” Dunbar said.
With so many capable arms in reserve, no relief pitcher has to worry about running low on gas.
“We all have the same mindset to go out there for one inning and try to do our best,” Barrett said. “(As a closer), I can go out there, throw as hard as I can on every pitch, and I know I’ll be fresh for the next day, too.”
The mental focus displayed has started to rub off on the ASU offense and team as a whole, for as Ravago emphasized, “everyone feeds off each other.”
If everything works out as planned, the bullpen will continue to mesh with the offense and the starting rotation all the way to an unofficial Pac-12 crown (ASU is barred from postseason play this year).
Of course, much of the crunch-time responsibility will rest on the shoulders of the relief staff because, after all, most games are won in the last three innings.
“If (we) can’t execute the pitches, the offense has no chance and they’re constantly having to try and catch up for our mistakes,” Ravago said.
The relievers aren’t feeling the pressure, however. Rather, they’re carrying a swagger about them that has yet to be matched by another Pac-12 relief staff in 2012.
“By the numbers, I think we have the best bullpen,” Dunbar said. “Other teams know that when they’re playing us, they’ve got to get the lead against our starters.”
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