ASU baseball focused, calm amid pitching, defense struggles

The Sun Devils are looking to climb out of an early hole in conference play.

ASU baseball ended the non-conference slate on an eight-game winning streak, and it was beginning to make a strong case for Top 25 considerations after the 2016 season was dubbed a rebuilding year by many national pundits.

One of the areas of surprise was the team's pitching staff, which was under the microscope after losing aces Ryan Kellogg and Brett Lilek to last year's MLB Draft. Then, it lost Hever Bueno to an arm strain on opening night, causing further concern.

Junior right-hander Seth Martinez and sophomore lefty Reagan Todd answered the call throughout the first part of the year, and sophomore Eli Lingos had only given up a run in almost 14 innings pitched. But when conference play hit, ASU (14-9, 1-5 Pac-12) started to struggle a bit more, especially on the mound. 

In the Oregon State series, neither Lingos nor Todd escaped the first inning of their respective starts, and Lingos didn't even record an out. 

Martinez has been consistent throughout, though, posting a 1.94 ERA in six starts, and a 2.63 ERA in two conference outings. 

The Sun Devils tried to gain ground at home last weekend against Utah, a team it held an 11-1 record against since the Utes joined the Pac-12. After sophomore Ryan Hingst's no-hitter to even up the series on Friday, ASU allowed 10 runs in two innings in Saturday's rubber match

"There are rough times, especially when you have games like last (Saturday) where the game seems like it's our game to win and all of the sudden, crazy things happen," Martinez said. 

Although the pitchers behind him in the rotation have been struggling a bit as of late, Martinez said he doesn't feel any added pressure in his series opener starts. 

"You have to have confidence in your other guys in order to be a good team, so I just try my best to to stay confident in everybody and just go out there each time I get and compete as much as I can," Martinez said. 

Martinez has noticed the talent gap between weaker non-conference opponents and the Pac-12 teams. 

Specifically, he mentioned Oregon State's plate discipline. 

"The difference was that they're not swinging at anything early in the count that's low in the zone," he said. "Or they're more aggressive in the count, so when they see that fastball, they're swinging."

He said the pitching staff continues to work on being aggressive in the zone. 

"Hitting is one of the hardest things to do and a lot of times, (hitters) are going to get themselves out," Martinez said. "Just throw each pitch with conviction."

ASU has committed 32 errors, which is the most in the Pac-12 thus far. However, Martinez doesn't see it as a concern, but instead a lack of focus. 

Regardless, he said he is still just as comfortable with the defense behind him.

"We have great fielders, so if they just focus each and every pitch, they're going to make the play," Martinez said. "Moving forward, we just got to be better and prepare more and it'll come along and we'll be fine ... What's happened in the past is the past."

After missing the first month of the season, Bueno started last weekend's series finale and pitched an inning, which jived with the original 30-pitch plan the coaches had for him. After Saturday's loss, Smith said the coaches are trying to bring him back steadily. 

After Wednesday's practice, Smith was calm in telling the players that while they haven't played well, this weekend could be a turning point if everyone puts in the extra effort. 

He also referenced ASU baseball program legend Rick Monday's talk with the team. Monday, who played on the 1965 championship team, spoke to the team on Wednesday about the pride that comes with playing for the program. 

"(He talked about) whenever you put on this uniform, you better feel blessed about it and go out there and play the best you can," Martinez said. "Everybody is watching you because you're at Arizona State."

Related links:

Despite no-hitter, ASU baseball placed at 10 in power rankings

ASU baseball buried by 10 Utah runs in final two innings of rubber match

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