ASU baseball still has hope in inconsistent season

After early struggles in conference play, the Sun Devils sit just 1.5 games back of first place in the Pac-12.

Following Tuesday's 8-0 loss to rival Arizona, head coach Tracy Smith reflected on ASU's season to this point, calling it a "rollercoaster" with every twist and turn imaginable.

A team that lost two of three weekend starters and its entire starting outfield from last year has experienced the highs and lows and has been plagued by inconsistency all year. But after starting Pac-12 play 1-5, the Sun Devils took two of three from then-No. 15 Cal at home, then swept Stanford on the road for the first time since 1997 to get back to .500 in the conference.

Smith described the inconsistency perfectly after Tuesday's loss, in which his team was two-hit and committed three errors in addition to giving up the eight runs on 16 hits.

"It seems like we never allow ourselves to get too up because then we just get punched with a performance like this," he said.

ASU still has a chance though. It stands 1.5 games back of the first-place tie between Washington and Utah in what has turned out to be an unconventional year in the Pac-12. Just for some perspective, UCLA won the conference last season with a 22-8 record in Pac-12 play, and Oregon State followed with a 19-10 conference record.

No team has fewer than six conference losses this year with a few weeks to go in conference play, which should set up for a wild finish.

Smith said he has run the scenario back and forth in his head many times. His team — one that is supposed to be in a transition year and has been bogged down by injuries and a thin bullpen all year — still has a realistic shot to win the conference. A squad that is .500 in conference play with about a month to go usually doesn't have that opportunity in the Pac-12. But this year looks different, and that gives him hope.

Rightly so.

The pitching and defense — Smith's two most consistent gripes this season — will be necessary moving forward.

ASU lost expected ace Hever Bueno on opening night, and the junior right-hander has pitched just one inning since. His full return does not look promising at this point, but junior righty Seth Martinez has stepped up in his absence, tallying an impressive 1.89 ERA over 71 1/3 innings pitched. Martinez also has 58 strikeouts and just 17 walks. He's earned the consistency label from his head coach, who raves about his reliability after each start and how he's helped partially cover up the aforementioned thin bullpen by going further into games.

Additionally, surprising performances like sophomore Ryan Hingst's no-hitter and freshman Zach Dixon's complete-game shutout have been bright spots too. The Sun Devils also sport a team ERA of 3.44, which ranks third in the Pac-12.

But defense is a concern as ASU's 49 errors are the most in the conference. Junior shortstop Colby Woodmansee, junior first baseman David Greer and sophomore second baseman Andrew Snow all have eight miscues on the season.

Defense is always a necessity, but is especially emphasized with this year's pitching staff, Smith said.

"We don't have a lot of swing-and-miss pitching, we have to make plays," he said.

Pitching and defense aren't lost causes though. ASU has had positive flashes of both this season, and when the two have shown up on the same night, the results have followed.

In a season filled with inconsistency and uncertainty, one thing remains certain at the moment: There is still hope in conference play and in the hunt for a regional bid in the postseason.

"I think our guys truly believe we can (win the conference) too," Smith said. "I don't think it's a stretch. I think when we've got the right guys on the mound and we're playing defense behind them, we've proven we can beat anybody. We're looking forward to the last few weeks in conference."

Related links:

ASU baseball no-hit into the 7th, loses to Arizona

Rick Monday honored by ASU baseball

Reach the reporter at or on Twitter @justintoscano3.

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