ASU baseball enters 2018 season with renewed sense of hope

The Sun Devils hope a better clubhouse atmosphere and talented freshmen can translate into wins

A new clubhouse vibe and an influx of talented freshmen has ASU baseball poised to bounce back from the program's first losing season since 1985

Junior outfielder Gage Canning was one of the Sun Devils' lone bright spots in 2017, a season defined by pitching woes, defensive mistakes, player departures and a young roster that needed time to gain experience. 

But with opening night against the Miami (OH) Redhawks at Phoenix Municipal Stadium just nine days away, Canning said there is a general consensus about what gives this team hope for better results in 2018. 

“I think you have heard it from other guys, but our team is pretty close,” Canning said. “Our team has really come together well, so it is good.” 

Freshman infielder Drew Swift, a local product of Hamilton High School and native of Chandler, wanted nothing more than to play at ASU after attending games as a kid.  

Since he arrived in Tempe, Swift said he has been blown away by the leadership and the closeness of the freshmen. 

“I tell everyone, the day I got here, the seniors took us under their wings, and it’s been great,” Swift said. “We hang out a bunch, and we really like to go to basketball games.” 

Head coach Tracy Smith said he is encouraged by the close-knit identity the team has created, but the performance on the field is still the barometer. 

"I love the vibe, I love the closeness, I love the camaraderie," Smith said. "I am almost welcoming some adversity. That is when I will know it's real." 

These four areas will make or break the Sun Devils' chances: 

Can the pitching improve?

Smith will not have to conduct mound visits and manage the game like he did last season.  

Former major league pitcher and professional baseball coach Mike Cather was hired as the pitching coach in July. He will hope to turn around a starting rotation and bullpen that finished with the second worst ERA (5.53) and the worst opponents batting average (.296) in the Pac-12 last season. 

Graphic published on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.

Can the defense improve?

Poor defense, especially in the infield, was one reason the pitchers struggled last year. 

ASU finished 2017 with the worst fielding percentage (.967) and the second most errors (70) in the Pac-12.  

But the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class brought in a much needed influx of range in the middle infield. Smith said he hopes this will greatly improve the pitching staff’s performance. ASU allowed the second most earned runs last season (297), and 52 unearned runs lead to the Sun Devils to allow the most runs (349) in the conference. 

How much better can Gage Canning be?

As a sophomore last season, Canning led the Sun Devils in batting average (.332), runs scored (37), doubles (12), triples (8) and home runs (6). 

ASU may not have to rely as much on Canning this season, but he will still be a critical part of the offense's ability to score runs. 

Home cooking

ASU will start the season playing 17 of its first 20 games at home, including its first two series of the season against Miami (OH) and Saint Mary's College of California.  

When Pac-12 play begins, the Sun Devils' first four games will take place at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.  

Canning said the team feels comfortable at home and said that taking advantage of the home-heavy schedule at the start will be paramount to the success of the season.  

Four Players to Watch 

Drew Swift: Swift earned preseason honors from Perfect Game and is expected to improve the Sun Devils' infield defense with his range at shortstop. 

Alika Williams: The other half of ASU's new freshman double-play combo is expected to primarily play second base but has the range to play short. Swift and Williams said they have already developed a good chemistry on the field but expect both to experience a learning curve at first. 

Spencer Van Scoyoc: Smith and Cather believe Van Scoyoc has the potential to be the ace of the starting rotation. The sophomore left-hander finished his freshman campaign with a 3.86 ERA in 10 appearances (8 starts). 

Carter Aldrete: Multiple teammates have called Aldrete the leader of the infield, and he will shift over from first to third base this year. It will be interesting to see how the sophomore transitions from one corner of the diamond to the other.

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