Opinion: Freshmen play will define ASU baseball's season

The Sun Devils' underclassmen will make or break the 2018 campaign

It’s been a slow start to ASU baseball’s season thus far. 

At 4-4, the team has had its ups and downs. They’ve dismantled Miami University (Ohio) 11-1 and have been beaten 16-8 by the same team. They’ve blown a late two-run lead to Saint Mary’s College and held on to beat them 2-1 in the third game of their series. 

It's been rollercoaster season so far to say the least. 

The biggest takeaway from the Sun Devils’ first two series is how the team as a whole needs to play sounder, more fundamental baseball in high-pressure situations. 

Nevertheless, the freshmen haven’t been playing poorly.

Four to five freshmen position players are typically in the starting lineup every game, and pitcher Boyd Vander Kooi has been the ace of the ASU rotation. 

“For the most part, I’ve been pretty impressed with them,” Joe Jacquez, ASU baseball beat writer for The State Press, said. “The majority of the team has to gel together and cut down on the defensive mistakes. If they can build that core, ASU fans should be excited about what’s coming.”

Freshman infielders Drew Swift, Spencer Torkelson and Gage Workman in addition to Vander Kooi have been bright spots early in the season. 

Torkelson has belted four home runs, Workman is batting .250, which isn't great but isn't terrible, Swift is batting just under .300 and has worked six walks as the starting shortstop, and Vander Kooi has been a rock in his two starts this season. 

“Vander Kooi has starred on the mound with two pretty much flawless outings,” Jacquez said. “If it wasn’t for him, they’d really only have one starter they could rely on.”

Where sophomore pitcher Spencer Van Scoyoc’s and senior pitcher Eli Lingos’ performances have wavered to varying degrees, Vander Kooi has only allowed one earned run over 14.2 innings pitched and two starts. It doesn’t get much better than that. 

The freshmen in the lineup have performed pretty well given how none of them had any collegiate experience prior to the start of the season. 

The problem is that growing pains are bound to hit at some point for all the players, and junior outfielder Gage Canning, who has been one of the best hitters in college baseball this year, and sophomore catcher Lyle Lin can’t carry the offense by themselves. 

For some freshmen, like infielder Alika Williams, the learning curve could be occurring now. For others, it might occur later, or not at all if they’re fortunate enough. Only time will tell. 

Luckily for ASU, no one predicted them to do particularly well this season, so there is only room to grow and mature as a team. If they overachieve, that’s great, but the most important thing is for them to play together and get comfortable with one another in preparation for future seasons.

Going forward, it’s going to be crucial for the team’s young pitchers, particularly Vander Kooi, to pitch well, or the season could be chalked up as a failure. 

Many of the top pitchers on the roster, like Lingos, Connor Higgins and Sam Romero, are seniors and juniors and will be leaving the program either after this year or next. 

Players like Vander Kooi and his fellow underclassmen need to step up and establish themselves as reliable arms head coach Tracy Smith can rely on to get outs.

“Obviously, with older guys leaving, you need new blood,” Jacquez said. “It’s going to be very important for Vander Kooi to pitch well and be the ace of the future and for coach Smith to find other guys to mix into the rotation and bullpen.” 

The freshmen position players will almost certainly experience some hiccups along the way, but they are only going to get better as the season goes on and become more acclimated to Sun Devil and collegiate baseball. 

Freshmen play, in general, is the key for ASU baseball this year, and the success of the season rides on it. The time to make mistakes is now so players can settle in and reestablish themselves as the Pac-12 force ASU was not too long ago. 

Reach the columnist at Steven.Slobodzian@asu.edu or follow @PSlobodzianASU on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors. 

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