A '180-degree turn' in culture has changed the fortunes of ASU baseball

After a forgettable 2017 season, the Sun Devils are having fun playing baseball again

Disappointment, under performance and clubhouse tension defined the 2017 season for ASU baseball.

The Sun Devils finished 23-32 last year, marking the program’s first losing campaign since 1985 and ending a 54-year streak of at least 30 wins. Some players were dismissed and others left on their own. 

“Last year sucked,” sophomore reliever and midweek starter Alec Marsh said. “It wasn’t fun to play baseball last year.”

What a difference a year can make. After starting the last two seasons 1-5 in Pac-12 play, ASU started the conference season 4-2, including a sweep of the Oregon Ducks. Entering a road series against Washington State, which starts on Thursday, ASU is 12-12 overall.

So what has changed? A drastically different clubhouse culture, an influx of exciting young talent and another year of experience for holdovers has made all the difference in the win-loss column. 

“It’s a 180-degree turn, man,” Marsh said. “This year everybody has the same goal. I don’t care if we’re young or what people say about us, everybody’s working really hard to do what we’re going to go. I think we’re going to turn a lot of heads this year.”

There have been growing pains; series losses to Saint Mary’s and UNC Wilmington earlier this season showed as much. But when you are starting at least five freshman on a nightly basis, mistakes and teaching moments come with the territory. 

Both ASU sophomore third baseman and outfielder Carter Aldrete and head coach Tracy Smith acknowledged the team has not reached its full potential, but both feel they are on the cusp of putting it all together.

“I think nerves got us early (in the year). We’re young – we’ve all said that,” Aldrete said. “But now, everyone is starting to settle in at the plate, and we are swinging at good pitches now.

"It all centers on the bump," Smith said. "I feel good about our starters. We've got to get more consistency in the bullpen piece of it."

When a team is led by two of the best hitters and one of the best freshman starting pitchers in the country, it is hard not to improve on last season’s record. 

Junior center fielder Gage Canning currently ranks fifth in the country in batting average (.460), freshman first baseman Spencer Torkelson is tied for fourth in the country in home runs (11), and freshman right-hander Boyd Vander Kooi had one of the lowest ERAs for a freshman in the country before giving up seven runs in 2.1 innings against UCLA Saturday.

“Unbelievable,” Torkelson said about Canning’s performance so far this season.

“It is fun watching him,” junior right-hander Sam Romero said about Torkelson. “Whenever he comes up to bat, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, Spencer’s up,’ and then boom, there it goes.”

Along with Vander Kooi, Romero and senior left-hander Eli Lingos have formed a mostly reliable rotation for ASU.

But what has made the biggest difference in the eyes of many players and Smith is a commitment from every player to the team’s goals.

For the most part, every player has a role on this team. Freshman outfielder Hunter Jump may not start regularly but has thrived as a pinch hitter, batting .318 in 22 at-bats. Despite only playing in 15 games, senior infielder Taylor Lane is hitting .296. In addition, freshman backup catcher Luke Leisenring has made the most of his opportunities in nine games. 

“Everybody is going to have a role on this team," Smith said. "Maybe it is not hitting three-hole or being (the) Friday starter, but if you wear the Sun Devil uniform, you’re apart of this thing.” 

Reach the reporter at jpjacqu1@asu.edu or follow @joejacquezaz on Twitter.

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