ASU baseball's Erik Tolman stands out as a key utility player

A message on the mound and a tip of the cap keeps the lefty freshman grounded

With temperatures on the rise, things will only get even hotter when rivals, ASU baseball (22-1, 5-1) and Arizona baseball (13-11, 2-4) go head-to-head in a three-game series Friday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Last year, ASU surrendered its first Territorial Cup in six years to the Wildcats in a seesaw match-up. This year, coach Tracy Smith has not only transformed the team but managed to do it with the same formula.

"The enthusiasm generated by people — a lot more people (are) paying attention now, so you can't worry about that stuff you got to stay focused," Smith said on Wednesday. "That's our big piece about just remember how you got here. Remember the everyday grind, the everyday work that you put in to put yourself in the best position to be successful and that's all that we're focusing on and that's all that we've done."

Smith emphasized "matured physically" has been the team's biggest separator from last year's 23-32 record which marked one of the program's worse seasons.

"Guys are making plays this year," Smith said. "(It's) pretty much the same group of guys, it's just we've learned how to win, and we are going to continue to focus on the little things that got us to this point."

And there's no denying that the Sun Devils' recipe of pitching depth and diverse offensive power has got the team to a 21-0 start — its second-best start in school history — and only undefeated Division I team up until ASU's loss to Oregon on March 23. 

Aside from power hitters Hunter Bishop, a junior outfielder who's leading the nation in home runs with 14 and junior infielder Carter Aldrete who produced 25 RBIs with a .281 batting average, the team's freshmen have stepped up to the plate in dire situations.

Freshman outfielder Dusty Garcia's speed has him 2-for-3 in steals and six runs scored in 16 games played for a .211 batting average. 

From a pitching aspect, Central Arizona College transfer RJ Dabovich has posted a 5-0 record with a 2.97 ERA. Through 33.1 innings pitched the sophomore right-hander has held opponents to three runs or less making him one of four solid starters. 

Among the veterans and newcomers, Erik Tolman has been instrumental to the team's success at the mound while occasionally dabbling with appearances at the plate.

The freshman posted a 0.74 ERA while holding opponents to a .125 batting average with 23 strikeouts in 24.1 innings pitched. In his third appearance, Tolman also recorded his first career save against UC Davis on Feb. 23.

In the batter's box, Tolman's four plate appearances haven't gone unnoticed with his most prominent, a 3-for-3 afternoon against Xavier on March 10. Just a day prior the lefty struck out four in 3.0 innings.

"Yeah, it is hard," Tolman said on juggling both pitching and batting. "It's kinda working both sides of the field really. Pitching is completely different than hitting. Talking to the hitters and pitchers it's different because the two groups have different personalities, but I love it."

Besides Tolman's offensive and defensive powerful concoction his family and faith have helped keep him grounded among the team's hot start.

During all 10 outings this season, he has scribbled a message on the mound and before subtly tipping his cap. 

"For the National Anthem I make a prayer," Tolman said. "Every time I'll close my eyes and make a prayer for my life, and then before I get on the mound I won't say what I write in but I write something in every time and it's kinda what I play for." 

Tolman preferred to keep what he wrote on the mound to himself because "it's the most important to me."

Then, he tips his cap.

"It's a short prayer for my family," he said. "For my Tolman side and my mom's side, the Woodmansee's. I think of them for a brief second ... I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my whole family."

The Sun Devils went on to win five straight games, then 10, 15 and eventually grew to 21 — something the team would never have expected at the beginning of its season. 

After the team suffered its first loss of the season to Oregon in an extra-inning walk-off home run, pitching coach Mike Cather said "it was a pressure valve that was released."    

"I told (the team) at the beginning of the year I said 'I'm not worried about these guys what they are going to do when they lose,'" Cather said. "I said 'I'm worried about a 10-game win streak because we are going to start tasting ourselves. We are going to be thinking 'hey man, big man on campus', and we are going to get away from what our core is." 

Cather added that he noticed some players began to look "too lose almost too cocky."

"There's a very fine line between confident and cocky and just flat out arrogant," Cather said. "And arrogance would kill you. So the management of the message weekly is really critical as well as what they are doing physically on the field." 

As far as Tolman, Cather's message to him has been his ability to "marry that concept" of adjusting to being a utility player at the collegiate level.

"I think he's found a nice happy place where he feels like he's getting swings in that he needs and when we plug him in he's giving us good at-bats," Cather said.


Reach the reporter at Edith.Noriega@asu.edu or follow @Noriega_Edith on Twitter. 

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