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Hello everyone, and welcome back to SP Sports Weekly, your weekly roundup of State Press sports content. Alongside Jeffrey Horst, I am Alex Coil, and we are the sports editors at The State Press. On this episode, we welcome Alex Weiner to talk about his article on the ASU pitching staff losing three pitchers to Tommy John surgery.
Thank you for joining the show, Alex.
Thanks for having me. First one of the semester.
With Boyd Vander Kooi going down with Tommy John, Cooper Benson, Erik Tolman, the big question is who is Tracy Smith going to rely on to pick up the slack in terms of starting pitching? Who do you think that guy is going to be?
It depends. Tyler Thornton, redshirt sophomore transfer from St. Mary's, got his feet wet last year a little bit. He's sort of locked down that Saturday role over the last couple of weeks. And although head coach Tracy Smith said that Justin Fall has not solidified a spot in the rotation, the last two Sundays, Justin Fall has gotten that Sunday start.
It's the Friday that's a little up in the air, and it's presumably going to be a bullpen day. Because if you go with a bullpen day on Friday, you have Thornton who can consistently throw 90, 100 pitches per start on Saturday, you can kind of preserve your bullpen a little bit better.
For Sunday, when it's a little bit more up in the air since Justin Fall, although he started games last year, was preparing for a more of a bullpen role this year. Seth Tomczak has been sort of their opener. He's had three starts already this year, didn't do great last week against Oregon but was very effective his first couple starts.
They lucked out on Friday against Oregon because Jared Glenn came out of the bullpen, and he was shut down for seven and a third innings. And he did it really effectively in 80 pitches. Tracy Smith and Jason Kelly are looking for guys who can throw strikes, and that is exactly what Jared Glenn did. You know, they can kind of ride a guy like that if he's having a pretty good day, but it's going to be definitely by committee, especially in midweek games, too. We've seen games where they throw many pitchers and probably see a lot more of that too. So it'll just depend on week to week.
Now, obviously, you mentioned that bullpen-style game, especially on Friday night specifically. How long do you think Tracy Smith and Jason Kelly ride with this idea before somebody either rises to the top and they pick that person or they just pick whoever they want to solidify that role, and then how reliable is a bullpen game, especially over the course of every single Friday throughout the season?
That's TBD. You don't know really how effective it will be throughout the entire season.
They have a pretty deep bullpen; they have a lot of arms they can turn to, so that definitely helps and the bullpen game worked the first couple of times. Against UNLV in a midweek game, it didn't quite work as well, although that was a game where they kind of wanted to see more guys who hadn't thrown recently right before Pac-12 play started because Pac-12 play was starting last Friday. The game against UNLV was last Tuesday.
So because of that, some guys didn't have it, and they just kept shuffling through a lot of different guys. And they didn't really have a bullpen game this week, because like I mentioned, Jared Glenn was so good.
I mean, we can see Jared Glenn just start next Friday. I mean, that could be a very possible situation, because it might just be who's throwing well, who can give them a lot of innings, and if Jared Glenn goes in there throws two innings but walks three guys, they're gonna take him out because they need guys who keep the line moving, get the ball in play, as they say, and it really just depends, and we don't know how effective it'll be.
He said in an ideal world they'd like sort of a semblance of a rotation eventually. So I anticipate that will happen at some point, but I don't know how many weeks down the road it will.
I want to talk about ASU's performance as a team overall, in terms of how it relates to their pitching staff. Their offense right now is scoring somewhere in the range of about five runs a game, considering that many of the pitchers that are going to have to step up are on the more inexperienced side, where they haven't really pitched a lot of innings at the collegiate level.
Do you feel like there's more pressure on this offense, that was previously dubbed by multiple coaches to be more of a "small ball" quote unquote, style of play, to step up and really start producing more runs to provide their more inexperienced pitchers a little more breathing room to give them room to operate and get comfortable?
I think absolutely, and I think that consistency is the main key with this. You mentioned small ball, and because of that, they need to string together hits in order to score runs. They can get a guy on base, they can move them over, but they got to hit them in.
Or, they're very good on the base paths, too. So that opens up a whole other door for them. They're a very quick lineup of guys who can read a ball in the dirt and go and snatch the next base. So that part helps them out. But still, if they're not stringing together hits, and if they're not getting guys over, then their offense is stagnant because they're not a team that with one swing of the bat changes everything on most nights.
There's a lot of different variables that go in with the situation that have now because they don't have Benson who can give them six on Friday, or Boyd who can give them seven innings of work on a Sunday.
So because they have so many different guys coming in and out, and Alex mentioned this before when we were talking before we start hitting record: When you throw more guys out of the bullpen, it gives you somewhat more variability and the risk that what if one of those guys coming out, it's not quite their day, the command is not quite there, leaving the ball up, maybe giving up a few extra runs. If the offense isn't consistent, and that happens to be a day where they score two runs, then you're going to lose more ball games that way. They're searching for that consistency.
It looked like they were starting to turn a corner. They looked pretty good against Cal State Fullerton offensively. They scored nine runs against UNLV in the midweek game, and then scored six against Oregon in that first game, and then they kind of go completely silent over the next couple of games — four runs in two games. If they can sort of find a common ground, you mentioned five runs a game, if that can be somewhat constant, I think they'll be fine.
Let's look at the other side of the ball, if you will. We mentioned the inexperience or lack of innings on the collegiate level from a lot of those guys in the bullpen. How important is the defense behind those guys in the success of the team, and how has it been so far?
It's incredibly important. And this is a Sun Devil team that last year, the defense looked pretty good. But there was a couple of years there where the pitching wasn't quite up to par, and the defense was a lot of younger guys adjusting and wasn't quite there either.
This year, the defense is at least as good as I've seen it since I've been here in the last four years, and it starts at the middle. Drew Swift has been really unbelievable at shortstop, and Sean McLain has been perfectly good at second base. He was supposed to be the center fielder last year, but he had a hamate injury and missed the first couple of weeks of the season, which ended up being the season, unfortunately. At second base, he's looked really solid.
A stand out to me is Hunter Haas at third, because this is a guy who played shortstop for his entire life, was one of the top shortstop recruits in the country when they got him, but Drew Swift is at shortstop. So they put them at third base, which is kind of a new position for him. And they're both on the left side of the infield so the throw isn't that different. You definitely have to have a better arm but the ball comes at you a lot quicker, and he's adjusted really beautifully.
And then, of course, in center field, Joe Lampe is the — they call him "no fly zone" out in center field because he's so fast. So up the middle, the defense, obviously Sam Ferri and Nick Cheema are veterans, have always been good defensively. So the defense up the middle is great, which has been a really big key for them, and it's going to continue to being a big key because they want their pitchers to throw strikes. I mean, it's gonna be more balls in play, and if you're booting it everywhere, you're gonna lose games.
Want to round back to the actual three pitchers that served with the injuries: Vander Kooi, Benson and Tolman. I find it interesting that Kelly described Benson and Vander Kooi's injury, and then Smith describing Tolman's injury, having been due to wear and tear. Not necessarily a pop of an elbow ligament that we refer to as the UCL. What I want to ask is, is this stress that they're suffering in their pitching elbows purely through their careers at ASU?
No, this goes back till they're like 10 years old, and throwing a baseball is a very, not natural motion for a human body. Wear and tear happens.
This, I don't want to say it was an issue that was bound to happen, but in a way, it was bound to happen. They had built up stress in their elbows throughout their lives pitching, and very unfortunately for Arizona State and for them, especially Tolman and Vander Kooi who are draft eligible this summer, it all came to a head and they all ended up getting hurt within the same month.
Jason Kelly said this was nobody's fault. This wasn't their fault. It wasn't the coaching staff's fault. This was basically just bound to happen. It's an unnatural motion, and sometimes, it puts more stress in some people's elbows than others.
I went through the tape, I saw exactly what they said they did over the offseason. Erik Tolman said he long tossed more this off season to keep his arms strong. Boyd Vander Kooi tried Driveline for the first time, which is a place you'd go if you want to increase your velocity to get stronger. And then with Cooper Benson, he's mostly said he was just trying to get his body right and working out a lot.
They all did something this offseason. It's not like they just kind of went from nothing to then throwing again up in the fall. It happens, and Boyd said he was pretty sore before the season started, Cooper started to feel that stress, especially in those first series of the season. And for Tolman, Skip said that he was feeling some soreness before a start, and then all of a sudden, he's down two. So it's not really specific to ASU, it's more so probably what's going to happen at some point in their career.
Thank you so much Alex for taking the time to speak with us about your piece about not only those three pitchers going down for the rest of the season due to Tommy John surgery, but where does ASU baseball go from here.
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Jeffrey Horst is the digital editor-in-chief of The State Press. He previously served as the publication's sports editor and worked at Cronkite News and ArizonaSports.com.