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ASU baseball to work around losing its third pitcher for the year to elbow injury

The Sun Devils will need to find ways to make up for injuries sustained in the pitching rotation

20210317 Baseball Pitchers

ASU redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Tyler Thornton (29) watches the ball after pitching against Cal State Fullerton at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in Phoenix on Saturday, March 13, 2021. ASU won 6-4. 

ASU baseball had a great problem heading into the 2021 season: It had too many quality starting pitchers to fit in a three-game weekend rotation.

Redshirt freshman Cooper Benson earned the Friday night starter job. Meanwhile, redshirt junior Boyd Vander Kooi and redshirt sophomores Tyler Thornton and Erik Tolman were all in the mix for the 2021 rotation. Redshirt junior Justin Fall started last year’s season opener, and he moved to a bullpen role this past offseason.

But, with its first Pac-12 series Friday against Oregon, ASU has lost Benson, Vander Kooi and, as announced by head coach Tracy Smith on Tuesday, Tolman for the remainder of the season to Tommy John surgery — a procedure that repairs injured elbow ligaments commonly seen in baseball pitchers. 

Pitching coach Jason Kelly had previously said Benson and Vander Kooi went down with “wear and tear” injuries. There was no “pop” in their elbows, just built up stress. 

Smith said Tolman went through the same thing. 

"There's nothing we can do to change the situation that we're in," Smith said Tuesday. "We're going to find a way, we've got to find a way to cover probably 280 to 300 innings. And we feel like we've got the pieces here to be able to do that."

To prepare, ASU has run out 16 different pitchers over the last five games, since Tolman’s last start, to give more pitchers experience and to see who is ready.

Smith said that he would ideally have a “semblance of a rotation,” but will need to work “unconventionally” going forward. He and several Sun Devils have continued to stay confident, praising the team's pitching depth.

"It's a shame to have all three of those guys go down, but if we were to go down at any spot, I'd say pitching would be our best spot since we've got so much depth," redshirt junior Drew Swift said Tuesday. "It's been so good to see those young guys already come up and perform in big situations."

This was on full display in last weekend’s sweep over Fullerton, as 12 pitchers threw and allowed five earned runs. Excluding Thornton, the rest of the staff conceded two runs through 22 frames. 

Smith and Kelly intend to look at matchups and determine plans on a game-to-game basis. Even Fall, who threw 5.2 innings last Sunday, is in consideration but not guaranteed a weekly starting role, per Smith.

This won’t go without challenges. ASU’s bullpen is mostly young. Since the 2020 season ended before conference play started due to COVID-19, 13 of the 16 pitchers who have thrown in the last five games have never thrown a pitch in conference play. 

Swift and Smith explained this week that conference games shrink the room for error, especially in the Pac-12. D1 Baseball and Baseball America have four teams from the conference ranked between the two polls: UCLA, Oregon, UA and Oregon State. 

"We've got to do everything right, make them earn every base, do all those things because this league is a good league," Smith said.

Kelly said on March 7 that the team has the arms to make that happen and stressed the importance of getting the younger pitchers experience before the Oregon series. They have done so, and several have stood out. 

Freshman Ethan Long is the established closer. He's come into several strenuous situations with runners on base and close games, but in 6.2 frames, he has yet to allow a run. 

Redshirt freshmen Christian Bodlovich and Graham Osman have combined for 18.1 innings through 12 games, and have allowed just five runs. 

Smith said redshirt junior Brady Corrigan has earned a larger role. After a rough end to his 2019 season and hardly throwing last year, Corrigan has had a dominant start to 2021. In seven innings, he has allowed one earned run with 13 strikeouts. 

The talent down the line in the pen is something that Swift has not seen in his three previous years at ASU. 

"Every guy who rolls out has a really good out pitch and their velocity is there," Swift said. "It's been the best I've seen."

Before losing 10-9 to UNLV on Tuesday, ASU had allowed 10 runs in its last six games.

Fall said healthy competition has helped the Sun Devil pitchers develop. 

"You look to your left and right, and you just kind of want to be better than that guy," Fall said. "I think, in a healthy way, for sure. We are all good."

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