In his second year with an offseason that included a hectic recruiting cycle and more time with his players, baseball head coach Willie Bloomquist feels comfortable saying that his new and improved team can win more games than last season.
"I'm sleeping better this time of year than I was last year at this time," Bloomquist said. "You know, I've been through it once; now I kind of got an idea of what to expect. And so, for me, it's been a little bit better, a little smoother."
There were growing pains in Bloomquist's inaugural season with the team. The first-year coach didn't see much success through the 2021-22 season, with a disappointing record of 26-32 by the end of the campaign. The team saw success at home but struggled to get wins on the road, going 6-17 away.
With more than two dozen new players and a deep roster with returners, Bloomquist and the Sun Devil baseball program are ready for this season starting with a three game series against San Diego State starting Friday at 6 p.m. MST at home.
Twenty-eight new players
Going into this season, Bloomquist's priorities were to have more options in any position and to have his first recruiting class be hard-pressed. With 28 new players on the 38-man roster, including 10 freshmen, it seems the deed has been done.
Bloomquist said there are a lot of new faces around the team, partly by design and partly by necessity.
Thirteen of the 28 new players in the guard are Division I transfers, eight of them from the junior college ranks, with 10 freshmen rounding out the group. Baseball America ranked Arizona State's 2022 transfer crusade second in the nation, behind Louisiana State University, a perennial college powerhouse.
One of the highlights of Bloomquist's plentiful haul is junior infielder Luke Keaschall, who transferred from the University of San Francisco.
Keaschall was recently named a 2023 Preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball News and brings much-needed versatility to the lineup and on the diamond. The former Don garnered a .312 batting average with 12 home runs and 64 RBIs in his time in the Bay Area.
In his short time in Tempe, Keaschall has enjoyed how competitive it is to be part of ASU baseball.
"I think the overall foundation of our team is our competitiveness," Keaschall said. "It starts within like a rough practice that we have or the scrimmage. Everybody's kind of going to each other's heads, and it's healthy competitiveness. No one takes anything personally, which is good. And, I mean, if you got to deal with something, you deal with it within each other."
Last season, ASU's pitching staff struggled to keep the Sun Devils in games, recording a combined 6.76 ERA while allowing a .301 opponent batting average. In 58 games, ASU conceded 56 more walks and 51 more runs than its opponents despite striking out 48 more batters.
After losing all but five of the team's pitchers, ASU signed four freshmen and 11 transfer pitchers during the offseason. With 20 pitchers on his roster, Bloomquist said his team has more depth.
"There are a lot more options this year, which is why we're confident about certainly with the guys we brought in," Bloomquist said. "We feel that if we had something extremely negative like Tyler (Meyer) going down that we still are able to weather the storm a little bit."
Redshirt sophomore pitcher Meyer underwent shoulder labrum surgery and will not throw in the upcoming season.
As one of ASU's many transfers, junior pitcher Owen Stevenson from the University of San Francisco has demonstrated high pitch velocity in scrimmages and will see action as a starting pitcher.
Pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Sam Peraza said junior transfer pitchers Ross Dunn and Khristian Curtis will appear in the starting rotation. Last season, Dunn registered a 2.13 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 12.2 innings, while Curtis earned a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings.
Out of the bullpen, redshirt junior pitcher Christian Bodlovich will be crucial relief after recording a 2-1 record and a 4.78 ERA last season. Junior pitcher Brock Peery and graduate pitcher Nolan Lebamoff, a transfer from Valparaiso University, are competing for the closer role.
Peraza said his bullpen options would help keep pitchers rested for frequent relief opportunities no matter who earns the job.
After training together for months, ASU's pitchers bonded with each other and improved during the offseason. Peraza said it is challenging to expect new pitchers to adapt to a new environment but said the transfers had proven their skills and dedication to the program.
"I think when we first started, everything was new. We had to really hammer them on bullpen structure," Peraza said. "Now they feel like they could talk to each other in the middle of the pan. I think that's helped them grow together."
The Sun Devils only retained 10 players from last year's roster, but most of the core is still there to guide the program.
Junior infielder Ethan Long is looking to rebound after an injury-riddled sophomore season where he missed the entire last month of the season with a wrist injury but still finished fourth on the team in home runs, with seven.
"Last year was tough," Long said. "This year feels different for sure because of just an age thing. Now I'm the old guy on the team, which I've never really been. But yeah, this year it feels like a special team, we really mesh well, and we all kind of have a similar goal."
There would be no shock in the dugout if Long were to have a great comeback season as he has proved his worth in his All-American freshman campaign, where he finished 22nd in the nation and led the Pac-12 in slugging percentage with .725.
Most of the Sun Devils' main storylines last season involved All-American freshmen campaigns.
Sophomore infielder Jacob Tobias had a stellar freshman season, was also named an All-American and was part of the 2022 Pac-12 All-Conference team in his first season with the Sun Devils. Tobias hit .276 with eight doubles, seven homers and 29 RBIs in 170 plate appearances for the Sun Devils.
Tobias has done everything he can to ensure he replicates his success this season.
"I've put a lot of work in these last few months," Tobias said. "There's a lot of areas that I can still improve on. But I'm working my hardest every day to be able to play wherever they want me to play. I'm ready for that challenge."
Sophomore catcher Ryan Campos' first year was among the best in the entire program's history.
Campos smashed the ball all last season. He batted .357 with 28 runs and 30 RBIs. His 0.357 mark was the sixth-best by a freshman in the entire program's history, just ahead of head coach Bloomquist's .356 in 1997. Campos threw out seven baserunners on the year despite catching in 10+ fewer games than any other starting catcher in the Pac-12.
Campos didn't have much to say about last season, saying his plan this year is the same as last: "Win every game."
Edited by Walker Smith, Jasmine Kabiri, Anusha Natarajan and Piper Hansen.
Vincent Deangelis is a full-time reporter for the sports department at The State Press. He has previously worked for Arizona PBS and AZPreps365.com.