PHOENIX – The 2020 baseball season in the state of Arizona ended amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the start of the 2021 season was not a sure thing either.
On Jan. 29, ASU coach Tracy Smith and the Pac-12 conference announced the team’s schedule for 2021, a routine event at any other time. But there is nothing routine during a global pandemic.
Indeed, before the Sun Devils even played a game, the schedule was changed. ASU was supposed to start the season with four games against San Jose State, but the Spartans encountered coronavirus problems.
Instead, the Sun Devils open on Friday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium against Sacramento State. But after a 13: 4 start to a promising 2020 season that ended abruptly, a date change is a minor inconvenience by comparison.
“We’re just glad we have a schedule right now,” said Smith, who recently extended his contract for two years. “I think if you are following the landscape of college athletics in general, I would expect (our) schedule to change even more as the season progresses due to cases of COVID, COVID logs, contact tracing and the like.”
And Smith believes the teams that face the reality of unforeseen challenges will have an advantage as the season progresses.
“You just have to be mentally strong and try to work through that. We talked about it as a group,” said Smith. “The team that handles it best, the team that understands things will happen. Don’t apologize, just be prepared for anything. The team that can do the best will play the longest this year.”
A unique twist created by COVID-19 is the NCAA’s decision to grant student athletes an additional year. It has put some teams in special situations, with new recruits trying to take chances from returning players motivated to finish what was lost a season ago.
It heats up competition, however, and although the Sun Devils lost four offensive stars from last year’s team to the MLB draft, including thug Spencer Torkelson, who was voted # 1 overall by the Detroit Tigers, the Sun Devils have a plethora of names competing for limited edition spots.
“The daily competition for any position is real,” said co-head coach Ben Greenspan.
This is especially true of the ASU pitching team, and outfielder Hunter Jump has noticed the surge in competition among pitchers.
“Everyone’s fighting for a spot on the pitching side, and you can tell that everyone wants them,” said Jump. “It’s nice to see guys get out there, come after and really make a statement for themselves.”
Pitching coach Jason Kelly, who is entering his sophomore season with the Sun Devils, said the return of some seasoned guns allows him to work more with some of the younger staff.
“By the sophomore year they know how to do it. You do it the way you want,” Kelly said. “And now you can focus on certain pitches and specific skills and some other things that are the finer details of pitching. It gives me some freedom to work with the younger guys.”
Cooper Benson is one of those young pitchers who got Kelly’s attention.
“Coop has some things you can’t teach,” said Kelly. “There is a confidence in him that never fades, and there is a level of competitiveness in him that many guys don’t have.”
Kelly said that Benson’s personality has an intangible quality that rubs off on his teammates.
“He brings energy to our team and that’s one of the things that you can’t really tell why this is happening,” he said. “But for some reason our team is energetic when he’s out there. They want to play behind him.”
While the Sun Devils saw plenty of offensive firepower in the MLB draft, the team doesn’t lack talent on the record.
“We have a lot of good players on the offensive,” said hit coach Michael Earley. “It’s just a lot of unproven guys, so who’s going to be that guy who’s going to rise and have this year?”
Practicing the routine aspects of hitting can become a chore, but Earley preaches getting the little things right.
“I tell them every day, ‘You have to accept the monotony of a good hit,'” Earley said. “It’s hard to do the same thing every day, but you did it really well.”
The team’s offensive identity is also changing, from a force-based approach to a small ball style with speed and contact.
Junior Drew Swift, who finished last season on a hot streak and beat .517 with 13 RBI in the team’s last five games, is leading. And after playing four different positions in 2020, he’s moving to the regular shortstop job, replacing one of those top league picks, Alika Williams.
Benson, the left-handed Redshirt newbie, doesn’t think retooling will be a problem.
“I think we are definitely underrated,” he said. “I know it will be very different this year. We may have to defy a few runs. I think we have a lot of speed that is different from the last few years and a lot of guys who have the ball in and forcing the defense to the game. ”
The sun devils need to figure out how to fuse the new faces with the familiar and develop the chemistry despite the challenges of COVID-19 security protocols that make bonding a little difficult.
“It’s just the time you can spend with your team that I think is a little lacking,” said Smith. “There was more meeting time, more individual off-field time to bring the team together.”
The team found bonding support through sessions with mental trainer Scott Pelton.
“We’re just talking about things that go on, the struggles as a freshman, learning how to deal with failure, things like that,” Swift said. “Most of the time, every single person is on the zoom.”
With a revamped approach to the plate, a pitching team that is expected to take a big leap, and a positive mental attitude, the Sun Devils are able to hit the diamond run and finish what they’re in last season – and exactly on schedule.
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