The 2015 ASU baseball season starts Friday. Here's what to expect from this year's Sun Devils:
First year coach Tracy Smith's most important task early on in the season will be finding replacements for last year's top two hitters, Drew Stankiewicz and Nathaniel Causey. Junior Johnny Sewald leads a group of seven returners on this year's club. The center fielder drove in 19 runs and hit for a .305 average in 2014, but his most impressive stat was a .428 clip in on base percentage.
DH/catcher R.J. Ybarra has more power than anyone on this roster. He is a double machine and had 47 RBIs a season ago.
"I'm just here to help the team win and do whatever I need to do," Ybarra said when asked about his role. "At the end, that is all that matters."
ASU will boast one of the top outfields in the Pac-12 this season. Sewald and Trever Allen are two speedy players with good instincts that will cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Sophomore catcher Brian Serven has a good arm and will not allow many pitches to get behind him.
The question marks come up the middle. Second baseman Jordan Aboites has a lot of potential but only started in seven games a year ago. Colby Woodmansee will start the season at shortstop and brings with him a long frame and decent arm. The tall sophomore is excellent at charging grounders to the left side of the field and starting double play turns quickly.
"If we are going to make mistakes, they are going to be of an aggressive nature," Smith said about the team's defensive play. "Not because we are tentative and scared."
All three weekend starters from last year's regional team are back in 2015. The Sun Devils will have one of the best one-two punches in the country on Friday and Saturday with Brett Lilek and Ryan Kellogg on the mound. Lilek has spent the last couple of weeks raking in preseason awards, including being named to the Golden Spikes award watch list. "My success will come with the team success," says Lilek. "That is all that matters."
After Lilek and Kellogg, things get dicey. That crucial Sunday afternoon spot is still up for grabs, but it looks like it will be either senior Darrin Gillies, sophomore David Graybill, or sophomore Seth Martinez who get the nod. Ryan Burr, who started at times on last year's team, will be coming out of the bullpen for the most part this season. The flame-throwing righty won three games and also picked up 12 saves in 2014. The play of Burr in late-game situations will be critical to this team's success in 2015.
ASU opens the season with six of their first seven games against top 15 opponents in Oklahoma State and TCU. Pac-12 play begins on March 13 against last year's No. 1 national seed, Oregon State. A week later the Sun Devils will be in Eugene to play Oregon, a club ranked in the top 25 by nearly all of the numerous preseason publications. The regular season will end in Los Angeles for a three game series against USC, a team that should go dancing in 2015. The maroon and gold have put together a challenging slate, but one that is manageable with the first 19 games of the season inside the friendly confines of Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
Of course, this is ASUs first season at Phoenix Municipal Stadium after spending the last 40 years at Packard Stadium in Tempe. And so far, the new digs have gotten nothing but rave reviews.
"I thought it was time for a newer, updated facility and that is what we got," Lilek said.
Added freshman outfielder Ryan Lillard: "It's 100 times better, honestly. This is a really special place."
First pitch of the 2015 campaign is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The Sun Devils return to the field Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 12:30 p.m.