The outfield grass has been cut. The infield dirt has been dragged and raked. It is the third week of February, and college baseball is back in the Valley of the Sun.
Arizona State returns to action at beautiful Phoenix Municipal Stadium tonight, starting the 2016 season with a four game series against visiting Xavier. This will be the first ever meeting between the two programs.
The Musketeers are coming off a disappointing season a year ago in which they finished 15-38 and only won three games in the Big East. The team has not faced a Pac-12 opponent since the last day of the 2014 season, when Oregon rallied all the way back from an 8-3 deficit to knock them out of the NCAA Tournament.
Scott Googins is in his 11th year at the helm in the Queen City. Googins actually served as an assistant under current Sun Devil head coach Tracy Smith back at Miami (Ohio), and the two have stayed close since their days in Oxford.
That relationship led to the scheduling of this series, as well as past games (both in the regular season and in fall exhibitions) between Xavier and Smith's clubs at Indiana.
"I know he will have those guys ready to play," said Smith when talking about his former assistant.
For a third consecutive year, Googins' team was picked to finish fourth in the Big East preseason coaches poll. With a smattering of young talent sprinkled throughout the lineup, the Musketeers should improve on last year's 15 victories. They last took the field back in October, falling 7-0 in an exhibition game against Indiana in Bloomington.
The maroon and gold have not played anyone but themselves since May, when they fell 7-4 against Pepperdine in a Fullerton Regional elimination game. The roster took some big hits over the summer due to graduation and the MLB Draft, but the club does have a lot of intriguing freshmen and sophomores to work with.
"It is starting to come together," Smith says. "I like their attitude and focus. We have been breaking them down, tearing them down for awhile now, but there is a method to my madness. We put a lot of pressure on these guys in practice and then reel it back a bit in the games."
Right-hander Hever Bueno will get the ball from Smith on Friday night, and junior Seth Martinez is slated to start game two on the mound for Arizona State. The final two starting pitchers for this series are still to be determined.
On the other side, expect southpaw Zac Lowther to start game one for the visitors from Cincinnati. Lowther went 2-1 last season as a freshman and posted an ERA of 3.78.
The Sun Devils should be able to take advantage of their opponents overmatched pitching staff and get out of opening weekend with three or four wins. With that said, the first handful of games for everyone are tough to predict since there is no spring training in college baseball that allows teams to shake off the offseason rust.
Game one of the series will start at 6:30 PM on Friday, with the two teams meeting again for a doubleheader on Saturday that starts at 1:00 PM. The weekend will wrap up with a high noon first pitch on Sunday.