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ASU Baseball: The anatomy of a turnaround

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The reports of Arizona State's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Following a 6-1 loss against Washington on a rainy April afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona State's record sat at a mediocre 17-12 (4-8 in Pac-12 play). Its RPI was all the way down to No. 120, and its pitching rotation had been battered through injury after injury.

Needless to say, hopes for a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament were bleak. But then, seemingly with the drop of a hat, something changed.

The Sun Devils started to play good baseball.

A freshman making his first career start threw a complete game shutout against the No. 15 team in the country. The club's bats exploded for three days in a sweep at Stanford. And then, just this past weekend against another red-hot team, the maroon and gold took two of three games from rival Arizona down in Tucson.

"I think so," said starting pitcher Seth Martinez, when asked if he thought the team was turning a corner back in the middle of April. "We are just trying to work hard each pitch and see what happens."

Back on April 10, that 6-1 defeat to the Huskies ensured a lost series for Tracy Smith's team. They haven’t lost a series since, and with just two sets remaining - both against teams in the lower half of the Pac-12 - odds are good they won't lose another one until 2017.

Arizona State is a good baseball team, and while it would have seemed weird to read that statement six weeks ago, it almost feels underwhelming at this point.

***

When he wakes up in the morning he tells himself, "Today I'll make a change." But falling into his bed at night he thinks, "Man, it was a beautiful day to stay the same." -- David Bazan

With only one genuine weekend starter, the Sun Devils haven't taken a usual route to success. Martinez is the club's ace, and he tries to eat up as many innings as possible whenever taking to the mound.

If needed, Smith will then call upon either Eli Lingos or Eder Erives out of the bullpen to try and guarantee a win on Friday night. And from there, it's all hands on deck. Lingos or Erives typically get the starting nod for game two, while Sunday features a "starter by committee" approach that hinges on Zach Dixon, Jordan Aboites, and a host of middle relievers.

The approach is unorthodox; one that this coaching staff has been forced into due to injuries to a staff that was already undermanned in the first place. But it is possible to succeed this way in college baseball, and you don't have to look much further than Mississippi State's team back in 2013.

The Bulldogs won 51 games and made it to the College World Series that season, all without a set rotation. The team relied on a mixture of long and short relief pitchers (and some big bats) to make it to Omaha, and it's beginning to look more and more possible that this Arizona State team could do the same.

Again, talk like this back in early April - when the Sun Devils were scuffling through league play and getting little help from both their offense and defense - would have seemed silly. But Smith has stayed the course, relying on a "do whatever it takes to win now and worry about tomorrow later" philosophy that led to unparalleled success in his time at Indiana.

"What we have started to see in the past few weeks is more leadership from all of the players," Smith said after a win against No. 15 California last month. "That attitude and that demeanor is reflected in our play, in our dugout, and in practice."

His players bought in, steadily improving even if the results weren't readily apparent via wins and losses. Eventually, however, the persistence has paid off.

When the pitching staff ran into trouble, an influx of clutch hits at the plate saved the team. Back on May 6, in the first of three games against Oregon, Martinez ran into some trouble early and the maroon and gold would eventually find themselves in a 4-1 hole. They continued to scrap, however, and would eventually come out on the other side with a 5-4 win in extra innings.

"It is kind of a microcosm of how this team is coming together," said Smith after the game. "It’s just, ‘Let’s find a way to win, somehow, someway.’ It doesn’t really matter who, it doesn’t really matter how."

Less than 24 hours later, the club found a way again against the Ducks, this time rallying from a 7-3 deficit before pulling out a 9-8 victory. The offensive firepower in this lineup is nothing to write home about - they rank in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in just about every hitting category - but the combination of an aggressive mentality mixed with some luck and timely hits has done wonders for Smith's team over the past six weeks.

***

"Baseball's best teams lose about 65 times a season. It is not a game you can play with your teeth clenched." -- George Will

A baseball season, by nature, will feature its fair share of ups and downs. Arizona State has seen its share of both over the past few months, and with the postseason right around the corner, there are sure to be more on the way. But good things come to those who wait, and it is easy to envision this team making some noise as a two or three seed once the NCAA Tournament rolls around.

If you've followed the Sun Devils at all this season, chances are you've heard Smith talk time and again about doing whatever it takes to win ugly. And while they have certainly had their share of ugly wins this year, a beautiful brand of baseball is starting to be played down at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

All they needed was a little time to turn things around.