Jeremy McCuin will tell you himself he’s better recognized for his glove than his bat, but over the weekend, it was Arizona State’s defensive stalwart who provided the offensive boost needed to register a 6-2 win over Northwestern and secure a season-opening sweep.
The Sun Devils’ starting shortstop connected on a two-out triple in the second inning Saturday, then in the same game struck a go-ahead, two-RBI double in the eighth inning Sunday.
“On deck, I’m pretty nervous,” McCuin said of the clutch at-bat. “Had to take a couple of deep breaths, honestly, and just calm myself down, and say, ‘Hey, one pitch at a time.’ Then, first pitch ended up being a pitch I was looking for, and then I hit it.”
McCuin drove Northwestern pitcher Pete Hofman’s slider into left-center, and at that moment it appeared all of the sophomore’s hard work over the offseason was already paying off. Three games into the campaign, and that’s become apparent both defensively and at the plate.
Take the move to shortstop for example.
In 2016, as a true freshman, McCuin broke into the lineup at third base, flashing a dependable glove at the hot corner. However, with last season’s starting shortstop Colby Woodmansee heading to the MLB, McCuin shifted over and assumed the role.
It’s not unfamiliar for him, though. In January, McCuin said the transition was going really well, adding that it’s been smooth thanks to his experience playing shortstop at Perry High School (Gilbert, Ariz.), and well before that.
“That’s my natural position, I’ve played that all through high school, all of my life. I think I’m just comfortable there,” he said at ASU’s opening practice. “It’s something I’ve known, and that I think that being here and learning from Skip (head coach Tracy Smith) and all the different coaches, I think I can do well there this year.”
If Friday’s performance wasn’t enough to quell any suspicions, Sunday may have provided enough proof of his comfort. McCuin fielded every ground ball directed towards him with ease, assisting on a game-high eight outs without committing an error in the finale against Northwestern.
“It’s been easy honestly,” McCuin said to reporters Sunday. “I’ve been getting a lot of grounders right now, and just making the plays for our pitchers, doing the best for the team.”
Back in January, McCuin said he was looking forward to working with new assistant coach Fred Nori, who was to work with the infielder unit in place of head coach Tracy Smith, who now serves as the Sun Devils’ pitching coach.
McCuin said Smith’s coaching aided his development, spurring him to push himself.
“I didn’t have a bunch of coaches who got on me. When I got here, he was always on me, he was always pushing me to do better,” McCuin said. “I think that’s really helped my game. I think it’s really improved my defense. The more extra work I get, the more solid a defensive player I become.”
While McCuin’s endeavor to maximize his defensive skills is encouraging, he’s aware the offensive side of his game necessitated improvement ahead of entering his second season. He’s accepted the challenge, motivated by a desire to become a complete player.
“I think I’m known for my defense,” he said. “My hitting hasn’t been there lately, but I’ve been working on that more this year, because I want to be an all-around player. I don’t want to be a one-sided player. That’s what I’ve been really working on.”
Entering the year, there was much to improve on at the plate for McCuin, a switch-hitter who posted a batting average of .163 in 2015-16 (lowest among last year’s regular starting infielders).
2015-16 ASU Baseball Infield
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To elevate his offensive game, McCuin has been working hard, both on his own and with coaches, towards becoming a better player through the application and retention of fundamentals.
“I’m a sponge, honestly,” he said. “I’m just taking it all in, and learning the little things. I know (batting) lefty wasn’t my strongest suit last year, but this year I’m coming into my own, so I’ll become a complete switch-hitter instead of off-and-on. That’s one of the things that’s really helped me this year.”
Those little lessons he’s learned evidently paid off this weekend. After going a combined 1-for-8 on Opening Day, “Q” bounced back in the finale, going 2-for-4 with two extra-base hits.
After the performance, he credited volunteer assistant coach Michael Earley for working with him when asked about the secret behind his improved batting.
“He’s came in and he’s really helped me with my thought process at the plate,” McCuin said. “He’s helped me slow it down, because I usually get in trouble when I rush, and he just helps me tone it down.”
Smith says he could see the growth in McCuin’s game even prior to Sunday’s game, making note of his improved contact.
“It’s funny, improvements didn’t really come a lot until actually this spring in practice,” the third-year coach said. “He’s really put time in on his body and is a lot stronger. (During) our spring inter-squads, we’re like, ‘Oh, that ball’s getting off the bat a little bit differently.’ And that’s a credit to him and the work he’s been putting in off the field.”
While it may be too early to factor in McCuin’s improved batting average (through three games, he’s batting .250 this year), it’s not too early to acknowledge his experience playing a factor in the discernible progression of his skill set.
“I know what I’m gonna be going through this season,” McCuin said. “I know there’s gonna be ups and downs, and I know how to deal with those now.”
There’s plenty of season left, but McCuin’s maturity and drive to be great suggests this may only be the first chapter in what could be a defining season for ASU’s next great shortstop.