Zac Cerbo is one of four seniors on Arizona State’s 2017 baseball team.
With former positional counterparts RJ Ybarra (graduation) and Brian Serven (selected in the 5th round, 140th overall, by the Colorado Rockies in the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft) no longer in the fold, he figured to be a focal member of the regular starting lineup. However, freshman imports, including Sam Ferri and Lyle Lin, have allotted ASU head coach Tracy Smith viable options to deploy behind the plate.
Still, one thing the elder Cerbo offers that the talented freshmen don’t is experience. Along with that experience, Smith says, is a presence.
“He provides a different element than the other guys,” the second-year head coach said following ASU’s walk-off 7-6 win over Long Beach State after extra innings.
The difference, as junior outfielder Andrew Shaps puts it, is that the catcher will “literally will do whatever it takes for a team” to win.
“If anyone is like that on our team it's him,” Shaps said.
Look no further than Friday, when the Sun Devils—amidst a come-from-behind, extra-inning win—had already exhausted their options in the infield, and Cerbo moved from catcher to man second base.
Smith, whose decision paid off in the end, didn’t bat an eye following the contest.
“You go with the competitive person at that point,” he said. “We were—because of the moves earlier—out of an infielder. But really, it was kind of irrelevant, because we were doing anything we could to get back in the situation to tie the game. Thank God they didn't hit him the ball.”
While observers questioned Smith’s choice, ASU players said they weren’t surprised by Cerbo’s willingness to step in.
“Personally, I've known Cerbo for a while now, and it doesn't shock me at all,” said Shaps. “He will do whatever it takes, so I wasn't shocked.”
Following Saturday’s 9-4 series-clinching win over Long Beach State, Cerbo and other teammates chuckled at a reminder of his infield cameo.
“He was asking a lot of questions,” said regular second baseman Carter Aldrete.
Cerbo said he hadn’t played the position since he was a sophomore in high school, but added that the experience was fun.
“Whatever I can do to help the team win,” he said.
Veteran leadership is not at premium for the Sun Devils this season. The quality of it, however, maintains a large role, and Cerbo is at the forefront of its recent heightened involvement. His impact has not only been felt intangibly, but has influenced the win column, too.
On Saturday, he went 2-for-2 at the plate, blasting a two-run home run amidst collecting three RBIs. He currently owns a .533 battering average this season.
Smith, intrepid, says when players like Cerbo hold themselves accountable in the locker room, it often yields results on the field, too.
“You're happy for someone who pays their dues, and they earn every bit that they get,” Smith said following the win Saturday. “If you play our season, he's not been on the field early on. And a credit to him—he's been ready, he's been steady, and waiting for his opportunity. The beautiful part about this game is, you seize this opportunity, (then) you get what you deserve. He did a fantastic job today of keeping guys in it emotionally, but also sticking some big hits.”
The Sun Devils, whose roster currently holds 22 underclassmen, have been in need of their older players to act as emotional pillars.
Smith said following ASU’s 13-4 loss to No. 7 Cal State Fullerton earlier in the week, his team needed a boost in morale. Some will say it’s been the players’ new pre-game huddle (which the team is now 2-0 since incorporating), but Smith and others will tell you it’s physically drawn out through the leadership of veterans like Cerbo, who have set an example for the younger members of the roster.
“He's an older guy, a veteran guy. It's not just his presence on the field, but presence in the locker room and in the dugout,” Smith said of Cerbo on Friday. “We've had some long hard talks talking about the importance of ownership and taking ownership of the team. What's gonna bring the ownership that we've been lacking, by all means. I love it when I see teams take ownership of the locker room, of the dugout.”
Cerbo insisted on Saturday that accountability and leadership has come from the upperclassmen group as a whole.
“It's obviously exciting and good to help my team win the game,” he said, “but it hasn't just been me with the leadership. All of the older guyshave really stepped up. A lot of it is from the upperclassmen saying, 'It's time to go.’”
It may be a group-led effort, but Cerbo’s has shone, particularly in each of the last two games, as ASU has halted its four-game losing streak and surged back over .500 on the season.
“If you can take what he's been doing physically, and you add that emotional component with it and the maturity, and the handling of the pitchers, that's a plus,” Smith said. “We feel good about that position for sure.”