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Sun Devil baseball hosts Stanford in a pivotal conference series

The Cardinal lead the Pac-12

Richard Martinez/ House of Sparky

Arizona State baseball (18-9, 7-5 PAC-12) will begin its second half of the season this weekend as it hosts a Stanford Cardinal team (20-6, 6-3 PAC-12) that is back in form in 2021.

The Sun Devils are coming off of a series win last weekend against the Washington Huskies. They were slated for a midweek contest against UNLV, but that game was canceled due to COVID-19 issues with the Rebels program.

The Cardinal baseball program is used to sitting near the top of the PAC-12 standings. Stanford’s last three complete season finishes in the conference are second, first, and second, which is why the abbreviated 2020 was such a surprise for the consistent program.

In the 16 games played before the pandemic shut down the college baseball season, the Cardinal scuffled their way to a 5-11 record. Their pitching was mediocre on a good day, and their bats failed them as well with 155 strikeouts in those 16 games.

After the shutdown, there was a lot of time to ponder questions about the state of the program.

Was this a traditional college baseball power on the edge of an elongated dip in performance? Or was this just a remarkably slow start? 2021 has provided the answer to both questions. There was nothing to worry about, at all.

The Farm is Back

Stanford’s team batting average has jumped back up in 2021. The numbers don’t jump right off the page, but its .287 team average does place them one spot higher than No. 1 ranked Arkansas.

The Cardinal are led by Nick Brueser, who sits fifth in the PAC-12 in batting average with a .360 average.

The past two seasons, the Cardinal bats have rose and fell with the tide of Brueser’s hitting. His near .150 point batting average turnaround in 2021 has lifted the entire lineup into one of the best in the conference.

A major part of Stanford’s resurgence has been due to its affinity for the long ball as well. This team hits taters at an unprecedented clip in recent program history.

Through the first 26 games, the team has smashed 39 home runs, which is the most for the Cardinal since at least 2000.

Look no further than outfielder Brock Jones for the main source of the slugging production. The sophomore has 10 home runs on the season, and is slugging an impressive .728, a number that leads the PAC-12.

Behind Jones, everyone in the main lineup has at least multiple home runs. Brueser has five, tied for second on the team with junior catcher Vincent Martinez.

This team is not the contact and scoring powerhouse that Arizona is, but they get it done with the long ball. Keeping the ball in the yard is the key to success against this Stanford squad.

A Change in Philosophy is Coming Together for the Sun Devils

Sean McLain, a redshirt freshman from Tustin, Calif. has been a revelation for the Sun Devils. In what has been a retooling year for the team, McLain has gone from promising young infielder to a foundational piece for the future of the program.

He did not play the last two games of the Washington series after the marathon 16-inning contest last Friday night. As a result, his 23-game hit streak remains intact.

Drew Swift and Hunter Haas had a strong series against the Huskies with the absence. Offensively, they have been the two most consistent hitters behind McLain, but it was their defensive prowess that shined through in Seattle.

This season, the anchors of the left-side of the Sun Devil infield have combined for three errors, which is the fewest for a shortstop and third baseman in the PAC-12.

Haas in particular, has been sensational at third base, where he has zero errors on the season. His only error came in his lone start at shortstop.

Haas also has the Sun Devil defensive highlight of the season. It was a ridiculously high baseball IQ play that saved the team’s chance at victory in the 14th inning against the Huskies.

The contrast between these two offenses could not be more stark. In most years under skipper Tracy Smith, the Sun Devils would be joining Stanford atop the conference for the long ball lead. That is not the case this season.

This team relies on small ball, getting men on base, and driving them in through steals and base hits. Situational hitting and lineup maneuvering is much more valuable to this roster.

If the Sun Devils are to take their second straight series, they will want to put as much pressure on the Cardinal pitching staff as possible.

A Look at the Pitching for Both Sides

With a retooled lineup, the Sun Devils were going to have to rely on their pitching staff more than ever.

That task got tougher when pitchers Boyd Vander Kooi and Cooper Benson were lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. But in their place, Tyler Thornton and Justin Fall have stepped up in a big way.

Fall was originally going to be a bullpen anchor for the Sun Devils, but he has filled Benson’s Friday night spot better than anyone could have expected.

In his 10 appearances, which includes six starts, Fall leads the team with a 1.95 ERA and 27 strikeouts. His record is 5-1, which ranks him second in the PAC-12 for wins.

Thornton is the workhouse on this staff. He has pitched a team-high 40 innings and the team is 10-2 when he has toed the rubber. His greatest strength is his pitching with two outs, where he has allowed just four hits all season.

The Cardinal are led by their incredible closer, Zach Grech, who has 10 saves to lead the nation in 2021.

This team has taken a similar strategy to the New York Yankee dynasty teams of the late 90s. Find a way to lead after eight innings, hand the ball to your closer, win the game. It’s been that simple for Stanford this year.

Brendan Beck is another name to highlight, and he will likely face Fall on Friday night. Beck leads the team with a perfect 5-0 record and has allowed his opponents a paltry .191 batting average. In his last start, Beck shut down UCLA, pitching 7.1 innings and striking out 10.

One Important Thing to Watch: Starts

These games will likely be decided in the first two innings. Stanford is one of the best teams in the country at jumping out to early leads.

In their first 26 contests, the Cardinal have outscored their opponents 52-17 in the first two innings. When they score in the first frame, the Cardinal are 7-0.

Meanwhile, Arizona State is one of the best teams in the nation at getting out of innings. This season, the pitching staff is allowing just a .188 opponent batting average when two outs have been recorded.

These will be points of emphasis for both squads, how it plays out will likely determine who takes this midseason series.