Tracy Smith thinks his team may have a slight advantage over the other three teams in the Austin Regional in at least one area.
The ability to weather the storm.
In a season that has thrown every bit of adversity at the young Arizona State squad, the Sun Devils battled to put together a 32-20 campaign and earn a postseason bid.
This weekend, they’ll join Southern University and Fairfield University in the Austin regional, hosted by the No. 2 overall seed Texas Longhorns.
“It’s been unconventional all season long,” Smith said. “We’ve been hearing the talking heads preview potential super regional matchups, and they’re not mentioning Arizona State. We plan to throw some wrenches in people’s plans.”
In attempt to make its first Super Regionals under Smith, Arizona State will start the regional facing Fairfield on Friday.
Fairfield has enjoyed a banner year in 2021. At 37-3, the Stags cruised to a Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season championship, the program’s first since 2016.
Despite falling in their conference tournament, Fairfield earned the MAAC’s first-ever at-large bid when it was awarded the three-seed in Austin.
The key to the Stags’ success is without a doubt their pitching. Led by Jake Noviello and Michael Sansone, Fairfield hurlers posted a team ERA of 2.75 this season.
Noviello, a junior hailing from Franklin, Massachusetts, will likely get the ball on Friday to take on the Sun Devils.
Achieving a .925 winning percentage doesn’t happen without some thump in the lineup. Fairfield comes into Austin leading all four squads in team batting average (.305) and slugging percentage (.469).
Justin Guerrera, Dan Ryan and Mike Handal have led the way offensively for the Stags. Guerrera leads the team with 12 bombs, doubling up the next best total of six, shared by Ryan and Handal. Handal’s 55 hits set the high mark, earning him a .364 average.
The Pitching Plan
Smith has tabbed Tyler Thornton with the starting duties on Friday, a role he has settled into nicely over the course of the season.
Thornton will be coming off his worst outing of the year last Thursday against UCLA, in which he gave up six runs and didn’t get out of the third inning.
“With Tyler, he’s always progressing and trying to get better, and he’ll do that this week,” pitching coach Jason Kelly said. “His mindset is pretty competitive, when he has a bad outing he takes it personally, and this week I expect him to have a good outing. I think he’s going to step up for us.”
Win or lose, Smith will roll out Justin Fall for Saturday’s game two. Fall has taken the reigns of the Saturday duties during the latter half of the season.
His seven wins lead the club, and he is also responsible for ASU’s only complete game of the season. The junior southpaw has struck out 45 batters while walking 32, and has surrendered just three home runs.
“Fall’s stuff plays against anybody,” Kelly said. “He’s a 6-foot-6” lefty that throws in the mid 90’s. He’s very valuable.”
Hook ‘Em Hosts
Texas is a perennial power in college baseball. Much like ASU, the 2020 Longhorns were poised to make a deep postseason run before the season was abruptly canceled. This season, they’ve shown just why expectations remained sky high heading into 2021.
The three-headed monster of Ty Madden, Pete Hansen and Tristan Stevens has paced Texas on the mound. The trio of starters makes for a gaudy weekend 1-2-3 punch, which plays very well in a regional format if the Longhorns are to remain in the winner’s bracket.
As a team, Texas boasts a 2.95 ERA. Madden, Hansen and Stevens have accounted for 255 of the team’s 506 innings pitched, consistently going deep into games and allowing head coach David Pierce to use a talented bullpen both sparingly and effectively.
“The Texas guys are obviously good. They play in a big ballpark and that’s something they have always used to their advantage,” Kelly said. “As far as our guys, I think our arms can stack up with anyone. Starting pitching is going to be huge for us and every team this weekend.”
The Longhorns belted 59 homers this season, one more than an ASU team that considered its 58 to be a strength. Ivan Melendez launched 11 homers, anchoring a lineup that can hit for power and average from top to bottom.
Mitchell Daly, Zach Zubia and Cam Williams all hit north of .300 on the year, pacing an offense that hit .278 overall and slugged an impressive .445.
The big inning was a common and lethal weapon for the No. 2 national-seeded Longhorns, who fed off big rallies often put together early in games.
There’s no doubt this ASU ball club has grown up a lot this season. The team faced some growing pains early and often, but has largely proved it can hang with some of the country’s best teams.
“Postseason baseball is fun. We’re very excited for the opportunity in front of us,” Smith said. “It’s a new season, everybody’s 0-0 starting this weekend.”