TEMPE, Ariz.— Doubt never crept into the mind of head coach Willie Bloomquist about his team’s ability to play with the best. The former Sun Devil star expected to be coaching ASU in the postseason in his second year as head coach with 28 new players on the team.
Early on, Arizona State (32-23, 16-13 Pac-12) proved that it could compete with perennial powerhouses, take care of weaker opponents and possibly even host a regional for the first time since 2010.
But on Monday, the NCAA college baseball tournament selection show did not flash “Arizona St.” in a regional bracket as teams moved on to the postseason and Omaha dreams were kept alive for 64 teams.
The stride making season in Bloomquist’s second year came to a dramatic fall from grace, one that began in late April and carried into a nightmarish May. The Sun Devils had positioned themselves atop the Pac-12 conference, fending off the Stanford Cardinal for several weeks in April. The aura around Phoenix Municipal Stadium felt real. The Sun Devils played off the Muni magic for three months in the season, boasting an impressive 21-3 record at home midway through April.
After a statement series win against Oregon State at home, the belief of a postseason berth and a regional in Tempe’s backyard was at an all-time high. A midweek series split against Cal State Fullerton, a program with its own championship expectations, led to the toughest stretch for the Sun Devils yet.
A road series in Eugene, Or. against the eventual Pac-12 champions is what began the dreadful slide. Oregon scored a combined 27 runs in the first two games of the series, handing Arizona State its first conference loss of the year. The two straight losses revealed an ugly truth about the Sun Devil starting pitching staff that would remain visible for the remainder of the season. Shutdown innings after the Sun Devil bats’ scored became a rarity on the mound.
In fact, in the remaining 11 games of the Sun Devils season, the offense produced 28 scoring frames. Of those 28 scoring frames, only 15 were followed by a clean inning from an ASU pitcher. Arizona State struggled to keep momentum in their dugout as opponents responded with runs of their own the following half-inning.
The final game against the Ducks went the Devils way in a much needed 9-6 victory. With two losses against the Ducks, ASU surrendered its Pac-12 conference lead to Stanford.
The Stanford series was a hard pill to swallow for the Sun Devils who watched three straight late-inning efforts from the postseason savvy Cardinal team and washed away the Pac-12 no. 1 seed hopes.
The harsh reality was Stanford was a team full of experienced players, playing for an experienced coach who happened to plate a few runs late in all three games. That is the blueprint that Arizona State is hopeful to build, but it takes time. Make no mistake, ASU had chances to win any of those games against what would become the west coast’s only regional host school.
Three more losses meant Arizona State had now lost back to back Pac-12 series and six of their last seven. With teams scratching their way into the mix, the Sun Devils desperately needed wins to stay alive and finish what had been an accomplished season up until this point.
The USC series was the definitive blow.
After giving up more than six runs in each game in the last two series, the Sun Devil arms managed to give the sticks a chance. ASU pitchers didn’t allow more than six runs in any of the three games against the Trojans. Ironically, for an offense that led the charge for the Sun Devils all year, the bats vanished.
In three games in Los Angeles, Arizona State mustered only 10 hits total, the fewest in a series in the season by a wide margin. Two total runs came across for ASU in the series. Three straight losses pushed the losing streak to six games total, three straight conference series losses and now the fight to even make the Pac-12 tournament began as the Sun Devils plummeted to the fifth seed in the standings.
A hard fought series win against UCLA capped off a suddenly strenuous season. Winning the rubber match on the last day of the year may have brought some momentum to Bloomquist’s team, but a matchup against the streaking Arizona Wildcats was too much to handle.
The Sun Devils fell 12-3 in the opening game of the Pac-12 conference tournament in Scottsdale to the Wildcats. The significance of this loss wound up to be great.
Arizona State met with Oregon State once more in the second round. The offense woke up in the second round earning ASU a 14-10 win. However, because Washington beat USC, the Huskies advanced out of Pool C, leaving the Sun Devils with a 1-1 showing in the conference tournament.
With Arizona State’s season coming to a close, the hopes at claiming an at-large regional bid seemed possible. But as the weekend passed, teams from across the country claimed automatic bids by winning conference tournaments, teams that would not have been in conversation for at-large bids.
This meant that the Sun Devil’s chances became slim and rating percentage index (RPI) became a gigantic factor. The RPI system revealed ASU as a true bubble team close to the top 64 spots by multiple division I baseball outlets.
On Monday, it was rival Arizona that was selected to the Fayetteville regional which became the shocking dagger. The Wildcats, who lost six of their 10 Pac-12 series, including being swept in four of those, finished the year with a 12-18 conference record. The deep run and possibly the 12-3 victory over ASU threw the Wildcats into yet another regional appearance.
For Arizona State, a program looking to restore championship level play, some foundation was laid this year. Bloomquist recruited a top transfer class, led a brand new roster to a 32 win season, relied consistently on an inexperienced lineup littered with phenomenal freshmen and established a fighting culture.
Arizona State made significant progress towards reestablishing itself as a powerhouse. But the numbness felt at the end of the season can only be attributed to the shortcomings down the stretch for the Devils.