ASU baseball still among best after major losses

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State tied for third at last year's College World Series, then the Sun Devils had their successful and longtime coach resign amid alleged NCAA violations.

Their ace went to the major leagues and their best two hitters turned pro early. And their top returning pitcher has been out all season with an injury.

That leads to a down year at most schools, but not so for Arizona State.

The Sun Devils won a program-record 24 consecutive games to start the season. They are 45-7 and, as they head into the final weekend of the regular season, are on the verge of a fourth straight Pac-10 title.

The team does not feel any sense of surprise or satisfaction.

"It seems like every year something happens and there's something going on with someone and we win," third baseman Raoul Torrez said. "I wouldn't have been surprised if you would have told us (before the season) that we'd be where we are today. I just think that's how good our program really is."

Arizona State has long been one of the top baseball schools in the country because of its ability to reload talent more frequently than it rebuilds.

"This is not what would be considered an unusual year for Arizona State," said interim coach Tim Esmay, a former Sun Devils assistant and player.

ASU has won at least 40 games each of the past four years and 31 times overall. It has been to the College World Series 21 times and a trip this year would be its fourth since 2005.

With such a successful past, there is a strong feeling around Packard Stadium that the Sun Devils are playing up to their usual standards.

"This year has gone exactly how we expected it to," pitcher Seth Blair said.

On the field at least.

The potential for a major distraction boiled up in November when coach Pat Murphy abruptly resigned after 15 years. He stepped down after the university received a notice from the NCAA for a "lack of institutional control" of the baseball program.

In April, the school self-imposed sanctions for NCAA violations including approximately 500 impermissible telephone calls by the baseball coaching staff and the recruitment of a prospective student-athlete by an impermissible recruiter. An NCAA investigation is ongoing.

For the players who had all come to ASU to play for Murphy "it was just a terrible time," Torrez said.

But the news broke just before Thanksgiving and the players took advantage of the chance to get away for the holiday break.

"I think it kind of actually worked out because guys were able to go home to their families and kind of just get away from the whole situation," Torrez said. "There was a lot of stuff going on here. There was a wide range of emotions."

Over the following weeks, the team grew closer while coping with the change, Torrez said, and soon turned its attention to how to follow up last year's 51-13 mark.

"A lot of the older guys, we were just concerned with everyone realizing whatever happens we're going to move forward and we're going to have another great season just like we did," said Torrez, one of the team's four seniors.

The promotion of Esmay, who had been an assistant the past five years, helped ease a lot of concerns as well.

"He's a very positive coach," Blair said. "He gets on you when he has to, but the way he's handled things throughout this whole transition has been spectacular."

Esmay hasn't been able to lean on Mike Leake to anchor the pitching staff — he's now with the Cincinnati Reds — or Josh Spence, who has been out with an elbow injury after going 10-1 with a 2.37 ERA last year.

There's also no Jason Kipnis or Carlos Ramirez (35 home runs, 146 RBIs combined in '09) to power the offense, but Esmay has plenty of other talent to work with.

None of his top three starters, Blair (10-0), Merrill Kelly (9-1) and Jake Borup (10-1), have more than one loss and the staff ERA is 3.18. Esmay also has a shutdown closer in Jordan Swagerty, who recently matched the school record with his 12th save of the year.

Seven players are hitting .350 or better, and ASU is averaging 8.8 runs.

The Sun Devils have yet to lose consecutive games and have dropped only one series.

"We've had a good year up to now, but the main focus of this team and this program is to win a national championship," Blair said. "Anything short of that, we're not meeting our goals."

But it's been an enjoyable ride so far.

"This season's been unpredictable from the beginning of the year," Torrez said. "But just pure fun. We're having a good time no matter what."