Sun Devils, with new coach, roll into College World Series
TEMPE, Ariz. – An awkward offseason coaching change and looming NCAA punishment did nothing to diminish the power of the Arizona State baseball program.
When the colorful, sometimes outrageous Pat Murphy was shown the door by athletic director Lisa Love, the job went to Tim Esmay, a former Sun Devils player and an assistant coach at Arizona State for the last nine years.
As unassuming as Murphy is outspoken, Esmay has the Sun Devils rolling into the College World Series for the 22nd time. With a gaudy 52-8 record, Arizona State is the tournament’s No. 1 seed, a team that won its first 24 games this season and is 5-0 in the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils will play Clemson in Omaha on Sunday.
Now Esmay is seeking to do something Murphy couldn’t accomplish in his 15 years at the school, win the College World Series.
“There’s something special to this group,” Esmay said, “and that’s what it’s been about. It’s about these kids and how they are relentless and how they prepare themselves and how they enjoy playing this game. They’ve made it really easy for me to show up every day.”
On April 18, Ike Davis made his major league debut for the New York Mets, becoming the 93rd former Arizona State player to make it to the big leagues. A year after pitching for ASU in the College World Series, Mike Leake is in the Cincinnati Reds’ rotation.
They join a list of major league ex-Sun Devils that includes Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, Rick Monday, Bob Horner, Sal Bando, Andre Ethier and Dustin Pedroia.
“There’s a solid foundation to this program, and that’s why this program will always be successful,” Esmay said, “because there is a base, and that base continues to be strong.”
Arizona State has won the College World Series five times, but the last was in 1981. Murphy’s team almost did it last year, losing to Texas in the play-in game for the final series.
This more mature, deeper team might do it, but historically being the No. 1 seed doesn’t mean much. The top-seeded team hasn’t won the title since Miami did it in 2001.
In many ways, this remains Murphy’s team. He recruited nearly all of the players, he groomed them for success. Fifteen are back from last year’s squad.
Arizona State swept the top Pac-10 honors with player of the year (Zach McPhee), pitcher of the year (Seth Blair) and coach of the year (Esmay).
Esmay and assistant coach Mike Benjamin, also a former major leaguer, made up the middle infield of the Arizona State team that made to the College World Series in 1985. Esmay, 45, was head coach at Utah from 1997-2004.
While a national search for Murphy’s replacement was launched, Esmay took the job an interim basis.
With the team 47-8 and the Pac-10 champion for the fourth straight year, Love could hardly avoid the fact that the right man for the job had been there all along. Two weeks ago she removed the “interim” from his title.
Murphy was terminated without cause last December following a two-year NCAA probe that found his program had committed ethical violations, largely stemming from hundreds of phone calls made in recruiting a player. The university has admitted to two violations, and sanctions could come later this summer.
Now a special assistant to the San Diego Padres, Murphy vehemently denies wrongdoing and points the blame at Love’s athletic department.
With that contentious backdrop, Esmay smoothly transferred the story back to the diamond.
“I think he deserves a lot of credit for it,” said senior third baseman Raoul Torrez, who will play in his third College World Series. “He just preaches staying within the team, staying within the team, and what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. I think there’s just a lot of trust in all the players and that’s what allows guys to pull together. … Everyone knows that we’re going to pull together. The teammate’s always got your back.”
Even though the team lost Leake and it’s No. 2 starter from a year ago, Australian lefty Josh Spence, who is out for the season with an elbow injury, the Sun Devils bring a deep pitching staff to Omaha.
Blair, 12-0 with a 3.35 ERA, is expected to start Sunday’s opener. Last Sunday, closer Jordan Swaggerty, 8-2 with a 2.06 ERA, blew a save by giving up a two-out, two-strike homer in the ninth. He pitched the next three scoreless innings in a 7-5 win, the second of two 12-inning super regional victories over Arkansas.
The second baseman McPhee brings a .394 average and a team-high 64 RBIs. Torrez’ brother Riccio is the first baseman and the team’s leading hitter with a .399 average. Then there is outfielder Kole Calhoun, who hit .563 in four games in Omaha last season, with 11 RBIs and three home runs – including a grand slam. He leads the team in homers this year with 17.
“We’ve got to be a tight-knit group because we’ve had a lot of things we went through that could have broke us apart,” Calhoun said. “But the locker room stayed intact and everyone stayed together. We all have one common goal, and we’re still going out to accomplish that.”