PHOENIX — With all the commotion surrounding Arizona State’s baseball season, the story of the players who remained with the team fell through the cracks.
“Around halfway through, we kind of noticed that we weren’t bouncing back,” starting pitcher Eli Lingos said. “We looked pretty good at the start of the year and slowly as the year went on, we never improved.”
The Sun Devils ended 2017 with a 23-32 record. For the first time in 54 years, the program failed to reach the 30-win mark, ending the longest streak in the nation. It was also the first time since 1985 it had a losing season and the first since 1999 it missed the postseason.
During coach Tracy Smith’s tenure, ASU baseball has had success at the start of the schedule against non-conference teams (10-5 in 2015, 13-3 in 2016 and 9-6 in 2017). Its performance against Pac-12 opponents, however, slipped (18-12 in 2015, 16-14 in 2016 and 8-22 in 2017).
With the Sun Devils not finding the same success they had in the past, a question was asked: Was there a particular moment that derailed the season?
After being swept by Arizona in the last home series of the year, Smith was asked about the team’s visit to the Dominican Republic .
The trip gave Smith an opportunity to evaluate his team. In hindsight, he said he would now wait to take the trip at a later date. What he had hoped would be a team-building experience was not, and for some of those who left during the season, Smith called it a lack of “buy-in.”
ASU senior pitcher Eder Erives saw the trip from a different perspective.
“There was other issues, which I would like to keep within the team,” he said. “The Dominican had nothing to do with ‘buying in’ or not, that was just a team-bonding experience. It was to play more baseball games.”
In order to reach the College World Series, the team needed to focus on the “smaller pictures,” he said.
“It all breaks down to the little things. At some points during the season, we did not execute well and that cost us the bigger picture.”
An issue that was reported throughout the season was the departure of seven ASU baseball players.
Before the year even started, outfielder Daniel Williams was dismissed from the team. Additionally, Sebastian Zawada left midseason to pursue independent baseball.
Then the floodgates opened. In the span of two days, five players left during the Stanford series. Pitchers Chris Isbell and Zach Dixon quit because they were told they would have a limited role going into next season.
Senior infielder Jackson Willeford ended his college baseball career due to injury.
Lastly and most controversial were the dismissals of Ryan Lillard and Andrew Shaps. While
Lillard left the team on his own accord, Shaps was dismissed from the team, and
in a tweet said it was due to “failing to buy into team culture.”
Erives explained that after logging extra innings and at-bats in the Dominican Republic, he felt the Sun Devils were a complete team with the goal of making it to the College World Series.
“It was a bit frustrating that we kept losing,” Erives said. “We never gave up. We wanted to keep going and try to turn this season around. We just felt like we never got to that point where we could turn our season around. “
As the season progressed, failing to reach 30 wins started to weigh a bit on the team’s psyche.
“It’s something you think about. You feel that pressure a little bit,” Lingos said. “And as the season went on, it started getting closer and closer and we started to have to accept the fact and we started trying to win games for us and not so much for that.”
For Eder, the past success he had with the team made this season a little more difficult compared to his teammates.
“Being a senior here in the program, I’ve been here for three years and we’ve always gotten to the NCAA Tournament and we’ve gone through 30 season wins,” Erives said. “Personally, I can say that every loss it was just like, ‘Wow, we need to get to at least the 30 wins and make the tournament.’ Not that I would focus on it every day but it was in the back of my head.”
Moreover, Erives thought that some of the younger players on the team did not understand the historical impact this season would have on the program.
“We’re a part of it too. We’re creating history as well. And I feel like some understood and some were just playing baseball and wanting to win,” he said. “I mean that’s what you want to do, you play to win, but I feel like some didn’t understand until the end of the season.”
Regardless of the trip, the frustrations and the looming implications of a losing season, Smith kept telling his players to “move forward.”
“We would talk about it. We knew that all we could do is keep playing. At that point, you just got to do the best you can,” ASU outfielder Gage Canning said.
“You have a tough loss and you forget it and you try to bounce back next weekend,” Lingos added.
“He talked about it a lot in that we need to focus one game at a time. If one game is bad, it shouldn’t affect how we play in the next game.”
Throughout the season, ASU players tried to find the right balance.
“We would just keep practicing hard and hope that things would turn around into a positive direction,” Erives said. “We would be serious when it needed to be serious and loose when it needed to be loose.”
An example of this balance came during the middle of the season when ASU baseball started an “energy circle” to pump each other up before games. In addition to the circle, the players had a prop: a giant fork which was a decoration from the team’s kitchen.
These moments took place on the field. As students, hanging out off the field was also valuable in keeping the team loose.
“Meeting as a team outside of practice and games, I think that’s pretty important too, just talking to your team to see how everyone is doing was a really big part of this season,” Canning said.
Meeting off the field became more frequent than in the past.
“We would go out and have a swimming day or go golfing,” Erives said. “But it wasn’t so much of ‘oh, we have a meeting’ or ‘everyone needs to be here.’ It was usually a couple of guys at a time, but sometimes we got lucky and got the whole team together. It was more of a conversation like, ‘How’s your day going?’ or ‘How’re you doing?’ It wasn’t so much about baseball.”
Finally, with such a rich baseball history, the players also received words of wisdom from ASU baseball alumni, most notably Barry Bonds. “They came and it’s just like ‘Hey guys, this is what it means to be a Sun Devil, this is the way we took care of things,’ and things that they did back then that might have helped us this year. Trying to keep the spirits high,” Erives said.
Positives did come out of the season. Early on, Smith’s squad was able to pull out a victory over Texas Christian in Fort Worth. Additionally, the Sun Devils swept Long Beach State at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Both teams are now in the Super Regionals.
As for individuals, Gage Canning picked up First Team All-Conference honors. Additionally, freshmen Lyle Lin and Hunter Bishop and senior Zach Cerbo were honorable mentions among the All-Conference honorees.
Cerbo was also named to the All-Academic team.
In order for ASU baseball to right the ship for next season, pitching and defense will be a priority. The Sun Devils ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in both team ERA (5.54) and errors (63). Erives believes the talent is already there.
“We have the arms, we have the bats, we have the defense. It was just putting it all together at one time and having consistency with it.”
For those unsure about the status of Smith, ASU Vice President Ray Anderson already said he “unequivocally” supports him and understands that “tough spots” will occur during his tenure.
For this historic baseball program, the goal will always be reaching 30 wins and securing a postseason appearance, no matter who the players or coaches are. It will be Smith’s job to start a new streak and to get the Sun Devils back to the postseason.
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