ASU’s Torkelson, Cal’s Vaughn already connected before home run race
PHOENIX — With just three games remaining in their seasons, Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson and California first baseman Andrew Vaughn were brought into a three-way group chat with their hitting coach from Northern California.
“Well, this doesn’t suck,” Torkelson recalled the text saying.
While standing in foul territory along the first-base line of Phoenix Municipal Stadium Tuesday, he agreed.
Vaughn and Torkelson, who went to high school a mere 23 miles apart, have been in an old-fashioned home run battle this season. It doesn’t have the Mantle-Maris or Sosa-McGwire hype engulfing it, but the pair has hung together, neck-in-neck, dueling for the better longball total.
Neither led the other by more than a single home run throughout all five 10-game splits this season. And after blowing past the rest of the competition, the two have flip-flopped for the NCAA home run title for the majority of the last two months.
Last week, though, Torkelson was able to carry the Hi Corbett Field fence in all three of the Sun Devils’ games against Arizona while Vaughn only managed one home run in Cal’s three-game series against Creighton.
After the 6-foot-1, 205-pound freshman’s impressive performance in Tucson, Torkelson improved his total to 25 — two more than Vaughn’s 23 and within striking distance of a pair of notable records.
With a trio of games remaining, the Sun Devil first baseman is just one long ball away from tying the all-time NCAA freshman single-season home run record and just a pair away from tying Mitch Jones’ school record of 27 set in 2000.
“He’ll text me and be like, ‘slow down,’ but I don’t want to slow down,” Torkelson said of Vaughn. “It’s a lot of fun. It doesn’t feel like a competition. It’s just a game.”
After Torkelson’s hot start to the season, most were eying Barry Bonds’ ASU freshman home-run record of 11 as a milestone that Torkelson may have been able to surpass. He did that in 25 games.
Torkelson said that he tries not to think about the records because “when you start thinking about it … (you) put a lot of pressure on yourself.”
Torkelson said he realized he was in a home-run race four weeks ago.
“I think he looks every single day,” ASU outfielder Hunter Bishop said jokingly. “He knows just through the league and Twitter and stuff like that, it’s hard not to see it. It’s obviously available to him but he’s not even worried about it.”
Although daunting, Vaughn still has a chance to catch Torkelson for the single-season lead, and in a home-run race that has shifted as much as this one, it almost seems fitting that both players will be able to go shot-for-shot in front of each other, something the pair has done nearly their entire lives, as Cal heads to Tempe for its final three games.
Thursday will mark the third different level in which Torkelson and Vaughn have met. The two battled it out against each other eight times in high school and even a few in little league, the Sun Devil freshman said.
Torkelson said Vaughn, who was not available for an interview, “dropped bombs in little league.”
During their prep career, Torkelson’s Casa Grande High School and Vaughn’s Maria Carrillo High School met two or three times every season and while Torkelson said the two schools aren’t rivals, they were normally the top two teams in the league.
“Every game against them was a big deal to us,” he said.
Vaughn’s team got the better Torkelson five out of the eight times they faced off but the game plan against both seems evident when looking at the box score.
In their matchups, the two were walked a combined eight times and hit an additional five times, a tactic that Torkelson defended by saying: “You definitely want to pitch around him with guys in scoring position because he’s dangerous.”
Vaughn was indeed dangerous, but he only hit one home — a shot against Torkelson’s Casa Grande team in 2016 run — in his four years at Maria Carrillo. Torkelson bested that mark by 10 but didn’t quite provide the glimpse into this season’s power surge.
ASU coach Tracy Smith, who noted on Tuesday that the Devils did not recruit Vaughn, gave the understatement of the century by saying both have “blossomed in college.”
Smith, like just about every other college baseball coach, understands the development players can gain through college coaching and practices. But, according to him, that starts with a mindset.
“No one stays the same — you get better or you get worse. And what you find oftentimes — and this is the trick of our trade — if they’re not successful, they’re probably not ending up here anyway,” Smith said. “So it’s which ones understand that you still have things to work on in your game or which ones say, ‘You know what, I’ve got it all figured out coach. Leave me alone.’ ”
Both Vaughn and Torkelson have taken the former approach and now, nearing the end of a remarkable home-run battle, are connected.
Torkelson said he’s followed the Golden Bears first baseman career closely, attending Cal’s three-game series with ASU last season in which Vaughn went 6 for 9 with a home run. Now though, Torkelson is on the same level as the guy he says was always the best player on the field in high school.
Aside from going to a couple hitting sessions together when the season is over, according to Torkelson, the pair will both play on the Team USA Collegiate National Team, an honor Vaughn also garnered last year.
“It’s really special for the both of us to represent our community like that. We’re going to make the most of it,” Torkelson said.
From the little league fields of Northern California to high school rubber matches that decide league titles, Vaughn and Torkelson’s home run race has proved to be the connecting point on the pair’s journey to unforeseen accomplishments.
“‘The journey,’” Torkelson said. “That’s a good way to put it.”
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