Arizona State baseball may have finally found its closer in RJ Dabovich
TEMPE, Ariz. — Consistent production on the mound has been hard to find in the last four seasons of Arizona State baseball coach Tracy Smith’s tenure. Outside of 2019 second-round pick Alec Marsh, the high-end arms just haven’t been there consistently.
As the 2020 season draws closer and expectations rise for a team stocked with highly ranked recruits, Smith might finally have that guy he can rely on to close out the ninth inning: junior right-hander R.J. Dabovich.
“He has one of the better arms in the country,” Smith said. “We are six to eight games better last year if we close those (games) out.”
Pitching coach Jason Kelly agreed emphatically.
“It changes everything,” Kelly said. “On all the good teams I’ve been a part of, we’ve had someone back there that we could rely on, sometimes for six outs. It shortens the game, especially when you look down there and there is stuff like he has.
“It’s not just a closer with a good reputation. You’re talking about 95-98 (miles per hour) with a big-league repertoire.”
The inability to close out games torched the Sun Devils down the stretch of the 2019 season, including a blown 10-2 lead against Southern Mississippi in the Baton Rouge Regional that knocked ASU out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament and left a lasting sting up and down the ASU roster.
The thin pitching staff, worn down by injuries and fatigue as the season progressed, had no defined closer. Dabovich, who started just one day prior in an elimination game win against Stony Brook, could only watch from the bench.
The junior college transfer began his first season in Tempe in the starting rotation, toeing the rubber every Sunday. He struggled with command and missing bats as conference play rolled around, but it was an arm injury that eventually sidelined him for three weeks after getting pulled from a game at USC on April 7, where he lasted just 2.1 innings.
Three weeks later in Seattle, Dabovich returned, but in a different role. With his team clinging to a 9-6 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning after already dropping the first two games of a series with Washington, Smith called on his hard-throwing right-hander out of the bullpen to face the toughest hitter in the Husky lineup, junior catcher Nick Kahle, who had walked off the Sun Devils the previous afternoon.
Dabovich got Khale to pop up on the infield to get out of the jam. After the Sun Devils added two more runs in the top of the ninth inning, Dabovich came back out and struck out the side, swinging to salvage a game in the series for ASU.
It was a sign of things to come for Smith and Kelly, who watched from the Washington dugout (Kelly was the pitching coach at Washington from 2013-2019).
Dabovich, who mixes in a changeup, curveball and slider with his fastball that tops out at 98 mph, is ready to take on whatever role the coaching staff gives him.
“I love to live under the pressure, these situations (where) the game’s on the line,” he said. “You know, one out, two outs, whatever bit, bases loaded, whatever happens you have a lot of pressure on you, all eyes on you so it’s like just a different animal and different atmosphere around it. It’s definitely exciting, builds a lot of pressure on you.”
Dabovich followed up his shutout relief appearance with six more outings out of the bullpen as the season wound down, before getting the start in the regional against Stony Brook.
Dabovich came out of the bullpen before arriving in Tempe, as a junior at Pueblo West High School in Colorado — recording a minuscule 0.27 ERA in the process — and a couple of times at Central Arizona Community College the year before he came to ASU.
“When you have a guy like that — the stuff that he has, he now has — as opposed to impacting one game a weekend (or week), he now has the ability to impact three (games),” Smith said. “It’s good to see because he doesn’t have to conserve. He can just let it out.”
Dabovich did some of the same work during the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons. He pitched for the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod Baseball League, widely regarded as the best summer collegiate league in the country. While on the Cape pitching under Chatham coach Tom Holiday, Dabovich worked exclusively in two- to four-inning stints, allowing the Colorado native to dial it in for shorter periods of time.
“Having shorter stints kind of, you know, builds me into this role as well,” he said. “I think (it) helped a lot in my transition early on this year.”
The short stints led to a ton of summer success for Dabovich: seven appearances, a 3.31 ERA in 19 innings and 29 strikeouts to just five walks — a big number for someone who struggled with walks through his spring campaign (26 in 53 innings).
Kelly stepped onto campus looking to revive the pitching staff that had finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 three years running (4.93 ERA in 2019; 4.72 in 2018; 5.54 in 2017) and was impressed with what he saw in Dabovich.
“He has been incredible,” Kelly said. “There was always talent, there was always velocity, there was always a repertoire. It was just more (about) consistency. I know he finished really good last year and he pitched really well in the Cape, so I think confidence has been great for him.
“He feels really good about what he can do. There’s a lot of pressure on him to be good and he’s been nothing but great.”
When the Sun Devils last reached Omaha in 2010, they relied on the right arm of All-American closer Jordan Swagerty, who compiled a school-record 14 saves that year. If the ASU is to get back to the College World Series for the first time in a decade, they will likely need a guy like Dabovich to get there.