TEMP, Ariz. – The No. 8 Oklahoma State Cowboys head west for a pivotal opening weekend battle with the No. 14 ranked Arizona State Sun Devils. The Devils host this series as both squads look to erase disappointing ousters from the 2014 NCAA tournament with hopes alive for a better outcome in 2015.
Arizona State closed out 2014 by dropping two straight games in the San Luis Obispo Regional while the Cowboys were eliminated 0-2 as a Super Regional host by the UC Irvine Anteaters. Yet, as the new seasons begins both teams find themselves highly touted in national polls in spite of losing productivity in key spots.
The Devils experienced the biggest change as a new captain will be at the helm this season with two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year Tracy Smith taking over with an eye toward taking another team to Omaha. Smith replaces former head coach Tim Esmay who resigned after the 2014 campaign.
The Cowboys are facing plenty of changes of their own on the field with four everyday position players and two key pitchers from 2014 moving on.
Both schools competed in the post-season in 2014 with top 50 RPIs with Oklahoma State at 19 with the No. 45 ranked strength of schedule while Arizona State checked in at a 45 RPI and a No. 34 strength of schedule. Neither team lost enough to fall out of contention for the 2015 campaign. One could argue the Devils have the potential to push much higher as the season goes on if the team responds well to Smith.
Arizona State opens the season with an expected No. 7 ranked strength of schedule (No. 12 out of conference) while the Cowboys sit at No. 20 due to their No. 54 out of conference slate.
While the Devils have series upcoming against the No. 3 Texas Christian Horned Frogs and the Long Beach State 49ers, Oklahoma State competes in the Big 12/Pac 12 Challenge next weekend and faces Oregon State but will not face any projected high RPI teams until conference play making this an RPI necessary series for the Cowboys’.
Will Power Matter?
Oklahoma State had one of the nations’ most prolific offenses last season but lost the power bats of Zach Fish and Tanner Krietemeier who combined for 21 homers and 100 RBI. Junior Conor Costello (.240 AVG, 9 HR, 27 RBI) has the responsibility of filling the power void in the lineup but should find plenty of help in the plus .400 slugging percentage duo of senior Gage Green (.423 SLG, 3 HR, 30 RBI) and junior Donnie Walton (.405 SLG, 3 HR 36 RBI) who each also garnered more than 100 total bases. Green is also a threat on the base paths with 22 steals last season along with senior Tim Arakawa who stole 15 while jacking four homers.
The Sun Devils struggled offensively last season but do return the team’s leading home run man in redshirt senior Trever Allen who hit five homers and three triples. Junior RJ Ybarra hopes to build on his four homer, 47 RBI season to help Arizona State’s offense get on track. Scoring opportunities will depend on Johnny Sewald’s (Jr.) ability to make things happen by getting on base and advancing after finishing 2014 with a .428 OBP and 16 steals.
Kings Of The Hill
Led by their junior southpaw aces, Arizona State will boast of one of the nation’s best pitching staffs. Brett Lilek held opponents to a .203 OBA with a 2.68 ERA in 2014 with 79 strikeouts to 39 walks while Ryan Kellogg posted a 3.76 ERA with a .297 OBA and 66 strikeouts against just 22 walks. Junior righty Ryan Burr (12 SV, 3.07 ERA, 56 K, 38 BB, .149 OBA) has the ability to make games an inning or two shorter which may help relieve some of the offensive pressure.
The Cowboy’s must quickly adapt to losing Vince Wheeland and Brendan McCurry from their staff which will be led by senior right-hander Jon Perrin who posted a 2.38 ERA with 81 strikeouts, 29 walk and a .249 OBA. Yet, the question will be whether the remaining staff can step up. Oklahoma State will rely on a pair of Tylers in Nurdin (Sr., LHP) and Buffett (So., RHP) to solidify the weekend rotation with sophomore Trey Cobb (RHP) closing things out on the back end.
The Cowboys have a lot more to lose in this early set with the Sun Devils and will be counting on their run-producing prowess against one of the top staffs in the country. This matchup of Top 25 opponents should give fans a glimpse of the intensity normally reserved for post-season play and may also portend to how well the west coast teams will perform against eastern competition in 2015.