TEMPE, Ariz. -- The announcement of sophomore Ryan Burr’s move from the bullpen to the opening weekend starting rotation came to some as a surprise and to others as a piece of great news. Arizona State’s starting rotation now features three sophomores each with enormous upsides that are primed to put a three-game stranglehold on the visiting Baylor Bears.
Lost in the excitement of the news was how the Sun Devils are going to fill the still-vacant closer spot. Burr logged 12 saves last season, a freshman school record. The new bullpen is young, as Burr was last season, but even amidst positional uncertainty, the relievers in this Arizona State bullpen could prove to be tough customers for opposing hitters.
Four of the six Sun Devils to make 10 or more appearances out of the bullpen last season returned for this season. Two of those four – Burr and fellow sophomore Brett Lilek – have moved to the weekend starting rotation. One of the remaining two, junior Darin Gillies, started all four years of high school, 10 games his freshman year and once last season as a sophomore.
Gillies threw all five innings in Thursday’s intrasquad scrimmage, which could mean he is preparing to start next Tuesday’s midweek game against New Mexico. The Lobos come to Tempe just two days after Arizona State’s opening weekend series against Baylor. The righthander made 27 relief appearances last season, but said his preparation does not change much based on his status as a starter or reliever.
“When it comes down to it, it’s just throwing strikes,” said Gillies. “Both jobs are really important. Whatever you’re called upon to do, you just have to go out and execute pitches. That’s all it comes down to.”
Should Gillies lock up the midweek starter job, Associate Head Coach and pitching coach Ken Knutson would have nine relievers in his bullpen. Of those remaining nine, five are freshman. But the word “freshman” only applies in terms of school; these top recruits are big, experienced arms that are ready to win a job or two from an upperclassman.
One of those freshmen, RHP Seth Martinez, was hailed as “the top arm in the state” last year, according to Knutson. Another, RHP Hever Bueno, was picked in the 17th round (524th overall) of the 2013 MLB Draft by the New York Yankees. Bueno, a Mesa native, has grown since then, and the 6’2” Westwood High grad’s fastball tops out in the low-to-mid 90s. Both are certainly in the running for the closer spot.
An invaluable member of the bullpen this season will be redshirt freshman LHP Nick Diamond.
“He’s our lefty that’s not looked at as a front end guy right now, and he can really spin it,” said Knutson. Diamond will undoubtedly be called on when a late-inning matchup is needed.
The Sun Devils’ most experienced bullpen pitcher is senior RHP Josh McAlister. He only saw action eight times in his first two years at Arizona State, but in 13 relief appearances last season, McAlister allowed just two runs and 15 hits in 20.1 innings and led the team with a 0.89 ERA. Batters hit .211 against McAlister last year.
The Sun Devils begin the season this Friday, Feb. 14 against Baylor at Packard Stadium.