The Arizona State baseball team took the field at 6:26 p.m. before every evening home game this season.
For a moment, the clock on the center field scoreboard would flash from "6:26" to "6/26" — as in June 26, the first day that a team could wrap up a national championship.
"We had our thing where we’d take the field at 6:26 just as a reminder back home of where we were trying to get," ASU junior Erik Averill said after his team’s season ended three days shy of the mark with a 6-3 loss to Florida in the College World Series. "I’m pretty sure nobody (outside the program) knew about it, but it meant something to us."
If those outside the program had known of the gimmick, they might have scoffed. The Sun Devils looked like anything but one of the top eight baseball teams in the country when their record fell to 13-12 after being bludgeoned by Louisiana State by 17 runs on March 13.
But as the team’s inexperience — 17 of its 31 players had never played at ASU before this spring — faded against one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the nation, the season turned around. The Sun Devils finished tied for third in the Pac-10, rallied from a game down in a best-of-three super regional against nemesis Cal State Fullerton and won three straight elimination games in the College World Series to finish third in the nation.
The closer they got to June 26, the more the date’s significance registered.
"They didn’t know why we were flashing it," said ASU coach Pat Murphy, who came up with the idea with director of baseball operations Graham Rossini. "We had a dream, and I think the players started catching on. We were all eyeing the same thing."
Omaha will again be the target when the Sun Devils resume play next February, but there will be serious obstacles to overcome.
Seniors Tuffy Gosewisch, Jeff Larish and Joey Hooft and junior Travis Buck combined for 212 of ASU’s 429 RBIs this year, including 37 of the team’s 60 RBIs in the postseason.
The departing quartet also combined to hit 36 of the squad’s 50 home runs, including eight of its 11 homers in the tournament.
But the Sun Devils always find a way to score runs. It’s great pitching that has eluded Murphy.
ASU lost half of its twoman starting rotation when senior Jason Urquidez’s eligibility expired on Thursday.
And there’s a strong possibility the other half, Averill, a junior, could sign a professional contract.
But the seeds of another run to Omaha may have been sewn when Murphy held sophomore Zechry Zinicola, a first baseman and pitcher whom Murphy believes is loaded with potential, out of the three-game Tempe Regional to show Zinicola that "we can do this without him."
The message had an impact on Zinicola, who reported to the team overweight and is known as a free spirit.
In his last two appearances of the year, Zinicola threw 4 2/3 shutout innings of relief against Nebraska and Florida during which he struck out six and allowed just two men to reach base.
Zinicola said he is now committed to improving as a player. If he’s sincere about changing his ways, ASU could have its first overpowering Friday night starter in years.
Throw in Averill, who was a 20th-round pick of the Detroit Tigers, and any number of young arms now in the program or on their way in, and ASU could have one of the top pitching staffs in the Pac-10.
"Over the (last) summer I let myself go because I took things for granted," Zinicola said.
"I didn’t realize how big a stage I was on and how it could’ve affected (ASU’s College World Series loss). Maybe if I was in shape things would have gone different. It’s tough to swallow, and I think it’s going to change me a lot."