Over the last two years, the Arizona Wildcats baseball program has been relatively drama free. With the exception of a couple of mystery injuries to star players, there hasn’t been a lot of controversy or intrigue surrounding Jay Johnson’s squad.
The same can’t be said about the Arizona State Sun Devils, especially after the weekend they just endured.
It started with two ASU freshmen pitchers leaving the team because of their standing on the 27-man travel squad. Then things got real when Andrew Shaps, one of the team’s best players, tweeted out that he had been dismissed from the team by head coach Tracy Smith for “failing to buy into team culture”. Later that day, Ryan Lillard and former Wildcat Jackson Willeford chose to leave the team in response to Shaps’ dismissal.
Ryan Lillard, who chose to leave the ASU Baseball program yesterday, emailed me his statement. pic.twitter.com/CoxAzpEYZA— Jacob Janower (@JanowerJacob) May 7, 2017
“In a general sense, at this time of the year after finals, you cut the roster down on guys that aren’t traveling,” Smith said at a press conference following their loss on Saturday. “Also at that time you tell guys where they stand in their current situation and where they stand in the future....I don’t mean this in a terribly negative way but I’m tired of dealing with this. Our focus has to be moving forward but those things happen. You’re dealing with multiple personalities on a baseball team. We made a decision and we’re standing by it and we don’t wish any ill-will on any of the kids.”
Arizona’s head coach said he had not seen anything about ASU’s weekend other than that they had lost their game to Stanford on Saturday. The Wildcats did have some meetings of their own, but not to this extent.
“We communicated with our guys this week, and it was like a two minute, three minute shut-the-door, clear your mind out, and this is what you need to do to get better,” Johnson said. “So maybe they’re doing some of that.”
Despite the rivalry, Arizona first baseman JJ Matijevic is friends with these guys through summer ball and other events, and briefly spoke to one of them after all of this happened.
“I talked to Shaps,” Matijevic said. “Just said hang in there and stuff like that. I haven’t talked to Lillard, but I feel for them.”
“No idea,” added Matijevic about what he knows about the situation. “Just obviously that it’s not good.”
Add to this the fact that after ASU got trashed by Arizona 11-2 earlier in the year, Smith spent the better part of 20 minutes berating his team in the clubhouse before getting on the bus and going back to Tempe.
Johnson did take time to think about how he handles a program towards the end of the year and how he adjusts the travel roster.
“Each weekend presents different challenges, so our 27 is sometimes in flux,” Johnson explained. “We’ll look at what we’ll do with College of Charleston next weekend, but everybody just kind of does it different. For instance, if a team’s loaded with left-handed hitters, we may take an extra left-handed pitcher.”
ASU now has to travel to Tucson for the second and final time of the 2017 season, and with a current overall record of 20-24, are staring down their first losing season in 32 years, and only the second losing season in school history dating back to 1959. Their roster has also dropped to just 28 guys, so only one player will be left behind on Tuesday compared to the eight Arizona has to leave behind when it travels right now.
“When I took the job, I said 2017 is going to be the year when we thought a dip might happen,” Smith said. “But if you make an extra pitch here or we’re not replacing a pitching coach in the middle of the season, maybe we win a few more games. I have to own that and take that as my responsibility.”
That dismissed pitching coach, Brandon Higelin, is now at Arizona as the Director of Player Development.
Any way you cut it, ASU is coming to Tucson with a lot on the line, and a lot of soul-searching being done before they travel to Seattle this coming weekend to take on a Washington team that just endured a sweep at the hands of the Wildcats.
This is going to be one where Arizona gets another easy win over the in-state rivals, or ASU is going to pull one out of their hats because baseball.
First pitch is scheduled for 6 PM PT, and the game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks.