TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was with more bounce in his step and a wider smile on his face that Arizona State right-handed staff ace Trevor Williams began his junior year as a team leader for head coach Tim Esmay at Arizona State University.
With the 2013 season under way, the Sun Devils are relevant again. They went into their three-game Pacific-12 Conference season-opening series against Washington State last Friday with an 11-2 record and winners of nine straight non-conference games while holding down the No. 13 spot in Perfect Game's National College Top 25 Rankings.
Arizona State can now officially be a player in the Pac-12 again, which is saying something. The league has six teams ranked in PG's Top 25, including No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Oregon State. And, don't forget, No. 23 Arizona is the reigning NCAA Division I National Champion.
No one is happier about the change in ASU's status than Williams, a 6-foot-3, 228-pound, strike-throwing machine out of San Diego's Rancho Bernardo High School whose first two years on the ASU campus required equal parts patience and perseverance.
"It's really different from last year because last year we had that whole (postseason) ban over our heads and it was tough to get on a roll," Williams told Perfect Game last week. "This year we have a bunch of great young guys that have bought into our program and bought into the Sun Devil way."
The 2011 and 2012 seasons weren't necessarily unsuccessful in terms of wins and losses, but they were precarious. The NCAA started investigating the program for improprieties during the tenure of former coach Pat Murphy in 2009. While Esmay guided the program to the College World Series in 2010 and back to an NCAA Regional in 2011, the program was waiting for the shoe to drop.
The mighty NCAA finally decided to slap ASU with a one-year postseason ban in 2012, a penalty that also kept the Sun Devils from playing in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament. It also forced the program to vacate 44 wins, the Pac-10 title and the CWS appearance from the 2007 season.
“Obviously we are disappointed that we will not be able to participate in the postseason in 2012,” Esmay said in a statement when the sanctions were announced in November of 2011. “The goals for this program will not and have not changed. We will take the same approach towards every practice and every game, non-conference and Pac-12, that we have always taken. Our goal to be the best team in the Pac-12 remains our focus.”
That remains the goal, and this year -- with a huge boost from a natural-born leader like Williams -- the Sun Devils are set to make it happen.
"I think we've been overlooked by a lot of teams and we'll just come out swinging and put runs up on the board," Williams said. "Our freshmen pitchers have really stepped up to the plate to shut teams down and they're just fearless; they're fearless freshmen."
Those "fearless" frosh include left-handed starter Ryan Kellogg, right-handed closer Ryan Burr and left-handed set-up man Brett Lilek. But it's Williams who is at the front of the rotation.
He has stepped into role of the Friday night starter (i.e. staff ace) and has embraced the responsibility that goes with it. In four non-conference starts before pitching the Sun Devils' Pac-12 opener against Washington State last Friday night at Packard Stadium, he was 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA, two complete games including a complete-game shutout, and 26 strikeouts and only four walks in 30 innings.
(Note: Williams got knocked around pretty good in his start against Washington State Friday night. He gave up 13 hits and nine runs -- seven earned -- in seven innings of work and saw his record drop to 3-1 and his ERA climb to 2.43).
Williams spent his previous two seasons in Tempe watching right-hander Brady Rogers fill the role of the Friday night go-to guy. Rogers was a third-round pick of the Houston Astros in the 2012 draft and spent last season pitching for Tri-City in the low-Class A New York-Penn League.
"I've been watching Brady do it for the last two years and I know when he went out there on the first night (of a three-game series) he set the tone for the rest of the weekend," Williams said. "So I knew that responsibility was being entrusted to me and I know I have to come out and throw great games to get ASU off on the right foot for the weekend."
Williams appeared in a team-high 32 games as a freshman in 2011, and picked up a win and a save in 32 2/3 innings, with a 2.50 ERA and 35 strikeouts and six walks. He was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball magazine and was honorable mention all-Pac-10. But the role of an eighth-inning set-up man wasn't what he envisioned when he first arrived in Tempe.
"I came in expecting to start but then I got on campus and I saw the juniors and the men around me and I was still a little boy at 18 -- these guys were big and these guys were good," Williams said, laughing at the memory. "It was an adjustment, but Coach Esmay told me, 'Look, you're going to be our eighth-inning guy this year and if you want to pout about it then pout about it, but if not, you know your role and do what's asked of you.'
"It was good for me because I had never experienced that reliever role and towards the end of the year I started loving it."
Burr, the right-handed freshman out of Highlands Ranch (Colo.) High School, is going through the same adjustment this year. An accomplished starter as a prep, Burr accepted the closers' role early this season and recorded two saves and a 0.75 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 12 innings over his first five appearances.
"I told him, I said, 'Hey look, Ryan, you are going to love closing," Williams said. "And he loves it right now and he just soaks it in."
Williams went into his sophomore season in 2012 fully expecting to be the Sun Devils' closer, but about three weeks before the season started Esmay told him he would be a starter. His duties began as the Sunday starter (No. 3) but he eventually moved into the Saturday slot (No. 2) with Rogers still holding down Friday's staff ace position.
The return to starter could have hardly gone better for Williams -- he finished 12-2 with a 2.05 ERA in 109 2/3 innings. He walked only 13 batters all season and his 1.07 walks per nine innings ranked 10th in all of Division I. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 Conference selection and was a Collegiate Baseball Louisville Slugger second-team All-American.
Williams had begun to realize the potential first projected when he participated in 11 Perfect Game events between 2007 and 2009. He was at the 2009 Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and played with the ABD Bulldogs in both the 2009 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., and the 2009 PG WWBA 17u and 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., getting exposure in front of hundreds of scouts and college coaches at all of those events.
"The Metrodome was something special because you got to play on a big-league field, and that was kind of cool," he said. "And then playing with ABD in Jupiter and in Georgia, it was just something special. Since I was on a team with so many great players I can go everywhere in the (Pac-12) and know somebody that I played with in those Perfect Game events."
Williams remembers fondly his association with ABD founder Mike Spiers, who passed away in January.
"He would put up our lineup card and then kind of just wander," Williams recalled. "He would come and talk to us after the game and prep us on how to talk to college coaches and how to talk to pro scouts. It was awesome and he was a great man, and it was sad to see him pass away this year."
PG ranked Williams the No. 310 national prospect in the class of 2010, but while Esmay eagerly recruited him to come to ASU, the professional community needed more convincing. Williams went undrafted out of high school, and he's tried to use that snub as motivation.
"I was expecting to get drafted," he said flatly. "I was expecting to get drafted, and once the third day rolled around I just wanted some self-esteem points. But I think the best thing that happened to me was not getting drafted because once that happened I knew I had three years to prove myself to those teams that they made a mistake by not drafting me.
"It showed me that I still had a lot of work to do and it's been the greatest thing ever to come to ASU. I've grown so much here as a person and as a baseball player, and it's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
The three years in Tempe have certainly done wonders for his draft standing. PG ranks Williams as the No. 31 overall prospect in June's MLB First-Year Player Draft, which translates into a late first-round selection.
"God has done great things in my life these past three years to shape his plan for me, I guess you could say," he said. "It's a great opportunity for me and my family, and whatever happens in the draft happens. It's honestly just a snapshot in my baseball career because I'm not working for the draft -- I'm working to be on a World Series team and in the Hall of Fame. That's the final goal; one draft day isn't going to define me as a baseball player."
There is so much more work to be done and so much more to accomplish the rest of the spring before Williams will allow himself to zero in on the draft. Arizona State baseball is relevant again and the Sun Devils fully expect to be playing in the postseason well into the month of June.
"This year is going to be a big year for all the juniors," Williams said. "We went through our freshmen years thinking maybe we might go to the (postseason) and maybe we might not, and last year knowing that we couldn't go. This year there's a different atmosphere around our clubhouse knowing that we have something to fight for. All summer we knew that it was going to be a big year and we drilled it into our freshmen's heads that we have something special this year and let's make the best of it."