College : : Story
Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sweet swinging soph lifts ASU

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Arizona State

TEMPE, Ariz. – As one of the most veteran Perfect Game performers from Southern California over a four-year stretch from 2008 through 2011, Arizona State catcher and designated hitter Ruben “R.J.” Ybarra knows the ins and outs of life on the PG circuit.

A 5-foot-10, 229-pound hitting machine for the Sun Devils who was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball in 2013, Ybarra participated in 22 PG tournaments and showcases while attending Riverside (Calif.) Polytechnic High School.

That might be some kind of record for a So Cal kid as PG just began to make appreciable inroads into Southern California in the last decade or so. Ybarra was at PG events from coast-to-coast after making his PG debut at the 2008 West Freshman Top Prospect Showcase on the campus of Southern Cal in Los Angeles.

His final PG event was playing with the Marlins Scout Team/Storm at the 2012 18u BCS Finals in Fort Myers, Fla. In between were stops at 11 PG WWBA tournaments – usually with the ABD Bulldogs while playing for the late Mike Spiers – and no fewer than nine showcase events. He was a 2012 PG Rawlings Second Team All-American and ranked as the No. 112 prospect in the class of 2012 when he graduated.

The nine showcase appearances stand out. Ybarra was at the West Coast Top Prospect and California Top Prospect showcases several times, with the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., as the crowning jewel.

“I found (the showcases) real beneficial because I was able to go out and compete against the best guys in the country,” Ybarra said during a conversation with PG before the Sun Devils were to play Wichita State in the first of two-game set Tuesday and Wednesday at Packard Stadium.

“I faced good pitching and I got to know a lot of these guys that are playing pro ball or college baseball now,” he continued. “It’s nice to see these guys again. You played with them for one weekend … but there have already been times in college so far in my year-and-a-half now, that we’ve played other teams and I’ve recognized guys on that team; there are a couple of guys that I met through Perfect Game that I now play with.”

Once a prospect reaches college, the world does seem to shrink as far as personal relationships – thanks to PG, these guys all know each other. At least three of Ybarra’s ASU teammates – left-hander Brett Lilek, infielder Dalton Dinatale and right-hander Ryan Burr – were with Ybarra at the 2011 PG National Showcase in Fort Myers.

They’re now soldiers in arms, teaming up in an effort to return the Sun Devils to a top spot in the rugged Pacific-12 standings while also seeking a second straight berth to an NCAA Division I Regional tournament. ASU finished 37-22-1 in 2013 (fourth in the Pac-12 at 16-4) and the freshman Ybarra played a big role in that success.

He appeared in 37 games a season ago with 26 starts, including 21 as the designated hitter and five as the Devils’ catcher. His work at the plate was impressive, hitting .313 (35-for-112), with seven doubles, five home runs, 22 RBI with a 509 slugging and .369 on-base percentages.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” Ybarra said of his short time in Tempe. “I’ve been very fortunate to come in and play a lot as a freshman and then be an every day starter as a sophomore so far this season. My freshman year I didn’t expect to start right away, but then I did eventually start almost every day for a couple of months at the end (of the season) when it kind of mattered. I’ve just been very fortunate and very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had here.

“I exceeded my expectations last because I had just hoped to hit .300 and I hoped to get a couple of at-bats,” he continued. “I sat my expectations really high for myself and I just knew I would have to work real hard to achieve the goals that I set. I’m still working at it and I’m still striving to reach my goals for this season.”

So far, he’s doing a nice job of that. Before Tuesday night’s game against the Shockers, Ybarra was hitting .339 (21-for-62) in a team-high 16 starts, with a home run, three doubles and 11 RBI.

“I’ve been doing pretty good at the plate (hitting) and pretty good behind the plate when I’m catching, so I’s been a good start so far,” said Ybarra, who both catches and serves at a designated hitter.

The Sun Devils were hitting .290 as team, with outfielder Johnny Sewald (.375), outfielder Christopher Beall (.368, 1 HR, 5 RBI), catcher Nathaniel Causey (.317, 7 2Bs) and infielder Dalton Dinatale (.304, 1 HR, 6 2Bs, 13 RBI) joining Ybarra as the top hitters.

Although he shares the catching duties and is often in the Sun Devils’ lineup as the DH, Ybarra does have considerable skills behind the plate. He was named to the 2011 PG WWBA World Championship all-tournament team and made the Top Prospect list at the 2011 West Coast Top Prospect Showcase not only because of his ability to hit the ball but also due to his defensive prowess behind the plate.

“He controls the running game well with his arm,” the lefty Lilek told PG. “Any time you have a catcher with a sub-2 (second) Pop time, you don’t have to sit there and worry about the runners getting on base. You’re able to use your pitches more effectively.”

Ybarra said the level of his play took a decided upturn when he made the move to the state of Washington last summer to play for the Bellingham Bells in the West Coast Summer Collegiate League. The nation’s summer collegiate leagues are almost an extension of what top prospects experience during their high school summer months playing with travel ball teams at PG tournaments, and Ybarra – the veteran of 22 PG events – enjoyed the experience immensely.

“The Bellingham Bells have been around for a very long and the fans are just great,” he said. “The fans love you, they learn your name, they learn everything about you, the talk to you like you’re their friends It was nice being there with a couple of guys from my ASU team and meeting new guys up there, and the coaching staff was great.”

He’ll take what is generally considered a step up this summer when he plays for the Orleans (Mass.) Firebirds in the elite Cape Cod League. His teammates Lilek and Johnny Sewald will join him in Orleans.

“I’m really looking forward to going up there and playing this summer just because of how prestigious that league is; I want to showcase my abilities up there,” Ybarra said. “Also, I’m excited to spend the summer up there, meeting new guys and making new friendships.”

But there were a couple of inescapable numbers facing the Sun Devils on Tuesday afternoon. They had a less than satisfactory overall record of 9-8, including a 1-2 mark in the Pac-12 after dropping two of three against Washington at Packard Stadium to open the conference schedule last weekend.

“I think we can get on a roll – we already showed that one time this year when we won five games straight,” Ybarra said, referring to stretch from Feb. 23 through March 7 when the Sun Devils rattled off wins against Wright State, Santa Clara, Gonzaga, Oklahoma State and Tennessee. “We’ve played some good baseball it’s just that we need to put it all together more. I think with a little bit of time we’ll be fine.

“It’s just one of those things where we haven’t played as well as we can because this team is a lot better than the record shows.”

ASU’s starting pitching was viewed as a strength coming into the season with the return of sophomore left-handers Ryan Kellogg and Lilek, and right-hander Ryan Burr. Kellogg was a 12th round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012. Burr is a 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic and 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase alumnus who the Texas Rangers selected in 33rd round of the 2012 draft.

All but Lilek have been ineffective through the first 17 games, however, although as their part-time starting catcher, Ybarra is confident they will come around.

“It’s a really good staff to work with,” he said. “You’ve got guys that are going to get out on the mound and they’re just going to throw strikes and dominate … and you just believe in them because they are relentless on the mound and they’re disciplined with their workouts and their preparation.”

As Ybarra approaches the one-third portion of his sophomore season at ASU he’s sure he wouldn’t be here as one of the rising stars in the Pacific 12 Conference if it weren’t for those 22 PG events over four years. As good as the high school baseball is in Southern California, he feels his time spent with Spiers and the ABD Bulldogs at all those PG WWBA tournaments were the most impactful in terms of his development.

“The (PG) tournament experiences were unreal,” he said. “Playing for Mike Spiers and playing for him at a lot of those tournaments and playing real good teams with real good players from all over the country, it was really interesting. It got me ready for college because everybody here, obviously, is really good; it was just great fun playing in those tournaments.”

Those PG tournaments are in the rearview mirror. Ybarra’s main focus now is doing everything in his power to lead the Sun Devils to a Pac-12 title and yet another berth in the NCAA Division I postseason tournament.

“I feel like once we get going there’s nothing that’s going to really stop us,” he said. “We just have to get going and make a good run at the Pac-12 championship.”

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