Photo: Arizona State

'Friday Night Lights'? No sweat

College : : Story
Jeff Dahn        
Published: Wednesday, March 19, 2014

TEMPE, Ariz. – Some unexpected early season struggles by a pair of 2013 NCBWA Freshman All-American pitchers has resulted in a new role for Arizona State left-hander Brett Lilek. And while the term “staff ace” may not yet apply, Lilek has earned the role of the Sun Devil’s Friday night starter.

A 6-foot-4, 195-pound ASU sophomore from South Holland, Ill., Lilek slid into that role after sophomore left-hander Ryan Kellogg was slightly off-kilter to start the season and sophomore right-hander Ryan Burr’s transition from closer to starter also fell a little flat. Junior righty Darin Gilles has also not been as effective as hoped in four starts this season.

Lilek, who worked out of the bullpen as a freshman, started the season as head coach Tim Esmay’s Sunday starter and he noted that the Sunday afternoon games often become a “hit parade” with a lot of runs being scored. But he was able to keep the opposing team in check while his teammates put runs on the board.

“I was getting a lot of run support so that it made it easier to pitch,” Lilek said in a conversation with Perfect Game this week before the Sun Devils took on Wichita State in a non-conference game at venerable Packard Stadium. “Every time I’ve pitched we’ve scored a few runs, and even if it’s one, two, three or 10 runs, you’re pitching with a lead, and in and of itself you’ve got confidence in that respect.”

With the other starters out of sync over the first month of the season, Esmay moved Lilek to the Friday night slot two weekends ago and he responded beautifully. He pitched seven shutout innings of three-hit ball in a 3-1 win over Tennessee on March 7 and then got the Sun Devils’ Pac-12 season off on a good note when he allowed only one run on four hits over seven innings in a 4-1 win over Washington on March 14.

Lilek didn’t change his approach at all when he was pushed out under those hot “Friday Night Lights”.

“I just took it as another game. Honestly, I’m not going to change the way I pitch because of what day of the week it is. The only major adjustment was, I don’t sweat as much now because I’m not pitching in the sun,” he said with a laugh.

“He’s a good pitcher and he’s grown in this program,” Esmay told reporters after Lilek’s performance against Tennessee. “There was a lot of work behind the scenes getting him to where he’s at right now, and it’s paying off for him; there’s just a huge difference from when he was a freshman at this time last year to where he is now.

“… He’s worked with Coach (Ken) Knutson, and (Ryan) Burr and those guys make everybody better just by their work ethic. Lilek is right at the front as far as he’s approaching this season; he’s a focused, relentless kid.”

Lilek has started four games this season and made another appearance in relief. Heading into this weekend’s Pacific-12 Conference series at No. 5 Oregon State, he is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA, and has allowed only three runs on 12 hits while striking out 26 and walking eight in 28 innings of work. Those are Friday night starter numbers.

“I think, by and large, I definitely got off to a good start, which is good,” Lilek said. “It’s kind of easy when you know you’ve got the defense behind you that’s willing to make plays and put their bodies on the line for you; it’s easy to pitch with confidence when you know about that aspect.”

There is a reason Lilek came into this season regarded as the No. 3 guy in the Sun Devil’s pitching staff pecking order, of course.

Burr, a 2011 Perfect Game All-American and alumnus of the 2011 PG National Showcase, was a member of the USA Collegiate National Team and was a first team NCBWA Freshman All-American in 2013. In 31 relief appearances, Burr finished 4-2 with 12 saves and a 2.20 ERA. In 45 innings of work, he allowed 21 hits, struck out 60 and walked 23.

Kellogg, a 12th round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012 and a second team NCBWA Freshman All-American, made 15 starts for the Devils as a freshman and finished 11-1 with 3.15 ERA in 103 innings pitched. Gilles, for his part, made 10 starts in 2012 before moved to the bullpen last season where he made 27 appearances.

To date this season, Kellogg is 1-2 with a 4.18 ERA in five starts; Burr is 1-2 with three saves and a 4.82 ERA after three starts and four relief appearances; Gilles is 1-1 with a 4.94 ERA in four starts and one appearance out of the pen. ASU was 10-8 overall (1-2 in the Pac-12) before Wednesday night’s game against Wichita State.

“Everyone’s putting in the work and we’re pushing each other,” Lilek said. “We’re only going to get to Omaha (for the College World Series) if we all work as one piece, and we all want to be there with each other so it’s kind of easy. When you have Ryan Burr and Ryan Kellogg and the guys from last year who did so well, it’s easy to look up to them and say, ‘I want to be like them so I’m going to push myself harder so I can have what they have.’

“That’s one of the reasons I chose to come to ASU because I knew everyone is going to be good around me and it would help me push in the long run.”

Lilek’s acclimation to life as a member of a big-time, Division I program was a slow one during his freshman season in 2013. He made one start and 10 appearances out of the bullpen and finished 2-1 with a 4.05 ERA, giving up 18 hits and striking out 17 in 20 innings of work.

He did not pitch at all from March 17 through May 12 because of slight soreness in his arm that developed after he had played a game of dodge ball. He came back on May 12 feeling strong and feels like he ultimately made the adjustment to Pac-12 ball fairly seamlessly.

“One of the major things I had to do coming in from high school where you’re the top dog, and you have the ability to go out there and no matter how you pitch, you’re going to do well,” Lilek said. “Now you’re pitching in the Pac-12 – one of the best conferences in the nation – and you have to go out there and compete. Everyone’s better than (the players) in high school, so now it’s about how are you going to match up to them.”

Lilek may have felt like the “top dog” a lot more often than most while pitching for Marion Catholic High School in Illinois. While the Chicagoland area in both Illinois and Indiana is becoming well-respected for the number of high quality arms coming out of the high schools in the region, Lilek felt like he needed to go south to find the kind of competition he craved to get him ready for pitching at the NCAA Division I level.

“It was more the travel teams that I played for during the summers that prepared me well for pitching at Arizona State and in the Pac-12,” he said. “Definitely playing on good travel ball teams and going down to Georgia and Florida and playing in Perfect Game tournaments, that really prepared me for what I’m going through now. It’s kind of cool because now you see a lot of players that you played against” at those events, he said.

The Texas Sun Devils, Chi Town Cream, Sandlot Baseball and Northern Illinois Reds were among the travel ball teams Lilek played for in four PG WWBA and one PG BCS Finals tournaments. He was also at the 2010 Perfect Game Junior National Showcase in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla. Lilek also played in the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., in both 2010 and 2011.

“Those were some of the best times I had,” he said of the PG showcase experiences. “It’s not too often where you get to go out and you get to see the best players in the country performing right in front of your eyes. Having all them in one place … and what was really good for me was you got to see how you fit in with everyone else. You got see how your talents fit in with all the big-name guys and you got to see some things that you need to work on, too.”

Several of Lilek’s current ASU teammates were also at the 2011 PG National, including Burr, Dalton Dinatale and RJ Ybarra.

“When you put yourself around a solid group of guys who have the same goals and aspirations in life, you’re going to succeed,” Lilek said. “Having the ability to go there and play with kids who want to play in the major leagues is great. For me, pitching-wise, I got to pitch against kids who were drafted, kids who are going to be drafted, and it gave me the ability to see how effective my pitches were.”

Lilek was drafted himself right out of Marion Catholic High School. The Seattle Mariners selected him in the 37th round of the 2012 MLB June amateur draft, but Lilek decided to head to Tempe instead of signing a professional contract.

“I did contemplate it a little bit, but I knew with (the round) where I was drafted, I thought I could better that by going to school,” he said. “That is ultimately how I made the decision and it’s been a good fit. I really enjoy the atmosphere out here – the weather, the school, my coaching staff – I couldn’t have asked for anything else.”

Right now it looks like the best decision he could have ever made. PG ranks Lilek as the No. 21 overall prospect in the 2015 draft class, a number that translates to a first round selection.

Confidence is a key ingredient every major college player needs to be in possession of, and Lilek got a big dose of it when he pitched last summer for the Newport Gulls in New England Collegiate League. PG named him one of the top prospects in the league at the conclusion of the 2013 NECL season.

“It allowed me to get reps,” Lilek said of pitching in the NECL. “I only threw 20-something innings (at ASU in 2013) and they needed to run my innings up so they can use me this year. It allowed me to get work in and it was a great experience and just a good environment.”

This summer, Lilek and ASU teammates Ybarro and Johnny Sewald will play with the Orleans Firebirds in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

“It should be a lot of fun,” Lilek said. “I’ve heard it’s more of a pitcher’s league than anything else and I know it’s going to help us personally playing up there. It’s going to be a lot of fun to go back up to the East Coast and experience it again because it could be the last time I ever do that in my life.”

It seems more than likely Arizona State will right the ship over the final two months of the regular season and maybe even make a run for a Pac-12 championship. It’s a tall order with the likes of No. 5 Oregon State, No. 8 Oregon, No. 18 UCLA and a host of others standing in their path, but it would be foolish to dismiss the Sun Devils at this early juncture.

 “Our record doesn’t show it, but I think we’re right there,” Lilek said. “We’re losing ballgames but we’re not losing by much, and if we just figure out a few more things everyone’s confidence goes up and there are endless possibilities. Usually the team that is ranked number-one right now isn’t the team that finishes number-one, so it’s anybody’s game.”

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