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1-2 pitching punch leads ASU

6/11/2009

TEMPE, Ariz. -- There's the koala. And then there's the drop bear.

Since Josh Spence is from Australia, he could tell you about either native species, but the Big Two of the Arizona State pitching staff offer a perfect visual aid.

A koala is cuddly. Like Spence.

The humble, lanky, lefty native of Newtown, Victoria, says he is just glad to be here, and his wide eyes suggest he truly is. After all, who would ever expect an Australian lad to be a leading hurler headed to the College World Series in Omaha this weekend?

Then there's Mike Leake, the No. 8 pick of the Major League Baseball draft on Tuesday who pitched in Rosenblatt Stadium in 2007, the last time the Sun Devils advanced.

Leake is the "drop bear" -- vicious, carnivorous, mutated koalas who attack their prey by dropping onto their heads from the tree tops. Don't believe it when some wiseacre tells you drop bears don't exist. They most certainly do.

Leake mentioned the "drop bear" when asked about peculiar Australian terms that Spence frequently uses. At first glance, it might look as if Leake approximates a koala. He glibly notes, "I'm not a prospect. I'm 5-10." He is certainly not boisterous or physically intimidating. His hairstyle, painstakingly crafted by a pillow, implies a Southern California mellow. Much of the time he talks through a smirk, implying that he might be thinking something much different than what he is saying.

But Leake is a killa. And not just because the right-handed junior has piled up 40 career wins. Let's just say his leadership style in the clubhouse isn't influenced by the Stuart Smalley school of daily affirmations.

"It's not 'rah-rah, talk to you, be nice to you, pump you up' leadership -- it's true, authentic leadership," Sun Devils skipper Pat Murphy said. "Which means: Hold you accountable. If the wave is going this way, and he doesn't like the way the wave is going, he'll turn back against the wave. That's what I love about Mike."

Murphy then added, "Not a lot of guys are carrying his baseball card, if you know what I mean. He's not their best friend. That's for sure."

For example, when Spence suffered a hand injury that was supposed to end his season just more than a month ago, Leake offered some psychological assistance:

Suck it up.

"He needed to tell himself that 'I'm not hurt,'" Leake said. "He might have been hurt, but he still needed to tell himself that, just so he needed to build confidence. He needs 100 percent confidence in his own mind to do well. Otherwise, he doesn't believe in himself."

We should pause now and mention that these two have combined for a 25-2 record this season and are the nation's best one-two punch of starting pitchers. It's not clear yet who will start against North Carolina on Sunday in the Sun Devils' CWS opener (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET).

Leake (16-1, 1.36 ERA) is the two-time Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year and a first team All-American. Spence (9-1, 2.33) is a third team All-American despite pitching just seven innings since April 26 due to that hand injury.

Both notched wins in their super-regional sweep of Clemson, with Spence hurling a four-hitter with 10 strikeouts and just one walk.

Oh, by the way, Spence was picked in the third round by the Los Angeles Angels.

"Just because he didn't pitch for a month is the only reason he's not being talked about," Leake said. "He was lights-out when he was pitching, and he showed it again a month after. He should be talked about if he isn't. But he will be very shortly, I think."

Leake is in line to receive a signing bonus of $2 million to $3 million, but when asked about his impending change in fortune, he called the draft "just another day."

"I'm just glad it will be over so we can move on to finishing what we want to accomplish," he said. "We have one month left of college baseball. We have to put all of [our] focus into this month. And then we can worry about our dreams. This is one of our dreams."

Spence started dreaming about baseball in a country where few people even know the sport. He discovered the game as a youngster on television and became obsessed, particularly when rugby and cricket didn't catch his fancy.

"I tried to play all the Australian sports and kind of wasn't too successful at them," he said.

He said he found Arizona State's program on the Internet. He then flew 14 hours to take part in a Sun Devils baseball camp. He performed well enough to be shepherded into Central Arizona junior college, where he put up dominant numbers.

While Spence's fastball doesn't reach the 90s, he showcases an array of off-speed pitches that don't allow hitters to get comfortable. A Clemson hitter noted that Spence didn't seem to throw the same first pitch to any batter throughout Sunday's game.

Leake, meanwhile, can hit 94 on the radar gun, but he calls himself a sinkerball pitcher. His 150 strikeouts in 132.2 innings and .175 opponents' batting average suggest his stuff is pretty nasty. When ESPN's Karl Ravech of "Baseball Tonight" asked Leake about the four pitches he can throw for strikes, Leake fired back -- through a grin, of course -- that he's got more than four.

He didn't, however, claw out Ravech's eyes, as drop bears are wont to do.

Whatever the differences between the Aussie and Southern Californian, Murphy knows he has a lethal combination that could lead the Sun Devils to their first national title since 1981.

"I wouldn't want any two others," he said.

Both Leake and Spence have a future throwing the baseball. But the present comes first, and that's inside Rosenblatt Stadium.

Ted Miller covers college sports for ESPN.com. Check out his Pac-10 football blog.