June brings Calhoun heat wave
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Last June, before his team headed to Omaha for its 21st appearance in the College World Series, Arizona State outfielder Kole Calhoun was unhappy. The object of his ire was Major League Baseball.
MLB was ignoring him. Or playing hard to get. While it seems that everyone who plays for the Sun Devils, almost as a rule, gets drafted, Calhoun didn't in 2009.
"I told my [academic] adviser that I'm just going to go and be the player of the College World Series," Calhoun said. "I was angry. Not angry. But I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder and I had to go prove myself. And what better stage to try to do that?"
There is none, and on the biggest stage in college baseball, Calhoun went nuts, going 9-for-16 -- a cool .563 clip -- with three home runs and 11 RBIs. His slugging percentage was a robust 1.250.
It wasn't enough, though. The Sun Devils, who won the last of their five national titles in 1981, finished third.
Those CWS numbers capped a postseason when Calhoun went 17-for-37 (.459) at the plate with 18 RBIs. Considering that Calhoun hit .364 with three homers and six RBIs as the Sun Devils swept through three games in last weekend's Tempe NCAA Regional, it might be reasonable to officially name the senior, "Mr. June."
That's a fine title and everything, but it's not the one Calhoun and his teammates are most interested in as they prepare to face Arkansas (43-19) in a three-game series in Packard Stadium, with Game 1 starting at 9 p.m. (ET) on Saturday.
ASU's goal is singular this postseason. The top-seeded Sun Devils (50-8) are not just happy to be here. They won't be satisfied with just another trip to Omaha. They feel there's only one happy ending to the season.
"It's something we've been telling the guys the entire season," said Calhoun, one of three team captains. "It's Omaha and win the whole thing or it's bust. That's why we all came here to play -- to win a national championship."
Calhoun believes last year's squad was fully capable of winning the national title, but the starting pitching, most notably current Cincinnati Reds sensation Mike Leake, faltered and the bullpen wasn't deep enough to pick up the slack.
This year, the Sun Devils' starters are fresher and the bullpen is outstanding, led by closer Jordan Swagerty (2.05 ERA, 14 saves).
But that's not the only reason Calhoun is optimistic about ASU's chances. He thinks the team's state of mind was different last year.
"We wanted to win the whole thing but I kind of think the whole mantra of the team was, 'OK, we're here.' It wasn't a burning desire to win the thing," he said.
Calhoun's state of mind is pretty good at present, too. Not only is he hanging up big numbers again this postseason, he didn't require a chip on his shoulder to make it happen: He was one of 10 Sun Devils drafted this week, going in the eighth round to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
So he's feeling chipper. Moreover, if he should lose his groove, he might know how to recover it. After he graduated a month ago, his grandfather gave him a journal/organizer so he could record his thoughts. It's probably not surprising most of those focus on hitting.
Here's an entry: "Dear Diary: I continue to knock the pooh off the ball. Isn't it great there's an In-N-Out Burger right across the street from Packard!"
Mostly Calhoun, who earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors as a right fielder, keeps track of the nuances of hitting -- what he's thinking, what he's doing with his hands, his stride, etc. Considering he's been on a hot streak since he started jotting things down in the journal, it figures to come in handy if he finds himself struggling when he joins a minor league team.
"Every time I might get into a slump or something I can go back and read what I was thinking and what I was doing when I was on this hot streak," he said.
Still, he doesn't claim to have tapped into some well of hitting wisdom. While he asserts he's not superstitious, like most baseball players he pleads ignorance as to why he's presently in the hitting zone.
And Mr. June isn't about to question it.
"I can't really attribute it to anything, but I'll just keep trying to ride the hot streak," he said. "If I keep getting hot in the playoffs, that's fine with me because that's when it really counts. That's when we're trying to win championships."
Last year, Calhoun finished hot and unhappy. At present, he's hot and happy and hoping to stay that way.
Ted Miller covers college sports for ESPN.com. His Pac-10 football blog can be found here.