Benefield: Spencer Torkelson not sweating baseball's expectations

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Spencer Torkelson is eyeing a vacation.

His sophomore season at Arizona State University wrapped up June 2 with the Sun Devils going 38-19 overall and 16-13 in the Pac-12 to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. For the second season in a row, the first baseman hit his way onto the Golden Spikes shortlist, an honor given to the best amateur baseball player in the land. And for the second season in a row, he was selected to represent the United States on Team USA’s international collegiate tour this summer.

But unlike last summer, when he wrapped up a tour of Cuba with Team USA and headed straight back to baseball in the Cape Code summer league, Torkelson will finish playing on the collegiate national team in Japan Sunday and head home to Petaluma.

His focus will turn from nonstop baseball to slowing down. He’s going on a family vacation. And perhaps, more than anything, he’ll try to catch his breath ahead of what is almost certainly his final season of college baseball, before his name, his face and his slugging stats become household knowledge for baseball fans across the country.

This is all because Torkelson, a three-sport athlete who graduated from Casa Grande High in 2017 before becoming the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2018 and a unanimous All-American in 2019, has been named as Baseball America’s top-ranked college prospect for the 2020 draft. He’s featured heavily in ESPN’s draft analyses. He’s the guy everybody is watching. Life as he knows it will soon very likely change and probably change dramatically.

Torkelson stormed onto the college scene just two years ago and hasn’t let up. No period of adjustment to the speed of the college game, no sophomore slump, just epic numbers and a laundry list of awards — all which have thrust him front and center into the conversation about which player is the most coveted prospect in all of college baseball.

“I can’t wrap my head around it,” he said. Baseball America’s ranking him No. 1. “I also know it’s just a website and it’s someone’s opinion and their opinion doesn’t matter — what matters is on draft day.”

Torkelson was speaking Friday from Japan, where he was waiting to board a flight from Iwakuni to Koriyama before playing the final two games of the collegiate national team’s summer tour.

The first baseman is on his second stint with the U.S. collegiate national team and, according to coach Dan McDonnell, is the squad’s unofficial captain.

Those duties seem to include promoting, yes, winning, but also fun. And a sense of humor about the trials and trip-ups of international travel.

“I have never seen so much fish for breakfast,” Torkelson said.

When the team training table features something like, say, chicken nuggets, “That plate doesn’t stay out there very long.”

“It’s not bad food, it’s just not what we are used to,” he said.

And then there is what they came for — baseball. The U.S. collegiate team hasn’t won a series in Japan in four decades. Torkelson is well aware.

“You can see why,” he said. “It’s Japan’s best college players.”

Torkelson would like to be part of the team that stops the run of Japan’s dominance. The series is tied 2-2 heading into Sunday’s finale.

Torkelson said the respect for the game in Japan is apparent, but the officiating has been less than stellar.

“It’s kind of funny, the umpires are very biased,” he said.

Check-swing calls? Not going to get them. And strike zones for American pitchers can shrink to the size of postage stamps. But it’s all part of it, he said.

“We just laugh at it,” he said. “We could get mad, (but we) kind of use it for motivation.”

Plus, there are some things that even friendly officiating can’t negate.

“Our pitchers are so dang good,” he said. “They are still throwing 97 and that’s hard to hit.”

Through Saturday, the team is 8-5. Torkelson is hitting .286, which is on par with his average last summer.

As a sophomore for the Sun Devils, Torkelson led the team in batting average (.351), runs (69), hits (85), doubles (17), homers (23) and RBI (66). He was second in on-base percentage at .446 and second in slugging percentage at .707.

He doesn’t need this summer to tweak his game. His game is already there. And he likely doesn’t need to do anything in his junior season in Tempe than he’s already done.

There is certainly pressure in being a preseason No. 1, but Torkelson is doing his best not to feel it.

“I don’t think I need to prove anything to anyone that I can hit,” he said. “I just need to go out there and have fun.

“The talent and the work ethic is there; you just have to play,” he said. “I don’t think I feel any pressure.”

So unlike last summer, when he went straight from Team USA and their tour of Cuba back to the Cape Cod League and then directly to Tempe, Torkelson is heading home after this trip to Japan.

“My hitting coach said I was insane for going back to the Cape after Team USA. I didn’t get any break,” he said of last summer. “I felt myself in fall ball a little tired. It was the same thing every day for literally a year straight. My hitting coach is like, ‘You are not going to get any worse — you still got it.’”

So instead of swinging the bat, he’s headed to the Bahamas for a vacation with his family to swim with dolphins. Instead of working out, he’s going to lay back. He’s going to slow down before things likely go warp speed in his world.

“I don’t think they have batting cages at the Atlantis Resort, but I think (rest) is needed,” he said.

Expectations are high for Torkelson in his junior campaign, but he’s not thinking too much about that. He’s thinking about his expectations for the Sun Devils. They, too, are high.

Torkelson said he wants to stoke those expectations all while working to tamp down pressure.

“I know what it takes to win, I think I need to stay positive and not worry about myself, and be a team guy,” he said. “Picking people up and having fun, making sure that the new guys aren’t feeling pressure. As a freshman, we didn’t have great leadership.”

That lack of leadership tightened up the play of younger guys on the squad, he said.

“You play not to mess up,” he said. “Instead of playing to win, you play not to lose.”

A good leader, he said, gives teammates permission to mess up.

“You give the freshmen confidence — it’s OK to fail. It’s baseball,” he said.

But don’t mistake his philosophy on keeping things loose for an acceptance of underperforming. Torkelson is competitive. He isn’t keen on failing, but knows it is part of the game and it is part of getting better.

And the Sun Devils are getting better with Torkelson in the locker room. He’s ready for them to go further next spring. He believes all of the pieces are there for a run to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

If there is any pressure in Torkelson’s world, maybe that is it. He wants to take the series in Japan. He wants to see his Sun Devils make a postseason run. He wants program success.

After that? Come draft day? That’s largely out of his control.

He’s got one more college season to make good on some of his goals. Come June, everything changes.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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