Larish Learns To Relax, Flourishes (East Valley Tribune)

March 31, 2005

By Christopher Drexel, East Valley Tribune

Jeff Larish walked out of the dugout Wednesday at Packard Stadium relaxed, content and ready to soak in another practice as a member of the Arizona State baseball team.

Unlike this time a year ago, the senior first baseman is not feeling the pressure of being the focal point of ASU's offense, nor of the upcoming major league draft. Instead, Larish is just living for the moment, and enjoying the few games he has left in a Sun Devils uniform.

With nearly half the season to go, the McClintock High School graduate is hitting .320, tied for the team lead with 33 RBIs and tied for the national lead with 12 home runs. They are the type of numbers he was accustomed to as a sophomore before succumbing to an extended slump last year that saw his season end with just seven homers and 49 RBIs.

'I've learned how to deal with adversity a lot better this year,' Larish said. 'Last year was a new situation for me because I got all the hype, and I just wasn't used to being `the guy.' It was a tough thing to deal with, but I'm so fortunate to go through it at this point in my career because it's just going to help me later on.'

Despite the uncharacteristic statistics he put up as a junior, Larish was selected in the 13th round of the draft last June by the Los Angeles Dodgers and was offered a sixfigure signing bonus. Instead of beginning a professional career after his junior season, which is often typical of college players, Larish elected to return for his final year in the maroon and gold.

'He got offered a whole lot of money two days before school started -- most kids would have taken it,' said ASU coach Pat Murphy, who estimated only about one in 10 players who are drafted return to their college teams. 'I don't know anybody in our program that has ever turned down that kind of money and come back.'

Larish insisted money was not the main reason he remained in Tempe, even though many speculated a final hurrah with the Sun Devils could improve the first baseman's stock when he reenters the draft this summer.

'If they were going to give me $8 million, I think I would have taken it,' Larish said with a laugh. 'But I didn't want to end my college career the way last year ended. Also, a big goal was to get to Omaha (for the College World Series).

'A lot of the guys I've talked to that have gone on to pro ball -- guys like (former Sun Devil and current Seattle Mariner) Willie Bloomquist. You always hear them say they wish they would have stayed for their senior year because there is nothing like college baseball. The environment is amazing. Hearing those guys say stuff like that had a big influence on me, knowing how fortunate I was to be at a program like this.'

While speaking with famous alumni may be one of the perks of suiting up at ASU, Larish never counted on a visit he got earlier this month when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants paid a visit to his old college team. It was the first time the controversial slugger had returned to ASU in more than a decade. He spent nearly two hours taking batting practice and talking baseball with Larish and the Sun Devils.

'It's unfortunate how much flak he gets because a lot of people, I don't think, really know him that well,' Larish said. 'Some of the actions he did over his career I haven't really examined too much. But with the little time he was out here, I think if I was more his age he's somebody I could hang out with.'

While the visit may have made for an unforgettable memory, it may have affected Larish in more ways than one. Since his encounter with baseball's single-season home run king, Larish has enjoyed one of the hotter streaks of his career, hitting .421 with seven homers in his last 10 games.

'The big thing (Bonds) said to me was just `You got to relax and trust yourself and really be positive with yourself during the course of the season,' ' Larish said. 'I think it definitely gave me a little more confidence hearing him give me some compliments and telling me some stuff to focus on.'

After regaining the confidence he was missing a year ago, the pressure that once entered Larish's mind has vaporized, and the Sun Devils have won 12 of their last 16 games with the help of his bat. And that matter of Larish's draft status appears to have taken care of itself.

'We've played the No. 1 schedule by far in the country, and to have him face all those talented pitchers and lead the nation in home runs is pretty impressive,' Murphy said. 'There is no doubt (he has raised his stock).'

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