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Cards get good look at top Draft picks

Cards get good look at top Draft picks

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PHOENIX -- When Seth Blair was sharp, Zack Cox made the most of it. When Blair faded, Cox and his teammates took advantage.

Two of the Cardinals' top three Draft picks faced off on Saturday night in an NCAA Super Regional game at Packard Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. And while neither young man had a perfect night, both showed flashes of why they were selected so highly. Arizona State beat Arkansas, 7-6.

With club personnel, including general manager John Mozeliak in the stands, Arizona State ace Blair breezed through his first three innings against a potent Arkansas lineup. He recorded five strikeouts in the first two innings, getting ahead with a nice fastball and finishing off Razorbacks hitters with his impressive array of offspeed stuff.

Another Cardinals draftee, ASU reliever Jordan Swagerty, didn't pitch in the first game of the super regional. He picked up the win in relief the following night, however.

Even in the early going on Friday, Cox had a little something for his once, and hopefully future, teammate. In his first plate appearance, in the top of the first inning, Cox poked a slow-rolling single through the right side. Normally a third baseman, Cox was starting at designated hitter for Arkansas because of an injury in the ribcage area. It didn't stop him from hitting. Little does. Cox is an all-fields hitter with developing power, who batted well over .400 in 2010, despite playing in what may be the nation's toughest collegiate conference.

"That's kind of what I'm known for, being able to hit where it's pitched," Cox said the night he was drafted.

The lefty-swinging Cox grounded out to the right side in the third, and Blair took a 3-0 lead into the fourth. But the ASU right-hander faded, losing command and dealing with a somewhat inconsistent strike zone. Two walks, two singles and a hit batter tied the game, though the Sun Devils took the lead again by a single run in the bottom of the fourth.

But in the fifth, it was Cox again, starting a two-run rally with a leadoff double to left-center, an impressive piece of hitting. Blair was done after five, but both players made a good impression on their prospective future employer.

"It was a unique opportunity to see two of our top [Draft picks] play, go head-to-head," Mozeliak said. "I enjoyed the evening. I was fortunate to have it. They both played well."

Mozeliak chose his words carefully when speaking of players who remain unsigned, but there were definitely things to like about not only Cox's, but Blair's showing. The plus breaking stuff that caught the Cardinals' collective eye was very much on display in the early innings. And it didn't necessarily go away later, it was just that hitters' counts put Blair in a position where he couldn't go to it as often.

"That's a pretty good offense over there," ASU coach Tim Esmay told ArkansasNews.com. "That Arkansas team, you can tell, they've been in this situation before. They had some really good A-Bs and kind of took what he was giving them."

Blair now gets another chance. He and the Sun Devils won Sunday's second game as well, giving them the best-of-three series and sending them to the College World Series in Omaha. They'll be trying to one-up the past two ASU teams, led by Reds rookie Mike Leake, that went to the CWS, but fell short of winning the big prize.

"The last two years, we've come short of our goal of winning the national championship, and for me personally, that's the main focus right now," Blair said on Draft day.

Leake believes his ex-teammate is more prepared than ever to handle that responsibility. He's watched Blair develop, and feels he especially benefited from the change of coaches at Arizona State. Previous head coach Pat Murphy was dismissed in December, with Esmay taking over.

"He's got the stuff to be a great pitcher," Leake said. "It's more the mental side with him. This last year, he's matured a lot. After the change of scenery, it might have helped him a little bit.

"With all the drama we had at ASU, the change of coaches, I think it benefited him a little bit. When Murph was there, he was kind of looking over his shoulder, waiting to get pulled. He got a little more leeway this year and wasn't worried about 'whether or not I'm going to be pulled this inning.' He'd just go out and pitch and 'when I'm done, I'm done.'"

That's a mindset that will surely appeal to the Cardinals.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Mark Sheldon contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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