Gritty wins propel Sun Devils to opening weekend series sweep

Arizona State's relief pitching depth proved very important in its opening series against Northwestern, as it emerged with a 3-0 start to the season.

In near unison, multiple Arizona State players agreed that the circumstances surrounding the games this weekend were “weird.”

Between playing a doubleheader, the constant threat of inclement weather, and even a suspended game, this is not what a typical series will look like for the Sun Devils. 

Though its opening weekend sweep will go down in the standings as three wins, ASU proved that success will not always be pretty in 2017.

From a parade of errors to an approach that sometimes mirrored unnecessary aggressiveness, the Sun Devils stumbled their way to a 3-0 record, an abridged sweep of a Northwestern team that won just 15 games last season.

The biggest concern for the Sun Devils going forward might be their defense. Although ASU stayed error free on Sunday, it committed six errors over two games during Friday’s doubleheader.

Four of the six were by junior third baseman Andrew Snow.

“We have a very young team,” ASU coach Tracy Smith said on Friday. “I could hear the heartbeats in the middle of the diamond. I just think once we settle in and let our abilities take over we will be fine. We don’t need the great play, we just need to make the routine. You look at the balls we missed, and honestly those were probably just nerves and trying to be a little too quick.”

Smith took immediate action regarding Snow, benching the usually reliable infielder in the series finale despite the fact that he thought he swung the bat well.

“He’s got to understand you have to play defense,” Smith said of Snow. “The challenge of that is he is one of our better offensive guys. When you go back and play it out, as many runs as he produced, defensively I think we let as many in.”

Sophomore shortstop Jeremy McCuin committed two miscues of his own during the Friday nightcap, but showed significant improvement on Sunday. 

Some low throws by freshman first baseman Lyle Lin, a natural catcher, during run-downs on the series finale cost ASU a couple outs. With a patchwork infield that’s been determined almost as much by who’s performing well as it is by who is healthy, the comfort level should be a gradual progression for the Sun Devils.

Lin takes center stage

Thirteen runs in three games was not what ASU had expected against a Wildcats pitching staff that had a 6.29 team ERA last season. 

The only player who had consistent success was Lyle Lin, who only earned initial playing time due to junior infielder Taylor Lane’s suspension. 

Lin went 7-for-13 over the three games with two doubles and three runs batted in. 

“Just taking a deep breath, seeing the ball, putting the ball in play, trusting myself and playing hard,” Lin said as keys to his success. 

Smith has called Lin one of three Pac-12 starting caliber catchers the Sun Devils have on the team, so playing time will be competitive for him. 

If Lin continues to hit the way he did against Northwestern, he is going to force his way into the lineup, whether it is at catcher, first base, or designated hitter.

Clutch hits elevate Sun Devils

Each of the final two games of the series was won by the Sun Devils in large part due to late inning clutch hits.

Despite some trouble putting runs on the board, the hodgepodge of soft-throwing Wildcats relievers were not able to keep ASU at bay forever. 

On Friday night, it was Ryan Lillard and junior outfielder Andrew Snow who hit RBI singles with runners in scoring position in the final two frames. 

Senior outfielder Sebastian Zawada followed those hits with the first walk-off of the Sun Devils’ season, a single that came early in the count.

"I was looking for something that was probably going to be off-speed, outside part of the plate,” Zawada said. “He didn't really have anything overpowering, so I thought he was going to try to sneak something by me and I just saw it up and put it through."

Jeremy McCuin joined the clutch-hitting parade on Sunday with the eventual game-winning eighth inning two-run double, a hit that came on the first pitch. His double helped ASU overcome the threat of an official tie, an extreme rarity in the sport. 

“I was sitting slider honestly,” McCuin said regarding his approach during the at-bat. “Because Taylor (Lane) was before me and they threw him four sliders, and they were all balls, so I knew that they were going to be coming off-speed.”

ASU often found itself in tight games last season, so opportunities late in the game with runners on are nothing new for the team.

“You hope that these games pay off for you down the stretch, “ Smith said. “This is a tough park, that’s the crazy part about playing here, is the fences are so deep. There is not that three-run homer to spread it out…For a first weekend, for a lot of new guys, a lot of guys playing different positions in different line-ups, I was proud of the way we competed this weekend.” 

Middle Relief comes up big

At times in recent weeks Smith has brought up how the Sun Devils possess 8-10 pitchers who are all about the same; pretty good, but none who are superstars right now.

That depth proved relevant immediately, when the defense and weather caused some early exits for ASU starters, propelling some middle relievers into big spots.

Junior Eli Lingos gave ASU its only deep outing from a starting pitcher during the first game on Friday. When the other two starters -- junior Ryan Hingst and freshman Spencer Van Scoyoc -- struggled, a quartet of pitchers delivered. A strong argument could be made that ASU's bullpen was its most valuable asset of the opening series. 

Sophomore Fitz Stadler and junior Jake Godfrey combined for five shutdown innings on Friday night, opening the door for ASU’s eventual comeback. Each pitcher entered the season with his own set of question marks, but even the one scoreless outing was enough reassurance for the time being that both could be assets.

“He (Stadler) is going to be called upon,” Smith said. “I just said that to the team, I said, ‘He does a great job of keeping it close so we can make our comeback,’ and Godfrey did the same thing. I’m happy and proud for him (Godfrey) to get his first win at ASU, that was big.”

Sunday was the sophomore Reagan Todd and sophomore James Ryan show. The theme for them was efficiency, as the two combined for 60 pitches over six shutout innings to close out the game. 

Todd entered the game on short notice, due to an injury to freshman pitcher Zane Strand, who will have an MRI on Monday.

“I was able to get my curveball over for a strike,” Todd said. “I think that’s one thing that we realized, was Northwestern was taking a lot of off-speed pitches, so if you were able to throw that for a strike, you would go ahead in the count, so I was always able to be ahead in the count, and I was able to get outs and have my defense work for me.”

Longer outings from the starters will be an expectation going forward, but considering the circumstances, the middle relief proved they could be weapons in the future.

What’s Next?

The Sun Devils will have another home game, Tuesday against Oklahoma State, before taking off for their first road series of the season, which comes against consensus No. 1 TCU. 

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