In what will go down as one of its toughest series of the year, Arizona State lost two out of three in a high-scoring trio of games against No. 1 Texas Christian.
As if the task of playing the consensus top team in the country wasn’t challenging enough, the Sun Devils had to go on the road to do so as well. After taking the first game of the series on Friday evening by a score of 13-9, the Sun Devils lost 8-4 on Saturday and dropped the rubber match of the series by a final score of 5-2.
After allowing 22 runs in three games, ASU's pitching staff looks like it still has kinks to work out, but the team's offense showed signs that it can be relied upon moving forward.
Overall, the Sun Devils' trip to Fort Worth featured key players returning to the field and unexpected output from some key faces on offense.
Shaps, Willeford Return
After an embarrassing 18-4 loss on Tuesday to Oklahoma State, head coach Tracy Smith mentioned that he hoped to have junior Andrew Shaps and senior Jackson Willeford return for the series in Fort Worth.
That made their eventual returns seem likely for Friday's series opener, but as it turned out, neither player made it back by then.
Shaps, who was serving a suspension for a violation of team standards, was inserted into the starting lineup on Saturday. The centerfielder, who boasted the highest batting average of any returning player entering 2017, went 2-for-7 over the two games he played.
Willeford, who was nursing an injury, could help give the Sun Devils' a completely different look offensively. Although the second baseman hit seventh in the order during Sunday’s 5-2 loss, Willeford is someone Smith envisions as an eventual leadoff hitter. His patient approach has already had a positive effect on the rest of the offense. Willeford drew a walk in two of his five plate appearances.
With the return of two of the offense’s crucial pieces, Smith will have a lot more flexibility going forward in nonconference play.
Williams’ hot bat
If the first weekend was any indication, sophomore Tyler Williams did not appear to fit into the Sun Devils' immediate plans. Williams began the year behind a pair of freshmen, Myles Denson and Hunter Bishop, on the corner outfield depth chart, and his only use in the first four games came as a pinch-hitter.
However, Williams showed everything he had in the three at-bats he did earn during the first week of the season.
A double, home run, and flyout to the warning track later, and Williams found himself starting all three games against the Horned Frogs.
Over the three games, the Sun Devils' designated hitter went 3-for-13 with a home run and was ASU’s primary run producer, driving in four.
As is the mantra with most baseball teams, if you can hit, there will be a place for you to play, and Williams is hitting his way into more playing time.
Bullpen in Peril
Even during ASU's lone win, Friday’s 13-9 slugfest, the Sun Devils' bullpen did not show much improvement from Tuesday, when eight relievers combined to surrender 13 earned runs in six innings of work.
ASU's Friday starter, junior Eli Lingos, continued to lock down the “ace” role, but his outing was nearly ruined when Reagan Todd and James Ryan allowed seven runs in only 2.1 innings.
Senior Eder Erives’ injury, which is expected to sideline him until conference play, did not help matters much, as the lack of a late-inning arm continues to be a sticking point in the team’s success.
Freshman Chaz Montoya finished off the Friday victory by striking out both hitters he faced, but struggled to get outs during his second appearance of the weekend on Sunday. Montoya surrendered three hits and two walks in just one inning, but has been significantly better pitching when ASU has had the lead, so expect him to see more of those situations.
The tough task for the middle relievers has stemmed from struggles by Ryan Hingst and Spencer Van Scoyoc in their first two starts, and against TCU, Hingst struggled for the second straight weekend.
Hingst has not pitched beyond four innings in either start, giving the bullpen added pressure to stop the bleeding. While he was successful last week in that role, junior transfer Jake Godfrey had issues against the Horned Frogs, surrendering four runs in three innings, which was a big reason why the Sun Devils fell 8-4. He cited tiredness in his arm for his tough outing.
TCU’s offense is one of the best in the country, so the results from the weekend may be slightly skewed, but the trend from ASU's bullpen is not an encouraging sign at this point.
The Sun Devils return to Phoenix Municipal Stadium for a 12-game homestand, which starts on Tuesday against New Mexico State and concludes on March 18 when the Sun Devils wrap up their first conference series against Oregon State.