After traveling to face No. 1 Texas Christian last weekend, Arizona State's return to Phoenix Municipal Stadium this weekend was supposed to provide the Sun Devils with an opportunity to regroup and get back on track.
Instead, the Sun Devils' performance left plenty to be desired, as the program suffered its second consecutive series loss, this time at the hands of Loyola Marymount.
The Lions entered the series as a West Coast Conference bottom feeder and left with their record standing at .500 and a confidence level approaching an all-time high.
ASU, on the other hand, fell to 6-5 and has plenty of unanswered questions. In addition, the road for the the Sun Devils gets much tougher, as ASU will play five of its next eight games against ranked opponents.
Friday: Arizona State 2, Loyola Marymount 1
Not much was flashy about Friday’s win for ASU, but the Sun Devils did enough to get the job done.
Junior Eli Lingos was once again the star of the game, as he delivered his third consecutive quality start, lowering his ERA to 0.89 for the season. The lone run Lingos surrendered was unearned, and he added six strikeouts as well.
The Lions were unable to get any sort of threat going all game against Lingos, whose consistency continues to elevate and solidify him into a role as the team’s ace.
"Just getting ahead early on guys and trusting in all my pitches,” Lingos said regarding the key to his success. “My changeup in both those outings was usually working pretty well, and when I can command that, it usually works out pretty well."
While Lingos’ success has not been much of a surprise to himself, he has been more of a pleasant revelation to his head coach.
“I have to say, he’s making a believer out of me,” Tracy Smith said. “We went to play a good team in TCU and he did the same thing against them. He’s probably for real. If something happens or he doesn’t have a positive result, the thing you don’t have to worry about with Eli is that he was nervous or he wasn’t giving his best effort, because he does give his best effort and he just goes about his business.
“We use him as an example with the rest of our staff. Look how he is ahead all of the time. The recipe is not that difficult. Sometimes the execution is difficult, but he has done the best by far of our pitchers at being the most consistent.”
The consistent nature of Lingos’ outings has helped him draw comparisons to Seth Martinez, last season’s Friday night starter for ASU.
Martinez has since moved on to the Oakland A’s farm system, but he left a strong model for starting pitchers to follow.
Smith has noticed one quality that both share as reasons for their prosperity.
“The fact that if you pitch on top and you can throw your secondary stuff over when you want in the count, you’re going to have success,” Smith said.
While Lingos impressed, there were very few other standouts, which is surprising considering the Sun Devils still wound up winning Friday's game.
Lions' starting pitcher Blake Redman had the Sun Devils on their toes with his sinker all game long, and Smith mentioned that ASU's hitters moved up at the plate to eliminate some of the ill effects of the sink from Redman.
It took until the sixth inning for ASU's offense to break through, as the Sun Devils scored a pair on runs batted in from senior Jackson Willeford and junior Andrew Shaps.
For Willeford, who began his season with an injury that prevented him from contributing, Friday marked only his second start of the season and his first at home.
"It's been pretty frustrating, you don't want to start off your season hurt,” Willeford said. “It's part of any sport really. Tonight was awesome, just getting the win. It was nice having my first game at home.”
While Willeford knocked in a run on offense, his infield counterparts nearly cost the Sun Devils the game with their defense. Both sophomore Jeremy McCuin and Andrew Snow have struggled defensively early in the year, and their troubles continued Friday night.
Snow was moved to first base, a position unfamiliar to him, and dropped a throw that would have been the final out of an inning, which allowed the Lions to score their lone run. McCuin made a low throw earlier in the frame that also extended the inning.
For Smith, the defensive miscues have only made him more concerned.
“We were very lucky to win that game because their guy (Redman) was on,” he said. “If we are talking at this table right now, and we lose this game 1-0 because we were lazy at turning a double play ball, we just flat out miss a ball at first base, that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.”
Saturday: Loyola Marymount 3, Arizona State 2
After a game that was reminiscent of the contest from the night before, the Sun Devils snatched defeat from the hands of victory.
With two strikes and two outs in the top of the ninth, Reagan Todd, who was in for his second consecutive save opportunity, surrendered a game-tying RBI triple followed by the go-ahead single that cost the Sun Devils a chance to win the series.
Once again, ASU failed to cash in on many opportunities with runners in scoring position. The Sun Devils went only 2-for-10 in those chances.
ASU’s offense was shut down by the combination of starting pitcher Brenton Arriaga and reliever Cody Paiva, who pitched the final three and 2/3 innings.
“It was a little bit of change going from a lefty who throws a little bit slower to a righty that’s throwing 88-90 (miles per hour),” sophomore right fielder Gage Canning said. “It’s just a different look really.”
The Sun Devils scored their first run on a RBI single by freshman Lyle Lin, who entered the series as the Pac-12 hits leader.
“He’s (Lin) hard on himself, he’s very critical,” Smith said. “I have a lot of confidence in him. We’ll cut those strikeouts down as he matures a little bit and gets more at-bats, but I have a lot of confidence in him and I like what I see out of him.”
Lin received playing time solely at catcher due to an injury suffered by fellow freshman Sam Ferri, who will be out for an undisclosed length of time.
Besides the hitting struggles and the errors, Smith has also been frustrated by the walks allowed by the pitching staff. Freshman Spencer Van Scoyoc, Saturday’s starting pitcher, has especially been privy to giving up free passes.
The five walks Van Scoyoc allowed overshadowed what was overall another solid outing from him. Though he only lasted five innings, Van Scoyoc did leave the game with the lead.
“I think he (Van Scoyoc) had a lead-off walk in three innings in a row,” Smith said. “That loss to me wasn’t in the ninth inning. It makes us have to extend our bullpen a little bit if we’re five innings in and close to 100 pitches. I thought he was good, I thought he pitched around things. He’s going to be more effective for us if he can get deeper into the ball game and cut those walks down.”
The lone run scored before the ninth by the Lions exploited a bigger problem with the Sun Devils defense. Left fielder Jimmy Hill was successful in his attempt to bunt for a hit, and an alert play on the basepaths by catcher Nathan Keavy allowed him to advance all the way to third. This was due in large part to ASU freshman Carter Aldrete's failure to cover third base, a mental lapse in basic fundamentals.
“Carter has not played a lot down at third during his career, Smith said. “There is no way you should be standing in the middle of the diamond.”
Sunday: Loyola Marymount 8, Arizona State 5
The Sun Devils looked their best offensively during the series on Sunday, but pitching problems served as their downfall in the rubber match.
It was junior transfer Jake Godfrey, making his first start of the season, who Smith entrusted on the mound. After looking sharp for the first three innings, Godfrey fell apart in the fourth, ultimately giving ASU a hole too large to climb out of.
“I thought he wore down a little bit when he got around the 50-pitch limit,” Smith said. “I thought for two or three innings he was pretty good. Still trying to find out what his role is going to be for us.”
LMU scored six runs on five hits and two walks off of Godfrey and reliever James Ryan in the fourth, which was all the cushion its starting pitcher Cory Abbott needed.
Outside of Godfrey’s wildness, the big blemish in the frame came when Shaps let a ball go under his glove in center field, allowing it to roll to the wall and bringing in an additional run.
Abbott settled down after allowing an RBI hit to Lin in the first inning and a solo home run to Carter Aldrete in the second frame.
Senior Eder Erives returned from injury and pitched in his first game since he struggled to close out ASU's contest on Opening Night against Northwestern. The results weren’t much better for him, as Erives walked two, allowed a hit, and only recorded one out, allowing an earned run in the process.
“If you don’t pitch with an edge, it’s very tough to do,” Smith said about Erives’ outing. “It’s the first outing back after being shut down for a while with the injury. If we are going to have success this year we are going to need him pitching with a little bit more of an edge and a little bit more of a sense of purpose.”
Despite the setbacks ASU suffered over the weekend, Smith maintained his belief in the Sun Devils' ability to turn things around in the weeks ahead.
“The greatest challenge you have at Arizona State with a young team is making sure guys stay confident in what they are doing,” Smith said. “If we do that, we will be fine. I am not worried about that.”
Coming Up: The Sun Devils will stay at Phoenix Municipal Stadium for their next nine contests, with five of them coming this week. ASU will host No. 12 Cal State Fullerton for two midweek games before playing a weekend series against Long Beach State.