If Arizona State learned anything from its midweek series against No. 7 Cal State Fullerton, it's that the injury problems and pitching concerns that have plagued the Sun Devils are only continuing to grow.
A lack of starting pitching depth made the Sun Devils opt for two consecutive bullpen days, which forced them to use nearly their entire pitching staff against the Titans.
The end result was back-to-back losses in which the Sun Devils gave up double-digit runs in each game, losing 10-4 on Tuesday and 13-4 on Wednesday.
Fullerton's pitching staff did not stifle ASU by any means, but the Sun Devils’ offense still faces an uphill battle in making up for the deficit that has been caused by their pitching staff in seemingly every game.
Tuesday: Cal State Fullerton 10, Arizona State 4
Even though a glance at the final score would not indicate it, ASU actually held the lead for a decent portion of this game.
Two runs in the first inning and two more in the fourth helped propel the Sun Devils ahead, and they did not surrender their lead until the sixth inning.
Junior Andrew Shaps and freshman Lyle Lin led the way with two hits and a run batted in apiece. For Lin, Tuesday's effort marked his ninth multi-hit game of the season.
The wheels did not completely fall off for ASU until the ninth inning, when sophomore Garvin Alston surrendered four runs. Two innings prior, the Titans took their first lead of the game thanks to two runs off of fellow sophomore James Ryan.
Junior Ryan Hingst got the start, despite the fact that he had recently been removed from the weekend rotation. The scheduling anomaly of two midweek games forced head coach Tracy Smith’s hand, but Hingst will make more appearances out of the bullpen than the rotation in the future.
“I would say that Ryan (Hingst), in the role that he is in out of the 'pen, I think he can be good at that,” Smith said. “He’s had some really good performances out of the pen with a good fastball. So we said today, if you can give us one, give us one. If you can give us two, give us two, three whatever. Just give us what you’ve got. Don’t try to treat it as a starter mentality because you’re going to be back in the bullpen this weekend.”
Hingst was serviceable, giving up only one hit and one run in 3 and 2/3 innings, but showed over the weekend that he has much more worth out of the bullpen, possibly as a bridge to the closer.
Walks were once again an issue for the pitchers Tuesday, as the Sun Devils served up eight total, with six of their seven pitchers allowing at least one.
“It seems like we’re around the zone, around the zone, and then four-pitch walk,” Smith said. “It’s confidence and execution. I don’t think it really comes down to mechanics. Just the concentration piece of it clearly has to get better. It’s going to be very, very difficult to beat a team like Cal State Fullerton when you’re walking eight guys and I think three or four times we walked the leadoff guy.”
Smith also mentioned that if ASU had the lead heading into the eighth inning, the regular Friday night starter, junior Eli Lingos, would have thrown the last two innings, as it was his scheduled bullpen day.
Wednesday: Cal State Fullerton 13, Arizona State 4
Unlike Tuesday, this game was pretty much decided from the start.
Sophomore Fitz Stadler was flat in a spot start, and junior Grant Schneider did little to help his cause in relief.
The Titans scored nine runs in the first three innings, which all but ended the game, despite the fact that ASU put together a miniature four-run rally in the second inning.
Stadler had an oblique strain coming into the start, according to Smith, yet he still got the nod. Because the Sun Devils had planned to use a few relievers to piggyback off of him, Stadler was not expected to go deep into the game.
Indeed, he was replaced by Schneider after just two innings.
ASU's persistently suspect defense did not help Stadler’s case. Sophomore shortstop Jeremy McCuin dropped a potential force out which led to the Fullerton tacking on five runs in the second inning.
Smith opted to keep Schneider in longer than he would have if the game were closer. Schneider then fell apart in his final frame, allowing four runs in the sixth inning. In total, he surrendered 10 hits and six runs, while getting only eight outs.
Freshman Tanner West saved the damage from growing even more out-of-hand, tossing 3 and 1/3 hitless innings the rest of the game.
“I think he (West) certainly was a bright spot for us,” Smith said. “I think he needs to be a little bit better at locating the ball down. If he throws the baseball like that with a little conviction, we feel like we have another option out of the bullpen.”
The only offense came during the aforementioned four-run second inning. The runs came on a pair of two-run doubles from corner outfielders Gage Canning and Ryan Lillard.
From the third inning on though, the Sun Devils had just two hits at the plate.
"That was a little bit of a disappointment that we weren't able to sustain any sort of attack offensively,” Smith said. “I thought we stung a couple balls hard, but we didn't mount much of a threat thereafter. That's a combination of some hard outs in there, but also, that's a quality pitching staff."
Nonetheless, Smith is not worried, as evidenced by last year, when the Sun Devils got off to a similarly cold start, but turned it around.
“We're not going to panic early,” he said. “We were a good baseball team five games ago, so a four-game stretch is not going to change the perception of that. We have to get more consistent on the mound. We are a combination of one, we're young, two, we are playing tremendous opponents when we are a little thin on the bump."
What’s Next?: The Sun Devils will try to snap their four-game losing streak against Long Beach State. The Dirtbags will start All-American pitcher Darren McCaughan on Friday, while ASU is expected to counter with Lingos.