After a series loss against Loyola Marymount and a pair of midweek defeats against Cal State Fullerton, this weekend's series against Long Beach State was perhaps the most important of the young season for Arizona State.
Coming off of a four-game losing streak, the Sun Devils (9-7) prospered against Long Beach State in a way that helped them tap into their confidence as they get ready to begin Pac-12 play next weekend.
Friday: Arizona State 7, Long Beach State 6 (10 innings)
Those who came to Phoenix Municipal Stadium anticipating theatrics reminiscent of the Sun Devil teams from the past two seasons were not disappointed.
What started as a blowout that had ASU staring at its fifth consecutive loss ended as one of the more resilient wins of the Tracy Smith era.
“We needed something positive to go our way,” Smith, ASU's head coach, said. “If you were going to script one that would have adversity, because the guys came out with a really good vibe even in pregame. We weren’t going to give in regardless of the circumstances of recent ball games.”
A fielding error in the tenth inning by LBSU second baseman Jarren Duran gave the game to ASU, but it was Andrew Shaps’ home run with two outs in the ninth inning that gave the Sun Devils their biggest spark of the season thus far.
For Shaps, the home run was a high point in a year that began in some turmoil due to a suspension.
“It has been a bit of a grind to get back on track,” Shaps said. “I would be lying if I said I have been comfortable at the plate the whole year. Game-by-game, I’m slowly getting there.”
The five first inning runs allowed by Friday’s starter, junior Eli Lingos, put ASU in a big hole early on. However, Smith stuck by Lingos and was rewarded, as his pitcher gave up just one unearned run in the next five innings.
Lingos’ strong turnaround gave the Sun Devils time to chip away at the lead.
“What you saw out of him was that he still showed maturity to throw some zeroes up and keep us around for the next five or six innings,” Smith said. “Not his best start, but he hung in there and gave us a chance.”
Freshman Hunter Bishop’s fifth inning home run, the first of his career, was the turning point that rose the spirits in the dugout.
“It felt good to get it off my chest,” Bishop said about his home run.
From that point on, ASU added a single tally in both the seventh and eighth inning before Shaps tied the game in the ninth off of Dirtbags' reliever Josh Advocate.
The game-tying home run and eventual walk off, which was put in play by freshman Sam Ferri, would not have been possible without the excellent relief pitching of Chaz Montoya. The freshman came in and retired 10 of the 11 batters he faced, striking out five of them. Smith described his performance as “huge.”
“Keep us in the game,” Montoya said about his mentality when he came on in the seventh inning. “Pound the zone, don’t walk people, because with this team we could score runs at any point of the game, so four runs wasn’t anything. I was just like, keep us in the game and we will score four more runs.”
It’s still early, but Friday’s win helped established a never-give-up mentality for the Sun Devils, and could be a turning point for the season.
“You do this consistent over 50 some games, you’re going to come out on the positive end,” Smith said. “That was awesome to come out on the positive end today and use a lot of people doing it.”
Saturday: Arizona State 9, Long Beach State 4
The Sun Devils moved up their offensive fireworks by a few innings on Saturday.
Freshman starting pitcher Spencer Van Scoyoc collected himself after a rough first inning, and the bottom of the order, led by Bishop and senior Zach Cerbo, propelled ASU to another victory.
Van Scoyoc ended up walking four total in just 4 and 2/3 innings. Walks continue to prevent him from taking the next step forward, as he has been otherwise impressive. After Saturday, his strikeout to walk ratio stands at 13:20.
“I thought he was pitching a little tentatively,” Smith said regarding Van Scoyoc. “He’s young, but for him and for us, to be as good as we can be, he has to be in the strike zone, because that stuff eventually catches up.”
Cerbo put ASU ahead 3-2 in the second inning with his first career collegiate home run, and two innings later he extended the lead with a RBI single.
The impressive weekend put together by Cerbo has him in pole position in the ever-changing starting catcher landscape.
“He’s earned it,” Smith said. “We have, in my mind, three Division I quality catchers. So if you can take what he has done physically and you add that emotional component to it, and the maturity, and the handling of the pitchers, that’s a plus.”
LBSU tied the game in the seventh, but ASU scored five unanswered in the seventh and eighth innings, all without getting an extra base hit.
With the Sunday starter being determined by how the pitching would shake out, Smith opted for Jake Godfrey, who had started last weekend to get the final few outs of the game.
On Friday, the Sun Devils once again did a spirit circle in the outfield prior to the game. A tradition during the Pat Murphy era, some of the Sun Devils veterans took it upon themselves to bring it back.
“It’s one of those things where you just let loose and get vulnerable in front of your team and lay it all out on the line and get the guys going,” Cerbo said. “It’s something that I think with how this last week has been for us, I think it has given us that new spark and change of attitude.”
Overall, Smith feels good about the direction the team is heading.
“We have a little bit of a momentum boost going here, but what you look for in baseball is consistency,” Smith said. “So what we have to do tomorrow is still strive to get better every single day. Extend leads, don’t sit on one-run leads, that shouldn’t dictate your at-bat.”
Sunday: Arizona State 7, Long Beach State 5
Another big first inning by the Dirtbags fell to the wayside as the Sun Devils continued to beat up on LBSU’s pitching staff.
“Just to hear the vibe in the dugout, even after the four spot today,” Smith said. “Guys were even laughing about it, it was almost like no big deal, we have been here before.”
The cards fell junior Ryan Hingst’s way over the weekend and earned him the start in the finale. Hingst had pitched on Saturday, but only threw six pitches, meaning he was rested enough to pitch on Sunday.
Hingst's time was short-lived however, and it was Godfrey who carried the heavy load of the pitching staff. The junior transfer let up just one hit in three and 2/3 innings. Godfrey has alternated from the rotation and bullpen, but seems to have carved out a niche for himself as a long reliever.
Godfrey earned Player of the Game, according to Smith.
The former LSU Tiger said it was not a problem that he has been used in multiple roles, and that he is ready whenever.
Sophomore Connor Higgins earned the save, become the third different pitcher of the weekend in as many games to pitch in the ninth inning.
It’s been a tough start to the season for Higgins, but his outing on Sunday, in which he struck out three of batters in 1 and 1/3 innings, looked like a step in the right direction.
“He (Higgins) didn’t travel to TCU,” Smith said. “So from a coaching perspective, when you see a guy get that opportunity, and I’ll say this, he’s been working his tail off to put himself in position to get the baseball, and then to have success once he gets the baseball, you root for that.”
It was one key pitch that paved the way to Higgins’ success.
“Fastball really had some velocity today,” Higgins said. “It was the first time all season. Just wanted to throw that fastball over the plate and have the guys make plays.”
ASU began its comeback by scoring five runs in the third inning, and got big hits from Bishop and senior Jackson Willeford, who delivered a run-scoring double.
As his playing time increases, Bishop proved Smith right for inserting him in the lineup. A two-run triple on Sunday contributed to his four-hit, five-RBI weekend.
“He (Bishop) is a physical beast,” Smith said. “But he’s kind of putting it together. Sometimes when guys come from high school, it’s different. They are at a different level. They have gotten by on talent alone up to this point and he is a perfect example of that.
“He has come along because he has an element of power and he is the fastest guy on our baseball team. It’s more been his growth, he’s had a couple injuries he’s been dealing with, but if he can settle in, with his bat, with his legs, that makes Arizona State better.”
What’s Next?: ASU concludes its 12-game home stand against Oregon State, the consensus top team in the Pac-12. The series will begin on Thursday.