After dropping three consecutive series to start conference play, how Arizona State responds to adversity will play a big role in the team's ability to climb into the postseason picture in the coming weeks.
The Sun Devils (12-14, 2-7 in Pac-12) now face an urgent need to play every regular season game like it is the NCAA Tournament in order to boost their resume for postseason competition.
Once again, the youthful squad was plagued by similar issues that it has struggled with all season as the visiting UCLA Bruins overmatched the Sun Devils throughout the weekend.
Friday: UCLA 9, Arizona State 3
Much like in the past, the Sun Devils chipped away into a sizable early deficit, but failed to come all the way back and let the game get away at the end.
Despite five walks in 5 and 2/3 innings, junior starting pitcher Eli Lingos kept ASU in the game, pitching around a three-run second inning to only allow one more tally the rest of the way.
Still, it was the five walks that Lingos surrendered that put a blemish on the all-around serviceable start.
Despite command issues, outside of one factor, head coach Tracy Smith did not notice much that was different about Lingos on Friday.
“I think there was a little bit of frustration,” he said.
Errors were once again prevalent, as a second inning miscue by freshman Carter Aldrete causing two unearned runs to be charged to Lingos’ ledger. Meanwhile, freshman Hunter Bishop had a ninth inning mistake that further opened the floodgates.
Smith had some difficulty summarizing Lingos’ performance because of the circumstances.
“Not his best, by any stretch of the imagination,” Smith said. “Defensively, it’s been a struggle. When you’re out there making pitches and getting ground balls but not getting outs, that compounds things.”
In that troublesome ninth inning, sophomore reliever Chris Isbell, who was making his first appearance since February 20, was charged with five earned runs. Isbell did throw a clean eighth inning, however, and is still recovering from an injury that had sidelined him.
ASU had entered the ninth trailing by just one run, and all three of its runs batted in were by freshmen. Bishop had two, on a sacrifice fly and a single in the third and fifth innings respectively, before Aldrete cut the lead in half with a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning that scored senior Jackson Willeford.
“They (UCLA) had a pretty good pitcher on the mound, (Griffin) Canning,” Smith said. “He’s been a top of the league arm, he’s good.”
Saturday: Arizona State 5, UCLA 4
The Sun Devils completed another comeback in the late innings, albeit on a much smaller scale, to win the middle game of the series.
In a game that can only be categorized as a seesaw affair, ASU took advantage of a few good bounces that gave the Sun Devils the lead for good after they had previously surrendered it in the seventh inning.
Trailing 1-0 in the sixth after the game had been scoreless throughout the majority of the contest,, freshman Lyle Lin hit his first collegiate home run, a fly ball that barely cleared the left field wall.
Smith called the home run “the energizer” for the team.
“At first I thought no doubt, this thing is going to land up on the hill,” Smith said. “Then I watched their guy track it, Ben (Greenspan) said it cleared the wall by inches. I thought he caught it…Two-strike count, wasn’t a lot of life going on. He put a charge in the team.”
Lin also delivered a game-tying single in the action-packed seventh inning.
Junior Taylor Lane, hitting directly behind Lin in the cleanup spot of the order, had three hits, including a single that deflected off of the glove of UCLA freshman third baseman Ryan Kreidler.
After not seeing the field much over the first month of the season, Lane has settled in, and has raised his batting average to .333.
“Just getting more at-bats has been helpful,” Lane said. “Putting good swings on it is going to come for me and I’ve been getting a lot of at-bats the past couple of days. I felt good in the box.”
Nonetheless, Smith said he still would like to see Lane show some more power, as he had yet to tally an extra base hit through Saturday.
On the pitching side, freshman Chaz Montoya made his second start of the season and showed once again why he has as bright of a future as anyone on the ASU team.
Although Montoya tailed off a bit toward the end, the left-hander delivered a quality start, giving up only three runs in 6 and 1/3 innings.
Montoya admits he prefers being a starting pitcher to a reliever, which is part of the reason why he has looked so comfortable since the transition last weekend.
“I’ve done it in the past, and it’s all I’d done before I got here, so it was like home sweet home for me being back in the starting role,” Montoya said. “I like being in control. I like to have the game in my hands.”
Up a run in the eighth inning, Smith turned to senior closer Eder Erives, who got the final six outs of the game, but not before escaping a jam. With two on and nobody out when Erives entered the game, he was able to get out of the predicament and prevent the Bruins from tying the game.
“You’re not expecting that,” Smith said about Erives’ magician-like escape job. “With first and third and one out, you’re just trying to minimize the damage, but he made a quality pitch when he needed, but he got the comebacker, and in a relaxed sort of way, did what he needed to. That was a huge lift for our guys in the dugout.”
Sunday: UCLA 17, Arizona State 4
Although ASU had the opportunity to win its first Pac-12 series of the year, Sunday’s finale ended shortly after it started.
In what has seemed to turn into an all too frequent occurrence on Sundays this season, nobody on the Sun Devils’ pitching staff was able to hold the Bruins in check.
UCLA followed up a five-run first inning with another run in the second and then eight more between the fourth and fifth innings.
It was the fifth time this season that an opponent has scored at least 10 runs off of ASU’s pitching staff.
“Everybody is trying,” Smith said. “But at some point, trying is not good enough. You have to execute. I thought we did a really poor job to set the table.”
Redshirt sophomore Reagan Todd, the starting pitcher, took the brunt of the damage, allowing six hits, two walks, and five earned runs in 1 and 1/3 inning. Todd did not do himself any favors, throwing a first pitch ball to eight of the first 12 hitters that he faced.
Although Todd got his chance, it looks like the search will continue for the third starter to pair with Lingos and Montoya. A pitcher who previously got that chance, junior Ryan Hingst, did not fare much better, allowing three runs in 1 and 2/3 innings.
Smith said the play that started the downward spiral occurred when the Sun Devils failed to record an out on an attempted sacrifice bunt by UCLA freshman Jeremy Ydens, the second batter of the game.
“We don’t get an out on the bunt and it all spiraled from there,” Smith said. “That was that bunt and the whole answer to the rest of the day.
“What we had to guard against, and it was pretty evident pregame, was we had a big win last night, guys were feeling pretty good about themselves, but I think that’s the part where we showed a little bit of our immaturity. We went out to take infield and I could tell right then and I pulled them into the locker room and said ‘This isn’t right, I can tell just by the way we are carrying ourselves.”
Sophomore Garvin Alston Jr. was able to somewhat limit the damage, but not before freshman Alec Marsh let five runs score in the fifth inning.
Freshman Chase Strumpf had the biggest offensive game for the Bruins, collecting two hits and driving in five runs.
UCLA starting pitcher Jon Olsen was dominant after the first inning, allowing just two earned runs in 6 and 2/3 innings. His only blemishes were solo home runs by junior Andrew Shaps and senior Zach Cerbo. Olsen had a streak from the first to the sixth inning in which he retired 15 consecutive hitters.
In fact, the Sun Devils had only three at-bats all day with runners in scoring position.
With the Pac-12 schedule only deepening, Smith is still searching for answers on how to turn the Sun Devils’ fortunes around. One thing they have going for them is that last season they were in a similar hole in the conference standings, only to turn it around and earn a postseason bid.
Added confidence from past experiences could play a big role going forward.
“It’s crazy, because that is the part that I worry about,” Smith said. “Whenever you lose a few games in a row, you worry about does your team lose that confidence. From a talent standpoint you could go around that diamond and say ‘potential pro, potential pro’ all that stuff. That team a month ago, what’s the difference between that team now. Is it because we played a tough schedule, lost a few games and our mindset is weak? I would like to think not, I would like to think that we are a talented enough team to finish at the top half of this conference and make a run down the stretch.”
What’s Next?: The Sun Devils will head to Tucson on Tuesday to play the first of five games this season against Arizona. Although this game won’t count towards the Pac-12 standings, it matters in terms of the overall record.