Ninth inning rally yields first Pac-12 series sweep for Sun Devils

Though it has been an underwhelming season to this point, Arizona State managed to stretch its winning streak to four games for the first time in 2017, using a late rally on Saturday to accomplish the feat.

With the talent on Arizona State’s roster, a breakthrough was expected to come sooner than later. 

That breakthrough came in the form of a three-game sweep against Washington State (15-17, 2-10) over the weekend.

For the Sun Devils (16-18, 5-10), winning all three games over the Cougars, who have also had their fair share of struggles, could signify a turning point in the season.

Thursday: Arizona State 6, Washington State 5

A lift provided by sophomores Gage Canning and Connor Higgins played a pivotal role in ASU's series-opening victory.

Canning belted his second home run of the season, a three run blast, and added another hit and run batted in.

“That guy is steady,” head coach Tracy Smith said. “Actually his offensive power numbers are decent. Statistically he looks like our biggest power hitter the doubles, triples, and now home runs. He’s a hard worker. They guys works at his craft and he plays hard every day and he will strike out here and there but I never question his intent.”

Meanwhile, Higgins threw 3 and 1/3 innings to close out the game, a role he has become increasingly accustomed to.

Higgins relieved freshman Chaz Montoya, who labored through five up and down innings, giving up three total runs. Montoya had earned the start in the series opener due to junior Eli Lingos pitching in Tuesday's mid-week win over UNLV.

The left-hander Higgins’ outing was much needed, as the Sun Devils have had trouble piecing together scoreless outings from multiple relievers. 

“He was the key for us to come out of the bullpen and shut them down, because clearly momentum had switched,” Smith said. “The way to take momentum away is to throw the baseball well on the mound, and he certainly did that.”

The Cougars had begun to come back in the middle innings after ASU jumped out to an early five-run lead, scoring two runs in both the fifth and sixth innings before Higgins put a stop to any further damage.

“You see guys grow up and you see confidence,” Smith said about Higgins. “I go back to earlier in the season, he didn’t make the TCU trip. He wasn’t throwing the baseball well. He threw caution to the wind at that point. You could even see it in the dugout tonight between innings. I felt good about him.”

Friday: Arizona State 10, Washington State 7

Although WSU made it close late in the contest, the Sun Devils rode a hot start to clinch their first Pac-12 series. 

Senior starting pitcher Eder Erives was backed by a six-run first and aided by a four insurance runs in the middle innings on the way to the win. 

The first inning started with a bang, as ASU gave itself a substantial cushion from the get-go, highlighted by freshman Carter Aldrete’s two-run home run. The team also did some little things well, such as advancing the extra base. Junior Andrew Shaps did it after a routine single went under the glove of the right fielder. A run scored, and Shaps advanced to third.

Freshman Hunter Bishop also moved to third on what looked like a double thanks to a bobble and hesitation on the relay. 

“It helps certainly from an offensive standpoint that guys can settle in and not press,” Smith said. “I think even from a pitchers standpoint, every pitch isn’t critical, you can get a free flow out there for the strike zone. Psychologically, where we have been the past couple weeks, for us to not always be chasing is a big thing right now.”

Before a late inning scare, the Sun Devils tacked on four more runs, including a sacrifice fly from senior Zach Cerbo, one of two that he had during the day, and a home run by sophomore Jeremy McCuin.

McCuin had three hits on the day, and looks to be turning a corner offensively.

“The hitting has been off and on, but now it’s actually coming into its own, so it’s fun showing up to the field,” McCuin said.

After Erives was removed due to some command issues (he issued three walks in 3 and 2/3 innings), the tandem of sophomore James Ryan and junior Grant Schneider struggled once the seventh inning rolled along. Ryan had previously surrendered a run in the sixth, and ran into more trouble in the seventh.

Five hits and three walks in the inning by WSU against the relief duo closed the deficit to three runs, and the Cougars even brought the tying run to the plate.

In an outing reminiscent of Higgins the night before, junior Ryan Hingst recorded eight outs, including retiring six of the last seven batters he faced, to earn the win. 

He credited his defense with allowing him to settle in.

“Gage (Canning) made a few really great plays in the outfield,” Hingst said. “I’ll have to give him something tomorrow. Knowing that, and I love throwing to Cerbo, we’re always on the same page. Once me and Cerbo get into a groove and you have that defense behind you, it makes it fun to go out there and throw strikes.”

With the series win locked up and a load off their backs, the Sun Devils are searching for the same team from earlier in the season to continue their confidence.

“I hope that we are confident,” Smith said. “I don’t want them to be overconfident. If we’re not confident, we’ve got a problem.”

Sunday: Arizona State 5, Washington State 4

The late inning drama of the series was saved for the finale.

ASU secured the sweep by scoring four runs in the ninth inning after the game had seemed all but over. 

With the Sun Devils trailing 4-1, the first two hitters of the ninth were retired, but two walks led to Ryan Lillard’s game-tying three run home run.

“Skip just told me to get a pitch that I can handle over the middle of the plate,” Lillard said. “The first few batters of the inning, he had them take a strike, but he gave me the green light and said if I saw a pitch to handle, just let it go.”

Four batters later Hunter Bishop drove in the winning run with a single.

“I was sitting slider,” Bishop said. “The whole series, I think I got two fastballs in like six at-bats, so I knew they were going to come slider.”

Smith surprised some by deciding to start Lingos on short rest, and the typical Friday starter settled down after some early trouble. The Cougars scored four runs in the first two innings, but were shut down after that.

Lingos threw six innings in total and sophomore Reagan Todd came in clutch by throwing three scoreless innings out of the bullpen.

Todd said that he kept his mindset the same as normal on the mound, knowing that the offense was capable of scoring enough runs to come back, as evidence by the previous day.

With the victory, the Sun Devils have now won four straight games and have climbed out of the bottom of the Pac-12 standings.

“After what we have been through and the struggles we have had, we are saying ‘one game,” assistant coach Fred Nori said.

What’s Next? The Sun Devils will take a break from Pac-12 play and have four winnable games on the docket. The first of which will be on the road against UNLV on Tuesday. The weekend series is against Cal State Bakersfield at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

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