During a reprieve from its normally treacherous Pac-12 schedule, strong hitting and spotty pitching was the story in Arizona State’s series win over CSU Bakersfield.
Sophomore outfielder Gage Canning was undoubtedly the star of the weekend, as he continues to impress at the plate for the Sun Devils.
Friday: Arizona State 12, CSU Bakersfield 6
The Sun Devils prevailed in a slugfest in the opening game. Canning led the way with four hits, including two triples.
The Ramona, California native now leads the NCAA with seven triples.
In addition, the centerfielder added two runs batted in and also scored a run. He has continued to emerge as one of the best leadoff hitters not only in the Pac-12, but in the country as well.
“What I love about him is just the consistency in his game,” head coach Tracy Smith said regarding Canning. “He’s one of, if not the best player, in the conference. He’s growing up, he’s maturing, so it’s good to see. Good for him.”
The rest of the offense backed Canning up as well on Friday. Seven of the nine starters had at least one hit, and, including Canning’s triples, the Sun Devils finished with six extra base hits.
Freshmen Hunter Bishop and Carter Aldrete combined for five hits and five RBI.
Despite what the score might indicate, it was not an easy victory for ASU.
The first inning woes that have plagued ASU throughout the season resurfaced when the Roadrunners tagged freshman Chaz Montoya for three runs in the first frame.
The starter, whom Smith would later find out was sick, would eventually settle down and only allowed two more earned runs over his next five innings.
“I wanted him to extend a little bit,” Smith said about Montoya. “Where we are, we haven’t had a complete game by anybody… After I took him out I heard somebody yakking down in the dugout. He didn’t say anything to anybody, but he was really, really sick and throwing up. “
Aside from Canning and the freshmen, Smith knows that it’s going to take a total team effort in order for the Sun Devils to climb back into contention.
“We need more than just those guys (Aldrete and Bishop) stepping up,” Smith said. “In particular, when we get into conference play, we are going to need to take it one game at a time and win as many games as we can at this point.”
Saturday: Arizona State 4, CSU Bakersfield 2
ASU’s offense only had one good inning on Saturday, but that is all it needed against Roadrunners’ starter Andrew Hansen.
After some signs of an offensive hangover from the night before started to appear, the Sun Devils exploded for four runs in the fifth inning, with three of the four coming with two outs. The big blow came from Canning, who hit a two-run home run off of Hansen.
Through the first two games of the series, the centerfielder went 7-for-9 with three extra base hits and four runs batted in.
Despite his recent tear, Canning has not made any huge adjustments at the plate.
“I just feel like I’m seeing the ball well,” Canning said. “I’ve been focusing on, especially with two strikes, just putting the ball in play.”
Prior to Canning’s home run, sophomores Tyler Williams and Jeremy McCuin each added RBI singles.
The former was inserted in the game during the inning as a pinch-hitter for Bishop. Smith mentioned that he was unhappy that Bishop did not run out an earlier groundout the whole way to first base.
Those four runs were enough to back junior starter Eli Lingos, who looked like the same pitcher that he was during his first few starts of the season.
When healthy, the left-hander has been a model of consistency for the Sun Devils.
“When we limit the walks, we’re pretty good,” Smith said about Lingos. “That’s what you want, you want an older guy out there where your younger guys can see, this is how it’s supposed to look, and that gives those guys confidence. It was good to see him go deep into the game. We feel like we’re in pretty good shape tomorrow with the pitching, and that’s partly because he did an excellent job of taking it deep.”
Lingos lasted 7 and 2/3 innings, surrendering only one earned run and striking out six hitters.
He leaned heavily on his curveball throughout the outing.
“I had good command of my curveball, which helped a lot, getting it over early,” Lingos said. “At the end of the game, I thought I was practically only throwing curveballs. That was the biggest factor, just being able to get ahead with it and changing speeds with it.”
Sophomore Connor Higgins finished off the rest of the game, earning his third save of the season, which ties him for the team lead.
Higgins has been leaned on heavily out of the bullpen this season and his emergence has been a bright spot for ASU.
“He (Higgins) is going to be aggressive,” Smith said. “Even at UNLV, bringing him in that, he did what he was supposed to do and they found a hole with it. The one thing I won’t question with him is, is he nervous? Is he going to make a mistake because he is scared? If you beat him, you beat him because he is going to come at you aggressively, and I’ll take that any day of the week.”
Sunday: CSU Bakersfield 8, Arizona State 6
What once appeared to be a pitcher’s duel transformed into an offensive battle toward the middle and late innings.
Both teams struck for five runs in the sixth inning to break a 1-1 tie, but the deciding runs came in each of the next two innings, when the Roadrunners scored the go-ahead run and tacked on an insurance run off of redshirt sophomore Reagan Todd to avoid the sweep.
Bishop had the big blow for ASU during its rally, a three-run home run that cleared the College World Series sign in right-center field and tied the game.
As the Sun Devils faced a deficit a few innings later, it was baserunning miscues that led to the team’s eventual undoing. Freshman Lyle Lin was thrown out trying to advance on fly ball from Aldrete. Then, in the ninth inning, the game ended after Bishop was doubled off on a flyout by junior Taylor Lane.
“You’re down two runs, your run means absolutely nothing,” Smith said about Bishop’s mishap. “To get doubled off in a situation like that is inexcusable.
“It’s a baserunning mistake. Absolutely. It’s the situation of the game, understanding the game.”
Smith’s unhappiness with the events followed what was an impressive comeback after the setback in the top half of the sixth inning.
Senior Eder Erives, the game’s starting pitcher, opened the inning, but failed to record an out. Junior Ryan Hingst and eventually freshman Sam Ferri, who had exclusively seen time at catcher before Sunday, followed Erives on the mound.
“We’ve been really inconsistent in the middle and back pitching-wise basically all season,” Smith said. “With his (Ferri) wrist situation right now, we have one of our more competitive kids, better kids, just sitting around because he can’t do anything. We’ve looked at him in some simulated games earlier in the week just to get him out there. You saw today that I think he has a chance to help us down the stretch.”
On a positive note for ASU, Canning extended his hit streak to 12 games and added three more hits. He finished the weekend 10-for-13 and has built an impressive case toward another Pac-12 Player of the Week honor.
However, with Pac-12 play resuming, Smith knows that the Sun Devils will have to cut down on some of the fundamental mistakes that have plagued them in multiple contests this season.
“This isn’t about being a freshman, this is about being a baseball player,” Smith said. “It’s simply understanding situations of the game and then reacting to that with your own instincts.”
What’s Next?: The Sun Devils will have the luxury to rest up during the next few days with no midweek contests on the slate. They will hit the road to take on Oregon next weekend, with the need to build a case for an NCAA Tournament berth becoming more urgent.