The annual three-game series between Arizona and Arizona State concluded with a sweep for the Wildcats, their first over the Sun Devils since 1989.
In another sign of the type of year ASU’s program has suffered through, Friday’s loss ensured the Sun Devils would finish with a losing record for the first time since 1985.
Thursday: Arizona 6, Arizona State 5
Leave it up to a rivalry game to be decided by a rarity of a play.
With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the seventh inning, the Wildcats had the bases loaded and one out. In an effort to push the go-ahead run across, designated hitter Alfonso Rivas laid down a perfect suicide squeeze off of sophomore Connor Higgins that wound up bringing two runs home.
Though Higgins was on the hill when Rivas’ bunt gave the Wildcats the lead, the sophomore didn’t do much wrong in the inning.
Junior Andrew Snow’s ninth and tenth errors of the season plagued the Devils. The first error put the leadoff runner on, and the second error gave the Wildcats an important insurance run.
“He (Snow) has to play, we don’t have the options there,” Smith said on Snow’s standing defensively. “It’s unfortunate that we had a couple miscues. We make the plays defensively, we are probably coming out of here with a different result.
“I’m not going to fault the effort on the guys tonight, they kept battling.”
The Wildcats, who were the College World Series runner-ups last season, were favored coming into the weekend and threw senior JC Cloney, who played a pivotal role in the postseason for them last year, in game one of the series.
Cloney looked dominant in the early going, but the Sun Devils got to him in the middle innings, tying the game and scoring their first run on a sacrifice fly from Snow that was set up by a hit and run.
Wildcats’ junior first baseman J.J. Matijevic, who entered Friday with a .402 batting average, gave Arizona the lead back in the fifth with a two-run double off of senior Eder Erives.
Erives, much like Cloney, cruised through the early going, retiring the first nine hitters, before some spotty control and bloop singles allowed the Wildcats to open up the scoring.
“He (Erives) did a very good job of keeping them off stride, locating his change-up and throwing his breaking stuff behind in the count,” Smith said. “That’s a tough loss when you go out there and throw the way he did against as good an offensive team as Arizona is.”
After Matijevic’s double, ASU tied the game in the bottom of the inning as sophomore Gage Canning hit his team-leading sixth home run of the season, and a wild pitch by Cloney allowed the Sun Devils to even the score.
The Sun Devils had their chances in the final three innings, putting runners in scoring position in the eighth inning and scoring a single tally in the seventh and ninth innings, but could not complete a comeback against a trio of Wildcats' relievers: Michael Flynn, Rio Gomez, and Tylor Megill.
Nevertheless, the Sun Devils exited Friday feeling like they have been playing looser as a team ever since they were essentially eliminated from playoff contention, which is something that couldn’t be said during ASU’s early season struggles.
“Now it’s more of going out and having fun with your teammates because this will never be the same exact team,” freshman Carter Aldrete said.
Friday: Arizona 3, Arizona State 1
For the second consecutive contest, it was the seventh inning that doomed the Sun Devils.
Arizona scored the go-ahead run and added an insurance run in the inning to break a 1-1 tie and take the lead for good.
ASU was unable to muster any sort of rally after that, and the Sun Devils did not put a runner in scoring position in the final three frames.
Junior Eli Lingos, who was left in to start the seventh inning despite the fact that he was approaching 100 pitches, was charged with both runs, but he delivered a quality start nonetheless. He ended up allowing three runs in six innings of work.
After the game, Smith explained the decision to stick with Lingos.
“I talked to him after the sixth and thought he was throwing the baseball well,” Smith said. “He wanted to stay in there. You’ve got your guy on the mound and he was competing and executing pitches.”
Lingos had a tougher task than normal, facing a Wildcats’ offense that is considered to be among the best in the country.
“To keep them off-balance was big for me,” Lingos said. “Making sure I was locating my off-speed for strikes in most counts was what helped me throughout the game.”
Both Lingos and Wildcats’ starter Cameron Ming dueled throughout the night, and Ming ended with a complete game, efficiently mowing down the Sun Devils while giving his bullpen a rest.
“He was locating the baseball on both sides of the plate,” Smith said regarding Ming. “Made some big pitches when he needed to. I thought we struck some balls hard we just didn’t find the green space tonight. Taking nothing away from him. He did a really good job and his defense played well behind him.”
Arizona struck first in the fourth inning when the Sun Devils turned a double play with runners on the corners and no outs. The double play came at an opportune time for ASU, as the next two Wildcats each had harmless singles.
While both offenses stayed quiet after that, freshman Hunter Bishop gave ASU a jolt of energy when he doubled to start the sixth inning. Two batters later, senior Zach Cerbo drove him in with a sacrifice fly.
Bishop was one of the lone bright spots for the offense, a good example of his long journey from a player that struggled for playing time in the first couple weeks to an everyday starter that has raised his batting average over .300.
“You have to take what the opposition is giving you, it’s not just coming and swinging for the fences every single swing, every single count,” Smith said. “I think he’s (Bishop) done a good job developing as a hitter and understanding how guys are trying to get him out from at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch…I feel pretty good about every at-bat that guy gets.”
With the loss, ASU clinched its first losing season since 1985.
“I understand the losing season piece to it,” Smith said. “But to me it’s a bigger picture thing. It’s no secret some of the recent events, we’re shorthanded. I know sometimes it’s tough for people to see the forest through the trees, but I’m not worried about that. For me right now with the four remaining games, I want to make sure that the guys that are wearing this uniform are still playing and playing hard.
“I’m going to walk out of this facility tonight with my head held high because that locker room has not quit and I think it’s witnessed by the guys playing well.”
Saturday: Arizona 9, Arizona State 5
On a day in which the Sun Devils honored seniors Erives and Cerbo, the Wildcats stole the show and were able to complete the sweep behind the stout starting pitching of Cody Deason and a high-powered offense that struck early and often.
Freshman Chaz Montoya, the Sun Devils’ starting pitcher, surrendered three runs in the first inning of his ninth start of the season.
Montoya let up four total runs in 2 and 2/3 innings, although only one was earned. A big part of his struggles were due to his command, as he walked four hitters total.
Smith mentioned that Montoya has made significant progress throughout the season, but wants to see more out of him in the future.
“He’s (Montoya) a competitive guy,” Smith said. “The competitive piece has certainly been a piece of hit. He’s certainly going to have to make adjustments, because nothing stays static, you get better or you get worse, and there is a lot of room for improvement there. I’m excited to see how he grows over time.”
Seven different Wildcats had RBIs during the game, as the UA offense expanded its lead to as many as eight runs. The Sun Devils’ bullpen experienced more troubles, as four of the five relievers used by Smith allowed at least one earned run.
The Sun Devils put together a rally in the ninth, but the deficit was too big to overcome. Freshman Nick Cheema notched his first career hit and RBI with a double, and Canning followed it with a two-run triple. Freshman Lyle Lin added an RBI single, but Bishop fell just short of a home-run two batters later, and UA sealed the deal shortly after.
“They battled until the last out,” Smith said. “That’s what you are looking for right now.”
What’s Next?: ASU closes out its season next weekend in Salt Lake City against the Utah Utes. While a winning season is off the table, the goal for the Sun Devils is simply going to be finishing on a high note.