(Photo: ASU Athletics)
Head coach Tim Esmay was not too pleased about his team’s showings in the series finale against USC and in its midweek matchup against Arizona. But as they have shown time and time again this season, this Sun Devils baseball squad (19-14, 9-6) knows how to respond.
Even though the traditional Friday night firework show was scheduled to take place at the conclusion of the series opener against Cal (15-17, 4-8), the Sun Devil offense could not wait. Left fielder Chris Beall gave ASU the thrilling 3-2 win over the Golden Bears with a walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the 10th. Dalton Dinatale had a massive night, going 4-for-5, and RJ Ybarra notched his 12th RBI in his last four games.
On Saturday, the Sun Devils clinched their fourth consecutive conference series win with a 4-1 victory. Nate Causey blasted his first home run of the season to bolster his stranglehold on the team-lead in slugging percentage. But other than Causey’s one swing of the bat, the Sun Devils struggled offensively, as the Cal pitching staff did not allow more than one hit to any individual ASU batter. The Sun Devils did, however, benefit from six hit batters and five walks. Ryan Kellogg’s career-long outing at Packard Stadium only solidified the Sun Devil’s eighth win in 10 games against Pac-12 opponents.
After taking the first two games of the series, the three-game sweep alluded the Sun Devils once again on Sunday, as they fell 5-3 in 10 innings. Darin Gillies threw his best game of the season and was poised for his second win, until the Sun Devil bullpen [read: Ryan Burr] blew a 2-0 lead in the eighth inning. Nevertheless, Arizona State vaulted up to fourth place in the Pac-12 standings (only behind Washington, Oregon State and Washington State) and has now won seven consecutive series against Cal.
That was the gist; here are the details.
Player of the Series:
Brett Lilek, Ryan Kellogg and Darin Gillies.
Not too much media attention was given to the Sun Devil’s pitching struggles, but the numbers did not lie: Brett Lilek had been winless since the Pac-12 opener against Washington nearly a month ago; he had also not escaped the fifth inning in any of his past three starts. Since his nine inning domination the No. 3 Oregon State Beavers on March 22, Ryan Kellogg had been equally as shaky. Kellogg had an 8.02 ERA and had allowed 18 hits in his last 10.1 innings pitched. Darin Gillies was coming off his worst outing of the year. The junior lasted only 2.2 innings, allowed nine hits and four runs, and issued four walks against USC.
Esmay voiced his concern and challenged the three-man crew at the start of the week. The starters did not disappoint.
Lilek stymied the Cal offense on Friday, retiring 12 straight batters to start the game. Lilek and Cal starter Daulton Jeffries, a true freshman, matched each other for the duration and both took no-decisions. Lilek finished his outing after seven innings pitched, striking out five and allowing only two runs.
Kellogg’s Saturday performance had the press box raving that he looked even more dominant than he did against Oregon State. Eight innings pitched with five strikeouts and one earned run certainly validates such assertion.
Gillies, the lone junior on ASU’s sophomore-studded pitching rotation, fired seven innings of two-hit baseball, accompanied with six strikeouts. Given the high-scoring nature of Sunday collegiate baseball, the outing from Gillies was perhaps the most impressive.
While the starters handled a mediocre Cal offensive attack, the same cannot be said for closer Ryan Burr.
Burr entered Saturday’s game with a 4-1 lead in the ninth, looking for his first save in two weeks. But 10 straight balls, two walks and a hit batter forced Esmay to pull his closer.
Burr showed glimpses of his old self on Sunday, but nevertheless surrendered two runs in the top of the 10th inning to take his third loss of the year. Granted, second baseman Drew Stankiewicz made a crucial error on what should have been a double play to end the inning; however, Burr had walked one and hit one prior to that. Burr has now issued eight walks and hit two batters in his last four innings.
Esmay has reiterated that Burr is one of the best closers the Sun Devils have ever had, and thus, he will continue to give the ball to Burr with full confidence in save opportunities. With that being said, the art of closing is a mentality. Right now, Ryan Burr does not have any confidence in his stuff. He is pressing and overthrowing, thus contributing to him missing high frequently. Another element that factors into the late-game debacles are the hollering, curses and complete loss of courtesy from the crowd whenever Burr misses the strike zone. Burr has fallen from his reign as the elite closer in college baseball and the fans have only quickened the process.
If Esmay opts to relieve Burr from his closing duties until he regains his confidence, Jordan Aboites will be the likely candidate as interim closer. Dubbed the “Biggest, Little Reliever,” all five feet, five inches of Jordan Aboites have aided in his stellar performances out of the bullpen. Though he did give up a run on three hits in two innings of relief on Sunday, his clutch performance on Saturday earned him this week’s recognition.
As Burr faltered in the ninth inning, loading the bases and not recording any outs, Aboites coolly and collectively preserved the win for the Sun Devils. Aboites quickly induced a popout to Colby Woodmansee at shortstop followed by a 6-4-3 double play to end the game.
Stat of the Series:
Tim Esmay has nicknamed his team the “Cardiac Devils” and this week’s “Stat of the Series” certainly shows why. The past nine games for the Sun Devils have been decided by three runs or fewer, with the team going 6-3 in that span—good enough for a .667 winning percentage. Four games have gone to extra innings, and the Sun Devils have emerged victorious in three of those contests. These stats are in stark contrast to how ASU initially fared in close contests: From the start of 2014 play up until the Oregon State series (the turning point in ASU’s season), the Sun Devils were a measly 5-6 (.454 winning percentage) in games decided by three runs or fewer.
From winning percentages in close games of .454 to .667 in a matter of a few weeks, the Sun Devils have progressed from a raw but immature team to a legit contender in the Pac-12 title race.
The Sun Devils have a short rest period, as they will host the No. 2o UNLV Rebels (25-11) tomorrow night at 6:30. UNLV has trounced its opponents at home, as the squad has gone 15-2 and outscored opponents 121-49 within the grounds of Earl E. Wilson Baseball Stadium. On the road, however, UNLV is only 10-9. The Sun Devils will then travel to Palo Alto to resume Pac-12 play against the Stanford Cardinal (12-16, 4-8). Prior to its 6-3 win over Washington on Sunday, Stanford had lost six consecutive Pac-12 games.
You can reach Jacob Garcia on Twitter @Jake_M_Garcia or via email at Jacob.M.Garcia@asu.edu