(Photo: Blaine McCormick/WCSN)
Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith said that the team’s win over UNLV was a step in the right direction for a struggling team that had previously lost 11 of their last 14, but that the real test would come over the weekend against the Pac-12 opponent, the Washington State Cougars.
Based off of game one, the Sun Devils took down the Cougars 6-5 behind a huge offensive night from Gage Canning and relief pitcher Connor Higgins.
Chaz Montoya (3-2), the ASU starting pitcher on the evening, did what Smith has been begging of his pitchers to do, which is to give the offense a chance to get out ahead.
While Montoya wasn’t at his best on Thursday night, he worked his way out of jams in the first and second innings while ASU built a 5-0 lead.
He recorded the win as he lasted five innings, giving up three runs and seven hits, while walking four.
Smith couldn’t help but smile when talking about Montoya and trying to evaluate the freshman southpaw’s outing.
“He’s an anomaly, I’m telling you,” Smith said. “It wasn’t sharp but he competes. I guess that says something about him that if he can go out on a night and give his team a chance to win through five innings and only give up two or three runs and not be sharp, I’ll take that.”
While Montoya was solid, his effort was made that much brighter by the play of Gage Canning.
Canning went 2-for-4 including four RBI’s on the evening. He lead off for ASU in the first by singling and came around to score the game’s first run.
After back-to-back singles from Carter Aldrete and Jeremy McCuin, Canning provided the big-hit on the night. A three-run bomb that hit off the Sun Devil Baseball scoreboard in right-centerfield.
“I just happened to see a hanging breaking ball, and usually with our approach we’re not going to swing at those but I just saw it well and hit it,” Canning said after the win.
Canning leads the team in extra-base hits on the season with 15 and thinks he is seeing the ball better than ever and that slowing down his approach at the plate has helped him have so much success this season.
Tracy Smith has appreciated the success Canning has had lately because he acknowledges that the sophomore has a tremendous work ethic.
“That guy is steady,” Smith said. “He’s a hard worker, the guy works at his craft and he plays hard every day and he’ll strike out here or there but I never question his intent I never question what he’s doing. He does what he’s asked to do to the best of his ability and it’s nice to see a guy get results like that.”
Even though the hit broke open the lead, Washington State would score three off of Montoya to stay within three runs by the end of the fifth inning and loaded the bases against Alec Marsh in the sixth inning before Connor Higgins replaced the struggling Marsh.
Shane Matheny hit the first pitch Higgins threw on the night, just past the outstretched arms of second baseman Taylor Lane, to allow WSU to score two more runs and pull within one.
From then on, Higgins was nearly perfect. The 6’5” left-hander threw 3 and 1/3 innings only allowing two hits, and four strikeouts without allowing an earned run as he posted his second save of the season.
His approach was to ride the fire he felt from himself and the passion he was getting from his catcher, senior Zach Cerbo.
“My goal is just to keep them off the scoreboard like always and be that closer all the time,” Higgins said.
Higgins retired the final six batters of the game, recording three of his four strikeouts during that span while also throwing his fasted ever at ASU, at 95 mph.
His effort didn’t go unnoticed by his head coach who noted that Higgins has been great ever since he wasn’t asked to come with the team to Texas for the TCU series.
“He was the key for us to come out of the pen and shut them down because clearly momentum had kind of switched at that point, but one way to take momentum away is to throw the baseball well from the mound and he was certainly key tonight.”
The other key that Smith noted following the game was the early lead, provided by Canning.
“I thought it was important we jumped out early. Gage Canning with the big three-run home run, really got us going.”
Canning’s big day at the dish, added to the domination of Higgins out of the bullpen gave ASU a Pac-12 win they needed so desperately.
ASU gave themselves the chance that Smith wanted them to. They scored first. They didn’t make a defensive error and they won a ballgame.
“The formula is not unique. If you throw strikes and you play defense you give yourself a chance to win,” Smith echoed as he has had often in the 2017 season. “We have not done that season consistently but that’s not to say we can’t do it. Yeah we’d like to jumpstart and get some confidence again because I want to see the team that rolled into Texas Christian on Friday night and kicked them around. That team is in there somewhere. Hopefully this will get us going.”
The Sun Devils did what their head coach said they had to do. They came out and got a win in Pac-12 play and with two more games in the series, ASU will look to grab some real momentum and confidence that Smith said is somewhere inside his team.
Rob Werner is an ASU beat writer for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and you can follow him on twitter @robwerner28.