(Photo: Nicole Hernandez/WCSN)
With Tracy Smith preaching the values of “good baseball” all season long, his squad delivered those values late in a back-and-forth duel in Tempe, securing their second Pac-12 win of the season by a score of 5-4.
The starting pitching for both UCLA and Arizona State was strong through the first five innings, as neither team allowed a run for the early portions of the contest.
On the mound for the Bruins was senior Moises Ceja, who went 5 and 2/3 innings for his Southern California team, as he allowed five hits, two runs and struck out six batters.
Chaz Montoya was his counterpart on the rubber and in his second start of the season, threw the first 6 and 1/3 innings for the Devils and struck out three batters along the way.
UCLA opened up the scoring in the sixth inning with some small ball, as Ryan Kreidler came around to score after singling to start the inning, then scoring after a sac bunt and a single from Daniel Amaral that plated the freshman.
Wanting to provide run support to Montoya, the Sun Devils immediately countered, taking the lead in the bottom half of the inning. After back-to-back strikeouts to open up the inning, Lyle Lin drove a two-out homer to left field to tie the game.
His homer, while just barely getting over the wall, fired his team up and led to them taking the lead. Taylor Lane singled and stole second, then came around to score on a Ryan Lillard triple.
To continue the back-and-forth efforts, UCLA scored three runs in the seventh and took a 4-2 lead thanks to four hits, including two two-out doubles.
Montoya started the seventh on the mound, but after allowing two hits and recording an our, head coach Tracy Smith decided to remove him from the game.
“We would like to have gone a little bit longer with him,” Smith admitted after the win. “But he kind of tweaked a muscle in his back, so I thought he threw the baseball really, really well.”
Montoya noted after the game that his tweaked muscle came when fielding a ground ball, however he decided to stay in the game with how well he was pitching.
The lefty pounded the strike zone all game long, only reaching two balls in the count on three occasions and did not get to a count with three balls on any of the 23 batters he faced.
Montoya, who admitted he prefers starting, says it hasn’t been a big adjustment moving to a role in the weekend rotation after starting the season in the bullpen.
“I’ve done it in the past and that’s all I’ve done, before I got here” Montoya stated. “It was kind of like home sweet home for me being back in the starting role…I like to be in control, I like to have the game in my hands and I know that when I go out there, I’m going to compete and do everything I can to help this team win.”
After Montoya exited the game, Connor Higgins came on to pitch, however the sophomore struggled, as he allowed four hits and one run, allowing the two runners he inherited from Montoya to cross the plate as well.
Despite the rough outing from Higgins, the bats of ASU’s lineup picked him up and helped the lefty earn his second win of the season. The Sun Devils countered UCLA’s three-run seventh with a three-run bottom half of their own.
Gage Canning and Carter Aldrete led things off with back-to-back singles, then three straight RBI singles from Andrew Shaps, Lyle Lin and Taylor Lane put the Devils on top, 5-4.
Lane and Lin both recorded multi-hit games, with Lane’s being his second of the series, third straight and fourth in five games.
“Just getting more at-bats has been helpful,” Lane said following the win. “Putting good swings on it’s going to come, after you get a lot of at-bats, the past couple of days, I’ve felt good in the box… Just relaxing and staying on my approach. Not trying to get too big, I let my strength work with me because if I try to do too much at the plate, it’s not going to work.”
After Connor Higgins allowed two hits to start the eight, Eder Erives came on and pitched out of the jam, inducing a double play to end the inning. Despite walking a batter in the ninth, the first walk issued by either team in the game, Erives nailed down the final outs for his second save of the season, sending the Sun Devils home victorious and giving them a chance to win the series on Sunday.
For ASU, this was only their sixth game of the season without an error and second with less than two walks issued by the pitching staff. It was the arguably the sharpest game the Devils have played in this year, as neither team made an error, one walk was issued and only one batter was hit. From an offensive standpoint, ASU and UCLA combined for 21 hits on the evening.
While the defense was clean all throughout, Chaz Montoya’s fielding was superb, despite tweaking a muscle late into his outing.
“You pitch and you play defense, that’s the formula,” Smith said on the clean play. “He [Montoya] does a really good job… fielding his position, I though he did an excellent job on the bunt situations and we actually did all night, so you throw strikes, you play good defense, you’re probably going to be in a good position to win a baseball game.”
While both teams threw strikes and played good defense, the timely hitting and comeback mentality of ASU’s hitters gave the Sun Devils the advantage in the game and splitting the series at one game each. Tomorrow, the Devils and Bruins will play the rubber match of the series with first pitch in Phoenix scheduled for 12:30 P.M.
Nicholas Badders is a baseball beat writer for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network. You can follow him on Twitter @BadderUpSports.