(Photo: Blaine McCormick/WCSN)
A team that is desperate can be the worst team to play against, regardless of talent level. The danger in facing Arizona State baseball is that they are desperate, but have the talent to match.
Facing the Washington State Cougars (15-17, 2-10 in Pac-12) and looking for a sweep to buoy their Pac-12 standing as much as possible, Arizona State (16-18, 5-10 in Pac-12) went into the ninth inning Saturday with one run on four hits trailing by three and proceeded to walk off by the score of 5-4.
Head coach Tracy Smith pushed the right button when he sent junior Ryan Lillard up with two on and two out to bat for Jeremy McCuin, who was 0-3 on the day. Lillard took Colby Nealy’s 1-1 pitch to dead center field to tie the game at 4, sending Phoenix Municipal Stadium into a frenzy.
Lillard said after the game he tried to keep his approach at the plate as simple as possible.
“Skip just told me to get a pitch that I could handle over the middle of the plate,” Lillard said. “The first few batters of the inning [Smith] had them take a strike, but he told me just to have the green light.”
Lillard has always had potential surrounding him since he arrived on campus in the fall of 2014, but has yet to firmly grasp a starting position under Smith. Despite the uncertainty of not seeing his name on every night’s lineup card, the Urbandale, IO, native prides himself on being ready to contribute at a moment’s notice.
“Whether I’m in the lineup or not I just have to keep myself ready mentally, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Lillard said. “If you sit out or zone out on the bench you’re not going to be successful when you get in, so whenever that time comes I know I’m ready to go.”
The Sun Devils made certain that the Cougars wouldn’t get an opportunity to ruin their comeback attempt, as they loaded the bases following Lillard’s blast for freshman Hunter Bishop, who singled up the middle to send everybody home happy.
“I was sitting slider [in the last at-bat],” Bishop said after the game. “The whole series I think I got two fastballs in six at-bats, so I knew they were going to come slider.”
The day did not start as ideally as it ended for Arizona State, with usual Friday starter Eli Lingos surrendering four runs through the first two innings, with some questionable defense behind him contributing to the early deficit.
Sun Devil assistant coach Fred Nori said after the game that the four early runs were not indicative of the start that Lingos provided.
“I think there were a couple pop-ups that I think we could’ve got to, and I think what was amazing was it would’ve been easy for [Lingos] to quit there, but he really pitched well after that,” Nori said.
Lingos settled down nicely after the second, and finished with a line of six inning, four runs, scattering 11 hits and striking out six.
After picking up their fifth win in Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils will get an abbreviated break from conference play over the next week, as they will travel to face UNLV for the third and final time this year at Earl E. Wilson Stadium before returning home to host Cal State Bakersfield for three games beginning April 21.
Redshirt sophomore Reagan Todd, who picked up his second win of the season with three innings of one-hit relief, believes that the team needs to stay within itself and take it one game at a time moving forward as they try to continue their march back towards relevancy in the Pac-12.
“It was tough with the whole Cal series, going there and getting swept,” Todd said. “But our team was able to turn it around and find a reason to play and come out and win. So we still got things to play for, we’re still trying to do well in the Pac-12… but we just gotta take it one game at a time and keep winning.”
Bobby Kraus is a baseball beat reporter for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network. You can follow him on Twitter @bobbykraus22.