(Photo: Allyson Cummings/WCSN)
The Arizona State Sun Devils struck early on Friday night, scoring three runs in the game’s first three innings, and fought off a late comeback to defeat the USC Trojans, 5-3, to earn their sixth win in seven games.
The victory improves the maroon-and-gold to 6-4 in Pac-12 Conference play. After a slow start, ASU’s strong play of late has put themselves right back in the thick of the conference race.
“You listen to the scores tonight in the Pac (Pac-12), you know, they’re all close,” ASU head coach Tim Esmay said after the game. “It’s just the way it’s been played. Games are just not blowouts anymore. It’s every pitch, everything matters. Tonight was no exception.”
Trailing 3-1 in the eighth, the Trojans strung together three singles to load the bases against Sun Devils reliever Jordan Aboites. Closer Ryan Burr entered the game for Aboites and allowed two runs on a fielder’s choice and a wild pitch, tying the game 3-3.
The game didn’t stay deadlocked for long. Arizona State responded in the bottom of the inning with two runs thanks to the help of three two-out hits.
Johnny Sewald singled to get the rally going before advancing to second on a wild pitch. After Trever Allen walked, Nate Causey singled to bring in Sewald and take back the lead. Brian Serven followed with a single of his own, bringing across Allen to secure the insurance run and put the Sun Devils up 5-3.
“Johnny Sewald is involved and it seems like he’s always involved in something like that,” Esmay said of his sophomore centerfielder. “He’s been involved in that the last couple weeks and he did that again with a nice at-bat, and then Trever [Allen] takes a good at bat and walks; and then Causey’s been our guy, he struggled a little bit last weekend but he made some adjustments this week, got his swing back and had a big at-bat.”
Arizona State wouldn’t look back as Burr returned to the mound and finished the game off in the ninth. The Trojans had the tying run at the plate after Kevin Swick walked but failed to capitalize on the opportunity. Burr was not in line to earn the save but was credited with his third win of the season (3-2).
Burr, who has 29 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings pitched, began the season as the team’s ace. However, struggles early on led to the decision to return him to his usual role as closer. It’s a move that has paid off for the Sun Devils as Burr has racked up six saves since.
“Ever since we’ve put Burr in the back end, it’s really helped us win some close games,” Esmay said of his closer. “That’s part of winning games late. Now you have a kid that’s a sophomore who has had experience, who had success last year, who had success at the national level, all that stuff and now you give him that ball at the end, it’s a little better situation for us.”
Wyatt Strahan started for USC but struggled in the first by hitting two batters, which set the plate for Jake Peevyhouse, who lifted a sacrifice fly to centerfield to open the scoring.
Two innings later, Strahan served up two more free bases to start the frame. Drew Stankiewicz would cash in with a single that brought home Causey and Serven, extending the Sun Devil lead to 3-0 through three.
The left-handed Strahan gave up five walks through the game’s first three frames but did settle down enough to last six innings. He surrendered just the three runs, all earned, and allowed six hits while striking out two.
Marc Huberman surrendered the go-ahead runs in the eighth and was handed the loss for the Trojans.
The Sun Devils struggled to deliver with runners in scoring position throughout the evening (3-15 in those situations) and left a total of 13 men on base. This didn’t bother Esmay much, though.
“We’re getting our hits, we just didn’t get quite the big hit tonight but we’ve been doing that lately,” Esmay said. “I always look at that and yes, you wanna score those runs but you’re also getting them (baserunners) on and when you’re getting 13 guys on, leaving 13 guys on, that means you got guys on base.”
Brett Lilek made his seventh start of the year for ASU and continued his early season success. He tossed 5 2/3 innings of work, allowing just one run on four hits along the way and helping to lower his ERA to 2.18 (entered 2.27).
The left-handed Lilek began the season as the team’s third starter, though he’s proven himself capable of holding down the ace role.
“We always kind of knew that Lilek was that type of pitcher that could pitch on a Friday,” Esmay said.
Given the Sun Devils’ youth and lack of experience, from the onset of the season they weren’t expected to make much noise with their bats. However, nearly two months into the season, contribution from all over the order has them positioned near the top of the Pac-12 in hits.
“These guys work hard, man,” Esmay said of his young ballclub. “These kids work hard at the game. If you could’ve saw this week and saw how many guys were coming out early and working in the cages, they work at the game, and so it was just a question of them getting some light at-bats to kind of see the speed of the game.”
“We knew that once they started kind of figuring that out and understanding how people were trying to pitch to them from a swinging standpoint or a talent standpoint that they had a chance to hit the baseball.”
The two teams retake the field on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. for the second game of the series. Ryan Kellogg (3-2, 4.25 ERA) is slated to start for ASU and will be opposed by Bob Wheatley (2-3, 3.67) for USC.