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Sun Devils struggle in final game of the series

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(Photo: Steve Rodriguez/ASU Athletics)

With a series sweep within the conference in their sights, the Arizona State Sun Devils entered Sunday looking to keep their scorching-hot lineup on track. The Southern California Trojans had other ideas.

Stellar pitching from the Trojans bullpen shut down ASU’s hitters for most of the game and then held off a furious late-inning comeback to defeat ASU, 8-7.

The loss pulls ASU’s record in the Pac-12 to 7-5, good for fifth in the conference. Even with the series win, ASU head coach Tim Esmay looks at the conference loss as a missed opportunity.

“When you have an opportunity to sweep, you need to sweep,” he said. “Yeah we won the first two, but we had a chance to get a game back in the (Pac-12). We had that chance today and we didn’t get it done. Now we’ll have to get it back somewhere else.”

ASU starter Darin Gillies struggled early, loading the bases in the second and third inning and allowing two runs in each of the game’s first three frames. He earned the loss after surrendering six runs, four earned, and nine hits and walking three before being pulled after 2 ⅔ innings pitched.

“That was his first big struggle this year in a start,” coach Esmay said following the loss. “They (USC) did a good job. They had 11 hits after four innings, they came out and swung the bat and they did what they needed to do after a tough loss last night.”

The Trojans jumped on the board early with back-to-back singles in the first from Jeremy Martinez and Dante Flores, each scoring a run to grab the 2-0 lead. Flores collected a team-high three hits and finished with two RBIs on the day.

Nigel Nootbaar got the start for USC but struggled immediately, allowing the Sun Devils to respond in their half of the first. Johnny Sewald walked and then advanced to third on two consecutive wild pitches before, one batter later, a third wild pitch allowed him to trot home.

Following a fly out and a walk that followed, Nootbaar’s day was done. He was sent to the showers after tossing 24 pitches (9 strikes, 15 balls) in just a third of an inning, giving up three runs and walking as many along the way.

Brooks Kriske came on in relief of Nootbaar and allowed two unearned runs on two hits in the first but held ASU hitless through his next five innings of work on his way to earning the victory.

The Sun Devils would tack on two more in the opening frame to take the 3-2 lead courtesy of RBI singles from Christopher Beall and Dalton DiNatale. However, their time in front would be short-lived.

Omar Cotto responded for USC in the second with a triple, scoring Blake Lacey to knot things back up. Kevin Swick followed with a double that brought home Cotto and put the Trojans on top for good.

Leading 6-3 in the fifth, USC added to their lead when Martinez hit an RBI double, scoring Swick for his team-high second run of the day. Flores stepped up next and extended the lead to five on a single that scored Martinez.

“We got our tails kicked from the second inning until the 7th in all aspects–pitching, at-bats, everything,” Esmay said. “There was nothing going on (for us). Fortunately, it’s a nine-inning game.”

After its three-run first inning, ASU failed to register a hit until the seventh, when three consecutive two-out singles loaded the bases for pinch-hitter RJ Ybarra, who launched a bases-clearing double to deep centerfield to cut the lead to 8-6.

DiNatale sent one over the right field wall for a home run to start the eighth and bring the Sun Devils within one. Two singles later in the inning would set Brian Serven up with runners on the corners, though he hit a lazy ground ball to shortstop to end the threat.

The opportunity would be as close as ASU would get.

Ybarra reached on an error in the ninth but two straight first-pitch pop-outs ended the game and secured the 8-7 Trojan victory.

“It’s disheartening because you know it was a battle to get back in that game,” Esmay said in response to how his team fought back.

Coach Esmay saw how hard his team fought to claw their way back from a five-run deficit, though he wasn’t pleased with their performance overall.

“It’s frustrating that those (good) at-bats left us until the seventh inning,” he said. “That’s the part that upsets me, is that we have been swinging the bat good and we have been having good at-bats and we had good at-bats in the first inning after giving up two, after they came out and swung the bats. But then to kind of go dormant for the next five innings is frustrating and it’s really not acceptable.”

Nate Causey led the way for the Sun Devils this weekend, hitting 7-for-12 and knocking in two runs against USC. His batting average moved up to .398, which leads the team.

“He is having a great year this year but it’s because that kid’s worked at it,” Esmay said of his junior first baseman. “He’s made some adjustments and he’s really figured out who he is as a hitter and what they’re trying to do to him. It’s nice to see a junior in the program who’s having those good, mature, confident at-bats for us.”

The Sun Devils look to bounce back on Wednesday at home against in-state rival Arizona for their second meeting of the season. The two team’s first faced off on March 26 in a game that ASU won handily, 14-6.

Wednesday’s first pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. The game’s starters have yet to be announced.

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