PHOENIX — It’s not ideal to pick up after a mess someone else left behind for you to clean up. But for whatever reason, Arizona State left-handed pitcher Connor Higgins doesn’t just enjoy it, he “thrives” in those sort of scenarios.
“I love closing ball games,” says Higgins. “I love the game on the line. It gets me going.”
One can’t argue with results, and during the Sun Devils’ 6-5 win over Washington State on Thursday night, Higgins did, in fact, thrive, throwing 3 1⁄3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits while striking out four batters and conceding no walks.
He registered his second save of the season after entering the game in a situation seemingly crafted for him to lose.
Higgins assumed the mound in place of right-hander Alec Marsh, who left the sophomore to deal with a two-out, bases-loaded jam in the top of the sixth inning. The first pitch Higgins threw to Cougars’ third baseman Shane Matheny was singled back up the middle for a two-out, two-RBI double to cut ASU’s lead to 6-5.
In a tough situation, the Orefield, Pa. native didn’t fold. He got out of the frame, then was dominant, going the rest of the way without ever putting the Sun Devils’ victory in jeopardy. ASU head coach Tracy Smith said the outing was crucial to securing the win.
“To come out of the ‘pen and shut them down,” Smith began, “clearly momentum had kinda switched at that point. But one way to take momentum away is to throw the baseball well from the mound, and I thought he was certainly key.”
Higgins said there’s something about one-run games and keeping opponents off the scoreboard that he really enjoys.
“Skip always tells me, just gotta go in with that closer mentality, every time I go in, no matter how many runs we’re down or ahead,” he said. “My goal is keep them off the scoreboard like always, just be that closer all the time.”
Smith has lauded Higgins throughout the course of the year for his noticeable improvement, and one could see why as the southpaw’s confidence was apparent Thursday, not only through the emotion he displayed, but it was evident through his pitches, too.
Higgins said that when he first entered the game, his fastball wasn’t at it’s peak velocity, but once he “finally got my groove, kinda just went from there.” He shut the door on the Cougars in the ninth inning, recording two of his four strikeouts during the frame, and even touched 95 mph on his fastball against the game’s final batter.
Higgins said he doesn’t remember throwing a pitch at such speed during his time as a Sun Devil, and credited the improvement to his coach.
“Just really trusting Skip,” he said of his growth. “He knew I didn’t have any velocity or off-speed pitch outside of an 88-mph fastball, and just working with on the bullpen—Sliders and throwing down in the zone has really taken off from there.”
Smith said it’s fun to see players grow in confidence over the course of the season, and particularly Higgins, who didn’t start the season on the best foot and was “throwing caution through the wind at that point,” even being left behind for ASU’s trip to TCU.
Thursday night provided another opportunity for him to shine, and the team rallied behind him.
“You could see it in the dugout tonight between innings we felt good about him on the mound,” Smith said of Higgins’ performance. “He’s not doubting himself. If he doesn’t get the positive result, it’s not because he’s not gonna give it to you, it’s because your’e gonna beat him. And I’ll take that any day of the week, and I love that his best fastballs were late in the game. That tells me there’s a little bit of competitive fire in there. More guys need to model that, quite frankly.”
The passion manifested itself throughout, as Higgins’ energy appeared infectious on the group as they held on for what they hope is a momentum-shifting win.
“Just gotta stay together,” Higgins said, “and keep winning games. I just love the game and getting my strikeouts.”