PHOENIX — There are plenty of narratives surrounding the struggles that Arizona State baseball has endured over the course of the 2017 season. A youth-driven team hasn’t adjusted to conference play with aplomb, and the starting pitching staff has been riddled with inconsistency.
That inconsistency has led to early deficits - more than a handful of them. Entering this weekend’s Washington State series, the Sun Devils had allowed their opponent to crack the scoreboard in the first inning in 14 of its 31 games. Of those 14 tilts, ASU held a 5-9 record.
At 14-18, the Sun Devils’ urgency to turn their season around manifested itself tangibly in Arizona State’s series-clinching win over the Cougars, as a six-run first inning paced the Devils to a 10-7 lead.
“It helps certainly from an offensive standpoint, that guys can settle in and not press from trying to scratch from behind,” head coach Tracy Smith said. “And even from a pitcher’s standpoint, every pitch isn’t as critical, you can get out there and be free-flowing.”
Following Eder Erives’ scoreless top half of the first, Gage Canning opened the Sun Devils’ account with a leadoff single — scoring on Andrew Shaps’ single that was mishandled by the Washington State right-fielder.
Arizona State found itself with two outs quickly thereafter as Tyler Williams struck out and Zach Cerbo was retired on a sacrifice fly. Rather than let Wazzu starter Ryan Walker off the hook with a two-run first, the Sun Devils kept their foot on the gas.
Andrew Snow’s double scored Lyle Lin, and Snow came home immediately afterwards as Carter Aldrete roped a home run over the right-center field fence. Aldrete’s homer was particularly impressive coming as an opposite-field bomb for the right-handed hitter. It was an at-bat Smith noted as one he’s been looking for out of the freshman.
“That’s something we really worked on before the game and talked about cutting that swing,” Smith said of Aldrete. “His stride was much smaller, it’s one of those you talk about evolving as a hitter and that’s exactly what we said. There’s a point in time and maybe you can do that but right now it’s time to simplify it and I thought he did it beautifully.”
Hunter Bishop’s triple and subsequent run scored on Jeremy McCuin’s single stretched the lead to 6-0, and ASU enjoyed ample breathing room en route to the 10-7 victory.
The Sun Devils may have enjoyed an early romp, but the game regained its competitiveness as Washington State put up a six run inning of its own in the seventh. Aiming to carry its three-game winning streak into a sweep of the Cougars, better bullpen execution down the stretch will be vital to ensure the early offensive firepower isn’t in vain.
“Psychologically, where we’ve been the last couple weeks, to not always be chasing is a big thing right now,” Smith said. “We haven’t shown the ability to close the door on anybody, so every run for us is important. I’m not proud of the fact we got to keep piling late in the game, but it’s just where we are right now.”