Amidst all of the frustration that boiled over from the dismal 23-32 season a year ago, which transpired into a 2-4 start this year — ASU baseball head coach Tracy Smith remained positive, confident that his team would get on the right track and take off.
“This team is special,” Smith repeatedly reiterated throughout the Devils’ 8-9 non-conference slate.
Some realized that Smith’s comments may be coming to fruition when ASU took the first two games from Oklahoma State by a 23-3 margin in the first week of March. The Devils then lost four of their next six and the the outlook for ASU’s season seemed cloudier than ever.
That brings us to Saturday. Just a day removed from a 6-4 come-from-behind victory over Oregon in its Pac-12 opener, Arizona State (10-9, 2-0 Pac-12) didn’t need any late-game heroics — it got all the heroics it needed right out of the gate.
The Sun Devils walloped the Ducks (12-6, 0-2) 18-4 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Saturday, behind 20 hits from a red-hot offense.
The star of the night, and Arizona State’s season thus far, was center fielder Gage Canning. The junior and All-American candidate has seemingly done it all this season.
He’s made impossible catches in the outfield, which he did again Saturday. He’s hit triple after triple this season, including boasting his total to eight after hitting another one Saturday. And, he’s quietly putting himself in contention for the nation’s top batting average, which he added to against Oregon.
“Am I surprised? Not really,” Smith said talking about Canning’s bat. “If you watch how he prepares how he goes about his routine every day, how he practices, he’s the model of what you would want.”
That batting average is now at a whopping .506 after Canning’s 5-5 performance on Saturday. Before the weekend, the .506 mark would’ve placed Canning fourth among every other player in the country. His average and hits were there, but before Saturday, he was still without a home run.
He said he thought that one was “probably going to come sooner or later.” They came sooner — twice.
The first was a 3-run bomb to right field in the third that increased ASU’s lead to a 10-0. The second, which came in the fifth, was a little more dramatic.
He drilled a ball to center that just got under the glove of the diving Oregon center fielder. From there, everyone in the stadium, except for Canning, knew he wasn’t stopping until he crossed home.
“The first base coach said ‘go all the way’ like right away and I was like ‘there’s no way they’re going to send me,” Canning said. “As I’m going around second base and I’m looking at the third base coach, I’m pretty sure he was going to send me. So, I was like ‘alright, I’ll try it.”
He later added that he hasn’t hit an inside-the-park home run since high school, which he quickly noted wasn’t as impressive because the field didn’t have any fences.
Canning drove in four and scored five times as the Devils jumped out to an early lead — music to any pitcher’s ears. Saturday, the luxury of a hot-offense and early run support belonged to freshman Boyd Vander Kooi.
Vander Kooi — who has quickly emerged as a possible Friday starter moving forward — was moved up from Sunday to Saturday, a move the Smith said he’s been planning for a couple weeks.
Despite the new night, the Arizona native dazzled again. He tossed five scoreless innings, only allowing one hit (which came against the first batter of the game) and three walks while striking out a quartet of Ducks.
After getting out of a jam in the first, Vander Kooi settled down for the next four innings — all despite a decrease in his fastball’s velocity, which usually holds firm in the 90s.
“You’ve got to do that sometimes as a pitcher, to find a way to get it done even when you don’t have your best fastball,” Smith said. “I thought that was truly one of the most impressive performances by him.”
Vander Kooi added about his fastball: “It’s lower in velocity, but I got a lot of ground balls.”
The Sun Devils scored a run in every inning until the seventh. They were up four after two innings and 10 runs after just three. With the game in hand early, some teams would have went up to the plate with no real mindset, losing “focus and concentration,” as Smith put it after the game.
Smith has been in that position before. And tonight, according to freshman first baseman Spencer Torkelson, he told his team that “when you’re up by that much, it’s a time to work on stuff — don’t take your foot off the gas.”
It added five more runs in the sixth, all capped off with, yet another, home run from Torkelson. The 3-run blast to left field was the 10th on the year for the freshman who is now just one home run shy of tying Barry Bonds’ freshman record.
When he stood in the batter’s box tonight against Oregon lefty Jesse Hobaica, Torkelson knew pretty quick that if he couldn’t crank one out he was going to be upset.
“Honestly, that guy was throwing really slow,” A chuckling Torkelson said of Hobaica. “The guy kept throwing me changeups at like 65 MPH. If I couldn’t touch the baseball, then we had some issues.”
For any team, 18 runs is a blessing. But, obviously, it’s an anomaly (ASU hadn’t scored 18 runs in two years). Many can take it as just that — an anomaly — but nearly every piece of the Devils’ roster that needs to have big contributions in order for them to reach their big goals did just that.
They’re now 2-0 in Pac-12 play and in the driver’s seat for where their season will go.
“Coming into Pac-12, we knew we just needed to turn it around and just start going and get on a roll,” Canning said. “It’s good we got the two wins and we want to get the sweep tomorrow.”
The Devils will try and get their first seep of the season tomorrow at 12:30 MST against Oregon and senior left-hander Eli Lingos will get the nod.