Losers of seven of their last nine games, the Arizona State Sun Devils could ill afford another shaky start or late-game swoon.
The Sun Devils (14-16, 6-4 Pac-12) got both, but neither mattered in a 5-1 win over USC Friday night.
Sophomore starting pitcher Alec Marsh breezed through the first inning, but found himself dangling without a rope in the top of the second.
Marsh allowed the first three Trojans to reach base with a single, a double and a hit batsman.
On the verge of an early deficit, Marsh remained calm on the mound knowing how important the ensuing at-bats would be in how the rest of the game would be played.
“I kind of thought back in my mind and was just like, ‘this is gonna be the game right here if I get out of this,’” Marsh said. “And that’s what I did.”
He buckled down, striking out right fielder Jamal O’Guinn and getting catcher Blake Sabol to ground into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play to escape the frame unscathed.
“He could collapse, he could fold there,” coach Tracy Smith said. “But he didn’t. He stayed focused, he stayed locked in on what his job was, which was next pitch. And when you do that enough, good things usually follow.”
What immediately followed for the Sun Devils was a lead in the bottom of the frame.
Sophomore designated hitter Carter Aldrete kicked off the inning with a leadoff double. He moved to third base on a ground out, then scored on a well-executed bunt to first base by sophomore right fielder Hunter Bishop.
A solo home run by junior center fielder Gage Canning followed in the third inning, then back-to-back singles by Canning and freshman first baseman Spencer Torkelson expanded ASU’s lead while Marsh kept USC’s bats at bay.
From the third inning through the eighth, Marsh allowed just three men to reach base in the form of a double, a walk and a hit batter, allowing the Sun Devils to rest their arms after an arduous midweek series against Cal State Fullerton.
Smith said he debated taking Marsh out after the seventh inning, then saw him toss a perfect eighth. Up 5-0 entering the final frame following an eighth inning insurance run, Smith let his starter go out and try to finish the job.
ASU’s season has been marred with late-game struggles, but with as well as Marsh was throwing, it looked like that would not be a talking point Friday.
A strike out was sandwiched between a walk and hit batter on Marsh’s 117th pitch of the night forced his coach’s hand and Smith beckoned in junior Connor Higgins.
He lasted just six pitches, issuing a walk and going 1-0 to the next batter and suddenly the five-run lead did not feel as imposing.
Smith turned once again to the pen, bringing in senior Jake Godfrey.
After walking the batter Higgins left off with, Godfrey closed the door on the Trojans, inducing two fly outs to send the Sun Devils home with their first series-opening win in five tries.
“Connor’s done it before, he’s been great,” Godfrey said. “He didn’t have a great night and I had step up and pick him up. It’s what we do.”
In his sixth appearance of the year, Godfrey notched his first save.
The challenge now is parlaying it into a series win and beyond for a team that’s struggled to string together victories since a sweep in Oregon in March.
“It’s time to turn it around,” Marsh said. “It’s time to focus on the little things, stuff that we haven’t done well in the past, maybe because we’re young, whatever it might be. We have so much talent on this team that if we do the little things, we’re going to win. A lot.”
The Sun Devils get their next chance to do that Saturday at 6:30 p.m. as Eli Lingos takes the ball in the middle game of the series against these same Trojans.