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ASU Baseball: Spencer Torkelson shines, Gage Canning delivers Sun Devils a walk-off win

In the bottom of the ninth, Washington was forced to pitch to Torkelson. ASU, and Gage Canning, was just fine with that.

Andrew Palla/House of Sparky

PHOENIX — Washington catcher Nick Kahle took off his mask for a minute. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in a tie game, but Kahle’s eyes drifted away from the field.

They went the visitor’s dugout along the third-base line of Phoenix Municipal Stadium Friday night where his coaches kept a dialogue that looked like defense attorneys strategizing after the prosecution brings a new piece of evidence into a courtroom.

But, the coaches had their chance at this case before — four times to be exact.

Arizona State (19-25, 11-11 Pac-12) freshman first baseman Spencer Torkelson stepped into the left-handed batter’s box greeted with the verdict from the Huskies’ coaches: a four-man outfield, something they had employed in the fifth and seventh, too.

“I thought it was silly. If they’re going to give me that,” Torkelson said after the Devils’ 4-3 win. “It’s a free hit.”

He cashed in with a single in the seventh. And on the fifth pitch of his at-bat in the ninth, the freshman phenom smoked a 2-out single down the first-base line.

Now, the Washington (21-20, 11-8) coaching staff may have been discussing if they should’ve intentionally walked Torkelson with two outs and a free base at first. But, Sun Devil head coach Tracy Smith tinkered the lineup just a weeks ago specifically for a situation like Friday.

He pushed the prototypical leadoff guy, Gage Canning, into the 2-hole on April 20, opting to put Torkelson at the top of the order so he could, a.) get up as many times and possible, b.) get pitches to hit with a threat behind him.

“Those two make my job easier,” Smith said of Torkelson and Canning. “(Torkelson) will take the walk. . . and if you have Canning sitting behind him — just like tonight — you’ve got to pitch to him (Torkelson) because Canning has the ability to win a baseball game with one swing.”

On Friday, he delivered.

With Torkelson creeping off first, the junior drove a fastball deep into the left-center gap. Torkelson, doing his best Ken Griffey Jr. 95 Slide impression, raced around the bases and got the windmill from third-base coach Ben Greenspan, sliding into home as the Devils’ dugout erupted in a sprint towards Canning.

“Earlier in the season, that might be a game we don’t win,” Canning, who’s hitting a team-high .393, said. It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve had (a walk-off win). . . they feel the best.”

Torkelson’s ability to beat a shift, beat strategy, beat a four-man outfield — something Smith said he has never seen in college baseball — is truly astounding.

The freshman, who was recently named to the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team went 3-for-4 Friday, scoring all four of his team’s runs in the process — the highlight of which, too, came in the fifth inning.

Leading off the inning, Torkelson drilled a fastball right over the 410-foot mark of the center field fence to knot the game up at two. As he and Smith joked after the game, the way to beat a four-man outfield is to hit it over their heads.

The blast, though, was the 6-foot-1, 205-pound first baseman’s 22nd of the year, giving him the Pac-12 freshman record just over a month after he broke Barry Bonds’ ASU freshman record of 11. It puts him just four shy of the NCAA freshman record of 26 and the ASU single-season record of 27, as well.

“I leaned over to a couple players and I said, ‘Fellas, I’ve been around this a long time, seen some pretty good ones,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘you’re witnessing something you’re not going to see every day.’

“He’s special.”

The fourth-year ASU skipper was almost at a loss for words when asked where the Petaluma, Ca. native can improve. “He’s a pretty complete player right now,” Smith said. ASU’s head coach did say that he needs to improve defensively at first base, but not much beyond that.

Friday’s win gets the Sun Devils back to .500 in the Pac-12. Postseason play is all but out of the question but the Devils have taken the “why not us?” mentality — something that both Smith and Canning separately said after their walk-off win.

ASU’s skipper laid out a hyperbolic scenario in which his team won their next 11 games, get to 30 wins and extend their season. That is unrealistic. Regardless, though, Smith knows his team is playing better, and that’s something they can take moving foreward.

“Were playing for something because we’re playing better baseball now,” he said. “We’re playing better defensively. We’re growing up.”