He brushed the the dirt with his cleat in the left-side of the batters box. Two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to win the contest and the series, superstar slugger Spencer Torkelson gripped his bat with the weight on his shoulders.
Freshly entered righty Mitchell Verburg’s first two pitches were outside the zone. With left-handed swinger Hunter Bishop on deck, Verburg had to challenge Torkelson.
“You live for that moment, you want to be in that situation and win it,” Torkelson said.
The story seemed to write itself, the Phoenix Municipal Stadium crowd had seen Torkelson in this spot before in early March when he launched a walk-off three-run blast against Michigan State.
The crowd knew, Torkelson knew, Verburg knew he had to pitch a few over the plate. A slider flew from Verburg’s right-hand for a strike. Could he go back to the off-speed? Torkelson had already sent his 11th homer of the season earlier in the game off of a curveball from Oregon State starter Grant Gambrell.
Verburg, catcher Adley Rutschman and pitching coach Nate Yeskie decided to try the fastball. A 93-mph ball that Torkelson whiffed on. The Beavers tried it again, but as Verburg toed the rubber for his fifth pitch, he had more on it.
Rutschman received the “noise” as Torkelson described it, as the sophomore first baseman swung past the 95-mph heater. Rutschman trotted to Verburg after his pitcher had struck out one of the nation’s best hitters and closed the deal on Oregon State’s (25-9-1, 11-4 Pac-12) 4-3 win over Arizona State (27-7, 10-5).
“There’s nobody on the planet I’d rather have in that batters box in that situation,” head coach Tracy Smith said.
The Sun Devils had closed the deficit to one in the ninth after catcher Lyle Lin singled past a diving Andy Armstrong at shortstop to bring in third baseman Gage Workman in the ninth. Trevor Hauver drew a two-out walk to set the stage for Torkelson. However, the dramatic ending didn’t include a Sun Devil win.
“We’re sitting there looking at the ninth inning saying we need to get a couple guys on base because we want to get to that top [of the lineup],” Smith said. “It didn’t happen today, but I’ll put my money on him again. I hope that situation comes up again because he will succeed.”
Right-handed pitcher Sam Romero filled in for Sunday-starter RJ Dabovich, absent due to injury. Romero was far from perfect against the Beavers, but he battled. He matched Oregon State’s Grant Gambrell with four zeros on the scoreboard as Romero stranded seven Beaver runners.
As the game flipped into the fifth inning, so did Arizona State’s play. Romero got into a jam after he allowed a one-out walk and single. OSU left fielder Alex McGarry rolled over a ball with enough power to put it past the right side of the infield for a RBI-single. All Romero could do was tip his hat. McGarry made weak contact, he just happened to get a hit.
“It’s baseball, not much you can do there,” Romero said.
He’d strikeout the next batter, Smith then emerged from the dugout stairs to get the ball from Romero. His choice to get ASU out of a two runners in scoring position jam with two outs? Freshman hurler Blake Burzell.
The frosh had seen his highs and lows in his first year in Tempe, but when Smith saw what Buzell had on Sunday, he quickly hooked him. Burzell tossed five straight balls to load the bases and give second baseman Jake Dukart a 1-0 count. An agitated Smith delivered the ball to righty reliever Marc Lidd. His results weren’t much better than his teammate’s.
Lidd sent in an outside pitch to the superb defensive catcher Sam Ferri, thus why the outcome surprised the Sun Devil faithful. The ball bounced off of Ferri’s glove and gifted Oregon State a run. Ferri shook his head after he gathered the baseball and said some words to Lidd. The next pitch from Lidd was sent into right field, Dukart’s single brought home two more runs and extended the lead to four.
Smith responded on the quick pull of Burzell:
“That’s the next step for this group, is being who you are,” he said. “Not letting the circumstances dictate, that’s probably my biggest disappointment tonight....if I’m a 94-mph guy on Saturday, I’m a 94-mph guy on Sunday. Those are how we are making our decisions, clearly it was not that... If you get hit, you get hit, but be who you are.”
Arizona State’s skipper also explained the difference in a top-15 series that saw each team score 11 runs:
“We made a couple of mistakes there in the fifth. Getting crossed up on signals. And when you take teams that are that evenly matched, it’s going to take one thing like that. It’s hard when you are trying to take something away from a very tough series to swallow, I know those guys in the locker room.
“But we asked them to take one thing is ‘why is that team getting on the bus with two wins and we’re walking out of here with two losses.’ The fact of the matter is they were cleaner than we were.”
The small mistakes in the fifth doomed Arizona State. In the game of inches, it’s the biggest difference between the bitter taste of what could’ve been and look at what was accomplished.
The Sun Devils will host Seattle on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. before they hit the road for a three-game set this upcoming weekend against Utah.