Arizona State (37-17, 16-13 Pac-12) was one out away from taking a series from No. 3 Stanford (21-11, 22-7 Pac-12). Everything was in place.
Sophomore starter Boyd Vander Kooi pitched lights out, going seven shutout innings and setting a new career-high in strikeouts. Freshman Blake Burzell got five outs in relief, and junior Carter Aldrete had two RBI’s that looked to be the difference in a satisfying way to end the regular season for the Sun Devils.
With a runner on first and two outs in the ninth, Burzell delivered to Stanford redshirt junior second baseman Duke Kinamon. The ball plunked Kinamon on the back side, moving the runner at first into scoring position while bringing the winning run to the plate.
Head coach Tracy Smith came out to the mound and gave way to sophomore pitcher RJ Dabovich, who has turned into a shutdown arm on the back end of the bullpen in the last few weeks. He came in to face Cardinal sophomore shortstop Tim Tawa.
In a 2-1 count, Tawa sent a high fly ball into left field. ASU sophomore outfielder Trevor Hauver trekked back, appearing to lose the ball in a cloudless Phoenix sun. Losing sight of the ball didn’t matter, however. It ended up landing just over the left field wall, giving Stanford the lead, and an eventual 3-2 victory.
“There’s 27 outs and it’s not over until it’s over. Just look at what happened today,” Aldrete said. “There wasn’t a person in this stadium or in the stands or on our team that thought they were going to come back in that game. It came down to one pitch and at the end of the day, we are still a team and we are going to move forward.”
Regarding the pitching move with two outs, Smith stood by his decision. Dabovich has come up in the clutch multiple times, including during a bases loaded, nobody out jam in extra innings at Cal last weekend.
Smith noted he liked Dabovich and his ability to close things out due to a secondary, put away pitch. Saturday was just one of those unfortunate baseball situations for ASU, where one pitch decided the outcome.
“He’s a competitive kid and he wants the ball in any scenario. He’s not happy about the result but I would go to that same move a thousand times over,” Smith said. “It’s what the matchup called for. It just didn’t happen this time. He’s a confident guy and we are going to need him down the stretch. It’s one pitch.”
Up until Tawa’s heart-wrenching homer, ASU put forth a well-played game. Most notably, Vander Kooi was sharp. His seven innings of work was backed by a new career-high in strikeouts with 11. He also had no walks and threw 90 pitches.
Vander Kooi had his warm-up tosses before the eighth inning until Smith came to get him. He received a standing ovation from the Sun Devil faithful.
Throughout the afternoon, he had dealed. He was locating with his fastball, and that gave way for his off speed pitches.
“When you are able to go in and out with the four-seam and the two-seam fastball, it expands everything,” Vander Kooi said. “You can throw pitches like your slider and your curveball, and it just keeps every hitter off balance. That’s basically what I did...Just mixing up timing and everything and it seemed to work out.”
Offensively, both of ASU’s runs came from Aldrete. He had a two-out RBI single in the second, then had a solo home run over the left center field wall in the fifth.
Aldrete credited his performance to a reminder that he keeps to himself. He even has the reminder as a screensaver on his phone - It’s to stack up the back side of his swing to generate power and see pitches.
“I think earlier in the season, I was inconsistent because I was coming forward and the ball was getting on me,” Aldrete said. “Stacking my back side has really helped me on seeing the ball and making a decision on whether to swing or not. That’s kind of my biggest thing that I have been working on.”
Ultimately, ASU did more than enough to win Saturday’s rubber match. Stanford just found a way to gut out a win. That’s part of the reason they are ranked as the No. 3 team in the country.
Regional hosts for the NCAA postseason are announced tomorrow, May 26. ASU seems locked in as a two or a three-seed pending other games, thus they will wait until Selection Monday, when the rest of the field is announced at 9 a.m. MST on ESPNU.
Despite Saturday’s tough defeat, there seemed to be no heads that were hung. Rather, there was an eagerness for a group of Sun Devils who have never played postseason college baseball.
After a full weekend that featured a triumphant come from behind win and a sour one-run loss, the Devils are ready for more pressure once they hear their name announced on Monday. It’s what they’ve been waiting for.
“Today was the last home game. I was crying after the game. My freshman year, I couldn’t wait to get out. I was like, ‘C’mon, let’s go, summer ball,’” Aldrete said. “It’s just one of those things where it means so much once you have gone through all those tough times. Now we are going to make a regional for the first time in my career. It’s just emotional. You see it happen before your eyes. You meet new people and you become brothers with people, and this program means a lot to you. It’s just one of those things where I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”