The long-awaited return to the diamond for Sun Devil baseball arrived on Friday night as ASU (0-1) played host to Sacramento State (1-0) nearly one year after a potential College World Series run in 2020 was cut short by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two pitching staffs dueled as hits were scarce throughout the game. Sun Devil head coach Tracy Smith sent out redshirt freshman Cooper Benson as the starting pitcher, where he was matched opposite Hornets starter Scott Randall.
Benson picked up where he left off from his impressive freshman campaign last season by pitching six innings, allowing only one baserunner on a measly single. He also sent eight Hornets down on strikes and retired his last 17 batters.
“I was just excited to get back out there and play against guys that weren’t on our team,” Benson said postgame. “I think I did a good job of setting the tone for the weekend.”
Matching Benson pitch for pitch through four innings was Randall, who pitched his way to 23 strikeouts to one walk in 25.2 innings last season. He shut down the Sun Devil offense, allowing only one hit of his own.
As ASU reached its second time through the lineup, it was clear the team was seeing the ball better off of Randall. In the fifth inning, they broke through for the opening runs of the game on a Drew Swift triple to left center field that scored Hunter Haas and Sam Ferri.
Swift, who is one of the veterans on this youth-rich Sun Devil squad, will be counted on at his spot at the top of the order to generate offense. He had no trouble accomplishing that last season when he led the team in batting average at .365.
“I’d say I was a little amped up,” Swift said. “After that I settled in, stayed with my approach, and started seeing the ball a lot better.”
Overall, it was a struggle for a Sun Devil lineup which featured several new names and first-time starters. Redshirt freshman first baseman Nate Baez is attempting to replace one of the best players in Sun Devil history in Spencer Torkelson, who was drafted No. 1 overall to the Detroit Tigers in the MLB offseason.
Other new names on Friday were Xavier transfer Allbry Major, Sean McLain, Kai Murphy, Hunter Haas and Joe Lampe. Combined with Baez, they went 1-18.
“We got a lot of new faces, so we’re learning,” Smith said of his lineup’s struggles. “Maybe it’s first game jitters, I don’t know. We feel pretty confident we’re going to be better than that offensively as the season progresses.”
Smith would call Benson out of the game to start the top of the seventh and replace him with freshman Brock Peery.
The sidearm pitcher would strikeout one batter and allow zero hits in his debut. Peery was then replaced in the top of the eighth by redshirt freshman Graham Osman, who sat the Hornets down in order.
To begin the ninth, ASU held on to the same 2-0 lead from the fifth inning. Smith pulled Osman for another redshirt freshman, Cam Dennie, who would be tasked to close out the game and preserve the win for a dominant Benson.
Instead, the Hornets jumped all over Dennie, who surrendered a single, a walk, and hit Hornet Ryan Walstad to load the bases.
Then came the knockout blow. Dawsen Bacho launched an 0-1 pitch into the Tempe night, landing comfortably over the left field wall for a go-ahead, grand slam. Dennie struck out the next batter and was then pulled for Justin Fall, who got the Sun Devils out of the inning.
ASU would go down quietly in the bottom of the ninth to lose in stunning fashion 4-2.
Dennie will get charged with the blown save, but Smith says the confidence he has in his closer that was built through months of inter-squad scrimmages and was not shaken after witnessing the ninth inning.
“Cam is a good pitcher. He’s done a real good job for us before,” Smith said. “Honestly, if we had that same scenario we’d do the same scenarios again. We just didn’t execute it tonight.”
ASU will get a chance to even the series tomorrow evening at 5:05 pm MST in game two.