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Arizona State hosts a good, not great, Oregon State squad

Another pivotal matchup

Zac BonDurant

Arizona State (28-15, 12-9 Pac-12) welcomes Oregon State (31-15, 13-8) to Tempe in a series that could thrust one team into the top three of the conference standings.

On the Bump

Oregon State’s arms have been carrying them for the bulk of the season. The staff has posted an impressive 2.91 team ERA, the best mark in the conference.

The Beavers are led by Friday starter Kevin Abel, whose 60 innings pitched are a team high. Coper Hjerpe has been starting on Saturdays for OSU, and the freshman southpaw has been arguably their best arm. His 70 strikeouts dwarf a minuscule 20 walk total. Perhaps most notably, over 59 innings Hjerpe has allowed just one home run.

Oregon State coach Mitch Canham has had the pleasure of operating a lockdown bullpen thus far this season. Sophomore left-hander Bryant Salgado has been one of the Pac-12’s best relievers, boasting a gaudy 0.43 ERA and a .162 batting average against in his 21 innings of work. Mitchell Verberg and Joey Mundt bolster the strong pen, combining for 34.2 innings pitched with nearly identical ERAs of 2.04 and 2.08, respectively.

ASU may have found its most practical starting pitching formula last week at Cal. If this is the case, it would be a huge development for a squad that has been more or less trying to find its identity in that area since losing three key arms to Tommy John surgery earlier this season.

Junior Justin Fall tossed the Sun Devil’s first complete game of the 2021 campaign Saturday in Berkeley with a Herculean effort, throwing 133 pitches. He retired 16 of the final 17 batters he faced after it looked like he might have to exit the game in the third inning when he was struck by a line drive.

What Kai Murphy did the next day may have been even more impressive given the circumstances. The sophomore lefty went seven scoreless frames, allowing just one hit in his first start of the season. If the skipper can rely on both Fall and Murphy to perform in this realm for the rest of the season, there won’t be a lot of teams jumping for joy at the opportunity to play Arizona State.

OSU’s Feast and Famine at the Plate

Oregon State’s offense has been a complicated tale. Its boom or bust tendency has led to some huge wins, and a number of excruciating low scoring losses, the latter coming all too often in conference play.

When the Beavers were swept by Oregon in early April, OSU managed to score only six runs over the three games. The following weekend, the Beavers put up 22 runs in a three-game sweep of Cal. While the difference in quality of pitching staffs is notable, these two series represent the inconsistency Oregon State has experienced at the plate this season.

Sophomore Jacob Melton and senior Andy Armstrong have unquestionably been the Beavers’ best bats. Both in state products, their consistency has been a welcome sight for Canham and his staff. Armstrong has collected a team high 59 hits, belting two homers and adding 14 doubles.

On the defensive side, Armstrong has been nearly flawless as one of the best defensive shortstops in the country. Melton’s surge was delayed a bit, but he’s found his stride and then some, raising his season average to a team high .404. His OPS of 1.163 is among the best in all of Division I. Both hitters, along with most of the Beaver lineup, feast on right handed pitching. This may make things tricky for Tracy Smith as he manages his righty-heavy staff.

What’s at Stake

With Oregon State holding a one-game lead over ASU in the Pac-12 standings, this weekend’s series could swing things for either side. The two teams have company as well, with UCLA wedged in between the two teams and Stanford within striking distance for all three. The upper middle of the conference standings could not be more crowded. While neither ASU nor OSU is currently ranked in the top 25, they are both projected to make the tournament field of 64 at the end of the month come regionals, barring a dramatically subpar finish for either squad. A series win or sweep would be a bright spot on the resume of these bubble teams as the season heads down the final stretch.