Ethan Long had the cinematic moment of his freshman season Friday night in a 9-6 Arizona State (29-15, 13-9 Pac-12) victory against Oregon State (31-16, 13-9) when he hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to send the Sun Devils home victorious.
The magnitude of this game, and this series, was impossible to ignore as the first pitch was thrown at 6:30 p.m. by Tyler Thornton.
Whichever team takes this series was going to be within range of a top-three spot in the Pac-12. The loser would be knocked reeling backward into the middle of the standings with two weekend series left.
From the outset, the emotions of the game reflected the sense of urgency and projected it around the stadium. Pitchers fist pumped off the mound after key strikeouts, while batters kicked their bats as they stormed back to the dugout.
The game reached a fever pitch in the top of the fourth inning, when Tracy Smith was tossed from the game by home plate umpire Steve Mattingly in the fourth inning.
The argument from Smith, which was over a questionable foul ball call that very well could have been an inning-ending swing-and-miss strikeout to Beaver center fielder Joe Casey, came during the midst of a five-run explosion from the Beaver offense in the inning to roar back from a 4-1 deficit to a 5-4 lead.
“I just thought the time of the game at which it was, the game is still in balance, they had momentum going, we strike the guy out. He probably tipped it but the catcher clearly caught it,” Smith said, then took the pause of a man who has trying not to say anything that would get him in trouble. “I don’t know how he missed that.”
Christian Bodlovich, who had replaced Thornton on the mound one batter prior, picked up his ejected coach up by striking out Casey two pitches later, eliciting roars of approval from the Sun Devil fans who had been showering Mattingly with heckles and boos for at least 10 minutes.
Neither Thornton or Oregon State starter Kevin Abel were able to command their pitches in the early innings, and it resulted in this game taking a similar early-inning feel to Tuesday’s contest against Nevada.
Three runs crossed the plate in the first inning, with Jack Moss’s double down the first base line scoring Long and Sean McLain to give the Sun Devils a 2-1 lead.
For the second straight game, the Sun Devils burst out of the gate offensively like a thoroughbred caged at Churchill Downs.
The two-run first inning was followed by two more in the second, as leadoff man Drew Swift sent a 3-1 pitch from Abel over the wall in right-center field.
What was once an offense struggling to find an identity is now one of the best at jumping out to early leads in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are aggressive, and it stems from their clubhouse leader and Swift.
“It’s probably not a secret anymore, but I like swinging at that first pitch,” Swift said with a smirk. “I think it sets a tone. If you jump on that first pitch, get on base like that, it’s going to put a bad mindset in the pitcher’s head.”
But while Abel could have spun out of control after giving up four runs through two innings, the veteran, and two-time Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week this season cooled his jets, and allowed only one hit until Will Frisch relieved him for the bottom of the seventh.
On most nights, a lead after six innings is all the Beavers would need. Their bullpen is stocked with strong arms that strikeout many and walk few. But the Sun Devils worked their way into rally territory in both the seventh and eighth innings.
They got one back in the seventh on a Hunter Jump double that scored Swift from first to make it 6-5. The eighth represented a chance to not just tie the game, but possibly push the go-ahead run across the plate as well.
The first two batters, Moss and Hunter Haas, both walked to put runners on first and second with no outs. But Nate Baez bunted into a double play, and pinch-hitter Sam Ferri grounded out with pinch-runner, Kade Higgins, 90 feet from tying the game.
That sent the game to the top of the ninth, where closer Will Levine relieved Brady Corrigan with two outs and a runner on to face Greg Fuchs, who had walked in his three previous at-bats.
With the count full, Levine powered a fastball past Fuchs to retire the side and set the Sun Devils up with a chance to tie the game and potentially walk it off.
Two singles from Swift and Jump at the top of the order pushed the tying run over to third base, and a McLain single scored Swift to even the score at 6-6. Long, who had hit 11 home runs in his previous 11 games stepped to the box.
Long, by his standards, was experiencing an off night. The Oregon State pitching staff entered the game with a plan to attack him by consistently brushing him off the plate with dangerous inside pitches that could have gotten him in the helmet several times.
Outside of a double in the fifth inning, Long’s visible frustration with the way he was pitched appeared to be getting the best of him.
But as he stepped to the plate in the ninth with a chance to win the game, the raucous crowd at Phoenix Municipal Stadium was ready to erupt. Long could feel the energy, and with one swing of the bat, he delivered a moment nobody in attendance will soon forget.
“With the fans going like that, I was like, ‘Alright, let me do it for them,’” Long said. “This is what they’re waiting for, let me get it done. That ninth inning was something special.”
Game two of the series is tomorrow night, with first pitch slated for 6:35 p.m. local time.