Heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, it looked like Arizona State was going to endure a gut-punch of a loss in its Austin Regional opener. The bullpen had coughed up a three-run lead in the seventh inning with a brutal stretch of free passes.
With all that behind them, the Sun Devil lineup did what this team has done all year long.
They didn’t quit.
Arizona State rallied for two runs in the home half of the ninth to come from behind to beat Fairfield 7-6 in dramatic fashion on Friday night.
“That’s baseball, anything can happen. That’s why we play to the last out,” Arizona State coach Tracy Smith said. “Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. We try to keep a level head but I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t thrilled.”
After a pop out began the ninth, Joe Lampe and Kai Murphy followed with back-to-back singles to put runners at the corners. Fairfield reliever Michael Sansome then walked Drew Swift to load the bases.
Smith turned to freshman Blake Pivaroff to pinch-hit. Controversy ensued, as Pivaroff was plunked on the left hand by a fastball.
Fairfield contended that the ball struck the knob of the bat, but the call on the field was upheld after review. Lampe trotted home as the game-tying run.
“I don’t know if they replayed it on TV, but I heard skin,” Sean McLain said. “I definitely heard it hit skin.”
McLain, whose hearing skills are upstaged only by his hitting skills, dug in next and didn’t wait long to send everyone home happy.
He looped a walk-off single into short right field. A jubilant mass of white jerseys danced around McLain in the infield, as Murphy let out a triumphant scream.
“I’m just happy we got the win man,” Murphy said. “There’s no other school I’d rather be in this position with. I bleed these colors.”
Early in the season, the Arizona State bullpen struggled to throw strikes. During the latter part of the year, it seemed as though the Sun Devil relievers had put those issues behind them.
Graham Osman and Will Levine showed tonight that those command problems are anything but a thing of the past, though. The duo faced a combined six batters, five were walked and one was hit by a pitch.
“I don’t think it was necessarily anything physical, more up top,” Smith said. “We got to keep in mind that these young guys have never been here before. We’re going to need these guys the rest of the weekend, so I’m glad that if tonight was the nerves, they got it out of the way and we still got the win.”
Fairfield coach Bill Currier threw a curveball with his lineup, sending senior pitcher Trey McLoughlin to the mound to start the game. McLoughlin was slotted to be the Stags’ ace going into the season, but was injured for most of the year and only logged 17 innings.
Conventional wisdom said season-long Friday starter Jake Noviello would get the nod on the bump, but Currier’s faith in McLoughlin looked good early.
The senior right-hander set down the first six ASU batters he faced before surrendering a run in the third, and running into some real trouble in the home half of the fourth, when the Sun Devil bats came to life.
After a McLain leadoff walk, Ethan Long followed McLain’s steal of second with an RBI single to left, giving ASU its first lead of the game. Just three pitches later, Jack Moss belted a two-run blast to deep right center, which was the freshman’s sixth of the year.
“It was a hit and run, so I was just focused on putting the bat on the ball,” Moss said. “I actually got a better barrel on my fly out to left field, this one was kind of off the end of the barrel so I wasn’t sure right away. It was a cool moment.”
After laboring through the game’s first four frames, ASU starter Tyler Thornton followed his team’s big offensive half inning with his first three up, three down inning of the night.
He did not have the same good fortune in the top of the sixth, as a pair of Stag doubles cut the Sun Devil lead to 4-2.
Smith went to the bullpen for Osman, and soon thereafter Brady Corrigan was summoned for the bases loaded situation Osman created. Corrigan delivered like he’s done all year, inducing a fly out to Lampe in center to end the threat.
Tomorrow, a date with No. 2 Texas awaits the Sun Devils. Smith will roll out Justin Fall to face the potent Longhorn offense, while Texas will likely send Ty Madden to the mound.
“We definitely didn’t plan on using as many pitchers as we did tonight,” Smith said. “The plan is that Justin gives us a lot. To get six innings would be nice. We haven’t had the luxury of it being conventional all season and I don’t see that changing tomorrow.”
In the week leading up to the postseason, Smith emphasized the importance of the experience his young team has had this year dealing with adversity.
He explained that the chaos that comes with postseason baseball isn’t easy to deal with, and that was displayed early and often in Friday’s opener. The Sun Devils took the bad hand they were dealt, stared it right in the face, and won the game anyway.
“One word to describe the atmosphere tonight is electric,” McLain said. “The crowd had some, ‘Go Devils’ chants and some ASU chants. It’s great to see the Devils get a win in the postseason.”