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ASU Baseball: Offensive Struggles, Bullpen Woes Cost Sun Devils Series Opener

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Bad night at the yard

Zach BonDurant, House of Sparky

Arizona State hoped to ride its pitching staff to a win for the second straight game, but the specter of necessary perfection from the bullpen proved too much for the inconsistent second leg of the Sun Devil pitching staff as visiting BYU took the first game of the weekend series 4-2.

Cool temperatures permeated the night atmosphere at Phoenix Municipal Stadium for the second straight game. The game started at 6:30 p.m. and temperatures dropped near the low 50s by first pitch. With a starless night displaying almost a black curtain of sky behind centerfield, the scene was set for a game where every run would count.

Outside of a two-run fifth inning, the bats for Arizona State went as cold as the night air. Arizona State head coach Willie Bloomquist had spoken about the danger of the offense not executing in opportunistic situations after Tuesday night’s 3-1 win over Nevada.

The Sun Devils got away with it then. On Thursday night, they did not.

“We got to do a better job,” said Bloomquist. “We didn’t make any adjustments mid-game. Kept hitting the ball in the air on a night like tonight. The ball’s not going anywhere, we got to get on top of the baseball. We made some plays that weren’t fundamental baseball.

“I take responsibility for that. That’s on me. I haven’t coached them well enough.”

The Sun Devils’ offensive ineptitude was not just limited to the batter’s box against the Cougars in this game. The struggles spread to the basepaths, where the team was inexplicably picked off twice.

In the fourth inning, veteran Conor Davis led off the inning with the Sun Devils’ second hit of the night. He was then picked off at first by Cougar starter Jack Sterner, caught in between stealing or staying as the batter Jacob Tobias had worked a full count.

“It was on me,” said Davis. “3-2 count. I was probably moving there, got a little crossed up. He (BYU first baseman Ryan Sepede) came off the bag, wasn’t holding me on. I was in the middle of getting an extra step and he (Sterner) got me. It was on me. It happens.”

In the eighth inning, with the score tied at 2-2, Tobias slapped a double down the left field line. He was removed by Bloomquist for pinch runner Alex Champagne. Then, in the most amateur of scenes from a night that had its fair share, Champagne was standing six feet off the base, not looking at the Cougars’ Bryce Robison on the mound, and was picked off with ease.

“I wasn’t much in a mood for an explanation,” said Bloomquist. “They’re better than that.”

What makes the aftertaste from this game even more acerbic was the reality for the second game in a row, Arizona State everything it could have asked out if its starting pitcher.

Kyle Luckham got the start and was magnificent through five innings. But in the same song, second verse to Tuesday’s game, Bloomquist sat his starter down after five innings and no runs allowed and placed his trust in the bullpen. The standard operating procedure for Bloomquist has been to protect his pitchers’ health at all costs this season, no matter if the cost was a better chance at a victory on Thursday.

“I certainly think he had more left in the tank,” said Bloomquist. “But at this stage of the game, with the cold night and him being one of our definite starters, we can’t take the risk of overextending him too early. If we have to be extra-cautious on that, we’re going to be.”

The bullpen inherited a lead of 2-0 after the Sun Devil offense finally broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the fifth. Second baseman Sean McLain drove in the first run with a single, and later scored himself on a wild pitch from BYU pitcher Cy Nielson, who was just into the game in place of Sterner.

Those would be the only runs of the game for the Sun Devils.

“We’re digging ourselves into bad counts,” said McLain. “I’m doing it myself, as well as some other guys. I could take a better approach at the plate, be a little more mature, swing at better pitches.”

Almost instantly, the wheels began to come off for the Sun Devils pitching staff. Right-hander Jacob Walker entered the game for Luckham and nailed the second batter he faced. One single and one wild pitch later and the Cougars were on the board.

In the seventh, a much more composed Walker got a 1-2-3 inning to preserve the 2-1 lead. Bloomquist elected to bring in Will Levine, the man who closest resembles a closer in this superfluous Sun Devil bullpen, for a six-out save.

But Levine couldn’t hit the zone, as he threw 28 pitches and only 11 for strikes. He walked three of the first four batters faced in the eighth, and another passed ball brought home the tying run.

With the heat on and the flames of collapse encircling the Sun Devils, Bloomquist turned to his fireman Christian Bodlovich. The right-hander entered the game with only five runs scored off of 25 baserunners inherited in his career, and that stat became 5-for-27 after Bodlovich induced an inning ending popout.

The ninth wouldn’t be so kind to Bodlovich, as he struggled to locate much like Levine did in the eighth. By the time Bloomquist got him off the mound, the Cougars had the bases loaded off a leadoff double and two walks.

With only one out, the bullpen door swung for Brock Peery. The task could not have been more daunting. Andrew Pintar, who was top 10 in 10 offensive categories in the WCC last year, strode to the plate, facing a situation in which he usually feasts on opposing pitchers.

But Peery did exactly what was asked of him given the situation. He induced a bouncing ball right up the middle toward McLain, who had 48 double plays turned in 2021, the most in the Pac-12.

What followed was the decisive play of the night. McLain fielded the ball on a hop, and looked trapped between routine and instincts. In this case, nurture won. McLain was just feet from the bag at second, but shoveled the ball to a somewhat unprepared Hunter Haas. Haas turned and ripped the ball to first, but Pintar benefited from the millisecond of hesitation and was safe at first.

“If I had to do it over again, I would have probably taken it myself,” McLain said. “In the moment, I flipped it to Haas. You could say it was the right play, you could say it was the wrong play. I could do it better next time.”

The run scored from third, and the Cougars had a 3-2 lead that they would tack on one more to make it a 4-2 lead.

The Sun Devils had a chance in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run at the plate. Despite not getting the start due to a stomach bug, Ethan Long was ready to pinch hit the whole night, and his number was called with the Sun Devils down to their last out.

Long punched a ball into the gap, but Mitch McIntyre ran under it to secure the game’s final out, ending a frustrating and demoralizing collapse for the Sun Devils.

Redemption will be on the line Friday night as game two of the series gets underway. First pitch between ASU and BYU will be at 7 p.m. MST.