Arizona State battled to the end on Wednesday afternoon, but had no answer for an offensive onslaught in the middle innings from Oklahoma State and lost a consecutive game after holding a three-run lead.
After being up 4-1 after eight innings and losing 7-5 Tuesday night, the Sun Devils lost a 6-3 lead on Wednesday and fell to the Cowboys in the last game of the series, 11-6.
The beginning of the game featured an offensive eruption. Eight runs, eight hits, a home run, a double and a stolen base were accumulated by both sides in an initial viewing experience resembling the guns blazing, fervent opening scene of The Dark Knight. When the dust settled, the Sun Devils left the inning with a 5-3 lead.
“We started taking our walks and were patient and were able to pass the torch to the guy on deck,” said Arizona State head coach Willie Bloomquist. “We put together a nice inning there.”
Second baseman Alex Champagne, again playing for the injured everyday second baseman Sean McLain, scored Kai Murphy with an RBI single in the bottom of the third inning to extend the lead to 6-3. It was Champagne’s second of three hits on the day.
“I just try to keep it simple. See ball, hit ball,” Champagne said. “Especially when you’re struggling, I just need to get back to the basics. That’s just what I’ve stuck with ever since I was a sophomore in high school. I’m just going to continue to stick with it.”
If time could have been frozen in that moment, and the Sun Devils could have enjoyed a moment of introspection in the afternoon sun, there would have been a lot of positives to reflect on.
For the fourth time in their past five games, the Sun Devils had the lead in front of their home fans. The starting pitching had exceeded expectations in almost every start. In this game, the Sun Devils didn’t flinch after going down 3-0 deficit in the first inning into a 5-3 lead.
Of course, that is not the whole story. In reality, the Sun Devils have blown leads in four of their last five. Coming into Wednesday, the team had been outscored 25-6 in the eighth and ninth innings of their games. In reality, the bats have been inconsistent, the bullpen has been serviceable at its best, detrimental at its worst.
Right after that base hit, the Sun Devils were brought back to reality. Champagne was picked off after taking a lead at first base. It was the second time this week he had been picked off on the base paths.
“Today I got the green light, so I extended it a little bit and he (Cowboy pitcher Bayden Root) got me,” Champagne said. “Got to make some changes for sure.”
The Cowboys began chipping away at the advantage immediately after in the top of the fourth. LHP Graham Osman, already the third pitcher of the afternoon for Arizona State, walked the bases loaded and then walked in the Cowboys’ fourth run. The inning could have been much worse, but cleanup hitter Nolan McLean missed a grand slam by mere feet in deep center field.
6-4, Sun Devils.
In the fifth inning, Osman would exit the game for RHP Luke La Flam. Never looking comfortable on the mound, the redshirt junior hit two batters and walked a third to load the bases for the second consecutive inning.
“They have the capabilities of throwing strikes,” Bloomquist said. “There’s just a disconnect as to guys looking over their shoulder going, ‘I don’t want to be the one that doesn’t,’ and then ultimately it does happen.”
“We need to change the frame of mind, we need to change the mindset to ‘I can and I will’ versus ‘I don’t want to be that guy.’ Easier said than done.”
Bloomquist was out of the dugout once again, and the bullpen door swung open for sidearm hurler Brock Peery, fresh off allowing two runs in the top of the ninth on Tuesday night.
Cowboy leadoff batter Zach Ehrhard hit a high chopper that bounced toward the outfield grass behind second base. Champagne ranged over to field the ball on a hop, faced with limited time to get anyone out, he hurried a toss toward shortstop Cam Magee, playing again for the injured Hunter Haas, resulting in a wild throw. One run was already in, but in the chaos, Marcus Brown was attempting to score from second base.
Peery, backing up the entire time, picked up the errant throw, wheeled to home plate and threw a strike to catcher Nate Baez, who applied the tag in time to get Brown.
6-5, Sun Devils.
In the sixth inning, Peery was lifted for Jared Glenn, who was lit up from the jump. A leadoff double from Roc Riggio was backed up by an RBI single the next at bat from Jake Thompson. McLean continued his great day at the plate with his second of what would be three hits on the day with a double to get Thompson to third. The first out of the inning would come off an RBI sacrifice fly to score Thompson.
With the lead gone, and the psychological pressure of keeping it removed as well, Glenn got an inning-ending double play off the bat of pinch-hitter Jaxson Crull.
M6 | Big moment here in this one. Cowboys score two to take the lead and still have the bases loaded with one out.— Sun Devil Baseball (@ASU_Baseball) March 2, 2022
But @Cammagee8 makes the scoops to @Champagne7Alex who turns it to @4blakepiv to limit the damage.
7-6, Cowboys. pic.twitter.com/P9BH9tzAhT
“We just need to focus on executing,” Bloomquist said. “Forget the scoreboard. Go execute what you can do. You’ve done it since you were five.”
“I don’t care if you go out and get lit up. If you’re throwing strikes and competing, okay. I’d certainly rather have that than walking 17 guys.”
The Sun Devils had given up four unanswered runs in three innings, and the offense had fallen into a slump with just three singles during that span. After Cowboy starter Dillon Marsh was bounced in the first inning, Root entered in relief and completely turned the tide for the Cowboys.
The junior righty struck out two batters and allowed only one run on four hits in 4.1 innings pitched. In contrast to the shelling of Marsh in the opening frame, the Sun Devils continuously battled and lost to Root’s breaking pitches.
“He was tough on us,” Bloomquist said. “We still managed to put together some tough at-bats, but he had a legit slider and kept our guys off-balance.”
Another quiet offensive inning for the Sun Devils in the bottom of the sixth, and the game turned back into the hands of the Cowboys offense.
As it turned out, the four runs through three innings were just a prelude to the grand finale from the Cowboys. Will Levine entered the game and fared no better than his peers in the bullpen, as he gave up three singles to and a the second home run of the day for Caeden Trenkle.
It was a remarkable day at the plate for Trenkle, who had seven RBIs and two home runs, the last one off Levine in the seventh plated two others and blew the game open.
Both offensives would be retired without much noise in the final two frames, but the damage had already been done to the Sun Devil bullpen. Seven pitchers came in after starter Jacob Walker (2.2 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 2 K, 1 BB) and none fared very well. Every Sun Devil reliever that pitched more than 0.1 of an inning threw more than 20 pitches. As a staff, the Sun Devils issued nine walks.
Oklahoma State found its success by striking fast offensively. The Cowboys were 5-for-9 at reaching base from the leadoff spot. They bookended their quick starts to innings with great resiliency with two outs, batting .462 in such situations.
There are certainly positives to take away from matching up well with the Cowboys. This was the same Oklahoma State team that took two of three from Vanderbilt in the opening week of the season.
But does the reality of losing so many leads in short period of time begin to wear on a young team?
“I’d like to sugarcoat it and so no, but I think it’s not human nature” Bloomquist said. “I’ve been around a lot of baseball games and baseball teams where sometimes it becomes more of a mental thing than a physical thing.”
Perhaps a reset is needed, and the Sun Devils get a great opportunity to do just that with their first road trip of the series ahead. Five games in southern California; three against San Diego State and two at UC Irvine.
“0-0 on the road, nothing at home matters right now,” Magee said. “We’re going to go out there and do some more damage.”
At the very least, the confidence remains high.
First pitch in game one of the series in San Diego will be at 7 pm, MST.