ASU’s 14-12 win over USC on Thursday didn’t exactly teach us anything new about 2022 Sun Devil Baseball as much as it did reaffirm what’s been evident about this team for a while now.
The pitching staff, from top to bottom, has been and will continue to be an issue. But man, can this team hit.
Thursday marked the third-straight game in which the Sun Devils and their opponent combined for 20 or more runs. Eight of ASU’s nine starting position players got at least one hit. Three of them—Nate Baez, Will Rogers and Ethan Long—hit home runs. A different trio—Sean McClain, Ryan Campos and Kai Murphy—had three hits apiece.
“Hitting is contagious,” McClain said. “We knew this was gonna happen... Later in the year, that’s when teams get hot and that’s what we are, offensively, right now.”
And yet, despite the Sun Devils (16-19, 6-7 Pac-12) putting up 14 runs and scoring in six of the eight innings in which they came up to hit, the visiting Trojans (18-13, 4-9) remained in the game until the very end when closer Brock Peery struck out USC’s best hitter, Adrian Colon-Rosado, with the tying run on first base.
But the Sun Devils struck the first blow with a four-run bottom of the first and had an answer every time that USC threatened to seize the momentum. The deciding blow came in the bottom of the sixth when Long sent an 0-2 pitch from USC reliever Carson Lambert over the right-field wall for an opposite-field three-run home run to give ASU a 10-7 lead. USC clawed back with two runs off of reliever Will Levine in the top of the seventh, but the Sun Devils again responded with a four-run bottom of the eighth keyed by a two-run single from McClain.
“It was a back and forth slugfest,” Head coach Willie Bloomquist said. “These are these are two programs that go at each other pretty good, at least historically, over the years. Why would it be any different tonight? I don’t anticipate the rest of the series being any different either.”
In a game full of noteworthy offensive performances for both sides, McClain had the best night of any Sun Devil, finishing 3-for-4 with three hits, three RBIs and reaching base four times. It was McClain who, in the bottom of the first, got the offense started with a double down the right-field line then scored three batters later on a Ryan Campos RBI single.
Baez, the next hitter, worked a full count before crushing a fastball over the left-center field fence for his third home run of the year, giving the Sun Devils an early 4-0 lead.
But USC immediately struck back in the top of the second when USC designated hitter Tyler Lozano whacked a three-run home run off ASU starter Tyler Meyer. It would be the first of three home runs Lozano would hit on the evening, as the Stockton, Calif. native finished with a game-high six RBIs.
Lozano looked so impressive at the plate that Bloomquist opted to intentionally walk him with two on, one out and the Sun Devils clinging to a 10-9 lead in the bottom of the seventh. The move paid off as reliever Blake Pivaroff got the next two batters to strike out and fly out to end the threat. Lozano got the last laugh, however, when he led off the top of the ninth with a mammoth solo shot that landed halfway up the hill behind the visitor’s bullpen in left field.
Bloomquist understandably felt like Lozano’s ninth-inning shot validated the manager’s decision to intentionally walk him in the seventh. The first-year ASU head coach said he would not hesitate to walk Lozano again if a similar scenario arose later in the series.
“If the situation dictates for us to [walk him], we can’t let their hottest hitter right now beat us,” Bloomquist said. “I wasn’t about to let him swing right there if we had any chance to not let him swing... Obviously, we’re gonna have to pitch him differently tomorrow.”
Making his first start in 18 days, Meyer looked solid if unspectacular, finishing with six earned runs allowed on six hits with two walks and four strikeouts over 5.1 innings of work. He had 79 pitches, right around the 80-pitch limit Bloomquist envisioned for Meyer as he works his way back from a shoulder injury.
He also got some help from his defense, most notably Will Rogers. The freshman catcher-turned-outfielder, making his first start in left field since March 29, robbed a would-be home run off the bat of USC’s Trevor Halsema in the top of the fourth. He then hit a home run of his own to nearly the exact same spot in left field in the bottom of the inning.
“I can’t say enough about Will and how much I like that kid,” Bloomquist said. “He just keeps his mouth shut and continues to work. When you’re a catcher and you go out there and learn outfield for the first time, the job he’s done and the plays he’s made, it’s pretty impressive.”
Neither Levine, Pivaroff or Peery—some of Bloomquist’s most heavily favored options out of the bullpen—could escape USC’s bats unscathed, each allowing one earned run, a troubling sign especially when considering that it comes after a stretch when many of those same relievers struggled at Stanford last weekend.
But Bloomquist primarily blamed his bullpen’s struggles on fatigue, given that the team was essentially down to just one of their weekend starters thanks to Meyer’s injury and an early ejection to Friday starter Kyle Luckham.
“We can’t tax our bullpen that heavily every weekend and expect them to be sharp,” Bloomquist said. “Those guys have been taxed quite a bit in the past couple of weeks, because we haven’t had a whole lot of length from the starters. Hopefully, we can get back on that track where Kyle can give us a good start tomorrow and hopefully give us some length and we can give those guys a little breather.”
Game two of the series between the Sun Devils and Trojans at Phoenix Municipal is scheduled for 6 p.m. Arizona time. Former ASU baseball star Dustin Pedroia will throw out the first pitch and fans will receive a free bobblehead of Pedroia in his old No. 2 Sun Devils uniform.