It took a wild comeback in the eighth inning, but in the end, the Sun Devils claimed their first sweep in the Willie Bloomquist era and reversed the narrative of their season in a 9-8 thriller over USC.
Through four innings, everything seemed to be coming up Sun Devils. The sun was shining, the offense was clicking, and starting pitcher Adam Tulloch appeared like he was regaining his stellar form from the first month of the season.
And then, all of a sudden, what was once a Saturday stroll to victory turned into a confounding 8-5 deficit. After building a 5-0 lead through four innings, the Sun Devils appeared to sink into a malaise that they couldn’t shake. In a matter of three innings, the lead was gone, and the score was tied 5-5.
“I started sensing it when USC put up two (runs) in the fifth,” Sun Devil head coach Willie Bloomquist said of the Trojan comeback. “I felt like we started giving some at-bats away offensively, and I felt like the intensity kind of died down a little bit.”
This script had played out before, multiple times in fact. Saturday afternoon felt like an opportunity to escape the gravity of all those times they couldn’t put their opponents away in the opening weeks of the season. Instead, here were the Sun Devils playing like a broken record.
Through four innings, almost nothing could go wrong. The pistons were pumping for a Sun Devil offense that has been one of the best in the country over the last week. Entering Saturday, the Sun Devils had scored 53 runs in their last four games. They had reached the 10-hit mark 12 out of their last 14 games played.
And there the offense was, as advertised, right away. In the unmistakeable sign of a lineup’s confidence, both Sean McLain and Ethan Long, batting second and third Saturday, needed a combined two pitches to give the Sun Devils their first two base hits of the afternoon.
“Those guys are putting together quality at-bats,” center fielder Joe Lampe said of McLain and Long. “That kind of fuels the rest of the lineup.”
The Sun Devils would got to Trojan starting pitcher Charlie Hurley like no team has this season. He was allowing just a 1.85 ERA, and hadn’t gone under 5.0 innings pitched in six starts. That would change on Saturday.
In the third, the Sun Devils got going. McLain drove in Lampe, who tripled to lead off. Davis drove in McLain, and it was a quick 2-0 lead.
Freshman sensation Ryan Campos, who is now up to a .385 batting average in conference play, unsurprisingly singled in Davis to make it 3-0, Sun Devils.
“I’m just trying to stay with the pitch,” Campos said with the expressiveness of someone who is very accustomed to hitting .385. “Seeing it pretty well, just trying to do my job.”
The offense would load the bags again in the bottom of the fourth with no outs and chase Hurley from the contest in his shortest start of the season. Two more runs would cross and the seemingly comfortable 5-0 lead had been constructed.
Defensively, the Sun Devils were checking all the boxes. It had been a struggle recently for the lefty, but for the second straight outing, Tulloch was very effective in the opening innings.
“The way you know he’s dialed in is when he starts talking a little bit,” Lampe said. “He’s pretty vocal. I know the last few starts have been hard. The last few weeks he has been quiet - just doing his own thing. I saw some real emotion today and that was the biggest difference.”
Whenever the visitors did threaten, there was the vaunted Sun Devil infield, which could turn double plays in their sleep, getting their starter out of trouble.
Through those four innings, the Sun Devils had already turned a pair of double plays, extending their lead over the conference in that category. In the top of the fifth, the Trojans finally found some life on offense. Tulloch wasn’t locating like he had been, gave up a double sandwiched between two walks to open the frame.
The Trojans broke through on D’Andre Smith’s second hit of the afternoon and scored a pair. Tulloch was out after 4.1 innings pitched and 2 earned runs.
If there’s ever a problem or a jam, the Sun Devils have their facile fix-it guy in Christian Bodlovich. True to his reputation, Bodlovich needed just one pitch to Tyrese Turner to induce the third double play of the game for the Sun Devils and end the inning.
All he does is put out fires @C_Bodlovich34 needs just one pitch and ASU turns its third double play of the game.— Sun Devil Baseball (@ASU_Baseball) April 16, 2022
4️⃣3️⃣ inherited runners in his career. Only 9️⃣ have scored pic.twitter.com/Ndk1Yu8CIo
Then, something changed. A lack of focus permeated the defense. After zero errors and three double plays through five, the wheels came off. First it was Lampe, overplaying an in-between line drive in center in the sixth with two on base to allow USC within one run. Error.
“The intensity kind of died down a little bit, like we had this game won,” Bloomquist said. “Maybe that’s why I got a little frustrated, because I sensed the momentum - like, this game is not over.”
“Seeing baseball as much as I have, you just feel that the momentum and there’s not much you can do. You want to shake them and say, ‘Dude, this isn’t going to go the way we want it to unless we get a fire lit under our butt again.”
In the eighth, after the Trojans tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the seventh, Ethan Long fielded a grounder and fired the throw wild of Davis at first and into a camera well. Error.
Nate Baez, playing catcher for the first time in the series, misjudged a popup behind the plate as the wind gusted the ball back toward the field of play, not an error, but it felt like one.
Meanwhile, the Sun Devil bullpen was crumbling. Bodlovich couldn’t roll the momentum into the sixth and it kicked off a series of new pitchers who almost universally struggled to locate their pitches.
In between the fifth and eighth innings, the Sun Devils called on Will Levine, Jared Glenn, Blake Pivaroff and Chase Webster. All struggled to a degree, but got little help from behind. The struggles were a little surprising, considering the bullpen got a great day of rest after Kyle Luckham pitched seven innings the night before.
“Heat of the moment, I’m pulling my hair out,” Bloomquist said, but he countered with context on Saturday’s relief struggles. “When I have a minute to reflect on it afterwards, those guys have been taxed quite a bit. It’s a lot to ask these guys to go multiple innings on Friday and come back on Sunday and do the same thing.”
After a phenomenal first four innings, Arizona State turned in a horrible next three-and-a-half. They jogged back into the dugout to begin the home half of the eighth down 8-5. Needing a spark, the players took it upon themselves to fire up the teams.
“I didn’t have to say anything, they took it upon themselves,” Bloomquist said. “Connor (Davis), Ryan Campos, some of the leaders in that dugout - I didn’t say a word.”
“There was problem something said that I can’t say out loud here,” Campos said with a roguish smile.
The Sun Devils strode to the plate ready to cause some chaos. This was off-script from their early season collapses. Cue the comeback montage and bring on the air guitar.
Campos lead off with a single. Tobias was next, and he cranked a home run to deep right-center field to make it 8-7. Baez doubled right after that, and Phoenix Municipal Stadium was at a fever pitch.
Then things cooled down. Matt Keating, who took over for Agassi after the Campos single, retired Kai Murphy and a pinch-hitting Hunter Haas. Baez was still at second as Lampe stepped into the box with two outs.
Lampe has been the breakout star for Arizona State this season. He is the team leader in hits and home runs. This was the guy the Sun Devils wanted at the plate in this situation.
He delivered. A two-run home run into the corner to give the Sun Devils a 9-8 lead.
JOE. KNOWS.— Sun Devil Baseball (@ASU_Baseball) April 16, 2022
Two-out, two-run shot for Lampe. Devils score four in B8.
Peery in to close. pic.twitter.com/PD3prDYbaP
“I knew it had the distance. I thought it was foul, though,” Lampe said. “We needed a sweep and I know we needed a sweep so to be the guy to be able to get that hit, that’s awesome.”
Brock Peery would shut down the Trojans in the ninth and the sweep was secured. The Sun Devils are now 8-7 in conference play and are a game below .500 overall as they prepare for a game versus CSUN on Tuesday.