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ASU Baseball: Bullpen blows golden opportunity against the Bruins

Another brutal loss for a team in free fall

COLLEGE BASEBALLL: APR 15 USC at Arizona State Photo by Zachary BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Will Levine’s collapse in the sixth inning wiped out a much-needed solid start from fellow redshirt junior Kyle Luckham, the Sun Devils left nine men on base, and ASU Baseball (20-23, 9-10 Pac-12) lost its fourth game in a row as No. 13 UCLA (28-13, 12-7) scored five unanswered runs for a series-clinching 7-5 win.

Luckham, who has been the most consistent member of the struggling Sun Devils starting rotation, allowed just three runs over 5.1 innings of work against one of the best lineups in the Pac-12—the same one that scored 19 runs against ASU on Friday night. But after Luckham issued a four-pitch walk with his 106th pitch of the game, head coach Willie Bloomquist finally lifted his starter in favor of Levine.

Luckham exited in line for a win with the Sun Devils leading 5-2, but Levine promptly issued a walk and a single to load the bases before star Bruins shortstop Cody Schrier lined a game-tying three-run double to the right-center field wall. First baseman Jake Palmer promptly doubled home Schrier, giving the Bruins a lead that they would not relinquish.

It’s the latest in a brutal stretch in Pac-12 play for Levine, who has been one of head coach Willie Bloomquist’s most trusted relievers for most of the season. Levine has held a conference opponent scoreless since April 5 against Arizona. That game did not count towards ASU’s conference record, so you have to go back to March 27 against Washington to find the last time Levine kept runs off the board in conference play.

Levine’s collapse also undid all the damage that the Sun Devils had inflicted on the Bruins in a wild top of the sixth inning. With the game tied at two, sophomore second baseman Nate Baez crushed an 0-2 pitch over the left-center field wall for a go-ahead solo shot. Baez’s one-out home run gave the Sun Devils a 3-2 lead. That initially appeared to be all the damage ASU’s bats would do in the sixth, but Bruins second baseman Ethan Gourson lost what should have been an inning-ending pop fly off the bat of freshman outfielder Will Rogers in the sun.

After sophomore outfielder Kai Murphy was hit by a pitch, the next batter, Cam Magee, checked his swing on a 1-0 breaking ball. After Blake Davis initially deferred to third base, he changed his ruling on the swing to foul ball. As Bloomquist marched out of the dugout to discuss the call, Magee evidently said something under his breath that caused Davis to eject the freshman third baseman from the game.

With pinch-hitter Alex Champagne at the plate, Rogers took advantage of UCLA reliever Daniel Colwell’s distraction by stealing third base then scoring when Colwell’s attempt to throw him sailed out of play. Champagne then made the most of his opportunity by singling home Murphy to give the Sun Devils a 5-2 lead.

However, a lot more opportunities for ASU’s bats got squandered throughout the game, allowing the Bruins to stay within striking distance. With the bases loaded and one out in the second, back-to-back walks from Murphy and Magee gave the Sun Devils a two-run lead, but pop-outs from sophomore center fielder Joe Lampe and sophomore shortstop Sean McClain—the top two hitters in the Sun Devils’ batting order—ended the threat without further damage.

ASU had another chance to get back in the game in the top of the 7th, down by only a run and with runners on first and third base. But freshman first baseman Jacob Tobias struck out and Rogers caught an unlucky break when a ball he roped up the middle bounced off of Bruins pitcher Alonzo Tredwell and landed nearby, allowing Tredwell to toss to first base for an easy inning-ending putout.

The loss means that one of the ugliest stretches in ASU’s season will continue. The Sun Devils have been outscored 49-12 during their current four-game losing streak as injuries and ineffective play continue to pile up. The good news is that ASU, which currently sits at seventh in the Pac-12 standings, remains several games ahead of ninth-place Washington and holds a tiebreaker against eighth-place Cal, meaning things will have to go from bad to catastrophically worse for the Sun Devils to miss the inaugural Pac-12 baseball tournament.

The bad news is that the Sun Devils drastically need to improve if they are to make a run in that tournament and keep their postseason hopes alive in Willie Bloomquist’s first year at the helm. They’ll finish out the series at Jackie Robinson Field in Westwood on Sunday with first pitch scheduled for 1 p.m. Arizona time.