If you had been in earshot of the Arizona State baseball clubhouse postgame in the first month of the season, you would’ve heard, and felt, the silence.
It was awkward, uncomfortable, all of the above adjectives.
That atmosphere was ubiquitous after blown leads and subsequent losses to teams like BYU, Nevada, Dixie State and UC Irvine, each of those teams the Sun Devils expected to beat with their stature and talent.
Try contrasting that with the jubilant vibes present on Tuesday night after a come-from-behind, 10-6 victory over the rival of all rivals, No. 9 Arizona.
A team where the oldest player is 24 years old and many of the youngest will see their first legal voting ballot this fall triumphantly blasted a song that reached the height of its popularity in 1968. Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ boomed off the underground walls in the clubhouse after their emotional victory, one described by pitchers Blake Pivaroff and Will Levine as their “favorite of the season.”
For the second straight game, Arizona State battled from behind to secure a spectacular victory. On Sunday, it was 14 unanswered runs against Cal. Their encore Tuesday night against the Wildcats was perhaps even better considering the emotional economics of the game.
“Much more enjoyable as a manager,” said Arizona State skipper Willie Bloomquist on his first win over the rival he loved to conquer as a player in the same threads. “It’s a different type of high, an emotional high. That was a lot of fun for me personally. Just seeing the way the guys reacted to getting down early and continuing to battling back.”
Each time the Wildcats threatened to take their lead and run with it, the Sun Devils had an answer with the bats and in the field. There were several moments this game could’ve turned completely in favor of the visiting Wildcats, but the Sun Devils never relented.
The first of those see-saw moments showed itself in the top of the second inning. Fresh off a 2-run top of the first that featured a 2-run home run by Wildcat right fielder Tanner O’ Tremba, the Wildcats were threatening to build their advantage to a comfortable margin.
Arizona’s manager Chip Hale could not have envisioned a more opportunistic situation. Daniel Susac, who entered the night second in all of D-I baseball with 51 hits, was in the box with the bases loaded and just one out.
The Sun Devils had gotten all they could out of starter Boyd Vander Kooi, who went 1.1 innings and allowed three runs. But with Vander Kooi in still just his second start of the season, Bloomquist relieved the right-hander in favor of Jacob Walker.
A quick first-pitch strike and a foul on the third pitch got Walker ahead in the count, and on the fourth pitch he got Susac to bounce into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.
✅Massive pitch by Walker— Sun Devil Baseball (@ASU_Baseball) April 6, 2022
✅Massive stab by McLain
✅Massive turn by Champagne
Devils turn two against one of the most dangerous hitters in the nation with the bases loaded and only one out.
Arizona gets one on another wind-aided homer but ASU keeps it within 2. pic.twitter.com/dMdsCxUWEx
It was the first of two double plays on the night for the Arizona State defense. In both instances, they came at critical moments for the momentum of the game and the Sun Devils confidence.
Vander Kooi may not have had his best stuff on Tuesday night, but there was firm confidence behind the starter from the Sun Devils who backed him up out of the pen. One year after Tommy John surgery derailed his redshirt junior season, his teammates have great respect for the tenuous and arduous climb back to the bump he owned tonight.
“Sometimes it gets me choked up just watching (Vander Kooi) out there because I’ve seen - I’ve been with him the last three years now and watched how hard he works and how much he cares about each and every one of us,” said Will Levine, who pitched 2.2 innings of scoreless relief Tuesday.
“He just wants to win. It’s fun to watch that all the work he puts in is finally starting to pay off.”
One of the thematic consistencies during the Sun Devils winning surge over the past five days has been the continued emergence of the freshmen bats. Once again, the freshmen looked composed beyond their years in an electric atmosphere.
Much of the talk over the past two weeks has been about Ryan Campos, who carved playing time behind the dish with tremendous at-bat after tremendous at-bat. On Tuesday, Campos went 2-4 with 1 RBI. At this point, the novelty has worn off. Campos is a fixture in this lineup and will be for years to come.
“He plays like a senior,” Levine said of his freshman catcher. “He has a good relationship with each and every one of us. He does a great job of learning who we are and how we play, what calms us down and gets us going. He has a great feel for the game.”
The story of the night was Cam Magee, who played just his second game of the season at third base. Magee entered the night with a batting average below .100, and Bloomquist had mentioned how the magnitude of Sun Devil baseball had maybe been a tougher adjustment for Magee in the early months of his career.
On Tuesday night, Magee was the man for the moment. Not yet recognized for his power, he crushed a home run in the second inning to score Alex Champagne and even the score at 3-3. Later in the game during the eighth, Magee made a skillful play at third base, charging a slow hopping grounder to throw out the Wildcats leadoff batter.
This game carried special meaning for Magee, who is the younger brother of Brandon Magee, a former linebacker for Arizona State, and the elder Magee was on hand for Cam’s first collegiate big fly.
“I wanted to play UofA my whole life, so being able to do it, no better feeling,” Magee said. “I got to the field extra early, I was hyped.”
Across the board, the Sun Devils got contributions in key spots. After the Wildcats had retaken the lead and extended it to 6-3 in the top of the fifth, another moment of adversity had presented itself.
Maybe a few months ago, the Sun Devils would have withered under the weight of their accomplished opponents, but there is a new sense of confidence permeating through Phoenix Municipal Stadium these days, and when adversity knocked, the Sun Devils answered in the home half.
Kai Murphy, another player not necessarily known for his power, but like Magee, has grown up around the rivalry as the son of Arizona State’s legendary former skipper Pat Murphy. In the fifth inning, the son etched his name in the fabric of the rivalry with a go-ahead, three-run blast to right field to give Arizona State their first lead of the night.
MURPHY'S LAW.— Sun Devil Baseball (@ASU_Baseball) April 6, 2022
THE HOMETOWN KID.
DEVILS ON TOP AFTER FIVE. pic.twitter.com/ajU5Sc0Fjo
The Sun Devils would never look back, shutting down the formerly menacing Arizona lineup the rest of the way. Despite a night where the visitors plated four home runs, the Arizona State bullpen found their success in the late innings with Levine and got a six-out save from Blake Pivaroff to end it.
“That was fun,” Bloomquist said with a smile. “It’s a rush I missed. I guess that’s why guys get back in the game when they’re done is to experience that rush again, and although it’s a different kind of rush for me, it’s one I could get used to.”
The sun is still rising on the Willie Bloomquist era in Tempe, and there is still much growth to be found in the remaining 26 games of the season. But make no mistake, the Sun Devils are beginning to learn how to win ballgames, and they’re doing it their way.