The Arizona Wildcats knew what they had to do.
To secure a third straight NCAA Tournament berth, Arizona likely would have to win five of its final six games – or maybe even all of them.
Impossible? No. Improbable? Maybe. But highly, highly unlikely without a win Thursday in Game 1 of a three-game series against rival Arizona State.
“You can’t win six games all at once,” UA pitching coach Dave Lawn said on the eve of the series. “But you can win one game six times. That’s kind of our theme anyways. That’s the blueprint for what we do.
“Yesterday has nothing to do with today. A win tomorrow night is a step in the right direction.”
The Wildcats have taken the first step. They rallied to defeat the Sun Devils 6-4 in front of 3,481 fans at Hi Corbett Field.
It was Arizona’s fifth straight win over ASU (21-29, 11-14 Pac-12), dating to last season. It was also the Wildcats’ second win in a row after they were swept in unsightly fashion at Cal last weekend.
“The makeup of these guys is good,” said UA coach Jay Johnson, whose team improved to 31-20, 11-14. “They are competitive. We have had some baseball deficiencies, some injuries that have reared their head – that have made some things a little tougher for them. I thought they displayed their character for what it is tonight.”
The Wildcats trailed 2-0 and 4-3. They came back thanks to offensive execution – especially with runners on third and less than two outs – and stellar work by a bullpen that struggled against the Golden Bears.
“It’s huge for us,” said senior right-hander Zach Stone, who recorded his second save with a 1-2-3 ninth. “We know the pitching last week at Cal wasn’t where it needed to be. Everyone came in today doing their job.”
Arizona was down one entering the bottom of the seventh. The Wildcats scored three runs on a sacrifice bunt, a sac fly and an RBI single.
Cameron Cannon tied the score with a safety squeeze. Cesar Salazar followed with a fly ball to shallow right field.
Carter Aldrete’s throw home beat Alfonso Rivas III. Rivas tried to get around catcher Lyle Lin with a head-first slide. The slide jarred the ball from Lin’s mitt, enabling Rivas to tap the plate and giving Arizona a 5-4 lead.
“It was going to be a close enough play where you’ve gotta roll the dice right there,” Johnson said. “We have a base-running philosophy: When in doubt with two outs, we’re going to try to score. It was a good slide, and I’m glad the play went our way.”
After Nick Quintana walked, Matt Fraizer singled to right to score Cannon. Fraizer went 2 for 4 with three RBIs.
After three perfect innings, UA starter Cody Deason encountered trouble in the fourth. It arrived in unexpected form: a misjudged fly ball by usually reliable center fielder Cal Stevenson. Stevenson’s misplay gave Hunter Jump a leadoff double.
Deason struck out slugging first baseman Spencer Torkelson. Johnson then ordered an intentional walk of Gage Canning, who entered Thursday batting .392.
The move made perfect sense … until Deason walked the next hitter, Lin, to load the bases. Deason then yielded a two-RBI single to Aldrete, giving ASU a 2-0 lead.
As they’ve done most of the season when backed into a corner, the Wildcats responded. They scored three runs in the bottom of the fourth, although it easily could have been more.
Arizona began the inning with five consecutive hits, including four doubles. The five hits produced only two runs because Fraizer, who drove them in with a double, got thrown out at second after an overly aggressive turn around the bag. Stevenson’s sacrifice fly gave the Wildcats a 3-2 lead. He went 3 for 4.
The lead proved to be short-lived. Torkelson smacked his 23rd home run of the season, a two-run shot, to left field in the top of the fifth to put the Sun Devils ahead 4-3.
Torkelson wouldn’t have been in position to give ASU the lead if Deason hadn’t walked No. 9 hitter Drew Swift, who entered Thursday batting .211. As well as Deason has pitched this season – he had a 2.64 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings entering Thursday – walks have hurt him at times.
Deason walked three or more batters in five of six appearances heading into Thursday’s start. The lone exception: his shutout against UCLA on May 3. Deason walked only one Bruin in nine sparkling innings.
Deason finished Thursday’s game with four walks, including the intentional pass, in 6 2/3 innings. He struck out seven.
Avery Weems, Zach Sherman, Gil Luna and Stone combined for 2 1/3 innings of one-hit, shutout relief. Six of the seven outs they recorded came via strikeout.
“That’s the story of the night,” Johnson said.
The lone non-strikeout came on the last out, a grounder to second hit by Jump. Stone’s perfect ninth left the powerful Torkelson standing in the on-deck circle.
Arizona will start junior right-hander Michael Flynn (6-3, 4.50) in Game 2 Friday. ASU’s starter is TBA.
Eight of the nine ASU position players who started Thursday are freshmen or sophomores. The lone upperclassman was Canning, a junior.
In his latest mock draft for ESPN.com, Keith Law has UA signees Matthew Liberatore and Nolan Gorman going high in the first round. That’s not unusual. What’s different about this one is that Law projects Gorman, the corner infielder from Phoenix, to be selected ahead of Liberatore, the left-hander from Glendale. Law has Gorman going eighth to Atlanta and Liberatore 11th to Baltimore. Neither is expected to play for Arizona if the first-round projections hold up.
ASU baseball still has 2018 goals
Even given a second consecutive losing season, Arizona State baseball still can accomplish some meaningful team goals.
The Sun Devils (21-28, 11-13 Pac-12) still can finish above .500 in the Pac-12, which would be a significant reversal from last year’s 8-22, 23-32 last-place showing.
Also, they can win or split the Territorial Cup Series baseball point in a series starting Thursday at Arizona (30-20, 10-14). At No. 43 in the NCAA ratings percentage index, the Wildcats still have hopes of making the 64-team NCAA Tournament field that would be hurt by one or more losses to ASU (No. 117 RPI).
The Territorial Cup Series is tied 10-10 with only the baseball point to be decided.
UA baseball won 6-2 at ASU in a non-conference game March 13 and needs two wins to clinch the Territorial Cup Series point and overall victory. ASU has won four consecutive undisputed series titles.
If the series ends tied — meaning ASU baseball wins two games this week — it will be decided by the final Directors’ Cup standings after the College World Series. Through the Directors’ Cup winter standings, ASU is No. 36 (374.75 points) and UA No. 61 (238).
“The fact it’s your in-state rival and we’re ahead of them in the conference, we are playing for something,” ASU coach Tracy Smith said. “There’s some in-state stuff. Whether that affects recruiting, I don’t know. But it’s important. You want to beat Arizona. Every coach in our department, that’s one star on their schedule every year. It certainly is important for us.
“I always tell our guys, don’t get yourself so amped up that you get out of what you do. But it’ll add a little flair to that series, no doubt. We’re going to try to win Thursday night. We’ll worry about Friday (pitching-wise) when we get through Thursday.”
ASU outfielder Hunter Bishop said, “We don’t like them. Obviously the rivalry will amp it up a little bit, but we’re just going to go take care of business. We know we can beat them. We’ve beat better teams than them. We have to go down there, be consistent and play our game and I think we should do well.”
–Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports
Coach Tracy Smith, OF Hunter Bishop on home run-robbing catch in ASU baseball win over Pacific
Jeff Metcalfe, azcentral sports
ASU at Arizona
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Hi Corbett Field, Tucson.
TV/radio: Pac-12 Network/KDUS-AM (1060).
Outlook: ASU won 8-3 over Pacific on Monday for a split of its final non-conference series…. The Sun Devils have six games remaining and need at least three wins to surpass their 2017 win total (23). … Alec Marsh worked just 1 2/3 innings (42 pitches) in a start Sunday and likely will start Thursday with Eli Lingos pitching Saturday. Marsh started against UA on March 13, giving up four hits and five runs (three earned) in 4 2/3 innings. … UA won 5-2 at Sacramento State on Monday, bouncing back from being swept at California. The Wildcats won six straight before the Cal series including a sweep of No. 18 UCLA.
GCU finishes away from home
Grand Canyon (30-22 overall, 16-5 WAC) closes the regular season on the road at Seattle (32-18, 13-8) Thursday at 5 p.m., Friday at noon, Saturday at 9 a.m. GCU leads the WAC by 1 game over New Mexico State. The WAC tournament is May 23-26 at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. This is the first year that GCU is eligible for the conference tournament, whose champion earns an automatic bid to the NCAA postseason.